Over the past ten years, I’ve done more than my fair share of traveling, both foreign and domestic. With a husband who travels weekly, I often have my pick of getaways; and all the frequent flyer mileage adds up, meaning I can travel with Ken on business as well as travel on my own or with friends and family. I’ve learned a lot about traveling, sightseeing, and staying sane when all plans seem to go awry. Here are the most important things I’ve taken away from my experiences.
Plan for the unexpected. We used to laugh at my grandmother who always carried an extra pair of underwear in her purse in case she was stranded somewhere. And an extra pair of shoes, but that’s another story. We might have thought she was crazy, but she was on to something. More often than they’d like to admit, airlines screw up. Twice in the past five years, I arrived at my destination without a bag. Both times, I had a carry on with enough clothes to get me through a couple days. Included in the bags were my essentials – reading glasses, contacts (when I wore them), camera, device chargers, and any medication I might need. This past week, I spent almost three days without my luggage. No need to panic. I had just about everything I needed and could easily obtain the rest. Okay, the thought of losing all those souvenirs almost killed me, but I had to let the worry go and have fun. Thankfully, everything showed up just when I needed it.
Plan your itinerary. Last week, Katie and I met a mother and son traveling from Florida. Maru had an extensive list of everything she wanted to see on their trip. As they traveled, she checked off the items one by one. Katie and I also had a list, but ours was a daily itinerary of what we should see each day. We checked the list each night to see what we did and what we missed. The key to doing this right is to research ahead of time, and know what you want to see and how much time it takes to do each thing. But in the end, you must be willing to….
Be flexible. Not every day goes as planned. Waits in line can be longer than anticipated. An unexpected visit from the queen might cause the palace you planned to tour to be closed for the day. Or, like Katie and I, you might meet others and decide to switch things around so that you can all do things together. While in Canada, we completely shifted gears and gave up our second night in Halifax after falling in love with the smaller coastal towns and opting to stay in one of those instead. While planning can save you a lot of headaches and heartaches, being flexible can make the entire trip go more smoothly and be more enjoyable.
Know your money situation. What is the currency? Does your credit card charge fees for international use? Does your debit card work overseas? Do you really need to use foreign currency, or are US dollars better? In some countries, particularly in South America, they are. Research before you go. Know if you’re visiting countries that are more expensive than than others. How will this affect your travel? A word of advice: if you’re going to Iceland, plan on eating a lot of hot dogs and drinking water; and in Copenhagen, know where the McDonald’s is. Or be prepared to allot a hefty sum for food and drinks.
Know when you need a camera and when you don’t. When Ken and I visited the Holy Land, it was impressed upon us to not worry about taking pictures because it’s more important to concentrate on being in the moment in the holy places. While we did take pictures, we took far fewer than we normally would, and we tried to really soak up everything around us before worrying about snapping the shots we felt would be the most meaningful. Sometimes, I take my camera with me, but other times, I rely on my phone. If you’re climbing a mountain or walking behind a waterfall, leave the camera behind. Reach for your phone only when you know that you, and the phone, are safe from harm. Are you going biking on an island off the coast of Australia? Then the phone is sufficient. Riding a tour bus with several historic and scenic stops? Then the good camera is a must. Be wise, and know which is the best option for the type of photos you want or the logistics of the place you’re visiting.
Take the bus. Most often, you visit someplace where you want to explore every alley and corner. Other times, you just need enough time to see the highlights. And many times, there’s just one particular thing to see. Whether it’s a ride to Stonehenge or a twelve-hour manic race to see everything in a thirty mile radius of Quebec City, don’t be afraid to join the tour. Bus rides provide so many opportunities and benefits – you can see multiple sights in a day without having to rent a car or read a map; you have a built-in tour guide (and they’re usually fabulous); you can meet other travelers along the way and get ideas for other places to visit; you learn a lot about the culture, history, and landscape of the place you’re visiting; and, though you may be disappointed that you can’t hit every shop in each town you go to, most of the time, the driver has the timing down to a tee. He or she knows exactly how long it will take for you to climb to the top of the waterfall, take a boat ride on the Loch Ness, or visit the black sand beach.
Don’t be afraid to drive…on the left. When Mom and I went to Ireland, I admit that I was pretty nervous about renting a car. But our plan to see every single part of the country in eight days would not have worked otherwise. So I bit the bullet and rented the car. Though it felt a little strange at first, before long, driving on the left side of the road become natural. A year later, when Ken and I visited New Zealand and decided to take a drive up the coast, I actually offered to do the driving. Just like riding a bike, the skill came back to me. Would I be nervous to do it again? Sure, I would. It’s not the way I learned to do a task I do every day, but I wouldn’t say no.
