I’ve always believed that there is no point in visiting a city or island unless you’re planning on really squeezing as much into your trip as possible. This style doesn’t suit everyone, but even if you prefer to really chill out when abroad you may find that some of this advice will still apply. I’ve travelled for business and leisure, in large groups, with family or my partner and alone. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. Whether you’re taking a long weekend away or backpacking across a country, hopefully I can help you enjoy yourself as much as possible.
I’ll be prepping a lot of the following tips myself as I plan for my next adventure this April.
1) If you haven’t already, download an app that lets you call or text home for free. I use WhatsApp as hotel wifi can make Skype sluggish. Your phone company is rich enough already without charging you a small fortune for a text message.
2) Nowadays you’ll be hard pressed to find a hotel or café that doesn’t have free wifi which is brilliant. Out and about, most cities now have wifi hotspots dotted around busy districts. However, some require a mobile number for authentication. You won’t be able to get online until the company texts you a password. Since a lot of phone companies charge you to receive texts while abroad as well as send, it may well be worth picking up a cheap pay-as-you-go local simply to put into your phone. You can get online and if necessary, call local numbers for a fraction of what your provider would charge for calls abroad and extortionate data roaming. Regardless, always tell your provider that you’re travelling before you fly to avoid any surprise charges.
3) Speaking of your phone, it can be really helpful to have a few bits and pieces preloaded and ready to go upon arrival. Knowing that guidebook streetmaps can be a bit rubbish (if the book even includes the area that you’re staying in,) bring up your hotel on Googlemaps and screenshot the map so that it’s always to hand. I also always download a photo of the hotel. Walking up and down a street with no visible house numbers looking for a B&B with no sign is no fun…
I also get a route from the station to my hotel and screenshot the map and step by step directions.
At the very least, make sure you have the name of your hotel and the full address written down somewhere, preferably in your wallet. Your taxi driver may not understand your pronunciation and you don’t know how many hotels have similar names in the area. My parents still shudder about landing in Orlando late at night in ’91 with two small children. They instructed the taxi driver to the Best Western hotel only to hear “which Best Western?” Not a fun way to start the trip.
4) Even the shabbiest kiosk will demand extortionate prices for a can of soda if they’re close to a popular attraction. Far better to grab a medium sized bottle of water at a corner shop or vending machine. Choose somewhere that is filled with locals who aren’t willing to pay inflated prices for necessities. Keep the bottle after you’ve drank your water to refill throughout the day (as most sports bottles can bulk out your luggage.) The wonderful thing about warmer countries is the abundance of public water fountains. I also carry a small bottle of concentrated squash or cordial with me such as these. They are hand luggage friendly and will last an entire trip. That way if the potable water tastes a bit odd to you the squash will mask the flavour. If you really can’t stand the idea of foreign water fountains then simply stick to supermarkets and mini marts for cheap sodas and juices.
5) Speaking of ridiculous mark-ups, don’t even get me started on the €10 cling-wrapped panini with sweaty cheese, wilted lettuce and cheap ham lining those kiosk shelves.
Watch the locals and follow them when you want to snack. Look for small, independant shops a little way off of the tourist track and for a fraction of the price you can eat like a king. I have happy memories of feasting on a €1.50 fougasse from a Parisian boulangerie. I had a different filling every morning that trip, stocking up on baked treats for rest of the day and always having change from a €5 note. A deli full of local charcuterie and cheeses will provide a brilliant picnic on the cheap.
You will undoubtedly see the usual global fast food chains in major European cities but the only locals you’ll see inside tend to be young teenagers. Why travel across the world to have the same flaccid burger you can have at home? Each country tends to have a fast food far better than that. In Italy even the cheapest pizza-by-the-slice joint will beat most pizzas at home, and my favourite food in the entire world is a Greek gyros wrap that rarely costs more than €2. I would genuinely prefer to eat gyros than dine at any fancy restaurant. If that means queueing for a while behind the hordes of Greeks crowding out the souvlaki shop, so be it.
6) If and when you do choose to sit down for a more relaxed meal there are a few pitfalls to avoid that should be obvious but are often ignored.
If the restaurant has a view of a monument expect to pay through the nose for average food. Locals don’t eat here and tourists rarely bring repeat custom, so the owners can afford to charge what they like for lazy interpretations of national dishes. They don’t tend to look kindly on leisurely meals, either. Expect to be hurried so that the table can be freed up.
