All your bags are packed, you’re ready to go — or are you? Traveling to a new city might seem simple enough, but having a plan can mean the difference between a good vacation and a great vacation. Upon recently returning from the first weekend trip of my semester abroad, I’ve found that some of the best travel survival tips either aren’t quite so apparent or just need proper reinforcing.
Despite the name of this column, I by no means consider myself a travel guru, but I have learned a few valuable basic starter tips for travelers-in-training. The following advice is based on a two-day trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, but these guidelines apply to anyone planning a quick trip somewhere new on a budget. Bon voyage!
This one seems obvious but is likely the most often ignored piece of travel advice. It might seem prudent to throw in that extra T-shirt “just in case,” but all that extra weight will eventually catch up with you when you’re lugging an oversized suitcase around a foreign city. You never know how long you’ll need to carry your bag, so try to avoid taking anything larger than a carry-on with you. If you’re flying, waiting in line to check a suitcase and retrieve it when you land will cut into prime exploring time, and really, how much stuff do you need? Believe me, it’s less than you think.
Have a plan
I had this idea in my head that when I got to Edinburgh, I would step off the plane into the middle of the city and instantly know where I wanted to go. This did not happen. First of all, it’s important to have an idea of the logistical information you’ll need to actually get where you want to go, like buses and trains from an airport to a city’s center. Secondly, having a rough itinerary will allow you to maximize your time. Once you’ve chosen a few sights to see, take a look at a map and plan out the most logical order for your tour. Consider transportation and time spent at each stop, but don’t be afraid to take a detour. Some of the best stuff you’ll encounter on your journey is off the beaten path.
Talk to locals
You’re only traveling for a few days, so you probably don’t have time to become an expert on a brand new city. Good thing there are plenty of experts all around you! Locals have all the inside information, such as where to get the best food and which attractions are OK to skip, not to mention they are pretty excited that you are American, at least in my experience. Even if they don’t tell you anything useful, congratulations, you just made a friend.
This tip is actually pretty serious if you’re thinking in terms of holding on tightly to your wallet and passport, which you should do, by the way, but cultural awareness can be just as important and a little harder to pick up on. For example, it is apparently illegal in Scotland to take photos of the Crown Jewels. Was there a sign that said “No cameras”? Yes. Was there a sign that called into question the legality of using said camera? No. The moral of the story is don’t push it, or at least that’s what the lady who chased after me said. To avoid hiccups on your trip, think seriously about doing anything that you suspect might not be 100 percent acceptable.
Do the cheesy tourist stuff
I’m not talking about taking your new Facebook profile picture in front of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, though I can’t say I haven’t done that. I’m talking about the embarrassing activities that your parents would have made you do if they were with you on the trip, while you roll your eyes and pretend that you’re not having a good time. Let’s not kid ourselves: That stuff is usually hilarious. I was skeptical when my friend wanted to go on a nighttime tour of haunted locations in Edinburgh, but one look at the cloak-wearing guide and I was hooked. It was highly entertaining even though we were surrounded by vacationing families. And now I know a lot more about Middle Age torture.
Drop the credit card and step away from the cash register. Before you commit to bringing home that authentic Scottish kilt or a full-on lederhosen getup, consider the question, “Do I really need this?” Most shops near major sights and attractions are huge tourist traps offering overpriced, overrated souvenirs that serve no real purpose other than making it clear to everyone around you that you are a gullible foreigner. Plus, don’t forget you’ll need to carry your purchase around with you. If you really want a memento from your travels, take some pictures.
Chelsea Stone is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. She is currently studying abroad at City University London. Her column, “Traveling Trojan,” runs every other Friday.