15 golden rules to live by while traveling the world

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1. Don’t eat at corner restaurants — they don’t have to be good to get a lot of traffic so they probably aren’t.

2. Eat different cuisines than the country you’re in. And I’m not referring to the lasagna from your hotel restaurant. Thai food in India is different than in Thailand – obviously. But it’s also different than Thai food in Seattle. I’ve had great Mexican food in Athens, great Greek food in Bangkok, and some stuff I didn’t recognize on a Biman Airlines flight while over Pakistan. But more than good, these meals were interesting — and that’s what travel should be.

3. Steal soap from your hotel and give it to kids in developing countries as a present. Studies have shown that distributing soap to kids in poor countries saves lives. Travelers are always thinking up things to give to kids that ask for handouts (pencils, erasers, candies) but nothing beats the gift of clean hands. And don’t just collect 1 or 2 from your hotel bathroom. Hit the hallways while the cleaning staff are having a smoke and grab a couple handfuls from the service carts. When you’re saving lives, Go Big.

4. Arrive and depart from different cities. Time and money are to the traveler what cigarettes and phone calls are to the political prisoner, and you’ll be spending both of these as you return to your departure city for the flight home. Tailor your trip around two big cities, say Paris and Rome, and work your way from one to the other — and then fly home directly.

5. Read a local newspaper. Most countries and big cities have at least one english language newspaper. You’ll be amazed how involved you’ll become in local affairs in just a week or two of following the current scandal, or election, or controversy about school prayer (that’s not just an American thing).

6. Don’t take any one person’s advice for important decisions. This is called anecdotal evidence. “I went to Kenya and didn’t take malaria medicine and man, I was fine.” All this means is that it’s possible to visit Kenya, without anti-malarials, and not die. It doesn’t mean it’s smart, advisable, or even likely. Just possible.

7. Err on the side of inexpensive hotels. This goes against most travelers’ natural inclinations. We talk a good game above traveling frugally, but once we get on the road we tend to spend up a bit, and treat ourselves. And that’s fine. This rule isn’t about saving money. It’s about having an interesting trip and the more expensive a place is, the more likely it will have package tourists and people traveling on 7 or 14 day tickets. Nothing against these people but if you want to swap stories about taking a boat through the backwaters of Kerala, go with the cheap place. If you want to talk about who’s going to win the Superbowl this year then go with the package tourists.

8. Don’t shy away from big events. It’s tough to fit this into a rule as there are so many variables. If the Olympics are on and you show up looking for a room, yeah, you’re screwed. But many events scare away more people than they attract. Especially if the locations bounce around a bit (e.g. the World Cup of Soccer).

9. Only travel with people you live with. If you want to hook up with your old buddy’s family, don’t do a trip through Tuscany. There’s just too much to negotiate. This is hard enough between two adults who share, uhm, a marriage. Throw in two more adults, a couple more kids and it becomes impossible and not much fun. If you really want to do something special with friends, book a place for a week or two, roast a pig, eat leftovers. No trouble.

10. Don’t be afraid of admitting what you don’t know. I was traveling once through the Sinai to Israel and I caught myself thinking “Is English the main language in Israel?” Nah, it couldn’t be, but, what is it then? When the bus stopped and I hopped out, I heard the border guards talking and no, dear reader, it wasn’t English. I could be embarrassed about this, but I’m not. Everyone is ignorant of something but some people sit at home watching Fox News and have their opinions confirmed and some people go out into the world and look stupid and look naive and learn and grow and become better people. (And Gosh darn it I’m gonna be one of them!)

11. Do what you want to do. Don’t let someone else — or a guide book — decide. If you don’t want to see the Louvre then don’t see it. Do Paris or London or Rome the way you want to do it. I went through Cairo and didn’t see the pyramids. And while this isn’t a great example, seeing as I’ve regretted that egg-headed decision every day since it occurred — I can live with it. It makes it my trip and my memories and my damn stupid decision.

12. I’m going to have to be the one to break this to you. If you’re taking a trip — especially an extended trip — you’re going to have hard days, challenging days, lifeless, languid, listless days. (Thank you Webster’s New World Thesaurus!) That’s fine. Just don’t blame your bad days on traveling. You have bad days at home. You wake up and feel groggy and grumpy and lazy and lethargic. (Those were mine.) It’s not necessarily the trip that is making you feel this way. It’s the fact that you’re human. Process it. Deal with it. Accept it. — Now go get yourself a banana pancake.

13. Buy your own fruit. It sounds simple. It is simple. Just do it. You’ll love it. And I don’t mean, if there happens to be a fruit stand outside your hotel door you should buy some, because you need to have 9 servings a day.  What I mean is, find fruit and buy it. Make it a daily task that you’re going to track down a fruit stand, a farmers’ market (they’re not just in San Francisco) and get some good fresh fruit. The entire process will expose you to elements of daily life you would have otherwise ignored. Trust me: You’ll have memories from your trips to buy fresh fruit.

14. Use a small pocket camera. Leave your 10 pound camera that’s the size of a football at home and take a point and shoot model that isn’t much bigger than a deck of cards. Yes, you’ll miss some shots — not enough light, too much light, won’t focus quickly enough — but you’ll have it with you all the time, you won’t be as reluctant to take it out in an intimate or awkward setting, and people will act much more naturally even when they do notice it.

15. Send postcards. They’re fun. People like getting them. If you must send an email put all the contents in the subject line: “Mom — I’m alive, in Italy, not going back to school next semester. XO”