Ditto for if the restaurant has a large, plastic menu in English displayed prominently outside. They usually come in garish colours and have photos of the most popular dishes. These photos are from a stock catalogue and haven’t been taken anywhere near what the chef plates up. Do yourself a favour and memorise the names of a few local dishes that interest you before you travel or highlight them in the cuisine section of your guidebook. Most of the time the best dishes aren’t even offered on the tourist menus anyway. Each city or district usually has a speciality dish or two depending on the local landscape and agriculture. When I discovered how wonderful Sicilian aubergines were I insisted on eating them every day I was there.
My rule of thumb is the fewer frllow tourists you see in a busy restaurant, the better the food and service will be.
Tripadvisor is for once not reliable here, the diners most ready to be vocal about the food and experience they receive tend to be the complainers, sadly they are also the diners who have unimaginative palates and no clue about local cuisines. If you do read a really negative review of a restaurant that had really tempted you, do a few profile clicks. If they gave a generic chain or fast food restaurant a glowing review for a basic dish, you know that they are not to be believed.
Diving in at the deep end and trying something new can’t hurt. My husband and I often giggle and impersonate a group of northern english middle aged couples we encountered on our honeymoon on a Greek island. They were marvelling, very loudly and appreciatively, at their first taste of Greek food.
“Try this beef stifaaaado, Beverley! It’s just like ‘otpot but with green bits!”
“Ee, this chicken souvlaki tastes right lemony, Reg!”
I smile to think of a Greek restaurant somewhere in Sheffield earning a new set of regulars.
7) This is mainly directed at my fellow Brits. Booze is cheaper on the continent and generally (apart from real ale,) better. Enjoy a drink, but don’t be the paralytic, sunburnt cretin yelling into the night and vomiting into a bin. We seem to be the only European nation to binge drink and if you do so abroad I can promise that the locals will detest you. Stiff upper lip, chaps.
8) Build an intinerary.
Buy a comprehensive guidebook and read through it a few times. Highlight what you definitely want to see in one colour and things you might like to see if you have enough time in another. Circle these places in the city map that is usually found inside the cover. It should make it pretty easy to work out how to organise each day by clustering nearby museums and galleries to each other. Check their opening times to decide which is better to see first and which to leave for last. If any of your must-sees have a weekly extended opening or reduced price scheme you can then plan accordingly to ensure you won’t miss out.
It’s also worth tweeting or emailing ahead to see if staff can recommend which are their quietest days so you won’t spend your hard earned holiday queueing for tickets and battling the crowds.
If you like you can write an afternoon or even entire day into the schedule that’s dedicated to getting purposefully lost and idly wandering around, but you’ll be confident knowing that you won’t miss anything that you really wanted to see.
9) There are a wealth of hotel sites now but my travelling experience improved greatly once a friend told me about Booking.com.
There are all the usual features of finding hotels by area/budget/type but my favourite aspect is frequently being able to book without a deposit and paying is cash upon arrival. Nearly all hotels also have a free cancellation policy, usually merely 24 hours in advance. It makes life a lot easier if you need to change your plans.
Above all, you can find some brilliant and quirky hotels and B&Bs. In April when I go to Venice I’ll be staying on a Turkish gulet for the same price as a bed in a 15 person hostel dorm.
10) Landmarks and monuments tend to be beautifully illuminated after dark which can be a temptation for even the most amateur photographer.
Rather than risking your safety by wandering around an unfamiliar city at night wielding expensive gadgets, look for an evening walking tour.
There’s safety in numbers and your guide will know the best places to stop for photos and can advise on interesting viewpoints and angles.
Even better, google your destination for photography tours led by someone who can help you get phenomenal, professional looking shots.
11) Speaking of tours, a highlights tour that lasts an hour or two is something really worth booking for your first day away to give you a great introduction to your destination. Many don’t cost much and some are even free. You can get your bearings and note down any landmarks or restaurants that catch your eye for later. As a bonus, as well as being a font of historical and architectural knowledge, your guide will have plenty of tips about events, places to eat and where to shop.
