People often tell me, “I wish I could travel like you.” Many folks let things like time and money get in the way of their dream vacation. But if travel is genuinely a priority to you, like it is to me, you can get a lot out of a vacation with a little bit of planning and a whole lot of dreaming.
You must overcome the mental blocks to do something different with your travels. What is holding you back? What are you afraid of?
For me, travel is a life experience. After traveling for thousands of miles over many years, here are some of my top tips for getting the most out of your vacation.
Know Your Top To-Do List Ahead of Time
Before taking my first trip to San Francisco, I knew there were certain places I wanted to see and would be unhappy if I missed them. Those included Alcatraz, the spiraling Lombard Street, a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and dinner at a restaurant called The Stinking Rose. The rest I was willing to play by ear.
Because I prioritized what I wanted to see the most, I hit all the places on my list.
Automate Your Vacation Planning
If you are anything like me, you like having your travel documents, plans, and information in one place. I used to print out a stack of papers for each hotel, flight, rental car, and other reservation during a trip. Thanks to TripIt that is now a dead practice.
TripIt is an app that creates itineraries for upcoming trips, consolidating everything into one location for easy and instant access.
From the TripIt website, I ensure I enter everything I could want to know for upcoming travel plans as a Trip. Every time I get an email confirmation for a flight or hotel reservation, TripIt finds it in my inbox and adds the information to my Trip for easy access.
When you click on the Trip, a screen opens up with every flight, confirmation number, hotel, maps, links to directions, weather forecasts, and anything else you might want. You can add restaurant and show reservations too.
Always Have a Plan B
Once on a day trip up north in Napa, my friends and I saw about ten minutes of sunlight and a heck of a lot of rain. That impacted our plans—we couldn’t do outdoor wine tours in the rain. But instead of letting that get me down, I discovered one of my favorite breweries was just a half hour up the road, and we went in for a sampler. Sure, we drank less wine, but we still had a ton of fun, and I got to drink one of my favorite beers, fresh from the source.
Even with the best-laid plans, unexpected circumstances could pop up. Be open to alternative plans and possibilities.
Budget For Your Vacation and Stick To It
Budget can be considered a bad word for vacation goers, but it is important to create one and stick with it. How stressed out would I be if I ran out of money? How upset would I be if I spent more than I could afford and was worried about money when I returned home?
Thankfully, taking a great trip on a budget is still possible. Several years ago, I took a two-week trip to London, Paris, and Amsterdam on a budget. I used miles from my British Airways credit card to cover most of the flight. The flight took me everywhere other than a two-hour train ride between Paris and Amsterdam.
I didn’t splurge on fancy hotels. Instead, thanks to some prior research and tips from fellow travelers on X (formerly Twitter), I found hostels with great locations in each city. If you research first, you should find some budget accommodations. You can also check out sites like Airbnb and CouchSurfing for more budget options.
Plan on Payments
If you plan on traveling internationally, you’ll want to think about how to exchange currency. There are a few options you can consider:
- Get currency before you leave: If you have plenty of time before you go, most large banks can order foreign currency for you. The exchange rates are generally reasonable, but the entire process can be more complicated than other options.
- Bring cash to exchange: You can bring a big wad of your local currency and find a currency exchange when you land. This option is easier because you only have to go to the bank once, and most airports have foreign exchange services on site. Additionally, popular tourist cities have exchange businesses in popular areas.
- ATMs: If you go to any developed country, you can find ATMs everywhere. ATMs will dispense the local currency and usually have very good exchange rates— the only thing you really have to worry about is the fee.
- Credit cards: These days, vendors take Visa and MasterCard almost everywhere. You can also find international retailers that accept American Express, although it’s not quite as common. Depending on your card, using a credit card abroad might be better than cash. You are protected from fraud and loss, and card companies generally charge a competitive foreign exchange rate.
Do What the Locals Do
Eating locally is a great way to connect to a new culture. I do not leave the United States to eat at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, or Pizza Hut. When I leave, I want to experience a new place like the locals. I go to restaurants, parks, and bars that locals frequent. While there, I try to meet local people and get a feel for what it is like to live there.
My best friend while abroad, particularly in a non-English speaking country, is Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet guidebooks are in-depth guides that give you everything you need to know about a city, country, culture, cuisine, lodging, and other tidbits when traveling somewhere new. My Lonely Planet guidebook was the only reason I survived a solo trip to Prague and Budapest.
Avoid What You Can Do At Home
On the same note, try avoiding things you can do at home while traveling. At home, I can go to a chain restaurant or any LA-centric activity I want daily. While out of town, I do all I can to avoid that. Steer clear of McDonald’s, Starbucks, and familiar things, no matter how comfortable they make you feel. Instead, find a local burger joint or a neighborhood coffee shop, and step out of your box. You will often be pleasantly surprised and might even learn something new.
Stay Safe on Vacation
Be aware of your surroundings and be safe at all times. I have been to dangerous places in Israel and the United States without realizing it until I was already there. I was always lucky, but it is best to take luck out of the equation.
Credit Card Safety
It’s also important to be careful when carrying credit cards and other important documents on vacation. You never know when or where someone might steal your card number, and you can quickly find yourself in a stressful situation.
Once, my sister brought two cards with her on vacation to Greece, thinking she would be fine. Her debit card was stolen early on in the trip, leaving her with only a Visa card tied to our parents’ account. About three weeks into her month-long trip, I took a vacation to Alaska with my mom, who had her joint account card number illegally skimmed on our trip. Visa deactivated the card, leaving my sister with only 100 euros in her pocket and a week left in Greece.
What’s the lesson here? First, always have a couple of good credit card back-ups when traveling. Also, immediately request an expedited replacement card from your provider if yours gets stolen.
Have a Fun and Meaningful Vacation
At the end of the day, why are you going? You might want to relax, or you might want to party. You might want to see sights, or you might want to learn. Whatever it is, do it. Go with a positive attitude. You can’t control the weather or traffic, but you don’t have to have a bad time because of the unexpected. Make the best of it, have a blast, and create a trip you will never forget.