Becker travel tips, your results may vary

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 15, 2012

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Thursday, January 19, 2012

We have been wandering around the world for seven months now, and I think it's time to impart some wisdom on our readers to help them with their travel plans and to help them pick the right destinations. There are a lot of things we would have done differently if we could start over, and possibly use in our next trip. These tips are for the more free-spirited of travelers, but most everybody can use them, you just have to see how constructive they are for you.

Stay for the right amount of time. We spent too much time in each destination throughout Europe. For us, one week in each city would have been sufficient, even for a one-year trip. If you’re going for three weeks, pick three different types of destinations, or at least one in each of three different places.

Arrange and pay for transport when you get there. Don’t waste your money on Eurail passes, just buy tickets at the station. Get an international driver’s license only if you plan to buy a car. For rentals, you won’t need an international driver’s license (but verify with the rental agency first). Don’t book a car rental until you get there unless you plan to drive a LOT every day. If visiting large cities in Europe, remember parking is expensive and driving in cities will give you an ulcer. Local buses, subways and taxis are a lot more economical and will let you engage with the local people and will get you there a lot faster. Around town, rent a bike.

Book hostels instead of hotels. This will give you access to libraries of books, a fridge and cooking space, conversations with other travelers and even a chess set and a pool table. We stayed in a hostel in Talkeetna, Alaska with our whole family and had a great time and my kids got to talk to some climbers heading to the top of Mt. McKinley. I just walked into the house and asked if they had room. It was the best 'hotel’ in our entire stay in Alaska, and a lot cheaper.

Don’t take a guided tour (or any other kind of tour). This is a personal recommendation based on my own preferences and those of my family. Everywhere we have gone, we have been mowed over by multitudes of tourists listening to earpieces as words are spoken by guides who can be 100 feet or more away. You might as well read a book or watch an educational TV show. Instead, take local transport to where you want to go, get a good guide book (buy it there, and don’t use Lonely Planet), listen to the self-guided audio tour, or hire a local ‘one-on-one’ guide. You can find them on Tripadvisor.

Book a cooking class if you like the food in your destination and you enjoy cooking. Book it weeks ahead of time if you are heading for Europe. Check Tripadvisor for the local cooking classes, or check Google by searching for ‘Paris cooking classes’. These classes are a great value, and keep giving for years.

Don’t book a hotel until you get there. This is a big one, and seems a lot scarier than it really is. It is also a personal preference because I like to be where my true vacation destination is without having to take a taxi or to walk a long distance to where I really want to be. We usually book one night in our destination and then have a look around that day and move to the ‘right’ spot the next. A lot of places, even if they have good reviews, are a tad too far from the beach or on the wrong bit of beach, and you won’t know that until you get there. In Europe, you can be seven blocks from the main city’s plaza, or you can get a place right above the best restaurant in the plaza, if that’s what you want. This also gives you the opportunity to talk to the owner/manager, check out the wifi, the A/C, the restaurant, the pool, the view, and the noise level. It will also allow you to negotiate on price. You can select the exact room, and even see who your neighbors are. No booking service can do that for you. We have never been ‘stuck’ without a place to stay in all the traveling we have done, but many times we have been ‘stuck’ in a place we didn’t want to be.

Don’t take extra stuff. Take a small pack. Take a couple of shirts made of polypropylene and a good set of synthetic pants, convertible (legs come off- I recommend North Face) if you can afford them. You don’t need a water purifier, buy bottled water instead. Use whatever tennis shoes you already own, even for hiking or walking on reefs. Use Polypro undies such as Underarmour. If you find yourself with fewer clothes than you think you need, then buy something there, they will also serve as souvenirs.

Using polypropylene clothes (you can buy cheaply in Big-5) makes them easy to wash in the bathroom sink. A small bottle of concentrated clothing detergent will go a long way. If you don’t have a sink stopper, a wad of toilet paper does just as well. These clothes dry in hours hung up over a shower rod. Don’t pack nice clothes as if you will be going out for a ‘formal’ dinner. I have sent all of my ‘nice’ clothes home, wishing I had never brought them. People understand you are traveling and don’t expect you to dress up.

Don’t spend a lot of money on luggage. Three weeks ago I purchased a wheeled suitcase from a street vendor in Sri Lanka for less than $20, and have moved six times since then. Six weeks ago I purchased an extra large wheeled ‘Lowe Pro’ knockoff pack in Bangkok for $35 and have wheeled it perhaps two miles, packed and unpacked it several times, rolled it up and down stairs and into tuk-tuks, down dirt roads and onto the tops of buses. They are both still as good as new. Even if you will be moving around a lot, don’t buy a backpack, get wheels instead. It’s not as cool as a pack, but it’s a lot more practical. Use whatever luggage you already have, or borrow some from your brother. Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.

Don’t worry too much about security. Nobody wants your stuff. We started this trip paranoid about losing things to thieves. But that never came to pass, since we were careful about keeping our bags in front of us and watching our surroundings. Backpacks in crowded tourist areas are a bad idea unless you have the kind that can only be unzipped with the pack off. Most of my security stuff (cable locks, fanny packs lined with stainless steel cable, etc., I have sent home. This is another reason to take old or cheap luggage with you. If it looks crappy, nobody will want to steal it.

Ignore travel warnings about ‘unsafe’ destinations from your friends and neighbors, and paranoia websites, of which there are many. Use instead the US State Department and the Center for Disease Control websites exclusively. They will tell you where you shouldn’t travel, and where to take malaria pills. If there isn’t a US State Department travel alert or travel warning, then go. Kenya and Egypt both had a travel warning while we were there, but the site tells you exactly where in the country it’s not safe to go. It will also tell you intimate details about how to obtain a visa and how much it will cost, statistics about crime and what types of crime happens to Americans, etc.

Avoid guidebooks. Most guidebooks lead the masses to the same destinations and make the few ‘recognized’ places packet to capacity. Instead, find a good travel website to your destination and follow the recommendations of fellow travelers. One place to start is Tripadvisor. Another is the forum section of guidebook sites like Lonely Planet. The readers will give specific recommendations they have found, and will lead you to uncrowded places better than those advised by the guide books themselves. We have found that the ‘off the beaten track’ destinations advised by the Lonely Planet staff will lead us to places with lots of people standing around holding Lonely Planet guidebooks.

Get out of the ‘compound’. Leave your resort and spend most of your time wandering around, seeing the countryside and the city. A lot of the resort dwellers will tell you that the land outside of the resort is very unsafe. To be honest, the world is very safe. In seven months we have traveled to 20 countries, half of them I was concerned about before we arrived. It was mostly wasted worry because the vibe we got when there was that it was safer there than in the USA.

Turn off the TV. We stopped watching TV almost the same week we started this trip, with the exception of one or two of our favorite shows on Itunes. You should instead be bonding with your family, your spouse. Play chess, go for a walk, swim in the sea, get some gelato. By the way, as of this writing, no US media sites work overseas, except Itunes and This includes Amazon and Netflix. You cannot load books on your Kindle in foreign countries, our friend Katie Bonga found out, and she had to send her Kindle home.

Go. Even if you think you can't afford it, fly to another country and then get in a local bus and head off into the wilderness. Our favorite couple we have met was a retired couple in Morocco, well into their sixties, who were moving around using local transport with small bags. They got to know all the locals along the way, then were heading to Egypt to travel in the same manner. They did not believe in package tours, they didn't even plan where to go. They just drifted around and had tons of fun. They did a three week trip like this every year and had a lot to talk about.
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