10 Travel Tips (Not for Tourists)
Here’s some advice on how to kick the bucket list when you go abroad.
1. Don’t do anything.
Now, there are some iconic things you’re probably going to want to see or do in your free time—hike Machu Picchu, witness the Taj Mahal, or safari in Tanzania. But when you’re running around crossing sites off of a list, you can miss the essence of the place. Find a crowded cafe or scenic spot to simply sit, listen, and observe your surroundings. Walk aimlessly, and you’ll be surprised what you discover.
2. Look for the locals.
When you’re looking for a bite to eat, pay attention to who’s in line. Once I was walking near the Hagia Sophia and a Turkish man by me scoffed at the line of tourists waiting to get “doner.”
“Stupid tourists,” he said. “They don’t know they’re eating seagull meat.” I looked back as the cart owner handed the customer his wrap.
“Are you that surprised?” he said. “How would they know the difference?”
I never figured out if the guy was joking or not, but he guided me for five minutes around a few streets to a tiny corner cafe with no seating room that was filled with Turkish people grabbing their lunch. He told me to always go where local people eat, and I haven’t forgotten it.
3. Who’s in the kitchen?
Not only do you want to try authentic traditional food (i.e., forgo the fries for a week or two), but knowing the person making the dish enriches your experience. Once I found a special bed and breakfast owned by a couple who brings guests together around a large dinner table every evening. The wife was a fantastic cook who whipped up her old family recipes for us—I guarantee we ate better than any restaurant-goers in town, and we all bonded over a delicious meal.
4. Don’t buy a “souvenir”—look for an artifact worth preserving.
Some people like to buy trinkets from around the world—plastic snow globes, magnets, and bags with city names emblazoned all over them. I prefer finding an item that’s meaningful for me, that will have lasting value and is connected to the country (not bought in Italy, made in China). I always carry around a handmade journal from one of the countries I’ve visited.
5. Find your tango.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Chances are you can find something related to it while you are abroad. For me, that is tango dancing—if I travel to any major city in the world, I instantly have a community to connect with. Maybe for you that is cooking lessons, art classes, or soccer (futbol).
6. Get in tune with the culture.
Music reveals the soul of a country, so take some time to hear and feel what people are listening to you where you’re traveling. Yes, if you go to a bar or a club, you’re likely to hear the same pop music that blares on American top 40 stations. However, I’ve found that tuning into the local radio stations while on a run and listening to foreign artists—whether street performers or an opera in Milan—helps immerse me in the culture.
7. Learn the lingo.
This one seems obvious; of course if you speak some of the local language, you will feel less like a foreigner. But don’t just try to learn the five phrases in your guidebook that will help you get around. Figure out some of the slang, the common facial expressions and gestures, and unique phrases that will really help you connect with people.
8. Try on a new fashion statement.
I can often spot Americans in a foreign city because they look like they are dressed for an all-day hiking expedition, donning boots or athletic shoes, a fleece jacket, a backpack, and often bright colors. When you travel, check out what people are wearing in the country you are in and maybe change up your wardrobe—and by that I don’t mean appropriating “costumes,” but really being aware of what’s appropriate and trendy where you’re visiting.
9. Stay with a family.
Having lived with a Turkish family for a year, I can say that living with a family abroad really gives you an inside perspective of a culture—the family dynamics are often like a microcosm of the entire country. Plus, you get to have a second family and another place to call “home.”
Before traveling to Morocco with CCS, I had traveled abroad—I did the high school educational tours, I studied abroad in college, I backpacked alone, and I even lived abroad—but I had never done anything like this. My guided tour through the mosque in Casablanca was impressive, but spending time in a local school for children living on the streets made a far greater impact.