We get Letters v.35: Travel Advice

Amy writes in:

I’ve been following your site for some time now, and I find myself enjoying it quite a bit. I like when you talk about traveling because your descriptions sound so matter-of-fact.

I’m a homebody myself, and don’t travel as much as I’d like. Do you have any advice for those of us who hope to get out more?

Cheers!

Amy

Thanks for the e-mail Amy. At first, I didn’t know how to address your e-mail. For one, there are people out there who travel far more than I do. Secondly, I’m not sure if you’re looking for practical advice when you travel, or advice on how to get to traveling. I’d figure I’d split the difference and try to touch a little on both.

First, some background – For a while, back in the earlier part of this decade, I traveled a lot, mostly for work and always to domestic locations. In 2002 alone, I logged in fifteen different trips to fifteen different locations throughout the United States. Throughout the course of my life, I’ve hit thirty-two of our states, and many, many of its cities. I’m not sure if that’s statistically average for a traveler, but it has been enough for me to develop my own routines, shortcuts, and traditions.

Internationally though, I’m a relative newcomer. The only other continent I’ve been to has been Europe. While I’m looking to expand on this at some point, it’s important to note that there are far more experienced international travelers out there.

So, how does one get to travel? The answer is relatively simple – save enough money that allows you to go someplace you’ve never been, and explore. Really. That’s it. Back when I moved to Seattle in 2003 (after losing the aforementioned job that allowed me to travel across the United States), my goal was to understand my new region. This entailed me going to places nearby – Bellingham, Tacoma, Victoria, Vancouver, etc.

Traveling sixty miles away from home may not sound glamorous and exotic, at least initially. But it does feed the one defining factor I’ve seen in many passionate travelers – that of curiosity.

Curiosity is what drives me. While going to strange and exciting locales many miles away can be fun, sating my curiosity can occur by a simple three hour journey to Portland, Oregon.

So how does one travel? One must put a priority on feeding one’s curiosity. To put it in the simplest of terms, if you want to find what’s on the other side of the hill, all you need to do is put a premium on going there.

From a practical point of view, I accomplish this task of “putting a premium on going there” by setting aside a percentage of each and every paycheck, and then waiting several months. I abhor putting travel on credit cards, although sometimes this is unavoidable (especially if you’re renting a car).

Okay, so I’ve touched on the philosophical aspects of travel. Now for the more pragmatic. Note that these are things that work for me. Your own mileage may vary.

  • Ziploc bags are your friends. If you travel with items that can leak, put them in a Ziploc bag. Travelling, by definition, means you have limited time in any given location. You don’t want to waste that time dealing with clothes that have had shampoo leaked upon them.
  • I travel with two pieces of luggage, neither which are a purse. One piece contains my clothes and personal affects. The other is my laptop case. When traveling via air, you want to make choices that streamline your time.
  • If you travel internationally, bring your own travel alarm clock (you can find a cheap one for about $10). Nearly all the hotels in the United States do wake-up calls via phone. International hotels are less reliable – much like the alarm clocks in the hotel rooms. This bit of advice is vital when you have to be at an unfamiliar airport at 5 am.
  • Get rid of any idea in your mind that the actual act of travel is glamorous. Being in a car for 4 hours is not glamorous. The airline industry has systematically removed every ounce of romance that they once had. Getting from point A to point B is a process. When it comes to the idea of the romance of travel, the maxim of “it’s the journey, not the destination” is simply not true. It’s almost always the destination that’s key.
  • Get to the airport early – 2 hours for domestic flights, between 2 – 3 hours for an international one. A lot of this is dependent upon how efficient your local airport can be, but the one true fact here is that there are several points when things can go wrong when trying to get to your gate. From late taxis, to hold ups at security lines, to everything in between, there are probabilities that exist that may conspire against you. Providing extra time gives you a bit of a cushion in dealing with those probabilities.
  • Luggage fees are here to stay, sadly. If you wish to avoid them, this comes with a cost – the battle for carry-on space. This is a battle I chose to avoid. Having one piece of big luggage makes life easier for me on the road, so I rationalized this new cost away as an unfortunate fare increase. The battles between flight attendants and those fools who will do anything to avoid paying these fees is one in which I don’t wish to participate.
  • By the way, flight attendants rarely deserve the abuse that some travelers give them. They serve at the whims of their employers, and can not do a damn thing about the choices their companies make. Holding them accountable is a fool’s game.
  • If you can avoid it, do not schedule your connecting flight in O’Hare in Chicago, the Newark Liberty International Airport, Dulles in (near) Washington DC, or Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, especially on a Sunday afternoon. I’ve yet to have a big problem with the airports in Dallas/Ft. Worth, Salt Lake City, or Minneapolis/St. Paul. Your mileage may vary here.
  • If you have the time, trains, especially in Europe, are a viable, even better solution that traveling via air. Once I’ve ridden the rails in Europe, I realized how poorly we’ve managed Amtrak here in States.
  • The security line in the States is mostly theater. That being said, it’s theater that needs to be accounted for as they can screw with your day massively. Going through the line, you need to remove four major items – your shoes, your jacket, your laptop, and your belt. I dress and pack in order to accommodate all of these.
  • Avoid hotel food at all cost. It’s either overpriced or lacking in quality or both. It’s rare for a hotel to have good food at decent prices. The probability is so low, in my view, that I avoid them altogether.
  • The mini-bar in your hotel room should be avoided. They’re overpriced, and often the same items within can be purchased within walking distance of the hotel room for much less.
  • Speaking of which, a trip to the local grocer is a good idea. I tend to stock my room with a small amount of fresh fruit, and if I’m there for an extended period, a loaf of bread and a spread of some sort (peanut butter, nutella, etc.)
  • Afford yourself at least one luxury. Traveling should be enjoyable, and the less stress you put upon yourself the better. With me, it’s a taxi ride to the airport. I’m rarely in a hotel room long enough to enjoy whatever luxuries that may be available. Also, I try to have an Irish Coffee before or during a flight.
  • Allow your expectations for your trip to be malleable. I schedule trips with an idea on what I want to do, but keep in the back of my mind that I may be distracted by new, and different discoveries. I may want to visit several museums, but I don’t need to.
  • Take risks (that you can manage). As an example, I was at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, when Krysta suggested we take a path that scaled the cliffs. It was a long walk, and quite steep, and something I don’t typically do. But I rationalized that I never would be there again, and if I didn’t, I might regret it later on. The payoff from the risk? A great view of the North Channel.
  • This is most important: Once you get to where you’re going, have fun! Play to your strengths and enjoy yourself.

These are just some of the things I do. What advice can the rest of you provide to Amy?