Know when you need a guide. Most of the time, you can see everything you want without help. We have the Internet to teach us history before we go. We have the Maps app to keep us from getting lost. And there’s a City Pass for almost every major city in the world that cuts your cost or saves you the wait in line. However, there are times when it’s best to hire a guide. Some examples: the only way to avoid the three to four hour wait at the Vatican or the Colosseum, is to have a guide. Not only is it well worth the time you save, you will learn more about the Basilica and museums than you ever could on your own. Likewise, if you really want to get know the city of Florence, with hundreds of years of history, a guide is your best option. And those kooky nighttime ghost tours you can do on your own with the online guide – forget about it. Only a guide will really make the stories come to life. By the way, that City Pass I mentioned? I highly recommend them. But do your research. We found them to be a total waste of money in Madrid, and depending upon your schedule, choosing the right length of use can be tricky. But I wouldn’t visit New York or London without one.
Be alert. I have never felt unsafe when traveling, and so far, I’ve never had anything stolen or taken from a pickpocket, but those things do happen all the time. Know your surroundings. Keep your distance from people or situations that don’t look or feel right. Always know where your money, credit cards, phone, etc. are at all times. I sacrifice my purse for a smaller cross-shoulder bag whenever I’m traveling. It keeps everything close to my body and keeps my money and cards stored neatly without the need for a wallet which can be easily lifted from an open bag. In Barcelona, last summer, a woman walking near us on the sidewalk kept steering uncomfortably close to me. Bells went off, and when she reached for my purse, I was ready. Firmly holding onto the bag with both hands, I looked right at her and said, “No, go away.” She quickly darted through the crowd without looking back. When my family asked what happened, I told them. I knew my instincts were right, and it was a good lesson for my girls. If I had been one to pay more attention to my phone than to those around me, that story could have had a very different ending.
Keep a check on your items. While I’ve never had anything taken, we have had the unfortunate lost article or two. Twice on this last trip, Katie left something behind in her haste to pack up and move out. One was a tube of posters she had bought in London for her dorm room. The other was the blue and purple tartan scarf we bought in Scotland that so beautifully matched her eyes. If you’re changing planes or trains, or grabbing a quick meal somewhere between destinations, always pack up before it’s time to leave, check your area, and then double check that you’ve gotten everything. A coupe posters and a scarf can be easily replaced and don’t present a large monetary loss. A piece of art, a hand-knitted sweater, or a one-of-a-kind purchase, would be another, tragic, story.
Make friends. I know, that sounds crazy. How can you make “real” friends while traveling? Believe me, you can. Some of my closest friends are people Ken and I met on a ten-day pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. While that is a little different as it’s an emotional and spiritual journey rather than just a vacation, the same general rule applies when traveling. While you can’t fully let your guard down with strangers, you can make friends. On a cruise, several years ago, my girls joined the kids’ clubs offered onboard. To this day, they are still friends with a number of those kids and keep in touch via social media and email. Rebecca even went to a senior prom with a boy with whom she became friends. Katie and I had so much in common with the mother and son that we met in Scotland last week, that we’re trying to make plans to get together again. You never know where a chance meeting might lead, what long-lasting friendships may develop. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t believe in coincidence. Everything happens, and every person enters our lives, for a reason.
Enjoy every moment. Don’t lose sight of why you’re there and with whom you’re traveling. Put down the phone (I know, you all get tired of hearing me harp on that), talk to your companions and to other travelers, savor your meals, rise with the sun, and go to bed when everything shuts down. Do that late night ghost tour. Eat that local delicacy you never thought you’d try. Visit the museums, the parks, the beaches, the out-of-the-way overlooks and grueling hikes. You will never regret having done those things, but I guarantee that you will regret what you don’t do. Life is short. You might never get back to the same place twice. Take advantage of everything you can while you’re there.
Be inspired. Traveling has taught my children to reach beyond their own worlds and eat new foods, learn about other cultures, and dare to try something new. This sense of adventure can often lead to new experiences even after returning home. After discovering foreign foods that we like, we often go home and attempt to recreate the recipe. More times than not, it works! Reeling at the expense of the Icelandic sweaters, Katie bought a kit with yarn and a pattern and is planning to knit one for herself. Ken’s cousin, Crista, came home from traveling and began brewing her own craft beer. We all took up kayaking after Ken and I paddled with the penguins off the south coast of New Zealand. And I’ve won two literary awards for my book, Whispering Vines, inspired by a trip to a small, family-owned winery near Verona. Be open to learning and to doing. Every trip has the potential to lead to something bigger in your life.
Finally, share your love of travel and your experiences with others. Some may only see these places through your eyes. Others may be inspired to follow your lead. It’s both a large and a small world out there. See all that you see, and let others know how easy it is to do the same.
What I was writing about one year ago this week: No Place Like Home.
Amy Schisler is an award winning author of both children’s books and novels for readers of all ages. She lives with her husband and three daughters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her books, Picture Me and Whispering Vines, are recipients of Illumination Awards, placing them among the top three inspirational fiction books of 2015 and 2016. Whispering Vines was awarded the 2017 LYRA Award for the best romance of 2016. Amy’s most recent novel, Island of Miracles, is now on sale.