Fear not frog leg soup, and other tips
COLLEGE-AGE Americans grew up watching CNN and extreme sports. Because of this, they travel differently from other generations. For them, no spot is too foreign, no act too outrageous. The world is their big play yard.
At their age, most don’t need to get permission from family or bosses to jump on a plane with a discounted Internet ticket and land on a dot on a map. And if Lonely Planet, a blog posting or a local refers to a place as “Hotel Freakshow,” they’ll check it out.
This, at least, is what I observed as I traveled with almost 700 college students from August through December on a floating study-abroad program called Semester at Sea. We sailed 24,036 miles, leaving from the Bahamas and docking in South America, Africa, India and Asia. I watched them in action in 10 foreign countries and later asked them for their best travel advice, which they e-mailed to me.
Their advice could be divided into these categories: what to wear, what to eat and drink, what to do, what not to do and what to be. Their suggestions demonstrate a joie de vivre that many of us had as younger travelers, so think of these tips as a refresher course. And keep in mind that their advice may not be suitable for all. Here are some of the 110 responses I received, edited for length:
What to wear: Traveling is not a fashion show. Don’t worry about what you wear.
You can never go wrong with an extra pair of underwear because it makes you feel clean even if you’re not.
When traveling in countries with a lot of temples, wear flip-flops to save time taking off your shoes at the entrance.
If you are backpacking or have a small carry-on-style bag, pack your clothes in plastic bags that compress clothes (www.spacebag.com). This will save room, and your dirty/wet laundry can go in a separate bag and not stink up your clean clothes. If you have to dig for something in your bag, you won’t have clothes spilling out all over the place.
You don’t need the curling iron or that extra pair of hot boots. Lugging unessential items can slow you down and may become more of a burden than a commodity. Packing only the essentials allows easy mobility and extra room for those much-valued souvenirs.
Carry a fake wallet. In a pinch, throwing this on the ground and backing away can save you a lot of trouble. Just make sure it has enough stuff in it (random papers and a token amount of money) to make it believable long enough for you to get away.
What to eat and drink: Take the risk of getting traveler’s diarrhea by eating everything. It’s part of the adventure.
Don’t refrain from trying food from street vendors or anything that is “strange” to you, like frog leg soup in Vietnam. Varieties of food are an integral part of country and deserve a taste. You might get sick, but you’ll live.
Don’t feel pressured to eat traditional cuisine every night, especially if it is going to break your budget.
Always drink bottled water. It is cheap insurance against getting sick. Make sure the bottle is sealed when it is brought to you. Often empty bottles are refilled with tap water to save money.
Alcohol will cost three to five times more in tourist bars than in local watering holes a few blocks off the beaten path.
Places that claim to close early will stay open as long as you have a modest-size group that is buying drinks and tipping at least 10%.
What to do: Become the culture you encounter: Dress like them, act like them, even argue like them. Try as much as you can not to be yourself. You will experience a whole new appreciation for the other culture.
Buy the things your gut tells you to because you won’t regret buying it, but you will regret not buying it.
Understand that long lines for the women’s bathroom are an international phenomenon.
Talk to cab drivers. They are extremely knowledgeable about the best and cheapest places to eat, shop, hang out and can explain local culture, politics and religion.
Forget what your parents taught you and talk to strangers. Some of the most rewarding experiences come from meeting new people and getting to know their way of life.
Pack U.S. dollars. No matter what country you are in, people will often accept them if you are in some sort of trouble.
Sketch what you see to remember it rather than always using the camera. You’ll meet more people this way.
Never leave home without Pepto-Bismol and toilet paper.
Girls: Be prepared to squat.
Remember that not everyone is out to [take advantage of] you and that the world is full of nice people who are willing to help, so stop being paranoid so you can enjoy your time even more.
Write a journal. Otherwise you’ll forget the details.
Pretend you’re a local. This will give you the confidence to do what you want.
Forget your puritanical inhibitions and use the public baths.
Go to a place of tragedy, such as the killing fields of Cambodia, Tiananmen Square [Beijing], Robben Island in South Africa, and the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam, and ask yourself how it makes you feel as an American, as a human being.
Interact with the children and take small gifts to give to them. It will make their day or even change their life.
Take a tent and a sleeping bag. Some of the most beautiful places you will ever stay don’t have a nightly fee.
Wake up early and spend your mornings walking through the destination. Sometimes, it is the most interesting time to see a new and foreign town before it gets hectic and crowded.
Cherish the time you have abroad. Let go of the e-mail and telephone contacts you are used to. This will help in finding out who you really are.
Don’t feel obligated to visit all the “must-see” sites. Leave your last day open. If you start to feel burned out, go wherever your heart takes you.
Be selfish. If there’s something you want to do, do it, even if it means separating from your traveling companions. Traveling solo forces you to interact with your environment and figure out things for yourself. People in groups often develop a “herd” mentality and miss out on a lot.
What not to do: Do not plan. Have no expectations. Don’t force an experience but rather let the experience come to you. The best times are unscripted. If you go into a big trip with everything planned, it takes away from the fun and spontaneity that each city/country has to offer. Wake up and simply ask yourself, “Where do I want to go today?” then get up and go.
Don’t take too many photographs. Focus on the “big picture,” not just your 2-inch-by-3-inch camera screen.
Don’t ignore your digital-camera manual. Yes, it is very boring to read, but there are a lot of settings that are easy to use, and they will help you take much better pictures in different situations: at night, indoors, nature.
Do not break laws. Never assume that you will have the luxuries of the right to a fair trial, good treatment or a lawyer.
Never compromise something you really want to do for someone else.
Don’t worry about language barriers or finding your way around. You can handle anything thrown at you.
Don’t be suckered by every street hustler who approaches you. Be nice but firm and keep on walking.
What to be: Be flexible. No matter where your travels take you and whether you accomplish your goals, you will be better for the experience.
Be prepared to spend more money than you planned. The world is designed to separate you from your money, and there are always surprises.
Don’t deny a fellow human being his or her humanity. The world is full of impoverished children and people. If you don’t feel comfortable giving homeless people money, consider buying them some food. Yes, the solution is temporary and you can’t save the world. But imagine yourself in their situation.
Travel Insider welcomes comments but can’t respond individually. Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012; e-mail email@example.com.
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