I have been to a lot of countries in my life.
Counting the United States, 38.
To be precise, they are (in alphabetical order) Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, El Salvador, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malaysia, Mexico., Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, UAE, United States, Vatican City
Here’s my top 10 off the beaten track tips I would suggest to anyone while traveling abroad:
- Try your favorite non-native ethnic food.
Eating Thai food in Thailand is boring. In fact, I find America’s version of Thai food so much more satisfying than anything I ever had in Thailand.
However, Thai food in Paris was among the best thai food I’ve ever had and easily the most stunningly original sauces I’d ever had.
And while Mexican food in Hong Kong wasn’t the best I ever had. Watching and listening to Chinese mariachis was one of the most entertaining experiences I have ever had.
Cultures foreign to a country are often interpreted, and sometimes the results can be delightful.
- Ask the locals for recommendations
This one should be obvious, but if you are looking for a place to eat or something to do – don’t ask the concierge, ask the managers and staff – or pop over to the pub across the street and ask the locals.
Concierges, while valuable, often get kickbacks from the places they recommend. So while you may tip them for the help, clever marketers often work for businesses who have a tendency to under-deliver and over-promise pretty much around the world, and nowhere are these relationships more obvious between the marketers of these generally dissatisfying businesses than with the concierge.
Case in point: While vacationing in Cancun, Mexico, the concierge recommended to me an overpriced waterpark called Xcaret. It was easily one of the most expensive day trip things I’d ever done, which wound up being a miserable experience for too many reasons to list, where I met a few other ‘suckers’ who’d been victimized by their hotel concierge and we learned how much these people received from the kickbacks.
Conversely, I had more than one person recommend the Museum of London, which I had never even heard about. Easily one of the most amazing museums I have ever been to, and while the Louvre in Paris is an amazing feat of architecture with some decent art, the museum of London stands second only to the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
My point is this: Locals will recommend different things than the marketing influenced concierges will, and not only that they won’t hold back in telling you a place is shit. These recommendations, both pro and con, are invaluable for discovering parts of cities your time may be limited in.
- Get out and DRIVE!
Yup. You heard me right. Don’t be afraid to DRIVE when you go to a foreign country!
From personal experience – I didn’t know there was speed limits on my trip from Dublin to Letterkenny in North Ireland, I had my Mini MG going nearly 200 km per hour for nearly the entire trip. That’s about 125 miles per hour – all while driving on the left hand side of the road in a car that I pushed a button to start.
In Nicaragua, I drove from Granada to Nicaragua, and accidentally drove around a military checkpoint. They chased me down pretty quickly, and here I am – ignorant American who barely speaks the language – so finally they just let me go…
So here’s the thing about driving in a foreign country: You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to do things that are perfectly legal (or not in my case) – and guaranteed you will see and experience things you NEVER see or experience back at home, or from the safety of a bus (or limo) ride where someone else is driving. You don’t have to be the daredevil I am, but this little exercise lets you see and experience parts of a country – and amazing scenery – that you never would have seen before.
For instance – ON that trip Ireland, I had lunch at a pub/restaurant in the middle of nowhere that was so amazingly picturesque and quaint, it seemed like it was straight out of a movie. Here’s a few photos of that part of the trip:
And should you get tickets along the way, what are they going to do – fine you from abroad?
No, you do NOT have to have an international driver’s license to drive in a foreign country. That, like the TOEFL are among the biggest international scams that exist.
All you need is a driver’s license from your own country.
Have some confidence in your skills, and respect the local laws, but it’s ok to be ignorant. Tourism is HUGE business for all countries, these countries you visit know this, so be nice but be ok with not being dully aware of the local laws before you engage in this global activity.
- If you’re single – DATE!
Nothing can change your life quicker than a holiday abroad, with one glaring exception – dating abroad.
I know the resistance – it’s not fair to date someone without a predictable future.
Think about it this way: Traveling abroad is in large part a lesson in understanding yourself. When you’re dating someone in a culture and country you don’t know and where you can’t predict a future – not only does this take you wildly out of your comfort zone, but you might discover a different you in the process.
