Julia’s 12 golden rules of travelling
Over the years I’ve picked up a few things that I’d like to share with you. Whether you’re planning your first big trip or an experienced traveller wishing to compare notes, these are the things that I consider my golden rules.
Prepare but don’t over plan
Good trip preparations are key to a successful and safe trip. Over plan, however, and with the rigid itinerary you’ve set yourself, you won’t be able to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. I try where possible to keep arrangements flexible, such as booking accommodation on a free cancellation basis, enabling me to change my plans if I want to. You need to know enough to be safe, and yet still leave yourself open to the thrill of a surprise discovery. Build in some down time: an exhausted traveller is not a happy traveller.
Take risks but be careful
Can you even be careful if you’re taking a risk? I’m not sure! But what I’m getting at is that you’ll need to take calculated risks. If you’re planning to ride a horse, wear a helmet. If you’re going to be up close to the really wild wildlife, listen to advice about what you should wear. If you want to visit a bar in the dodgy part of town, don’t get hammered and take a taxi home. If you’re using local transport, seek out the one with the best safety record and don’t travel at night. I’ve ignored all of these of course.
Ditch the guide book and ignore the must-sees
Forgive me if this seems to contradict my opening rule (though rules are made to be broken of course!) I do still usually start with a guide book, especially if the area is one I’m less familiar with or the trip is a longer one. But the trouble with guide books is that they have a tendency to funnel everyone to the same places. If you deliberately ditch the must-sees, you’ll often have the places you visit to yourself. And if you really can’t bear to give up that Top Ten list, travel off season when the crowds will thin.
Step outside your comfort zone
Whether this means taking a trip to somewhere you’ve never been before or attaching yourself to the end of a bungee cord, this will mean different things to different people. But the underlying principle is the same. Challenge yourself. Try something new. Spread your wings. Fly.
Don’t be scared to try solo travel
For some, the idea of solo travel is about as far from their comfort zone as they could possibly get. Possibly, that first trip might be daunting. The first few hours of my first solo trip (to France as an exchange student aged 17) were scary. Three decades later, I remember shopping for live crab and watching it wriggle alarmingly close to my ankles in the footwell of the car. I remember getting mud between my toes hunting for crevettes on the beach. I remember the smoothness of the hot chocolate I had for breakfast and how enormous the bowl was that I sipped it from. I remember visiting the local library (didn’t I know how to live it up on holiday!) But one thing I don’t remember anymore is the fear.
Do no harm
Be nice. Respect your environment, both cultural and natural. You know the saying, take only photographs. That.
Take your time
It’s always tempting to pack too much into an itinerary. Sometimes you just have to trust that if it’s good enough, you’ll go back for it one day. But rushing around ticking off sights is no fun and you won’t remember where you’ve been or what you’ve seen. Make time to do something as well as see something. Most of my all-time favourite travel experiences have nothing to do with sightseeing. A cooking class in Guatemala, where I learned how hard it is to grind cocoa beans with a pestle and mortar. Herding cattle in Uruguay on a horse that didn’t want to move. Walking a lion in Zambia and failing miserably to remember that I wasn’t walking my dog.
Connect with people
No matter how well you think you know a place, you don’t know it as well as those who live there. There’s so much to be learned from chatting to the locals and I don’t just mean recommendations for places to eat. But also, some of my fondest travel memories have been fleeting trips and tours I’ve made with people that I instantly connected with – and often never kept in touch with afterwards. People are what make a place special, in my opinion. It can be the most beautiful place in the world but if the people are ugly, your time there won’t be special at all.
Don’t restrict yourself to chain hotels
It’s time to get practical. I know you can earn points and get free nights, but if you register with a bland and forgettable hotel chain then those free nights are going to be somewhere bland and forgettable. Try a private room in a hostel, excellent for meeting people. Find somewhere historic to stay that’s got a story to tell, or even a resident ghost. Try a quirky guesthouse or a welcoming homestay. Meet the owner. Chat a while.
Fly midweek to stretch your travel budget
Practical matters part two: you need to maximise your trip budget. If the flight’s going to represent a big chunk of your budget, you’ll need to find ways of saving money. Fly indirect, fly midweek, book late at night when the cheapest deals are most likely to come up and, alright, use those air miles.
Of the three logistical points, this for me is probably the most important. Travelling light keeps you mobile and allows you to focus on your surroundings rather than your possessions. Think about the last trip you made and what you didn’t use. Could those items have been left at home? Do laundry on the road, buy toiletries when you get there, choose clothing that will multi-task, take a Kindle or use a book exchange – all these things will ditch the weight.
There will always be something
When it comes to travel, there will always be an excuse not to do it. Life has a habit of throwing things up that might get in the way of your trip. If it’s money, see what you can give up to fill the travel piggy bank. Sell the stuff that’s cluttering your attic. Cook dinner instead of calling for takeaway. Unless it’s a legitimately important family matter that’s standing between you and the trip of a lifetime, go.