International travels are one of the best ways to learn about the world, and about different cultures. That is, if you are open to new experiences, meeting new people, understanding different cultures.
Of course you can just stay in a resort, and expect everyone to speak your language and cater to your taste. You are paying for it, after all. But in that case why leave your own country at all? The resorts are the same everywhere. And, if that’s the way you travel, this article is not for you.
But, if you are like me, and travel to expand your horizons, to understand others, read on. I’m going to share some tips I picked up from my own international travels.
1. Go during off-season, if possible
There are a few reasons you might want to do this. First of all, your airfare will be cheaper, and in general your money will go further, wherever you are. This might be important, especially if you are on a budget.
More important though, you won’t need to deal with too many tourists. You will have a chance to enjoy the place, and connect with locals. You’ll get a chance to understand the place better, since most well-known destinations have a different dynamic during tourist-season.
2. Learn at least a few words of the language people speak there
Today, no matter where you go, you will find people who speak English to one degree or another. You’ll get by, no matter what. However, locals appreciate it when you try to speak their language.
Even if you mispronounce words, they will smile at you and correct you or just acknowledge that you said it wrong but they still understand what you mean. If they don’t they will always switch to English, but you’ll make friends by trying. As a bonus, you will probably get better service in most hotels and restaurants as well.
3. Stay in smaller, locally owned hotels, away from the tourist zones
Like I mentioned before, if you plan to stay in a touristy resort, why are you traveling far from home anyway? By staying in locally owned hotels, you help their economy and have a chance to experience life like the locals. As a bonus, it will cost you a lot less. Local hotels have more personality, even if they are not quite as comfortable. How much time do you plan to spend inside your room anyway?
We made some very good friends in Mexico when we first decided to stay in a local hotel. We spoke a very broken Spanish, they spoke mainly Maya, and broken Spanish in addition to some English. Between the three languages we managed to communicate quite well, we ended up learning some Mayan and they learned more English from us. It was a fun learning experience, which we would have missed out on if we stayed in some resort on the Riviera Maya.
4. Eat where the locals eat
When you want to eat, follow the locals. They know the best restaurants, where you will get the best food, for the best price. Of course, it will be authentic, local fare. Try it. In my experience, even one of my pickier child always enjoyed a good meal in small, local restaurants.
5. Walk through the town or area you are visiting
Walking through new places is the best way to get a feel for the place, to understand the landscape, and the environment around you. You might find unexpected places, small museums or local stores that you didn’t know existed.
Or you might find yourself in nature, in unique environments, very different from your own, surrounded by vegetation or critters you’ve never seen before.
6. Use local transportation
To understand the people, to feel at home in a new place, use local transportation.
When my older kids were little, we took them to Puerto Vallarta. Of course, if you’ve had any of my articles, you know that we didn’t stay in the tourist zone. Instead, we found a hotel in the center of the city. When we wanted to go to a different beach, we took the local bus. We were the only gringos on that bus. Though people eyed us with curiosity, everyone was pleasant to us. The kids, five and three at the time, loved the experience.
And then again, two years ago, we took a bus through Europe. Most of it was easy, but one part of the trip was a true adventure, when the “real” bus broke down and they crammed us all in a small shuttle-size bus. We spent ten hours on it, driving in the middle of the night, through towns and country side. Ok, so it was a bit scary and not the most fun I, or any of us, experienced. But it was still a learning adventure, and no one got hurt in the process.
6. Don’t be afraid to get lost
This might be scary for some, but getting lost in a city is the best way to understand it. I’ve never been in a place I haven’t gotten lost at least once.
I don’t mean try to get lost, but don’t be afraid to wander around, even if it takes you off the beaten track, or in unknown places.
Don’t panic if you get lost, even if you don’t speak the language of the place you are in. Take it as an extra adventure. You are in no rush, and when you eventually find your destination, you’ll have a better understanding of the place.
7. Go With the Flow
Don’t rush through things. If the museum you wanted to visit closes before you get there, you can try again the next day. Find something else to do in the meantime. You might find something unexpected and even better than what you planned. Unexpected things always happen. You should have a plan, but be flexible with it.
On my very first time in Yucatan, I ended up stranded on a beach. We had car trouble and my husband had to go back to Cancun to the rental place. I did not speak a word of Spanish, I didn’t know anything about the place. Still, to this day I think of that time as one of my best adventures. I was a lone gringa, on a trail used only by locals, in Mexico. Still, I knew I was safe. The rest of our trip got delayed by a whole day. Bu tin the meantime I had an unexpected adventure.
8. Pick up a souvenir from a local artisan
I’m sure you’ll want to pick up souvenirs, most people do. Make sure you buy it from a local artisan. It will remind you of your trip, and you will help the locals.
9. Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures
Your photographs will be the best reminders of your international trip, as well a great opportunity to share your experiences with your friends.