Mindful Travel: 7 Secrets to Making the Most of Your Time Abroad
1. Don't get caught up in the hustle and bustle
We've all experienced it: there's a lot to see, you want to fit in as much sightseeing as possible, and there you are - obediently following the tour group, listening where you're supposed to listen, taking pictures where you're supposed to be impressed with the scene, quick look around - and you're off to the next point of interest.
STOP. Take it in. LOOK. Be mindful. Notice the details. Notice the smells and the sounds. Allow your senses to saturate with the sight. Imagine what this place was like a 100 or a 1,000 years ago.
FEEL. Even for a moment, feel the joy and the gratitude for being here - traveling is a luxury only a small percentage of people can enjoy.
2. Plan, but not too much
OK, some planning is necessary, but don't plan out everything!
Leave room for spontaneity, for pure chance. Go zigzag instead of a straight line! In other words, leave room for the Universe to surprise you because the fact is, the best things in life happen when you don't plan for them.
Do your research and make reservations for the places you absolutely don't want to miss (you can't wing it everywhere), but don't turn traveling into a tedious chore with an unbending schedule and a to-do list.
3. Keep a travel journal
This is one of my favorite things to do while traveling. It does require some discipline but consider the rewards!
When we're in a new place, there's usually a sensory and information overload that can be balanced with journal writing. It's like unloading some of this stuff so you can fit more in the next day.
Plus, you're creating something unique, something you're going to cherish for years to come. When I re-read my travel journals, I am always amazed. First of all, it's like time travel - it puts you right back where you were. Second, and this is absolutely true - there are so many wonderful poignant little details that are going to fade from your memory quicker than you think. I guarantee you - you gonna want to remember these details. You gonna want to remember the name of that place where you tried a chili pepper hot chocolate for the first time, or the metro station where you saw that amazing fresco, or what the air smelled like when it snowed in Venice.
4. Don't eat American fast food no matter how homesick you are
I see it times and times again - a beautiful European city, lots of cafes, bistros, whimsical trattorias around, yet Americans flock to the nearest McDonald's like Jews in the desert making off to the Promised Land.
Really? It's bad enough these places are built all over the world.
When I was about 10, my Mom took me to McDonald's for the first time - it was the 1990s, and it was considered an exotic foreign restaurant in post-Soviet Russia. The lines were unbelievable, the food - horrible, and I burnt my tongue with the apple pie. I never felt the need to come back there again.
The point of the story? The only excuse to eat at McDonald's is: you're a child, and you don't know any better. McDonald's when traveling? Double anathema.
5. Learn at least a few phrases in a native language
Instead of buying that disgusting greasy burger you-know-where, invest in a pocket phrasebook - it's a life-saver, and a way to show your respect for the culture and the language of the country you're visiting.
Here's the thing a lot of English-speaking people don't understand: when you're in a foreign country and you automatically address people in English, it communicates a certain level of ignorance and entitlement. Maybe it's not what you intend, but that's the way it comes off: "Everyone should speak English anywhere I go, and if they don't, it's not a place worth going to."
You don't need to speak the language fluently, just learn a few necessary words and phrases for 3 reasons:
- a smart traveler often veers off the beaten path, so s/he needs to be able to communicate with the locals;
- at least attempting to speak a native language shows respect for the people and the country you're visiting, and characterizes you as a friendly open-minded individual;
- acquiring new language skills makes you a more cultured "worldly" person and improves your brain functioning.
6. Get outside your comfort zone
Go for it. Explore. Take risks.
Whenever I travel, if there is one regret I have at the end of a trip, it's this: I wish I did more of that thing I wanted to do. I wish I was bolder, more adventurous, more spontaneous. I wish I wasn't listening to the voices of reason or caution and just given myself to the experience completely.
Because here is the thing: the world is small and big at the same time. Meaning, our planet is relatively small, but there are so many incredible places to visit! Most people only see a minuscule part of what the world has to offer, so knowing that, would you rather go to a place you've already visited or to a new place? I'd pick the latter.
In all likelihood, you're not going to come back to a place you've been to, are you? Sometimes. But the point is, you've got to make the most of it, because chances are, this is a one-time exclusive unique precious experience you won't have a chance to repeat.
7. Be safe.
A smart traveler means: a safe traveler.
Nothing ruins a vacation like a trip to the hospital, the police station or the consulate to report a lost or stolen passport. Be mindful of your surroundings. Avoid busy tourist markets - they're a breeding ground for pickpockets. If something doesn't feel right, leave and get yourself to a safe place. Trust your gut instinct - that soft quiet voice that can tell you exactly what you need to know.
Have a photocopy of all your important documents with you, and put the originals and the valuables in a safe place. When you leave your hotel room (apartment, hostel, train roomette) to explore the new terrain, take only the essentials: your map, your phrasebook, some water, some cash and a lighthearted smile. Happy mindful travels!
© 2013 Lana Adler