When I started this blog two and a half years ago, one of my hopes was to show a few naysayers that I was capable of living beyond the comforts of North America and Europe. From the wilds of the Cambodian jungle to the crowded Beijing metro, I have tried to make the most of every experience and tackle every challenge with a smile. While I have bad days like anyone, I’m an eternal optimist who never stays down for long. Some writers highlight their travel mishaps and point out what they didn’t like about a particular city or sight. That information can be useful, but it’s more my style not to dwell on the negative. In this spirit, I bring you my six tips for having fun almost anywhere!
1. Keep an Open Mind
Try not to be too swayed by any one person’s opinion. Just because one person loves or hates a place doesn’t mean you will. Personal experiences and preferences can vary wildly, and factors such as weather and travel season can have a big impact. We were warned against visiting Bangkok because of the touts outside the royal palace (which we didn’t encounter). Others have sworn off tuk-tuks because, allegedly, all the drivers are swindlers. (Yet we’ve taken dozens of tuk-tuk rides across Asia and our drivers have ranged from pleasant to downright awesome.) The Huffington Post recently had the gall to say the Statue of Liberty was overrated (it’s not). If we relied solely on others’ opinions, we’d probably never travel anywhere.
2. Have Reasonable Expectations
This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. If your hopes for a particular destination are sky-high, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment. I’ve found that when I go in managing my own expectations, I often enjoy myself more. This can be tough, especially when visiting famous cities and landmarks you’ve dreamed of for years. Just know that you probably can’t recreate the Eat, Pray, Love experience in Bali or meet a dashing stranger on a train and have an unforgettable night in Vienna à la Before Sunrise. It’s better to visit a place for its own merits and let yourself be pleasantly surprised. You won’t fall in love with every place you visit, and that’s okay. You don’t need to move there.
3. Be prepared
I’ve found that understanding some of a place’s culture and history will enrich your travel experiences. In addition my trusty guidebook, I like to read as much as I can before packing my bags. Novels set in the destination country can provide a wealth of historical and cultural context. Heading to China? Check out Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Cruising the Greek Isles? Get lost in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Crossing Angkor Wat off your bucket list? Read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a non-fiction account of Cambodia’s civil war. That last one was absolutely heartbreaking, but it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the kind people of Cambodia.
Doing a little research about your destination is also a great way to stave off disappointment (see Tip 2). I saw countless people turned away from the temples and ruins in Thailand and Cambodia because they weren’t dressed appropriately. Even just having an idea of how you’ll get to your hotel from the airport can spare you some stress.
4. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
This is another one that can be tough to pull off in the heat of the moment. But some things you just have to let roll off your back. Did the street-food vendor charge you more than the local in front of you? It was pocket change, so let it go. Does your hotel in Southeast Asia not have running water when you come back from a day of sightseeing? Go for a swim if there’s a pool, otherwise get a drink at the bar. No one cares if you’re sweaty; they are too, and you’ll never see them again anyway. Did a gust of wind blow a US$50 bill out of your hand and over a cliff? (True story.) Take a deep breath and forget it.
The restaurant is going to mess up your order, your flight is going to be delayed and your bus may even break down (on the side of the Autobahn in August – another true story.) Mishaps on the road are inevitable. It’s how you deal with them that counts and earns you your travel stripes. If you can laugh at yourself and some of the situations you find yourself in, your trip will be much more pleasant.
5. Be True to Yourself
Whether you want to hike the Inca Trail or relax at an all-inclusive resort, there is no right or wrong way to travel. I’m all for immersion in the local culture and for pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. But you don’t need to make yourself miserable doing that every hour of every day. Travel can be exhausting and if a Big Mac will prevent a meltdown at the airport, by all means, enjoy one. There is nothing wrong with ducking into a local mall to enjoy the air conditioning or getting your Starbucks fix when you’re abroad. Once the craving for creature comforts has been sated, try to get back out there!
6. Take Delight in the Little Things
It doesn’t take much to amuse me. Ice cream on a hot day. Baby animals. People walking around town in their pajamas. A cardboard cutout photo prop is sometimes all it takes. I’m not saying that every travel day has been smooth sailing, but I would have missed out on so many great moments had I let a negative attitude get in the way. Once, after spending the better part of a day exploring the Forbidden City in Beijing, we rushed across town to see the Temple of Heaven, only to find the gates closed. Our disappointment was short-lived, though: walking back to the subway, we came across a group of older Chinese women dancing gleefully to Jingle Bells. This odd scene in the middle of spring remains one of my favorite China memories, and one we might not have witnessed rushing off in a huff!
How do you make the most of your travels? What are your tips for dealing with stressful situations?