I dated a woman in Romania named Ioana Dobra while visiting a small city in the heart of Transylvania named Cluj-Napoca. She asked me out, first, which is not uncommon outside the United States for the woman to initiate things. I fell for the woman. Head over heels. And while ultimately things didn’t work out, she is one of the first women I had ever dated who helped me realize – it is the journey of our experiences together that I will forever hold to be priceless, something I’d never have gotten from dating in the United States alone.
Something I’ve carried forward to every relationship – and friendship I have had since then.
- Create a list of places you want to see BUT discard the city wide maps and shelve that GPS!
When you’re forcing yourself to interact with the locals by not carrying maps while having a list of locations you want to visit, whether you speak the local language or not, you fundamentally alter the experience. Your comfort levels soar. Your confidence receives a boost. And you get to see and experience things most don’t.
And this confidence carries with you right back home and permeates every fiber of your being afterwards.
Did you know that the Singapore Land Authority has actually made it illegal for local businesses to leverage anything but their maps of the local area on the internet? I learned this lesson while working in Singapore and was handling a legal warning for Prudential’s (Pricoa’s) local web site in the area containing Google map directions to their facility. In my opinion, Singapore’s being absolutely reasonable for reasons I won’t get into.
But with that said. A map you buy in your local bookstore is NOT going to be the same as one you buy on the streets in the country you’re visiting in oftentimes mind boggling ways.
But here’s how I learned to travel (mostly) without maps: Find out where I wanted to go – day of. Jump on Google and write down directions to where I wanted to go – and when I got lost, ask for directions.
Being sincere. I’ve gotten absolutely lost to find an out of the way place that I had the world’s best strouganoff (in Budapest, Hungary) and the world’s best soup (in Munich, Germany), and best Gyros in the world (in Portland, Oregon of all places) – all in random places I could never find again if I tried.
Sure. I’d love to make recommendations on how to get there. But if I’d have had a map for any of these locations, I’d never have had these truly amazing culinary experiences that I couldn’t repeat if I tried.
I’ve had similar experiences with finding random museums, monuments, and scenery – that had I had a map and/or was 100% accurate with arriving to my destination, I’d have missed out on these wonderful memories.
- Make friends. Even with the people you do business with.
Whether you’re married or single, if you’re traveling and treating every relationship you engage in as a business relationship, this taints the experiences and diminishes the memories of your experiences you’re going to have.
Not only that, but wherever country you’re coming from – you are effectively an emissary of your country.
So think about it this way. Do you want people coming to America and be only all about business? I know I don’t. When I travel, heck, when I’m kicking back in my own backyard – I like to make it a fact to befriend those I make contact with – EVEN if I’m doing business with them and/or they’re providing services to me.
While I worked in Singapore, I was invited to an F1 race by Calvin – a coworker at Pricoa and his family who are Ferrari fanatics. Here’s Calvin and his wife, Judith (both lower right) at the table we had at the F1 races:L
Here’s a girl I was absolutely in love with – Adriana (in the middle) but didn’t get anywhere with, with Nicole (left) and antoher girl I don’t remember her name – as we were all out drinking the rest of the coworkers in the Lan Kwai Fong district of Hong Kong, China.
And finally, here’s Ioana – who I went to go visit in 2008 while she was working in Milan, Italy.
I consider this a good practice to have in life in general. While you can’t be friends with everyone, it’s into a bad habit to get into to at least treat everyone respectably enough like you would a friend.
I tend to take this to the extreme. Something I learned the importance of when paying for sex in Thailand. Even THAT type of business relationship doesn’t have to be treated strictly like one.
- Pet the Dogs.
It’s silly, right?
I’m a dog lover. And outside the United States animals tend to be abused a lot. And despite how much bad press America gets, the fact of the matter is – people will admire you because of where you come from.
Moreso than any other country.
This isn’t narcissism. It’s simple fact. The more you travel, the more you’ll see what I am talking about.
So while you ‘do the right thing in treating people well, you can see remarkable changes in the way animals are treated by taking the time to treat these pets – which people seem to own around the world – well.
Now here’s the thing. Dogs are typically used for protection or security outside the United States. But if you know the owner, they can be docile too. So my advice is – PLAY with them. Pet them. Call them ‘good buy’, do all the goofy things you’d do with your or your friend’s animals.
While I alone cannot provoke cultural change around the world in the inclusion of domesticated animals within our society, I at the very least can advocate it.
