I’m a firm believer that to truly make the most of any adventure, it’s required to read up on some background knowledge to acquaint yourself with a new culture. For this, I often turn to Rick Steves’ traveling philosophies which strongly align with my own, stating that affording travel is simply a matter of priorities and often times, “spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you traveled so far to see.”
While staying in a fancy hotel and signing up for the numerous excursions obnoxiously advertised to you in the lavish lobbies can be exciting, they many times take way from the experience itself. Although you should always splurge on certain things (safety, being the main one), there are many experiences that are far more fulfilling than the penny suggests.
EXPLORATION ON FOOT
Part of doing your research ahead of time means you know the top places you want to see. Rather than wasting your time on a scheduled excursion that plans to spend five hours at another art museum, skip over to the things that most interest you. Many travel websites and guides offer downloadable walking tours for you to print out and take with you. Instead of taking a bus tour which automatically removes you from the culture, immerse yourself by adventuring on the city streets and park trails.
A huge part of traveling is utilizing public transportation and learning the ways of the land. When you actually place yourself in that culture, you immediately notice the popular hang outs and exactly which gelato place has the longest line (and, subsequently, the best cream). Familiarize yourself with the safety of each area and carry a copy of your passport, a map and the emergency phone numbers, just in case.
Just as with American food, many of the best and most authentic places to eat aren’t four star restaurants with reservations needed a week in advance. Quite honestly, my favorite place for grub is a cheapo diner a block away from my apartment (you’d never catch me at the over-rated and over-priced restaurant down the road, fish and chips should never be $25! End rant).
While exploring various neighborhoods, check out which restaurants always seem to have a crowd and where the atmosphere is lively and exciting, these are the places that are local favorites. It’s also these businesses that will serve you traditional foreign fare, rather than the Americanized version we’ve grown accustomed too. And don’t automatically turn your head away from a popular street food, now’s the time to be adventurous! As a side note, it’s never a bad thing to carry some extra Tums.
CONVERSING WITH LOCALS
No one knows their city better than the people who inhabit it. You’ll be surprised with how much a few common phrases, such as hello, thank you, how are you? and where’s the bathroom?can carry you when interacting with people you meet abroad. These are the people you should turn to for the ‘must see’ items to add to your to-do list. They are likely to abandon many of the suggested sites and fill you in on the places you can’t find on a Google search.
Locals also have a knack for avoiding those elaborate tourist traps that do nothing but remove you from the place you’ve traveled so far to see.
TAKE NOTE OF FREE DAYS AND HOURS
Many museums and attractions offer a day or time where you can visit for free. Check schedules before your departure and create your itinerary around these times as best you can. Although it may only be bypassing a $5 entrance fee, those little costs can add up to big savings!
You can also contact the local tourism boards via Facebook, or give the local library a call. In bigger cities, hotels may or may not know the local happenings of free museums and festivals (they are in the business of selling tourism and higher priced experiences).
FOLLOW THE LOCAL TIMELINE
Adjust your schedule to fit into that city’s particular routine. Although 10pm is not my preferable dinner time, I know that in many places this is when you are sure to get an authentic feel for the community you’re visiting. And besides, the ambiance and livelihood of their traditional meal times makes up for it. Also be aware that many countries operate on vastly different time lines (such as closing at 2pm for afternoon siesta). By following their hours, you can further embed yourself in their lifestyle and immerse yourself in the activities they participate in. Flexibility is key.
While there are certain experiences worth spending more on (that’s a whole other post), an honest immersion into a new place requires a more modest approach. Be open to communicating with the people you meet and inquiring about their lives: Where do they like to spend their free time? What restaurant would they want to have their last meal? By molding yourself to your surroundings, you are sure to have a journey of humbling and exciting experiences…without going broke.
What are you most willing to splurge on?
I think finding an exciting and functional place to stay is most important (to easily get around and spend less on transportation) so I’m usually willing to spend more on a great location, whether it’s a hostel, hotel or rented out apartment!