For our current assignment in a long-form writing class, we were asked to do an instructional essay. This came with the encouraging comment that we are all experts on something, and that this post can take many different forms. I do travel a lot, but I still don’t feel that I can comfortably pose as the font of all knowledge on this subject, especially when many of my readers are such accomplished travelers themselves. So, I’ve decided to take a tongue-in-cheek* approach to my favorite theme. Herewith, my instructions for getting the least out of your trip.
*(Sensitive readers: I am being silly and poking fun here; no offense intended!)
Go somewhere famous
First of all, you’ll want to find a well-known destination that everyone has told you about. Any place off the beaten track is too difficult to plan and too weird; you just want to hit the most prominent cities or sights, ideally in well-developed nations, mainly to say you’ve been there. Seeing strange or lesser-known sights in countries with exotic languages and scary-looking foods does not sound like a vacation at all. It is also important to go to that right place at the right time; for example, it’s great to go during the very peak of high season, so that major attractions will be mobbed with tourists, and hotels and tickets will be priced at their maximums. You do not want to be stuck in hauntingly remote Mongolia watching wild horses fly across the steppe when everyone else is in Venice eating gelato in July.
Go somewhere to tick a box
If you have not been to every state, province, or continent, drop any other places you may want to see so that you can actually accomplish something. Seeing a second country in Asia or a different region in California does you no good at all if your goal is a count of some sort. Just because Ghana is vastly different from your Kenyan safari does not mean you should go back to Africa again; wait until you’ve notched Antarctica before you start re-visiting the harder-to-reach continents. Of course, it makes zero sense to pay a repeat call on any one place, no matter how much you loved it, because digging deep is not your goal; covering ground is your priority.
Plan every second
Now that you’ve got a destination and some dates, what’s next? Lay out a timetable, and schedule every minute of every day in the itinerary … and then stick to it no matter what. Day 2 in Paris is supposed to include the Louvre all morning, lunch in the Marais, a ride on the bateaux mouches, a quick duck into Notre Dame, then dinner on the Left Bank. If you get to the Marais and all the quaint shops beckon you to blow off the boat ride and linger in the sunny, cobblestone streets all afternoon, do not succumb! Ambling aimlessly in a famous city means you may miss some monument that needs to be checked off the list of things your guidebook or someone else told you to see. Do not improvise; this can lead to lazy mornings in a random café or a delicious quest to find the best dumplings in town, neither of which is a true travel accomplishment. You may get to know a few backstreets or even meet a fascinating stranger, but this is not why you have traveled over 4000 miles.
Go to the opposite extreme and totally wing it
Don’t be so Type A on your trip, dude! Don’t even bother buying a guidebook or doing any advance prep work or research into a destination. When you discover that morning that your one day in Dublin happens to land on a Sunday and that absolutely nothing is open – not the shops nor the room with the Book of Kells, the main reason you came to Dublin in the first place – don’t be frustrated. Just hang out at your hotel and do not even think about doing any planning for the upcoming days. And if your international flight home out of Helsinki leaves tomorrow, but the ferry from Tallinn is sold out for today … no worries! … this will only cost non-swimmers a $750 airline change fee, no big deal.
Do not leave your comfort zone
First and foremost, find a chain hotel, preferably one based in your own country. There is nothing worse than staying in a place with local decorating, staff, and food. Soothe yourself with a nice, neutral room with no hints of where you are and, by all means, be sure the hotel eateries stock food you are used to (and have English menus, obviously). Ideally, the lobby will have a Starbucks and you’ll be able to get your triple, venti, half-sweet, non-fat, no-foam latte instead of that tiny cup of Turkish coffee all those little old men are drinking on the sidewalk outside.
Along those same lines, locate as soon as possible your own comfort food; for some, this will be McDonald’s and lucky for you, these can be unearthed almost anywhere you decide to go. If you really can’t find one, you can still eat all your meals at your generic hotel; do not consider an outing to meet a local Tibetan family and try their yak meat, butter tea, or tsampa when you can get a juicy room service cheeseburger and avoid the crowded streets outside your little haven. Just being in Lhasa gets you points; don’t worry about actually experiencing it.
Be inflexible, judgmental, and rude
Your tiny prop plane out of the Himalaya can’t fly today because it’s rainy and cloudy in Kathmandu, and the flight would be very unsafe. Be sure to complain loudly to the harried desk agent (a condescending or patronizing tone works best) that it is perfectly sunny where you are and that in your country a little rain does not stop flights from following a schedule. Do not under any circumstances venture outside to enjoy a final look at the beautiful Himalayan peaks or the soft, green, terraced fields near the airport. Instead, take this time to slouch down in your seat and sulk, letting out exasperated grunts and eye rolls any time a new passenger ventures near. To make your delay even more enjoyable, engage this hapless passenger in a litany of your woes.
Be sure to photograph absolutely everything
You certainly do not want to get home without at least 100 photos of the folk dancers you stumbled across in a small square in Cusco. Do not just sit there and enjoy the music and the joy of the dancers. A blurry string of photos, or some video you’ll want to watch at least two times over the course of the rest of your life, definitely outweigh any kind of beautiful memory etched in your heart. Besides, you need a lot of pictures to upload on Facebook. A few highlights are not going to cut it; your friends surely want to see all 1278 shots from your trip. A corollary: when hiking, stop every few feet to capture the scenery on your camera. You cannot rely on your eyes, ears, and feet alone to sear a sunrise, a tinkle of cowbells, or a steep climb into your memory. Holding up your fellow hikers is a non-issue; you paid for this trip and you are going to make everyone else pay, too
Complain when you get home
Finally, don’t forget to make the whole trip sound like a terrible ordeal once you get back home. Remember that one day in your two-week trip when it rained for four hours and you had to buy an over-priced (unattractive) umbrella and you still ruined your (inappropriate) shoes? Complain bitterly about prices, especially if you have haggled and still had to pay an impoverished peddler more than you thought his bracelets were worth. And embrace that jet lag! It makes you seem so put-upon yet worldly; milk it for all it’s worth. Once you are rested, go put that pin in your map and start planning the next bland adventure!
In spite of the fun I had writing this snarky little post, let me assure you that I am no holier than thou. I have visited plenty of popular places, over-planned and under-researched, taken way too many pictures, and done some a lot of complaining on occasion. On the other hand, I have never eaten at a McDonald’s (or even a cheeseburger) overseas, and I have spent many a relaxed afternoon meandering a city with no productive intentions. I have against my wishes stayed in a chain hotel instead of an atmospheric, local inn (I had points!), and I have wimpily taken a pass on skewered beetles and worms, among other frightening foods. Travel should be something different for everyone, and really, the best instruction of all is to just get out there and see more of the world or your country, state, or city. As St. Augustine put it, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”