Move beyond the beaten path. Experience the culture. Avoid the tourist traps. We’ve heard this from most travel experts, but branching out can be scary to the novice traveler. When I first started traveling, I immediately darted for the places that were a “must see.” Perhaps it was climbing the Eiffel Tower or visiting the Champs Elysees that enticed my presence, but when I think back to the moments, or hours I spent at these places, I do not see them as highlights. I went, I saw, I moved on.
There are some sights that should be visited, but determine that yourself after doing some research. To build a trip that is more rich and filling, follow some of these simple guidelines. You can begin with one piece of advice and expand from there, or try it all. Consider trying these tips in a local destination for practice.
Step 1: Plan Sparingly
Having a plan can be very comforting for the anxious traveler. It can also be beneficial for saving money, and making the most of your time. On a previous trip, I saved some considerable euros by purchasing a museum pass in Paris. This is a great idea, but be cautious. I made the mistake of trying to plan everything. I ended up with a trip that was overfilled with museums and lacking in authentic experiences. My time felt limited, so I wanted to do everything, but I eliminated the opportunity for spontaneity. When I reminisce about the highlights of my trips, I find the most fond memories take place during my interactions with people. You can’t plan the people you will meet, so make sure you leave room for them in your schedule.
I don’t discourage planning because it makes the wait for the departure date more manageable. Knowing that I will be immersing myself in another place builds anticipation. So don’t cut out planning, but stick with a tentative itinerary. Consider options. When you are building an itinerary, understand that it is a guideline, not the requirement. Be open to changing plans.
Step 2: Carefully Consider your Base
Deciding on sleeping quarters can greatly affect your ability to seek adventure. When I am visiting a big city, I like to stay in a neighborhood downtown that has easy access to public transportation, restaurants, and sights to see. A few years ago during my beginner traveler days, I was booking a hotel in Savannah, Georgia. The price was great, and so were the reviews, so I booked it. Unfortunately, the hotel was located just off the interstate many miles from the city center. Luckily we had a car, but it definitely limited our chance to explore.
Just recently I had to book a hotel in Paris for a solo night. Since I knew I would be alone, I wanted to pick a safe place with a lot of options for activities. I decided to go with the Rue Cler neighborhood because it is a pedestrian street with many restaurants. The metro is also very close which will be important for traveling to the airport, and it makes the city very accessible. The location is great because I am within walking distance to the Seine and Eiffel Tower. In other words, I recommend you consider what you want to see and do, and how you will get around before reserving accommodations. Selecting the right accommodations can provide you with the confidence and opportunity you need to experience the unexpected.
Step 3: Go for a Walk
One of my favorite moments in my travels took place alone. I was tired of waiting for my travel companions to finish getting ready, so I decided to go for a walk. As I weaved across the canals of Venice, I stumbled upon a special service for Palm Sunday. Outside a church I found a band of young men playing a song that still lingers in my mind today. I do not know what it is about, or even the name of the song, but the memory is so strong that it plays on repeat. I think one of the reasons that I am so fond of this memory relies on the pride in being the only one to have this experience out of my travel group. I felt like I got a little treat, and was privileged to be a part of this private concert.
During solo travel, it is important to stay safe, and feel comfortable while on your own. My recommendations do not differ much from going on a blind date. Go out during the day, stay in populated areas, and being aware of your surroundings are all examples of ways to stay safe. If you can follow this advice early on in your independent ventures, you will become more savvy for future adventures on your own.
Step 4: Ask Locals for Advice
This tip is one that is stated so often, yet so many do not follow it. The turistico menu seems so appealing after a long day of sightseeing, and before you know it, you are sucked into mediocre food that lacks tradition. Go with some ideas of cuisine you’d like to try and ask a trusted local for suggestions.
If you are nervous about asking locals on the street, there are many respectable opinions out there that are within easy reach. One of the best places to start is your hotel host or concierge. The more detail you can provide about your interest, the more likely they will be able to provide a good match. I found a great Indian restaurant in London this way. Other great resources include store employees, bartenders, and visitor information desks. Don’t forget, the touristy danger spots are usually close to the major attractions. Beware.
Step 5: Go During the Off-Season
Avoiding tourist season offers many benefits. One of the primary reasons people avoid booking trips during peak times is based on the cost factor. Flights and sleeping accommodations can be far less expensive during time periods that are less common with vacationers. Besides saving some money, we can also bypass the stereotypical tourist behavior.
One of the best ways to get out of the mold is to immerse yourself in the culture. This task is much easier when there are fewer tourists around. You are naturally being placed in an environment that encourages you to interact with locals rather than a larger pool of visitors. If you have the time available, definitely consider this option.
I’d love to hear your favorite “off the beaten path” stories. Feel free to share in the comments!