If you’re travelling to satisfy a particular passion (Renaissance art, classical sculpture, Norman castles…) it’s always worth seeing if there is a local guide who specialises in your subject. Whilst a full day private tour can be pricey if you’re on your own or in a small group, most specialist guides will have a morning or afternoon tour on offer. Sometimes they will accompany you into a gallery or museum to help tailor your visit to your particular interests. It’s worth contacting your guide a few weeks in advance to see what styles of tour they can offer. If you’re paying that bit extra for a private tour, you deserve a bespoke experience.
If you don’t mind joining strangers on a tour there are an increasing number of quirky guides with an array of funny, weird or even scatalogically themed walks (like mine!) Even if you’re visiting a city you know well, these guides will still be able to teach you something new. Ghost walks, crime scenes, graveyard tours and more all offer a memorable experience away from the well-trodden tourist path.
12) Be kind to your feet! Ancient cobbles and stiletto shoes are not a good combination and it mystifies me every time I see a woman sacrifice comfort for fashion. Flip flops were designed for sandy beaches, not sidewalks. I once saw an American girl nearly break her ankle trying to scale the rocky acropolis of Mycenae because of her dainty but useless sandals. Come on, guys, be sensible!
There is no need to wear clunky hiking boots and unless you buy the really high end boots it’s a false economy anyway. 9 days in Rome murdered my brand new midrange walking boots! Admittedly I walk a lot when abroad but I’d hoped they’d last a fortnight at least!
Thankfully I happened upon Skechers GOwalk range with memory foam soles. I usually end a trip with aching, swollen, blistered feet. 15 days of hiking and pounding pavements in Sicily didn’t faze the Skechers trainers at all. My feet never felt tired, even after 12 hour excursions, and I didn’t even get a hint of a blister. I love them and now rely on them, if you walk a lot you NEED them.
13) Invest in a spare camera battery. Off brand ones are fine and can be found cheap on Amazon. Take one more memory card than you think you’ll need. Invest in an introduction to photography book and memorise the basics to help you get shots so pretty you’ll want to have them printed and framed. The book will teach you how to get great photos even at night and in places that ban the use of tripods.
14) Take dress codes seriously. When going to any place of worship make sure shoulders and knees are covered; if you dress like you are headed to the beach you have no reason to complain when you are turned away.
15) From day long excursions to backpacking across continents, Rome 2 Rio will tell you the quickest and/or cheapest method of transport to get you from A to B anywhere in the world and usually can link you to the relevant booking sites with a mere click.
16) Definitely make the effort to learn a few key phrases of the local language. Don’t bother taking a bulky phrasebook though. Download a translation app to your phone or tablet. Some don’t even require an Internet connection. Simply type what you want to translate (in either direction) and click. This saves any embarrassing attempts at communicating through mime…
17) Type your destination into your app store. You can find maps and guides for nearly every city. Triposo are pretty comprehensive. Several museums and attractions also have apps with preloaded highlights or suggested routes. Many have an audioguide function to save you having to rent a clunky handheld speaker.
There are some brilliant city apps now that have old photos or anecdotes connected to places of interest tagged onto a map. All you need is to turn on your location function to find a hidden gem around the corner. For instance, I recommend downloading Black Plaques if you’re coming to London.
18) Always print out booking confirmation emails or QR codes before you travel in case you can’t get wifi or your phone dies. Similarly have a print out of your boarding pass. I print out a second copy to put in my suitcase in case my wallet gets stolen.
19) Make a list of what you intend to pack. Read it twice through and I bet you could halve it. Roll clothes, don’t fold. Pack a plastic carrier bag to keep your dirty laundry separate. Decant some Febreze into a small travel bottle for emergencies, you can usually also find travel sized bottles of hand wash detergent. Spending half an hour washing some clothes in the sink before bedtime is preferable to excess luggage charges and an aching back from lugging half your wardrobe to another country. It is entirely possible to travel using a cabin sized bag only. This saves money and faffing at baggage carousels. Read this article if you don’t believe it can be done.
20) Take a small notepad and pencil to write down a few thoughts and experiences while you are away. I often jot down funny conversations I accidentally eavesdrop into or the names of people and buildings to research when I get home. Then, when you get home, write up a travel journal. You don’t have to put it online as I do, but the act of recording your adventure is a great way to beat the post-holiday slump after returning home. I keep ticket stubs and leaflets to scrapbook and print my favourite photos cheaply at the supermarket. Documenting your trip helps the memories remain vivid for longer and it’s such a pleasure reading them years later.
If you have any tried and tested tips that I’ve forgotten, please leave a comment!