Traveling—whether it’s for business, pleasure, or otherwise—is something many of us have to do. But I like to think of it as a kind of skill, too.
You know those people, the ones who can hop off a plane in Tokyo with no itinerary to speak of and find themselves in the city’s hippest izakaya surrounded by in-the-know locals just hours later. Or those who never do any research, but also never end up in a restaurant with an 11 page multi-lingual menu that invariably includes a cheeseburger and fish and chips. While there is some luck and serendipity associated with this kind of travel, there’s also a certain amount of strategy and skill. The question is: Is this instinct-led and laissez faire style of travel a skill you can learn?
Most of the internet’s abundant travel advice is devoted to the where, when, and what of travel. Here at Quartzy, we’ve delivered quite a few of those this year, from advice on booking hostels and choosing hotel loyalty programs to surviving a 12 hour flight on a low cost airline and using Google Maps abroad. But on the whole, we feel too little is devoted to the how of moving around the globe. How to find the unexpected, double down on the enriching, weed out the touristic, and return home not just having changed your scenery—but changed yourself as well. How, in effect, to be a better traveler.
So as we look forward to 2018, we asked some travelers we admire for just one tip on how to be a better traveler in the year ahead. Refreshingly, almost none of the responses we got involve using the internet.
Money, generally speaking, separates us from the destinations and cultures we claim to want to learn about and be drawn closer to by travel. So I would say: Spend less, but target how you spend more carefully. Using homeshare services and guest houses instead of big chain hotels, employing local guides, eating at farmer’s markets and on the street—these are all ways to have more enriching travel experiences.
My one thing above all: travel with a low footprint. I’ve traveled for the last two years with just my purse—no carry on, no checked bags. It takes some practice to find the few versatile basics that you can dress up and dress down, but once you do it’s hard to imagine going back. You never worry about gate checking your bag or bag fees. When you land in a city, you never have to worry about dropping your bags before heading to your first meeting or going out to meet a friend for a drink. On the rare occasions when you’re caught without something you really need—a nice gown for an unexpected formal event or a wetsuit for a surprise snorkeling expedition—it’s not usually hard to find a way to rent or borrow.
I like to follow the five block rule. Don’t eat within five blocks of a tourist attraction. The food is always double the price and half as good. Tourists never seem to wander far from the main sites. That’s probably a bit out of fear. What if you end up in a terrible place? They don’t speak English? So they stick to this seemingly invisible barrier that’s around five blocks. Walk past it and the menus don’t last a dozen pages nor do they come in seven languages. Plus, you get a more local price and often friendlier staff. Head away from the crowds, open some food app, and find some place new. You’ll have a much better and more affordable dining experience. The five block rule is rarely wrong.
Being a better traveler begins with approaching travel differently. If what people hope for when they leave their comfort bubbles is to canvas the world in search of edifying life experiences and greater understanding of humanity and culture, then they need to set off with an openness in attitude that effaces any superficial motivation. In other words, you can’t achieve self-betterment through travel if the approach is simply to check destinations off a list. The people who “do” Paris, “do” Yosemite, “do” Tokyo needs to “do” some reflecting on what makes a good, curious traveler.
The best thing anyone can do when they go to a destination and you’re short on time is to do food tours. A street food tour in any city in the world is almost guaranteed to be the most memorable part of your trip. Failing a tour, the local bazaar or the farmers market in any city or any part of the world is a great way to get a sense of where you’ve arrived. I usually gravitate towards those spaces, and I buy some local spices or local ingredients to take back with me.
Karim Iliya, Photographer and winner of National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year 2017 (landscape category)
When I travel I like to do absolutely no research. As long as I know the place isn’t dangerous, I don’t look up places to go or things to see. I like to purposely go into it blind. Often the only thing I do is book the first night’s accommodation. It becomes an adventure where anything is possible. Yes, you do miss important historic places, and things that you should have reserved in advance. Instead, you absorb the stimulus of sight, sound and smell and use it to guide you. With no destination, purpose, or schedule, you may end up stretching in a 90 year old man’s garden while monkeys fight overhead, or bodysurfing between fishing boats with kids, or hitching a ride on a flower truck. It is when you put away your clocks, guidebooks, and maps, that the most strange and wonderful encounters take place.
Rubio: You know that feeling when you’ve stepped foot in a new place, and you’re wholeheartedly open to whatever might come next? You say “yes” to the things you hadn’t planned, even when it makes you a little uncomfortable? I get most of my inspiration from experiences that weren’t ever a part of the itinerary, so my biggest tip is to say “yes” as much as you can. Do this when you’re traveling, but also do it when you return home. I truly believe that embracing this mentality can help you get the most out of every trip, and might even be the spark for your next personal breakthrough.
Korey: My best travel advice is also my best business advice—be flexible. Be nimble enough to embrace the moments of uncertainty while you’re traveling—these stories will likely be the most memorable of your whole trip, and the ones you’ll tell your friends and family for years to come. Apply this to the way you think about your job or to the way you build your business, too. At Away, there’s no playbook for what we’re doing, so it’s inevitable that we’ll make a few mistakes along the way, but being flexible allows us to be comfortable taking thoughtful risks, and to recognize moments of “failure” as a chance to iterate and grow.