Travel season is upon us. With the post-memorial day afterglow fading, and flight prices escalating, many find themselves scrambling to solidify those ever elusive travel plans.
Based on recent trends, travelers are overlooking the superficially appealing siren call of the ‘all-inclusive cruise’ and opting for the allure of the unknown. More and more Americans are trading in their package vacation deals for improvised backpacking trips across Europe, volunteer excursions, and niche expeditions.
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Americans tourists have long warranted a rather taboo reputation when traveling abroad. Perhaps the most commonly held representation characterizes them as loud-mouthed and culturally uninformed. Whether or not this taboo is rightfully applied is up to interpretation. However, after having lived in Eastern Europe for over a year, I’ve come to notice American tourists tend to be most apparently culpable of a few traveling faux pas in particular:
1. Staying in hotels
Hotels have had their moment of glory. This was long before travelers favored experience to comfort. Opting for an unorthodox means of accommodation is not only financially appealing, but it also offers an immersive experience you may not get by staying in a hotel.
The obvious substitute? Airbnb. Now, over 80% of millennials claim they favor Airbnb for its ability to provide unique travel experiences that to offer a more ‘local’ experience. Airbnb offers the same security of staying at a hotel but within the intimacy of a local’s home. Airbnb is an obvious choice for those monitoring their budget and favoring privacy.
For those looking to take ‘cultural immersion’ to the extreme, Couchsurfing.com is a niche alternative, principally among a younger subset of travelers. This is a site where hosts offer a couch or shared living space, completely free of charge. The catch? The host comes with the space. Locals who host out their home to guests are looking to have a cultural exchange by getting to know travelers from all over the world. So, if stability and comfort are your accommodation prerequisites, Couchsurfing may not be for you.
2. Not learning the fundamentals of the language of the country they’re visiting
English may currently be the universal language of choice, but this is no excuse for not adopting the fundamental jargon of the country you’re visiting. Knowing common expressions not only serve a practical purpose, but they can also warrant respect from locals (even if you’re delivery is imperfect). Luckily, we exist in a time where there is an abundance of apps that offer basic lessons on the language of your choice. So if packing lightly is your priority, you can scrap the travel books altogether and opt for one of the many language applications on your smartphone. Duolingo is widely popular, noted to be both entertaining and effective.
If you’re more of a reading traditionalist and swear by paperbacks, there are a plethora of language pocketbooks on the market designed to be both concise and accessible. Veterans of travel guides, Lonely Planet offers a series of cartable phrasebooks for every language imaginable.
3. Not reading up on currency rates
If you can garner a single piece of useful information from this section, let it be that airport exchange offices should be avoided at all costs (no pun intended).
It’s easy to be seduced by the convenience of the exchange office — they are aptly placed near the arrivals gate and it’s understandably tempting to want to have cash on hand before heading into the city. But, like all things that seem too good to be true, exchange offices reap off this allure of convenience and travelers’ naivety of local currency rates.
You may wonder how you’ll even get to your destination within the city without cash on hand. Today, nearly every airport public transport vendor accepts debit or credit card payments. You can easily buy a bus or train ticket that transports you to the city center. Once you arrive, there is typically an assortment of exchange offices that offer a fair exchange rate. I’ve personally found that exchange offices near domestic bus stations tend to have the best deals, as they cater to locals.
Of course, it’s essential to research the currency rate of the country you’re visiting beforehand, as well as the locations of the best exchange offices within the city center. Take advantage of the age of the smartphone by downloading a currency exchange app. This is a surefire way to verify an exchange office’s alleged claim to a good price.
4. Not taking advantage of public transport
Be warned: tourists are the taxi driver’s cash cow. Once you’ve touched down in a foreign city, it’s tempting to jump into the first taxi cab you find to get you to your destination. If a traveler appears to be non-local, taxi drivers will exploit their presumed lack of knowledge of the currency rates, and charge an exorbitant fee.
This is why, if it’s available, always opt for public transport. Today most all cities, especially within Europe, boast well-connected and efficient metro lines. Airport information centers always carry free basic subway maps that make navigating the subway system a breeze. Because most of the United States is so dependent on cars, American tourists may not realize just how operative European subway systems are. In some cities, particularly within Eastern Europe, a traveler can make their way through the entirety of a city not spending more than $10 USD a day.
5. Packing too many cities into one trip instead of spending time in one place
I believe the Publilius Syrus proverb ‘To do two things at once is to do neither,’ must have originally been reserved for the over-ambitious traveler.
If you’re like most working Americans, you most likely don’t have limitless Paid Time Off. That’s why, when traveling abroad, some may feel inclined to overstuff the time they do have with an array of destinations. A rigid agenda is beneficial for a lot of things in life; this isn’t necessarily the case when traveling. In fact, I’ve found that the more destinations in a given trip, the less I’ve truly enjoyed my time spent within them.
The most rewarding trips to be the ones dedicated to a single country or specific region. It’s only once you free yourself from an agenda that you begin to fully recognize the little cultural nuances of a region that can’t be found in a guidebook or group tour.
There is a rising trend in embracing this “slow travel” mentality — the antithesis to destination stuffing. Slow travel embraces the idea of connecting with a place on a deeper level, rather than rushing from one attraction to the next. A major incentive for some is how much more sustainable slow traveling is compared to traditional vacations. Slow travelers embrace alternative modes of transport from bikes, trains, cars, and, at times, their own two feet.
6. Traveling with other Americans
It’s understandable to want to share an experience with other people. Whether this is a significant other, a close friend or large group of friends, there’s no doubt that traveling with others can make a trip more entertaining.
This isn’t an argument against traveling with Americans altogether. Rather, I hope to shed light on the notably different kind of experience you can have traveling alone.
Solo travel can seem intimidating for those who haven’t yet experienced it. Yet, doing so opens the door to opportunities you would never have been presented with if you were traveling with other Americans.
For one, you are completely dependent on yourself. This is at once discomforting and empowering. You alone are responsible for how you’ll navigate your way to your destination, where your next meal will be, and who you choose to spend your time with. The latter is one of the greatest rewards of solo travel. The people you meet abroad enhance your experience of a place. Traveling with a group of friends, you’re naturally far less likely to strike up a conversation with locals, or other international travelers.
The bottom line is, when traveling, don’t be afraid to seek discomfort.
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