Happy Trails: 22 Ways To Be A Fulfilled Traveller (But Not A “Perfect” One)

Photo: Justin Ennis

Whether you’re going round the world for a year, or heading to Europe for a ten-day vacation, here’s how to get the best out of your travels…and minimise the stress.

Go where you want. There is no A-list of must-sees…or if there is, it’s just some guy’s, and you don’t have to rigorously obey it. I have been to India many times and not visited the Taj Mahal, because it doesn’t particularly interest me.

This applies to sights at individual destinations, as well as destinations themselves. You can go to Paris without ascending the Eiffel Tower and not feel your trip was wasted or incomplete. You can go to Rome without visiting the Vatican Museums.

In fact, unless there is something specific you want to see, I would strongly recommend you do skip the Vatican Museums. And if you go to Pisa, consider checking out the cathedral, which you can barely see in the photo above but is actually a lot more impressive than the much more famous, yet in reality somewhat underwhelming, Leaning Tower.

This article isn’t going to be about destination recommendations, but famous stuff being disappointing when you get there is a pretty common phenomenon…

Don’t rush. You want to spend your travelling time being in places, not moving between one and the next. But if you put together the kind of itinerary that takes you to a new city every day or two, you will be spending nearly all your time on trains/buses/planes.

Of course, it’s impossible to generalise about how long you should spend in a place. It depends on the place, on you, and on how long in total you have available.

But at a bare minimum, never spend less than two nights in one location (giving you a full day there) — unless, of course, it’s purely a logistical stopover to sleep for the night before moving on, or a place you’re visiting for a single sight. (Nobody spends two days at Stonehenge, for example.)

For large cities, you’ll need more.

If your time is limited, as it is for most of us, trim the number of destinations not the amount of time you spend in each. The absolute surest way to not get any worthwhile experience of Spain is to spend ten days in seven different cities.

The shortest flight always magically eats up a whole day. It may only be two hours in the air from one city to another, but once you’ve left your hotel, figured out where the airport bus departs from, caught the bus, got to the airport with time in hand, taken the flight, and reversed the process at the other end — it takes a day.

Trust me. It always does.

Packing? You can probably buy it there. If you over-pack, your travelling life will become dominated by the logistics of moving your luggage around, and by the routines and associations of home which you’ve crammed into your bags.

Fortunately, unless you’re travelling in very undeveloped countries, or in wilderness areas, most things you need day-to-day can be bought in most places. You don’t need to pack a year’s supply of toothpaste. (And shopping for day-to-day necessities can be an interesting little insight into the culture, too.)

So concentrate on packing the things you need for the first couple of days, and the things you probably can’t get or that it would be awkward to buy. (For example: purchasing shoes in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is not all that simple, at least if you want them to fit. Buying a couple of extra T-shirts is quite easy.)

Plastic bags are always useful. They just are — great for keeping your laundry separate from your clean clothes, for storing wet stuff away from dry stuff, and for generally organising your possessions within your luggage. Pack a few; they don’t take up any space!

Have spare money. It doesn’t matter what form it’s in (cash, bank account, credit card, prepaid card). But at least have access to a little more than your budget demands. There’s nothing like worrying over every penny to put a damper on the enjoyment of travel.

Learn a little bit of the language before you go (you don’t have to take long formal courses; just buy a phrasebook, physical or digital, and study it occasionally while you’re still at home). Then, just as important, be open to learning more.

You may be surprised how easy it is to pick up more of a language. Walking around the city, did you notice that indecipherable gobbledegook painted in big letters on the front of every hairdresser? Well, there’s a very good chance that it means “hairdresser”. You just learned a word, and you’re that tiny bit closer to understanding the place you’re in.

Consider renting an apartment. If you’re staying more than a night or two in one place, look at apartments as alternatives to hotels/hostels. (This can be costly if you’re a solo traveller, but it’s not always impossible.) Merely having your own front door, and needing to go to the grocery store to buy boring stuff like milk, gives a different rhythm to your experience of a place.

Investigate youth hostels. These days, “youth hostel” covers a very wide range of establishments, from places that are effectively budget hotels with private rooms, to places that resemble military academies. (I might exaggerate slightly.) Some are perfectly cool about older people staying, though some have age limits.

In cities, walk if you can. Sometimes, a bus or a cab is the only viable option. But walking is by far the best way to get a sense of the geography of a locale — and you’ll also discover all sorts of interesting things you won’t see through a vehicle’s window.

