Sunday, August 18, 2013

Contrarian Rules for Travel

I've travelled a lot over the last few years, particularly in 2003, 2004, and from 2010 to present. A few weeks ago, a buddy of mine posted this link on Facebook. I thought I'd have a look and add my two cents.
1. Don’t check luggage. If you’re bringing that much stuff with you, you’re doing something wrong.
I disagree. Different people travel differently, and if you're flying somewhere, chances are that you can't fit enough stuff for, say, a two week trip into a carry-on. Laundry is also either tough to do while you're travelling, or else expensive to have someone else do it for you, or else a waste of time. When I travel, I try to give myself at least a week's worth of stuff.

That said, unless you're travelling for the long term - say, a month or more - one rucksack/suitcase should be enough to get you through. In 2003, I made the mistake of taking a day pack crammed full of crap, and a seabag crammed full of crap. It was a mistake, and I made it home without using more than about two thirds of what I took (and almost nothing from that day pack). Kit like tablets and smart phones have made it a bit easier over the last few years, as you don't have to carry so much weight in order to stay connected or do some recreational reading. I've never had the chance to actually read it, but a good friend of mine once recommended The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, which should serve as a guide to packing to be light and effective.

For the record, I've gotten much better over the years. My 2012 trip to Muscat and Beirut (about eight days) and my recent trip to Paris involved only my Arc'Teryx Echo Pack and a light day pack, while my trips to Orkney and Shetland involved only my 5.11 Rush MOAB 10 and a small laundry bag.
2. Instead of doing a TON of stuff. Pick one or two things, read all about those things and then actually spend time doing them. Research shows that you’ll enjoy an experience more if you’ve put effort and time into bringing it about. So I’d rather visit two or three sights that I’ve done my reading on and truly comprehend than I would seeing a ton of stuff that goes right in and out of my brain. (Oh, and never feel “obligated” to see the things everyone says you have to)
That's good advice.
3. Take long walks.
Definitely, but be careful. Long walks are great if you're wearing the right clothes and your body is in shape for it. As I demonstrated in Shetland, and previously in my 2012 trip to Beirut, you can do a lot of damage to your legs by walking unprepared, and it can really compromise the enjoyability of your trip.
4. Stop living to relive. What are you taking all these pictures for? Oh, for the memories? Then just look at it and remember it. Experience the present moment. (Not that you can’t take photos but try to counteract the impulse to look at the world through your iPhone screen)
Hogwash. In fact, I tend to be more interested in the pictures I bring back from a trip than I am in most of the souvenirs I might pick up. That said, there's a happy medium between taking no pictures, and taking too many pictures.
5. Read books, lots of books. You’re finally in a place where no one can interrupt you or call you into meetings and since half the television stations will be in another language...use it as a chance to do a lot of reading.
There's some wisdom in this, but don't overdo it. Item #10 talks about "not wasting an hour of your life in a lame hotel gym" - in the same way, there's a happy medium for doing something like reading that you could do anywhere. I remember my 2004 trip to Scotland and Ireland, and I read some great books on that trip, but I also left plenty of time to go out and actually see stuff in both countries. One of my favorite ways of approaching this is to allocate time at the end of each day to read - it's a great way to unwind from a day of touring.
6. Eat healthy. Enjoy the cuisine for sure, but you’ll enjoy the place less if you feel like a slob the whole time. (To put it another way, why are you eating pretzels on the airplane?)
There's some wisdom in this.
7. Try to avoid guidebooks, which are superficial at best and completely wrong at worst. I’ve had a lot more luck pulling up Wikipedia, and looking at the list of National (or World) Historical Register list for that city and swinging by a few of them. Better yet, I’ve found a lot cooler stuff in non-fiction books and literature that mentioned the cool stuff in passing. Then you Google it and find out where it is.
There's a lot of wisdom in this, but guidebooks deserve their due - particularly for the time before the Internet became omnipresent, when guidebooks were the best or only way to get information about where to stay, where to eat, and what to do. I've had some great guidebooks, as recently as 2012; my guidebook for Beirut, however, was useless.
8. I like to go and stand on hallowed ground. It’s humbling and makes you a better person. Try it. (My personal favorite is battlefields–nothing is more eery or quiet or peaceful)
Agreed. Some of my favorite memories are from places like St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, or the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat.
9. Come up with a schedule that works for you and get settled into it as soon as possible. You’re going to benefit less from your experiences if you’re scrambled, exhausted and inefficient. Me, I get up in the morning early and run. Then I work for a few hours. Then I roll lunch and activities into a 3-4 hour block where I am away from work and exploring the city I’m staying it. Then I come back, work, get caught up, relax and then eventually head out for a late dinner. In almost every time zone I’ve been in, this seems to be the ideal schedule to a) enjoy my life b) Not actually count as “taking time off.” No one feels that I am missing. And it lets me extend trips without feeling stressed or needing to rush home.
There's a lot of wisdom in this, and it ties back into Item #2 - don't try to overdo it.
10. When you’re traveling to a new city, the first thing you should do when you get to the hotel is change into your work out clothes and go for a long run. You get to see the sights, get a sense of the layout and then you won’t waste an hour of your life in a lame hotel gym either.
I don't run, but the sentiment makes sense (and ties back into Item #3). That said, it's important to be careful when running, walking, or otherwise navigating a new city. I've been to several places where my inclination toward a vigorous constitutional wound up taking me through neighborhoods I probably would have done well to avoid - for example, in central Beirut, where I saw posters of Bashar al Assad during the Arab Spring.
11. Never recline your seat on an airplane. Yes, it gives you more room–but ultimately at the expense of someone else. In economics, they call this an externality. It’s bad. Don’t do it.
Amen. There's a special place in hell for people who recline their airplane seats.
12. Stay in weird-ass hotels. Sometimes they can suck but the story is usually worth it. A few favorites: A hotel that was actually a early 20th-century luxury train car, a castle in Germany, the room where Gram Parsons died in Palm Desert, a hotel in Arizona where John Dillinger was arrested, and a hotel built by Wild Bill Hickok.
Yeah... But be careful. I've also had some great experiences with hostels, but you have to have presence of mind and attention to detail.
13. Read the historical markers–*actually* read them, don’t skim. They tend to tell you interesting stuff.
A lot of that stuff is pretty boring. The truth hurts. This is why it helps to research what you want to see before arriving at your destination.
14. Add some work component to your travel if you can. Then you can write it all off on your taxes (or better, be paid for the whole thing).
This is easier said than done. Also, if the whole point of your trip is to decompress from work, it doesn't help to take your work with you. I'm a workoholic, so the fact that I'm saying that should count for a lot.
15. Don’t waste time and space packing things you MIGHT need but could conceivably buy there. Remember, it costs money (time, energy, patience) to carry pointless things around. (Also, most hotels will give you razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other toiletries.)
Again, there's a happy medium. See Item #1.
16. Go see weird shit. It makes you think, shake your head, or at least, laugh. (For instance, did you know that there is a camel buried in the soldier’s cemetery at Vicksburg?)
So, basically, see stuff that's interesting. Seems pretty straightforward, really.
17. Ignore the temptation to a) talk and tell everyone about your upcoming trip b) spend months and months planning. Just go. Get comfortable with travel being an ordinary experience in your life and you’ll do it more. Make it some enormous event, and you’re liable to confuse getting on a plane with an accomplishment by itself.
I'm torn on this one. Travel should count for something. It should be special. Making it routine, or an "ordinary experiencce in your life", has the potential to make it less special, and nobody wants that.
18. Regarding museums, I like Tyler Cowen’s trick about pretending you’re a thief who is casing the joint. It changes how you perceive and remember the art. Try it.
Okay, odd...
19. Don’t upgrade your phone plan to international when you leave the country. Not because it saves money but because it’s a really good excuse to not use your cellphone for a while. (And if you need to call someone, try Google Voice. It’s free)
Good advice. When I travel, I tend to tell people that I'll be "off the reservation for a while". It's nice to have some solitude every now and again.
20. Explore cool places inside the United States. The South is beautiful and chances are you haven’t seen most of it. There’s all sorts of weird history and wonderful things that your teachers never told you about. Check it out, a lot of it is within a drive of a day or two.
There's a lot of truth to this. I've had two really cool road trips in the last few years that took me across the entire United States, first going east, and then going back west. I was on a tight schedule both times, but I had some great experiences and saw some gorgeous country. I try to convince my British friends of this, but it seems like every Brit I talk to is obsessed with either New York, Florida, or both. Seriously? There's so much more to America than New York and Florida.
21. OK, this one's from me, just because it's so much fun. Take pictures of yourself jumping in different places! It can turn a boring "adult" afternoon into a giddy kid-like experience. The below is from Burning Man 2010.
I'm not sure about jumping (or Burning Man), but it's important to take picture of yourself, and having a playful type of picture that you take at least one of on every trip, can be fun. (I tend to travel alone, so my ability to pose is limited.)

