Nine years ago I started traveling the world. I've been to Europe, Africa, Central America, Asia, New Zealand, and throughout the U.S. and Canada. You would think that my bookcase would be filled with guide books but it's not. The last time I bought a guide book was nine years ago. Most people buy their guide book before their trip and plan out an itinerary. Not unlike an organized tour, they have planned every moment of their vacation trying to fit in too much. They leave little space for the unexpected or stepping off the tourist path. For some this kind of trip is great. Many people like to fit in as much as possible while barely experiencing anything. Take for example the people who rush through the Louvre snapping pictures of artwork with their iphones and then moving on. Have they really looked at the Mona Lisa - well how can anyone look at it with all the flashbulbs going off?
Ask anyone about their last vacation and I guarantee that they will talk about seeing the big tourist attractions, but their eyes will light up when they tell you the story of the unexpected that happened while away: the bakery they found where they got their coffee each morning and spoke with the locals; the children who wanted their pictures taken; the person they met on a train who they spent the day with; or even how they got lost on a hike. It's the surprises people remember the most. The other problem with planning an itinerary is that if you're too tired one day to march through museums you can change things at the last minute without feeling like you missed out. This way you experience your trip in a more relaxed manner.
So how do you travel without a guidebook? How do you find your way around? How will you know where to eat or what to see?
Here are a few suggestions for making your next trip an adventure you will never forget. First, go online and look for hotels in your price range through a site like Kayak.com. Then go to TripAdvisor and look for reviews of the hotels listed - better than any guidebook, real travelers give their honest opinions. It's a good way to find out if there are bedbugs or if there is construction going on next door. Guidebooks are often outdated, but you can read a review from someone who stayed at the hotel the week before. I don't like spending time booking accommodations while on the road because it takes time away from my vacation, but it can easily be done from a computer once you've arrived. Always book your first night because you will be exhausted from travel.
Once you have your accommodations and transportation, pack your bags and get on the plane. While in the airport look around for the person or group that looks like they're heading home. Approach them and say, "Hi, I'm visiting blank for the first time and I was wondering if you have any suggestions for what I should see while I'm there?"
People love to share their enthusiasm for the place they live. Approaching someone often opens a lively conversation that also makes the wait in the airport fly by. When you get to your hotel, go to the front desk or the concierge and tell them that you're interested in visiting the city more like a local, but that you also want to see the main highlights. The person will pull out a map and give you all the information you need. Make certain to take it one step further and ask, "What are your favorite things to do?" This opens the person up to share their love of the city or place they live. Many times they will send you to local restaurants never found in guidebooks (Note: Always try to eat away from main attractions - the prices and food are tourist and not the local flavor. Even going one block further will give you a better chance for a nice meal). If the hotel offers you tours, ask them how you can do the same thing by using public transportation. Sometimes these people work on commission or they are afraid you will be lost and will tell you it's impossible to do things without a tour. Thank them and move on. It's always possible to go without a tour and it will save you mucho bucks.
Now a word about getting lost. I highly recommend it. Since your time isn't booked to the max with a specific itinerary you won't be stressed about missing out on anything. Take a wrong turn, (should be done only in daylight), ask for directions, while you're at it, stop in at a little shop that looks interesting, wander without aim, people watch. On my perfect day in Paris, I walked in a direction without a plan and ended up in the best gelato shop and then found a tiny store with handmade designer clothing. If you're in a car, take that road that looks like it leads to nowhere. Stop and see the fields on the side of the road.
You might wonder about language barriers. Smiles, hand gestures and pointing at maps (which you can get at any train station or airport from the information booths) works great. It might not be the right place, but you're in a foreign place, it's all part of the experience.
So here's the real question. Are you willing to give up the idea of what your adventure should be like? Are you willing to let go of control and living safe in exchange for living in the moment? Sure go ahead and reserve tickets at the Uffizi so you don't stand in long lines, but leave the rest to chance. You may see less, but you will experience more.
If you're unsure of doing this in a foreign country stay tuned for my next blog on how to do this right around the corner from your house.