Travel has a steep learning curve. So I’m going to speed it up for you. I asked a selection of my favorite travel experts and road warriors to share the lessons it took them way too long to learn. Lucky you: You get to benefit from their life-changing realizations before putting on all those miles.
- You can count on the kindness of strangers.
“Most people are really lovely and will help if you just ask.”
- It’s the people you meet.
“Travel is about the people more than the places. You learn the most fascinating things by taking the time to talk to the people on the beach chairs next to you, the woman in the zocolo, the local who comes into the same restaurant….You’ll remember the conversations long after you’ve forgotten the scenic outlooks.”
- Absorbing a place is easier alone.
“The travel lesson that took me the longest to learn is that it’s okay to take time away from my travel companions each trip. This allows me to develop a relationship with the destination—something that’s necessary for me to really enjoy the journey, and something I can’t do if I’m in the company of family or friends. I need to walk around and quietly gawk, talk to locals, and have no filter between myself and the place. This gives those who are traveling with me a chance to get out and explore on their own too. When we reconvene, it’s all the more fun to be together because we can share in conversation all of the different adventures we had.”
- Forget what’s happening at home.
“I no longer want any U.S. news, nor do I want to know what time it is back home or what’s happening there. Except for emergencies, I now stay present only to what’s happening immediately around me. This wasn’t the case for many years, but now it is my mantra.”
—Robyn Webb, author of The Paris Vacation Apartment Guide
- Slow down. You move too fast.
“Stay longer—more nights in one place—rather than running around too much. Cruises are a great way to see the world or get an idea of a part of the world, so you know where you want to go back and explore more in-depth.”
–Kathy McCabe, host of the PBS show and newsletter Dream of Italy
- Stop stressing about packing.
“At your destination you can buy most of what you are worried about forgetting. Lost ‘necessities’ are not the end of the world.”
- Pack clothes you don’t want.
“When traveling internationally, pack your bag with clothes you want to give away. Wear them, then leave them behind for the hotel housekeepers or locals who need them. They love them, and you have an empty bag to pack your souvenirs in for the flight home.”
- Flying coach will never get better.
“Airline travel in the economy cabin will only keep getting worse. That’s because, given the choice of offering a better product or cramming more travelers into a plane, airlines will always choose to cram. But you knew that—because you show the airlines that a low fare trumps everything else when you buy tickets.”
—Ed Perkins, contributing editor, Smarter Travel
- But flying one airline alliance sure can help.
“It took me too long to realize that airline loyalty matters. On most flights, I find enough price parity that going with the same airline—or, alliance of airlines—most of the time pays off quickly in money-saving perks: upgrades, no checked-bag fees, and better seating opportunities.”
—Gabe Saglie, senior editor, Travelzoo
- Embrace delays.
“Delays may be a good way to begin a vacation. The whole point of travel is to discover a new way of living, which is usually slower than the pace Americans are used to living. Enjoy the journey. Literally.”
- Make dinner reservations.
“You can always cancel, but with so many choices in a new strange place, it’s easier to do your homework before you go than to end up having a terrible meal because your gut made a bad choice.”
- Stop and smell the station.
“As a solo traveler, it took me a long time to recognize the value of slowing down and even pulling aside during transit to get my bearings. For so long my main goal was to not be an obvious tourist. So, when I got on a train, I took the first seat I saw. Or I’d get off the train and rush to the public transit outside the station. Until…I’d get up to go to the restroom and see all the great seats on the second floor that I’d missed or the tiny coffee shop I had whizzed past. I finally realized the rewards of slowing down to acclimate—taking a seat with my luggage and just observing where people are going, seeing different entrances and exits, noticing things I might want to check out, and spotting the tourist traps to avoid. “
- Get lost.
“In a new city take time to just wander around and get lost. Take a picture of your hotel with your phone in case you really get lost.”
- Less is more.
“Less is more. Less planning leads to more serendipitous experiences. Packing less stuff means saving more time, money, and aggravation.”
—Charles McCool of McCool Travel
- Always get a name.
“Always get the name of whomever you speak to for any reservation anywhere—in case you need to reference.”
–Rachel Pantoja of Sorted Travel
- Put the camera down.
“On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I finally learned that even the most avid shutterbug should put the camera down after a while. I love photography, but there came a point when I had to stop shooting pictures of those adorable sea lions and just watch them with my own two eyes—because when would I ever get this chance again?”
—Sarah Schlichter, senior editor, Independent Traveler
- Local guides can make all the difference.
“It took us way too long to learn to schedule walking tours wherever we go. We spent many aimless days with our kids in European cities early on. Kid-oriented walking tours make the destinations and the history come alive for the kids in a way that sightseeing on our own never did. Well worth the cost.”
—Eric Stoen of Travel Babbo
- Just because you can fit four people in one room doesn’t mean you should.
“The hardest lesson for my family to learn has been that while I, my husband, and our two teenagers can technically squeeze into a single hotel room, we really shouldn’t. We just need more of everything now: more space, more showers, more mirrors, and way more electrical outlets!”
—Jamie Pearson of Travel Savvy Mom
- Travel is freedom.
“The travel lesson I learned is that travel means freedom. I took a step of faith and quit my job during the recession. Fast forward to more than 30 countries in two years—50 total—and I realize that there is more to me, and more to life, than the status quo.”
—Angela Petitt of SabbaticalScapes
- On every trip try something new.
“Try zip-lining. Ride a camel. Learn to surf. When you do an activity for the first time ever, it leaves you with especially vivid memories, and with a sense of accomplishment, that will last long after the trip has ended.”
—Wendy Perrin, TripAdvisor’s Travel Advocate
What travel lesson did it take you way too long to learn? Share it with us below!
You’ll find more travel truths at WendyPerrin.com.