Updated: Oct 13, 2021
My favorite resources and suggestions to help you prepare for your next journey so all you have to do when you arrive is bask in the fantastic-ness of your well-deserved vacation.
As freeing as it would be to set out into the world with no agenda and let my nose guide me through a new city, I’ve found it's best to do some basic planning when it comes to travel. The goal is not to schedule every minute of every day, but to eliminate wildcards (or plan for them) and allow yourself to be fully immersed while you’re there. With a little bit of planning, you'll have more time to wander at will and take advantage of the serendipity that comes your way. Read on and get ready for smooth travels ahead.
1. Ask for recommendations
Let’s begin with an easy one, something you may have already done when you selected your destination. Chances are, you know someone who’s been where you’re going. They’ve already figured out a few great places to eat, the attractions that are worth it, the tourist traps to avoid, and any off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods to check out (or steer clear of). First-hand advice can’t be beat, especially from people you know and like. Plus, people love to talk about their travels. So ask away.
Anthony Bourdain has talked about an interesting way of seeking out recommendations. I haven't tried this yet, but I’d love to hear about it if anyone does. Of course we can’t all travel like Tony. This is why we have Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor.
2. Make a (loose) plan
One of the best parts about travel is the excitement of looking forward to it throughout the days, weeks - even months - beforehand. This is the perfect time to think about the experiences you want to have while you’re there. To articulate why you chose to venture to this amazing place. What activities would you like to try? What are the unmissable places you want to visit? Once you have a few ideas, do some research. This will help you figure out a rough plan for each day. If nothing else, you’ll know if you should turn left or right when you step outside of your hotel. Lonely Planet’s website, app, and guidebooks are great for this. I also like TripAdvisor for the reviews of course, but beyond that, it allows you to create a personalized trip and save places within it. You can even share the trip, collaborate with friends, and download it for offline use later.
Don’t forget to think about currency and logistics. Figure out beforehand if you’ll use the ATM when you arrive and how you’ll plan to get around town. Don’t wait until you arrive at an unfamiliar airport after a long, overnight flight to discover the trains aren’t in service on Sundays or the ATMs don’t accept your bankcard.
One of the benefits of putting a little thought into what you want to do is that it also allows you to change the plan when something else piques your interest. This is especially useful when traveling with others.
3. Learn something new
Nobody expects you to be a master of linguistics, but familiarizing yourself with a few key phrases in the local language can go a long way. It’s helpful to know how to say directional words and basic greetings. Understanding general food terminology can be incredibly useful when scanning a menu. Saying "thank you" in the regional dialect is always a nice touch. Apps like Duolingo and Babbel offer just the right amount of pre-travel education. Google Translate is great while on the road. Download the language so you can use it offline and save favorite translations for quick reference later.
4. Use a packing list
OK, this one may be a bit uber-organized, but hear me out. Have you ever rushed out the door for a flight, and while making your way to the airport you find yourself mentally checking the list of the things you’re pretty sure you packed? Ever wonder if you really did leave the stove on? A packing list that also includes those last minute to-do items eases these stressful worries so you can relax and know it’s taken care of. While it’s true that you can buy just about anything you need when you get there, it’s reassuring when you know you won’t have to. If the thought of creating a packing list sounds a bit daunting, feel free to use one of these from Smarter Travel. They offer checklists for all types of trips, from skiing to cruising and everything in between, along with a fully customizable option. Check!
5. Be safe
These are the things nobody likes to think about, but it’s better to prepare for anything within your control and not have to think about it again. I recommend buying travel insurance for peace of mind in case you encounter some sort of disaster or disruption while traveling, natural or otherwise. I like World Nomads for this. They offer two types of comprehensive coverage - one for standard trips and one that covers more adventurous activities. They also give back to communities in need around the world. If you’re traveling internationally, consider registering with STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) so the local embassy knows where to find you in case of an emergency. Bring a printed copy of your passport and email a copy to yourself as an extra back-up. Set up travel alerts on your credit cards so your transactions aren’t declined and make a note of the numbers to call in case your cards get lost or stolen. Once you’ve arrived, always act like you know where you’re going even if you have absolutely no clue. Once people start asking you for directions, then you know you’re doing it right.
6. Stay healthy
There are few things more disappointing than looking forward to an awesome trip only to find yourself sick in a hotel room for days, or worse - in a hospital bed. Take care of yourself just like you would at home. Pack your prescriptions and take them as you normally would. Bring a small first aid kit with any OTC medicines you use occasionally at home so you don’t have to try to figure out their equivalents in a pharmacy where everything is labeled in the native language (this is not fun when you don't feel good!). Taking Emergen-C or Airborne while traveling is a quick way to boost and maintain your immune system so you can avoid any unpleasant sickness-related downtime. Don’t drink the water if it is ill-advised. If there are recommended immunizations, get them. The CDC or your doctor can tell you more about suggested and required vaccinations for your destination.
7. Use your phone
Yes, I said it. Unleash that magical device in your pocket to do all the things it was made to do, even in airplane mode. You probably already use Google Maps at home, but I find it especially useful while traveling. Yes, it’s nice to wander wherever the wind takes you, but sometimes it’s 3 AM and you’ve been bar-hopping in Budapest and have no idea where you are, let alone how to get back to your hotel. Enter: Google Maps. You can download entire city maps to use navigation features offline. You can also save locations on the go so you’ll never forget the name of that charming little restaurant where you had the best schnitzel ever. Of course your phone’s camera is not only great for capturing all of those beautiful vistas and food porn, it’s also perfect for taking screenshots of metro schedules, conversion rates, pictures of bus stops - anything that makes your life a little easier. You are on vacation, after all.
8. Leave your FOMO at baggage claim
It’s all about balance. Just because you have your phone with you, it doesn’t mean you have to be “on” all the time or even any of the time. You can catch up on your newsfeed and “urgent” work emails during all that airport downtime you’ll probably have on your journey home. If you decide to occasionally post about your share-worthy experiences, don’t obsess over how many likes and comments you receive. Take advantage of being disconnected in vacation bliss while you can.
9. Bring it home
If you travel like I do - using every spare minute to traverse the globe, leaving no time to recover before returning to work - don’t undo all of that vacation euphoria by coming home to a disaster. Look out for Future You. Clean the house before you leave and take out the garbage. Make sure you have clean clothes to wear when you get back. Keep cans of soup on hand or a pizza in the freezer so there’s something to eat when you return, hungry, happy, and exhausted.
This one pretty much goes without saying, but it’s also the most practical advice of all - don’t forget why you traveled in the first place. You set out to have an experience, to absorb the local culture, and try new things. Keep an open mind, make memories, take pictures, buy souvenirs that speak to you, s l o w d o w n, and above all else, have fun! You deserve it.
Until next time, happy travels!