Everyone who travels, at one point or another, knows that sinking feeling that comes when you realize you’ve forgotten to turn off the sprinkler, or to close the window where the rain always comes in, or to cancel a doctor’s appointment while you’ll be away.
Traveling always comes with a certain amount of anxiety, so the more you can do up front to alleviate some of it, the better your time away will be. But there are always challenges. Before you leave, you can sketch out your days away, leaving some flexibility, but until you’re on the ground, you probably can’t learn to quickly count your change in another currency or find your way along ancient streets that feel like a maze.
Here are some ideas to make things easier. Most important of all is to keep your sense of humor and perspective. Locals won’t go out of their way for an irritated tourist — in this country or abroad.
Set up a staging area for packing
You really can live out of a carry-on for two weeks without tearing your hair out. Use a spare bed or table to lay out everything you want to take and then edit like crazy. For a two-week vacation, you need what you’re wearing, two changes of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, and a plastic zipper bag holding whatever goes into your Dopp kit. There are lots of techno fabrics that don’t wrinkle. Women can take a scarf to feel more dressed up if you’re planning to go to a nice restaurant. Roll up clothes the way all those YouTube videos teach you to do, or just lay them flat in the suitcase. In order to keep things clean while traveling, you need what the British Navy calls a “make and mend day.” Take half a day (mornings are best), and wash out your things with an ordinary bar of hand soap carried in a small plastic bag. Use hangers to hang them on the shower rod or whatever other airy space you can find. Everything should be dry by evening.
Don’t get ripped off your first hour
on the ground
If you’re taking a taxi from the airport to the city, establish a rate before you get into the cab. Don’t hesitate to ask a second cabbie what the rate is. Some cities have a flat rate for that ride. In general, never get into a cab without establishing the fee. Lyft and Uber work in many cities overseas, especially for airport transfers. Better yet, if you’ve got a carry-on, take public transportation. The airport information desk will guide you and this is the moment to buy a pass if you’ll be using public transportation for a week. In many European cities, trains go from the airport to the city in a much more streamlined way than they do in the United States.
Learn a few words in the language
of the country you’re in
Even if you have no aptitude for languages, you can muster “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you” to everyone you meet. Never fail to say it. It may seem formal, but that’s how the rest of the world works. “Good morning. How are you? May I have a coffee, please?” You’ll be surprised by how helpful everyone is once they realize that’s the extent of your language abilities.
Can you drive a car with a stick shift?
Be specific when you rent a car online. If you want automatic transmission, say so. Most countries in the world provide manual transmission cars and if you don’t know your way around a gearshift, you’re in for a bumpy ride. Also, squeeze the family into the smallest possible car. This isn’t suburbia so don’t be tempted to get a roomy vehicle. You can’t maneuver them on old city streets or around the painfully narrow circular ramps that connect the levels in city parking lots. Most car rental companies overseas want a copy of your passport, so if you typically lock it in the hotel room, carry a paper copy.
Navigate highways the old-fashioned way
You’ll pass miles and miles of wind turbines along the countryside and still not get GPS on your phone. When you’re hopelessly lost, a paper map — the more detailed the better — will save you. Buy these before you leave. They’re hardly available at your destination.
Unlikely residents can be good tour guides
The old men sitting two or three across on benches in the center of town are a precious resource. Yes, they don’t look approachable and they’re probably speaking a slang version of the language that your high school teacher never taught you. But they’re very interested in what’s going on in their town. If you’re looking for something that you cannot find, write down an address and show them the paper. No telling what charades will follow.
The best souvenirs are not
in souvenir shops
Go to the local hardware stores or the supermarket for souvenirs. We’ve found baking dishes, spices, herb mixes, wine glasses, and more. The museum shops usually have little things to buy, as do ceramic vendors, linen shops, home good stores.
Good, cheap meals
Picnic in your hotel room (or on a park bench). It’s a nice way to get to buy some of that gorgeous stuff you’ve seen in the markets. Take a plastic knife from home to cut cheeses and other foods. If TSA takes it away, it’s easy enough to get another. If you buy wine, the shop will open your bottle. If you carry a dish towel in your suitcase, you’ve got a tablecloth.
It’s easy to avoid the tourist restaurants
If you find yourself in a throng of tourists near a monument or museum and it’s time to eat, walk two blocks in any direction and you’ll be in a neighborhood with a cafe. You’re hardly off the beaten path, but you’ll dine better than you will at the places where the menus come in six languages.
There’s nothing like a checklist
Before you leave, the kitchen trash needs to go out and the AC should be turned off, or at least barely on. There’s so many details to think of. Make a checklist. Use headings like “house,” “electronics,” “rain gear.” It may seem tedious to some members of your household, but it’s sometimes the only way to remember spare eyeglasses, credit card photocopies, and a hair brush.
These are obvious
There’s a spot in your roller bag at the bottom where the wheel axles make an indentation. Tuck bubble wrap into the space (for ceramics and other breakables to take home). Dr Scholl’s moleskin, already cut into 2-inch strips because you won’t have scissors in your carry-on, will keep your feet from getting torn up on the old stones in the ancient quarters of cities. You need a lock for your suitcase, even for a carry-on, to put on it while you’re out of your hotel during the day. It doesn’t prevent theft, but deters it. A plug adapter for one European country might not work in another. Check this early in your stay so you’re not stuck with a dead battery and nothing to charge it with. Use a Sharpie to write the country name on the adapter so you know the next time if you need to take it. And when you do a final sweep of your hotel room, check the outlets in case the adapters are still plugged in. Slip a couple of extra-large padded mail bags into your suitcase. If you need space, send your own clothes to yourself. If they get lost, you won’t care as much as you will if a pottery vase you fell in love with — and can picture filled with flowers in your home — arrives broken. Better yet, make some space by leaving those shoes that have taken you hither and yon. The housekeeper will find someone who needs them (this is not in lieu of a gratuity). They’ll get a whole new life.
Our own snafus
Once someone in our household was still wearing slippers as the driver pulled into the airport. Not the bunny type. They were espadrilles, but still. Once we left a suitcase at home. No one had carried it from the top of the stairs to the front door and we were rushing. Once we arrived a day late at a small New York hotel. The receptionist told us we’d be charged for the night anyway. A manager overheard, noticed we were from Boston, and credited us for the night. Cardinal O’Malley had checked in a few minutes earlier and the manager was happy to welcome more Bostonians. Once we drove in circles in the pitch black on the outskirts of Bordeaux for three hours looking for an inn but there were no signs on windy country roads. A storm the week before had knocked them all down. Once we arrived at 9 p.m. for a 12:01 a.m. flight home from the Middle East, only to learn we were marked as no-shows because the plane had taken off the night before. And much more.
This you can count on
Not everything will go smoothly. You might get seated on the plane next to a bore who won’t shut up; you’ll stay at hotels with terrible street noise, or just terrible hotels; you’ll have some dreadful meals. Remember this: You can dine out on these stories for years. Now who’s the bore?