Whether you’re a spender or scrimper on vacation, these tips will make any trip more enjoyable.
You can stay at five-star hotels or you can camp in the dirt; spend like a millionaire or scrimp like a backpacker.
But there are certain things you can do to improve your travel experience, and they won’t cost you one dime.
Here’s my best advice, gleaned from decades of experience on both sides of the spending fence.
STOP RUSHING AROUND
If you have crammed your schedule too full, you might see the sights but miss the big picture.
I once traveled to England with some folks who insisted on “knocking out” tourist landmarks as if they were punch cards, to the point that I just refused to go anywhere with them.
For example, they planned to visit the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace in the same day, even though they were geographically many miles apart and both needed hours to explore. They ended up having to leave in the middle of the Beefeater’s mesmerizing tour to make it to Hampton Court, where they were also rushed because it was so late.
Don’t do this. It’s not worth it.
ALLOW TIME FOR SERENDIPITY
I admit I tend to be a scheduler when I travel, but I try to build in free time so that I can take advantage of butterflies when they land on my shoulder.
On the aforementioned trip, I went to Windsor Castle, where the queen lives for part of the year. While I was there, I saw a small notice that the public was welcome to attend the evensong performance at 5 p.m. in St. George’s Chapel.
I’d never been to an evensong before, but the medieval chapel belonged to Henry VIII, so I was interested — and I had the time. I came back at 5 p.m. and was directed to sit in the stalls of the Knights of the Garter. Yes, I actually sat in one of the legendary carved stalls, while the chapel’s private boys’ choir came in and serenaded us for half an hour. It was unforgettable (and free).
On another trip, I wandered into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and discovered there was a free performance that afternoon of Handel’s “Messiah.” Hearing that boys choir up into the Gothic arches was like listening to angels sing. In Mexico, we were visiting a cathedral in Oaxaca when we stumbled onto a wedding. We sat in the back, far from the crowd, and enjoyed the ceremony and marimba band.
When you’re rushing to get somewhere, you don’t have time to stumble into these experiences, which can become the favorites of your trip.
GET UP EARLY
I like to sleep in on vacation, too, but getting up early will benefit you in several ways, most importantly because nothing will be hot or crowded yet. Avoid the lines outside the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Skip the valley floor traffic in Yosemite and have the marvelous trails all to yourself.
One of the best experiences I ever had getting up early was in Yellowstone National Park, where we learned why Native Americans used to call this place Smoking Waters. At 6 a.m. the river does “smoke,” shooting clouds of steam into the air from hot springs that obscure the roads in some areas. It’s spectacular to see, and we would have missed it if we’d slept in, not to mention having to fight nightmare August crowds everywhere we went.
MEET THE LOCALS
I just can’t stress too highly how much meeting local people will add to your travel experience.
Yes, you can hop on a tour bus and slam your way across the country, hitting all the sights and talking only to other tourists. I’ve done that and it’s a very efficient way to bag a lot of landmarks.
But, as time goes on, I’ve realized that getting to know people in their own country is the most enjoyable part of a trip.
How do you do that? Be friendly, ask questions and stay in locally owned guesthouses, where you are guaranteed to get to know your hosts.
Outside Cairo, our guesthouse owner walked us around and showed us his farm, and his sons played soccer with my kids.
In Aswan, Egypt, our charming host and his staff at Experience Nubia guesthouse couldn’t do enough for us. It was like staying with your favorite uncle. My kids went riding on camels and bikes, the owner’s son took us out on a boat that reminded me of the Jungle Cruise and showed us where we could safely swim in the Nile. We paid for all of these things, but it was well worth it.
In Costa Rica last year, we walked over to a restaurant owned by our guesthouse manager’s husband, and he treated us like celebrities.
It’s just an added bonus that locally owned guesthouses are usually cheaper than hotels.
Even when I know someone else will be toting my bags, I still make a point of bringing only my small, battered, wheeled suitcase wherever I go. When you travel light, you’re free. You’re never tied down to a particular place, or to finding a porter or a bellhop. You can just go at a moment’s notice.
You don’t have to worry about a bag getting lost, because it’s always with you. And trust me, you can get clothes washed anywhere. We had ours done on the banks of the Sand River in Africa. There’s an old travel adage to pack the night before, and then get up and take half of the stuff out. And it’s true.
A few things live in my suitcase permanently, including a small night light, an extension cord and a deck of cards, but I bring clothes that coordinate with each other and don’t wrinkle, and reuse them every day. Once you adopt this method, you’ll never go back to packing three bags for a weekend trip.