Draw yourself a map. Instead of poring over a city guide on every street corner, sketch a quick map of where you’ll be going before you go out each day. Putting things down on paper helps commit them to memory, too.

Don’t worry too much about plotting your walking route exactly. Just having a general impression of which way you need to head is usually enough. Often an obvious geographical feature like a big hill, or a man-made one like a cathedral spire, is useful for orienting yourself.

In coastal locations, the sea is invaluable for maintaining your sense of direction — if you know where the water is relative to you, you always know which way is north, south and so on…

Don’t take guided tours, except to sights that it’s not practically possible to reach otherwise.

Why not? Simply because there’s rarely any need; major, and obscure, points of interest are nearly always easy to just visit on your own. (Some people do suggest that taking a guided bus tour of a new city on your first day isn’t a bad idea, to get a sense of the geography.)

Find out when things close. It’s good to have a general notion of when all the restaurants, groceries and other basic services shut down for the night, so you don’t miss your chance to eat or buy something vital.

Don’t feel guilty about doing nothing. There is absolutely no problem with just sitting in a park in Paris or on the grass of the Maidan in Mumbai or wherever pleases you, and reading a book or listening to music.

That book doesn’t even have to be an improving text about the culture of the country you’re visiting — the latest Stephen King will do just fine, if that’s what you want to read.

The objective of travel is to enjoy and (perhaps) enlighten yourself, not to wear yourself out, and there’s a lot to be said for just being in a place, rather than trying to voraciously consume the place all the time.

You will not pass for a local (but usually, nobody will care). In most places, the one in a thousand locals who actually bothers to wonder whether or not you are local will, after observing you for a short while, figure out that you’re not.

But the other 999 just don’t care anyway. It’s not like you’re the first foreigner they’ve ever seen, and they have more interesting stuff going on in their lives.

Indeed, let’s talk about fetishising “authenticity”. Don’t do it. You are having an authentic Venezuelan experience by being in Venezuela. Your experience is not somehow less “real” than that of anyone else in the country, and moreover, there is nothing you can do — short of moving there — to make your experience exactly like that of the people who live there.

You are not a local and you don’t want to live like one, because how a local actually lives is oriented around going to work every day, dealing with household headaches, and never having enough time to enjoy the place in which they live.

And beware of believing the rough is more “authentic” than the smooth. Staying holed up in a five-star tourist hotel is, admittedly, not going to give you much of an understanding of the country you’re in. But you don’t have to go to the opposite extreme.

Indeed, there’s a weird kind of inverted snobbery, almost a form of poverty tourism, which suggests that you’re only “really” experiencing a country if you’re doing it at the low end of the market.

But other countries have middle-class and rich people too, often lots of them. And guess what, they’re real too…

For example: street good can be great, but it is not “more authentic” to eat street food than to eat in the same nice restaurants as middle-class locals (and for that matter there’s no law against doing both). Do what you want to do; don’t pursue the chimera of authenticity.

Don’t obsess over risk, especially crime and terrorism. There is street crime and there is the potential for terrorist activity nearly everywhere in the world.

But there is also very little of it, almost anywhere you’d want to go. You are very unlikely to be a victim, and your destination is very unlikely to be meaningfully riskier than your home.

(Remember: doubling an extremely low crime rate also gives an extremely low crime rate, so don’t get hung up on the statistics…)

By all means exercise sensible precautions — which are likely not that different from the ones you’d exercise at home — but don’t let them overwhelm you or inhibit what you do.

Inadvertent law-breaking and health hazards are bigger risks than becoming a bad guy’s victims. Fortunately, they’re easily avoidable. But do take them seriously. “Don’t drink the water” means don’t. “Don’t photograph military installations” means don’t.

Remember: it will still be there in ten years. Don’t worry too much if you miss something — if there’s a place that you wanted to get into your itinerary but couldn’t, for example. You managed to almost get there once, so you can get there again on another occasion.

Remember: nobody cares. (In a good way.) The world is not full of people waiting to laugh or be offended at your foreigner faux pas.

Remember: you are still you, not “a traveller”. Get what you can, and what you want, from travelling; and be open to getting things you didn’t expect to get. Often the most memorable moments are the unexpected and, at the time, seemingly trivial ones.

But don’t feel that you have to behave like some abstract “perfect traveller” every second of the day. Just be you, out in the world, and enjoy it.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.