Any thoughts or tips of your own? Leave 'em in the comments.


  1. I agree with most. Especially the bit on battlefields and war memorials. Here's a short list I wrote after visiting Nepal:

    1. Dress up like locals. That can be a pain in the neck if you are in Milan, but a hell of a lot more fun and convenient if you're in Asia or South America.
    2. Hang out with locals. Does not apply if you are in, ehm...France.
    3. Walk alone, without a map, without a phone, with no clue where you're going, just try to remember the way home.
    4. Avoid touristy places as much as possible.
    Feel the thrill of finding yourself in a place where people don't speak any of the languages you speak.
    5. Try out a number of local spirits and foods.
    6. Smoke your way to Nirvana and meditate.
    7. Don't do 5 & 6 when you're away from home at night with new friends and counting on them to take you back to your accommodation.
    8. Pray like LOCALS.
    9. Take time to think before falling asleep at night. Let the nostalgia sink in, look forward to what's coming next, make plausible plans for when you get back.
    10. Having a friend who takes pictures is handy, if you don't enjoy doing so yourself.
    11. Send most postcards ON THE FIST DAY.
    12. Enjoy the occasional fling.
    13. Buy one or few quality souvenirs, but don't overdo.
    14. Find out about local folk music.
    15. Wake up EARLY.
    16. If you find a place that you like, sit down for as long as you want, let it inspire you, even if it's not on your copy of Lonely Planet and nobody else around you seems to notice it.
    17. Learn new words and phrases. Write them down.
    18. Keep a diary if you can.
    19. Hang out with hippies. Posh is boring.
    20. Do not forget to bring a fricking Mp3 player and a pair of ear-plugs for when you need some peace!

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