Ditch Your Comfort Zone

Traveling to a destination with a new mind-set can lead to the most rewarding vacation of your life

By Erika Mailman

We never regret travel. Clothing and expensive dinners come and go, but the memories and insights gained on a trip remain with a traveler forever. This can be especially true when you go outside your comfort zone and gather new experiences.

Staying at a resort for seven days straight may sound good, but stretching a little can yield huge rewards. “We try to go off the beaten path and find places that allow people to talk with local people and see things they wouldn’t usually see,” says Mary Dell Lucas, president of Far Horizons travel in San Anselmo, California. For 35 years, her company has led historical and archaeological tours throughout the world, headed by prominent scholars.

Lucas urges people to ignore travel warnings based on politics rather than facts. “People allow headlines to dissuade them from traveling at times when they should be, because personal contact is a way to help with understanding. I don’t recommend going into a war zone, but there’s an attitude of fear that isn’t based in reality.” She points to her company’s upcoming trip to Iran, where American visas were in question as a countermove against President Trump’s immigration ban. Luckily, she says, the visas were approved because the Iranian government recognizes that it’s only through meeting each other that we form connections. “The older I get,” says Lucas, “the more I realize the similarities between us are much, much greater than the differences.”

Here are 10 tips to smooth your path and make your journey more meaningful.

1 Sit

Get a cup of coffee and sit in a public cafe. Travel isn’t always about how much ground you can cover; it’s about witnessing life in another country. Take a tip from the French and people watch. Focus on your breath and soak in the colors and flavors of a world you wouldn’t be seeing otherwise. Strike up a conversation with the stranger at the table next to you. You may think, “I didn’t spend all this money to just sit here in a coffeehouse,” but actually you did. You wanted to relax and be stimulated.

2 Walk
Instead of hunting down the local gym, get your exercise by experiencing the city firsthand. You can check with the front desk or your host to ensure you don’t wander into unsafe areas. Even better, join a walking tour. It’s a great way to meet other tourists as you chat during the walk between sites. In Paris, for instance, you can choose from an incredible array of daily walking tours led by a knowledgeable English speaker, covering history and architecture. Paris Walks tours last two hours and cost 15 euros. Similar tours in more than a dozen other cities are linked on the website 
paris-walks.com, including some in North America.

3 Meet Locals
It is no longer enough to know a few phrases in another language: hello, please, thank you, and good-bye. These polite expressions open many doors and show your willingness to learn a bit of the language, but for a more immersive experience, spend a few months (or at least hours) learning more.
Mary Dell Lucas says you can communicate in other ways: “When you come across a woman with a baby, talk to the baby. If you are a photographer, you can connect with other photographers. Or if you are in a restaurant when something happens and everyone starts laughing, and you join in, it feels good because humor exists no matter what culture you’re in.”

She points out that local people are curious about us, too. “They think, ‘Who are these Americans who just walked in the door?’ Then you find that conversation may arise.”

There are many apps for learning some basics in another language. Google Translate is useful in countries that have a different alphabet, as it translates words in that alphabet to show to the person you are trying to converse with. Use the Memrise app to memorize foreign words and phrases with the help of mnemonic tricks.

If you can afford to treat yourself, consider using a site like EatWith.com that lets you choose a dining experience in the home of a local chef with several other visitors. For instance, in Tel Aviv you can join up to 20 others for a buffet-style Shabbat dinner for $42. Cooks in cities all over the world participate.

4 Try Journaling
A travel journal may end up being your favorite souvenir. Writing helps you sort through what you experience and will remind you of details years later. A beautiful, lightweight journal that fits in your day bag makes writing a pleasure. One example is JournalandCo’s $8 handmade “Adventure Awaits” with acid-free paper. Find many other beautiful journals on Etsy.

5 Cover Yourself
Keep cash stowed in several different places in case your wallet or purse is stolen. A few sneaky hiding spots: rolled up in a clean but fastened diaper or in an empty shampoo bottle—or even, if tightly rolled, in the casing of a pen.

Experts warn that you should never put cash in your checked luggage. Keep your money and passport on your body at all times. A money belt or leg wallet are good options. Once you get to your destination, leave a “dummy wallet” with expired cards visible in your baggage so a rushed thief might grab that and run.

Remember to photocopy your passport and credit cards so you can easily call to report them stolen if need be. Keep these photocopies separate from the originals at all times.

6 Act Like Your Live There
Hotels are wonderful, but stepping outside their protectiveness can lead to wonderful situations. Booking a space through Airbnb lets you dictate how you stay: Do you want a room in a household with your host (and the possible friendly interactions that can arise)? Or do you want your own apartment, or an entire house? The Airbnb rating system lets you select a vetted site. You may adore the neighborhood where you find yourself, and the rental relieves you of eating every meal in a restaurant.

7 Use Travel Apps
There are as many travel apps as there are destinations. Here are a few good ones.

This app lets you see the cheapest airfare within a month-view calendar and will notify you when to buy.

Hotel Tonight:
If your housing falls through at the last minute, this app collates last-minute deals on unsold hotel rooms; book in under 10 seconds.

Citymapper: This public transportation app assists with subways, bus and train lines, even ride sharing. If you can barely hear transit announcements (especially in another language), the app tells you when to deboard.

XE Currency Converter:
This app provides live exchange rates for every currency, and you can also store them offline.

If your phone doesn’t have this function, this app turns it into a flashlight for use in hotel rooms when you can’t find the light switch.

A handy app that helps you locate dog-friendly restaurants, hotels, and the ever-necessary park.
Tip: Download apps before leaving home to avoid a potentially nasty fee.

8 Truly See

Sometimes travelers are so bent on freezing a moment with a camera that they never see what’s happening. Or they capture so many photos that they are overwhelmed going through several hundred (or thousand?) when they get home. Here’s a radical retro suggestion: pretend you’re back in the days of 35mm film and you only get 24 exposures on a roll. Decide in advance how many “rolls” you’ll take on your trip and stick to it. You will then be forced to evaluate the best way to document something, rather than taking a dozen shots. You also may find yourself choosing not to take a picture and instead observing with greater focus. Another out-there suggestion: make a pledge not to take selfies.

9 Choose a Wild Destination
Consider broadening your destination list this year. Find the quirky, outside-your-comfort-zone places that will expand your understanding. For instance, try Vietnam for its culture, food, and beaches. Or, closer to home, off-the-beaten-track Dominica, instead of one of the many Caribbean islands that are cruise ship destinations. You don’t have to go overseas to have an amazing experience; many places in the United States will push your limits.

10 Travel Safe
The vast majority of foreign countries are safe for American travelers—but some are not. This list can change at any time, so before planning a trip, check the State Department Alerts and Warnings for up-to-date information. DW

Erika Mailman has written for Art & Antiques, Arts & Crafts Homes, Via, and other publications, and is a published historical novelist (erikamailman.com).

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