Travel will change your life. Travel is transformative. You’ll learn as much about yourself as you will your destination. You’ve heard these sentiments from almost everyone in the industry, from travel bloggers to tour guides to hotel PR reps. You’ve probably heard friends make similar comments after returning home from an epic trip.
There’s no question that traveling is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Anyone who has ever journeyed beyond their hometown knows the joy of exploring a new destination. But traveling presents its fair share of challenges, too, and most of us have at least one story of a “perfect trip” that quickly went haywire.
So, what can you do to ensure that your trip is jam-packed with those coveted transformative moments? Start with these five tips for minimizing the mishaps and getting the absolute most out of your travel experience.
1. Practice pre-departure cultural immersion.
As soon as your trip is planned, extend the excitement by practicing pre-departure cultural immersion. Watch films shot in Tokyo, download a Spanish language app, crank up a Spotify playlist of the latest Italian pop hits, or gather a few must-read books by Brazilian writers. Not sure where to find reading lists related to your itinerary? Check out Longitude Books and Trip Fiction. You’ll get much more out of every walking tour and museum visit if you arrive with a bit of background knowledge.
2. Make a list of must-sees, but don’t plan everything.
Planning a trip is half the fun. Reading travel blogs, browsing lists of little-known landmarks, and looking up locals’ favorite haunts can be great motivators as you wait for your departure date to arrive. Do take notes and keep a running list of all the spots you’re most excited to check out, but don’t schedule every hour of every day. Be intentional about leaving chunks of time completely unscheduled. Those unplanned periods will give you time to rest and recuperate, go on long winding walks with no clear destination, relax with new friends in a cozy café, or take spontaneous day trips. The most memorable moments are usually the ones you least expect. Make sure your itinerary includes room for the unexpected.
3. Spend a day (or more) volunteering.
Sure, you can meet plenty of tourists at bars, but volunteering is a great way to make lasting connections with locals while giving back to the community. We suggest starting with Grassroots Volunteering, an online database for service-minded travelers. Grassroots Volunteering carefully vets and posts all sorts of volunteer opportunities, from helping out on an organic farm in Oaxaca City, Mexico to caring for injured bears in Hong Kong. If you’re interested in exchanging volunteer work for lodging, check out Workaway, a cultural exchange platform that connects locals looking for volunteers with travelers seeking accommodation. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how long you spend volunteering – it just matters that you do it. The joy of making an impact and forging meaningful connections will stay with you far longer than the fun of one more night of clubbing.
4. Take a class.
Don’t worry: these classes won’t assign any homework. Look for independently-operated classes that focus on cultural heritage and local traditions. Try your hand at pasta-making in Italy, sushi-rolling in Japan, and tango dancing in Argentina. Taking a class offers a hands-on opportunity that most standard tour experiences simply can’t provide. If you’re planning on a longer-term stay, consider signing up for weekly language classes, which will improve your conversational speaking skills while also connecting you to a network of likeminded locals and travelers.
5. Don’t worry about looking cool.
Do you feel self-conscious about being perceived as a tourist? Don’t. Remember, everybody’s a tourist somewhere. Acting unimpressed is no fun, especially when you’re actually bursting with excitement inside because oh my goodness that is the real Eiffel Tower, people! So go ahead and whip out your camera whenever the urge arises. Snap cheesy tourist shots. Take as many corny selfies as your heart desires. You can even ask someone to take a photo of you pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Don’t be afraid to own the dorky tourist label. Acknowledging your own enthusiasm is essential to immersing yourself in the travel experience.
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