Did you know that China actually stopped regarding dog as food because of America’s influence? While you will find just about everything else, you will NOT see dog on any menus in China.
As a homeless guy, I miss having a home not just for me, but for the dogs I get.
All I’m saying with this one is – leverage your power to influence change around the world through simple humane actions like being friendly with the animals – especially the dogs!
- Use a site like tripadvisor for uncovering hidden gems
I promise I’m not a paid representative for this web site. But when you’re left scratching your head for what to do on a longer holiday or trip abroad, or where to eat when you’re havering a hankering for something unusual
For instance while working in London, I was having a hankering for hamburgers like when Tripadvisor led me to – hands down – the best organic burger – and one of the best burger places I’ve ever been to in the world.
Similarly, when I was vacationing in Bali, Indonesia, I learned about the temples, which I then discussed with the manager of the hotel I was staying at who set me up on a day trip which had me touring all of them.
Easily one of my most memorable tours ever.
So while I personally leverage tripadvisor because it has ratings and rankings by location, and allows me to sort restaurants by type of ethnic food and price – it’s a site I trust and has proven invaluable for exploring as much as I have tried helping others out as I have spent a great deal of time putting my own recommendations on it.
Find a site you enjoy. Whether that’s Yelp. Tripadvisor. Or whatever. And stick with it. Add in ratings yourself – and while I’d suggest giving places a second chance if something doesn’t work out the first time, I’d also suggest being honest when things are great – or they absolutely blow.
Give businesses a chance like you would a real person. These entitles, in my opinion, have feelings and emotions too, as they are run by real people like you and me, so just be fair and nice. But if they screw up. And be real about this. Let them know.
HOW they handle negative ratings can be extremely telling of the nature of the business.
One for instance: I’d rated a hostel stay for a hostel I stayed at in Suceava, Romania negatively. Cute girl who lured me there, but the experience – and town – was all an overhyped shithole. SURE, I didn’t go see the painted monasteries in the region, but the heartless feel and misrepresentation by the owner of the hostel was unusual. Who – to preserve her 4.5 star rating, had my rating removed. On really reading the reviews afterwards, I’d come to see they’d all felt like the same tone, as if she or someone she knew had been writing them.
Find a site you’re comfortable with and trust. And then be spontaneous!
- Allow yourself to BE SPONTANEOUS!
Nowhere do you have the opportunity to be someone else than when you travel. People aren’t going to remember who you are and hold it against you like they would back at home.
This gives you the opportunity to try karaoke in places like China, where karaoke is still all the rage and there’s even clubs called ‘KTV’ clubs where you can be a superstar.
This gives you the opportunity to try things that ARE socially acceptable which may not be at home. Whether that’s sex in Thailand or Amsterdam, or weed in Amsterdam or California.
While I was in Budapest, I met two separate sets of travelers from Romania which inspired me to visit it, where I spent a solid month there afterwards. Had I never met them or considered my plans pliable, I’d never have the fulfillment of that visit there.
Here’s all I am saying: Having a plan is great and all, and works for short time periods, but there’s something to be said about having a little inbuilt flexibility with those plans. And especially as the time grows, when something may introduce itself to you you’d never expected. Allowing for some of this to ‘seep in’ makes life far more entertaining and …. engaging!
- HAVE FUN!
I cannot stress this enough.
Whether you’re traveling internationally for business or pleasure, I consider attitude the most important factor in the difference between a good experience and a bad one.
My first trip to Mexico was absolutely horrible. And if I had never gone out of the country again, I’d have missed out on some of the most important experiences in my life.
But since then. I’ve found Mexico one of my favorite countries to visit, repeatedly for a variety 0f reasons, not the least of which it’s easy to relax there once I got used to it.
Traveling abroad is much like a dipping your toes into water you’re unsure of the temperature about. While you may hear about other’s experiences abroad, rarely do you have the same experience.
Take France. I’d heard so many bad things about it but when I went, I loved it.
Costa Rica, while I met some really good people, the overall experience with it was one of distrust. I consider Mexico MUCH more trustworthy and friendly than I would Costa Rica.
You gotta find out for yourself. But a part of that is being ok with the experience, not focusing on business gains, and instead just going for the fun of going.