As my Twitter followers might have noticed, I have spent the last few days on vacation in San Francisco. It was my first trip to the city by the bay, and I have loved the experience. From the moment I landed at SFO to my lunch in Berkeley, wine tasting in Napa, beer tasting at Lagunitas Brewing Company and Russian River, tour of Alcatraz, walk through Chinatown, and dinner at the most garlicky restaurant around, it has been fantastic.
The trick to a good vacation is a balancing act of time, money, planning, flexibility, research, and playing by ear.
Know your top to do list ahead of time
Before I got on the plane to San Francisco, I knew there were certain places I really wanted to see and would be unhappy if I missed. 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. I hit those places. The best part of being a tourist is that it costs nothing to look at bridges and streets.
Go with the right company
I am writing this post sitting on my friend's couch in Fairfield, California. He has been one of my best friends for about thirteen years. Aside from the perk of a free place to stay, this trip would not have been nearly as fun without his (and his fiancee's) company. I have traveled alone and with friends, and having the right company at the right time is important depending on your goal of the trip.
Always have a Plan B
During our day up north in Napa, we saw about ten minutes of sunlight and a heck of a lot of rain. That impacted our plans. No outdoor wine tours in the rain. But we did not let that get us down. I found out 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. If you need to use your plan B, don't be upset.
Budget for your trip and stick to it
Budget can be considered a bad word for vacation goers, but it is important to stick with. 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 return home?
I gave myself a big budget for this trip, but it is still a budget. Figure out what you can spend ahead of time on the trip. Whether it is $300 or $3000, know what you can afford and what you are willing to spend on activities, meals, and touring.
Do what the locals do
It is easier to live like a local when you have a friend in town, but it is not necessary. While I hit a couple of major tourist traps, I also found local gems like the Pyramid Alehouse and the Oakland East Bay Symphony with Carol Santana courtesy of my great friends.
Had I been on my own, I would have spent a lot more time in advance on local sites like Yelp. I also go in prepared when I go alone by bringing a guide book. My favorite books are from Lonely Planet. If you have AAA you can get tour books at no charge from any AAA office nationwide.
Go with a sense of adventure
I don't care if you are twenty or eighty: go have an adventure. Age is a state of mind. I went to the Jelly Belly factory the same day as a brewery. I was able to act like a kid in a candy factory (just ask my friend Adam, I did act like an eight year old boy) and turn around and go sample world class beer. If you think you are too old for something, you are mistaken.
Avoid what you can do at home
At home, I can go to a chain restaurant or any sort of Denver-centric activity I want every day. 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, a neighborhood coffee shop, and step out of your box. You will often be pleasantly surprised and you might even learn something new to do.
Talk to people
Sitting at Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, California, I started talking to the next guy over at the bar. He looked to be about fifty — not a typical friend of a guy in his mid twenties. However, he and his wife were incredibly friendly and had good tips on local spots to check out.
Walking through the Castro neighborhood, I was chased by a seven foot tall guy wearing leathers and calling me hot pants (that did not actually happen, my friend just made up the story so I thought I would include it). But the moral of the story is very real. 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.
Have a fun and meaningful trip
At the end of the day, why are you going? You might want to relax, you might want to party, you might want to see sights, 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.