How To Have The Best Holiday Ever

Obviously, travelling has been on my mind recently — & it seems to be on yours, too, judging by the amount of email I’ve received asking for travel tips!

One of the questions that stood out in my mind was from a girl who was about to go overseas with her mother. She wrote,

“I plan on taking lots of photos and writing about each day (with video footage as well) but how can I make my experience one to be remembered for all the right reasons?”

Here are my tips for making the absolute best of your overseas excursion.

Planning your trip

Assuming that you already know where you want to go (if you don’t, never fear — spin a globe with your eyes closed, point at it & then open your eyes!), the first step is defining your travels. This means answering questions like: where are you going? What’s the purpose of your trip? How long will you be there? Is it going to be a “solo voyage” or will you be going with someone else?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can start planning accordingly. The most important thing, of course, is booking your ticket. Don’t feel that you have to go with the first deal you hear about — fares are priced quite competitively these days & you can save thousands of dollars if you book in advance (or, if you’re in the United States, at the very last minute: think 24 hours & under).

If your flight includes quite a few hops, skips & jumps, using a travel agent is generally easiest. I have always had great luck booking through STA Travel. They’re a student travel service & they offer excellent deals for those of us under 26. However, if you’re more of a flirty thirty, a naughty forty or even a nifty fifty than a twitterpated twenty-something, they’re still a great company to use! They’re friendly & helpful & their staff always offer tips from their own travel experiences, which I like. It’s friendly & genuine. But there are a lot of other companies offering information on discount fares. Expedia is very well-known, Kayak allows you to search over 140 airlines at once, & Priceline lets you bid for seats. There are also lots of tips on booking a good ticket at How To Book A Cheap Flight on Mahalo. SeatGuru is great for finding out the details of your seat — it will ease your mind as to whether it’s cramped, whether it has a power port nearby & other pressing questions!

I often find that organising a vegetarian, vegan, or Kosher meal on the flight is a great way to go. It usually tastes a lot better than the “normal” meal, is made specially for you, & comes out piping hot before everyone else’s. Woohoo!

Your next step is to book some accommodation. Will you be staying with a friend, in a hotel or a hostel, renting an apartment (a great option for long stays) or couch-surfing your way across the country? I really love looking at Tablet Hotels — it’s the higher end of accommodation, but you can get excellent deals & read comprehensive reviews there. It also tells you what the “vibe” of the hotel is, which I like. They have a limited selection of hotels featured, but that’s to keep the quality high — I like that too. Other than that, Trip Advisor has great reviews & also tells you what the most popular hotels are in any given location. I always like to check the reviews on Trip Advisor before I book anything. Apartment hunters will need to do a little bit of research, & you will probably get a better price if you don’t say that you’re a traveller. & of course, couch-surfers will find la-z-boys & fold-out futons aplenty at (where else?)

Try to work out a daily budget. This can be tricky but it’s worth doing, because it will give you some expectation of what you’ll spend while you’re away, & will also give you a goal to work towards with your savings! For more information on budgeting your holiday, see How To Create A Simple Vacation Budget & Divide Your Wallet To Stick To A Vacation Budget.

So, what do you want to do while you’re on holiday?! This is the most fun part of it, I think: researching exciting things & writing them down! If you’re going somewhere in the United States, Yelp is incredible, but for everywhere else, I love Virtual Tourist, Lonely Planet (& their forums), & of course, books! All of the books in the Hedonist’s Guide series are brilliant, as well as the guides by Wallpaper, Time Out & Luxe. Allow yourself some quality time online to poke around & see what you can find. Every place has its secrets which may only be unearthed by some sneaky & judiciously applied Googling. Also, when I’m about to go somewhere, one of my favourite things to do is go to a big bookstore, raid the travel section, grab all the books about the city I’m going to, & then take them to a corner where I pore over them & make notes in my book of the places I want to see or go. Man, I am such a nerd.

If you have friends in your destination, call or email them to let them know you’re on your way. Make plans to spend time with them & ask if they would be so kind as to organise a day where they show you their view of the place. This doesn’t need to involve 3 castle tours, an extravagant lunch & a night full of cupcakes & champagne (though of course, that’s always welcome!). Seeing what their life is really like will be fascinating. You might go & do laundry, shop for food (I love doing this in new countries, it’s so interesting!), walk through the park, eat fish & chips on the beach at sunset & then visit a dive bar for cheap beers & a local show. (Also, be sure to ask them for suggestions of things which they think you should do alone.)

If you don’t know anyone in your new favourite place, make some friends! Join a Livejournal community based around the city or jump into the Lonely Planet forums & start mingling! Having a contact to show you around, meet you for a coffee or suggest a restaurant — even if it’s someone you don’t know very well — is a great thing. (Remember to be safe! Always meet people from the internet [oh, those dastardly internet people!] in a public place & tell someone where you’ll be.)

Packing your suitcase

Ah yes, packing. So many questions. What to pack? How to pack? When to pack?

I am a freakish organiser. That’s just how it is when you embrace your inherent Virgo-ness. I start packing — at the latest — two days before I leave. I learned this from my mother. If she is flying somewhere on Saturday, on Monday she will open her suitcase & set it at the end of her bed, & add to it over the course of the week as she thinks of things. Of course, this means that people who pack the day that they fly out completely bewilder me. But that’s okay! We all have our own “suitcase style”, & if you can be that spontaneous, kudos! I envy you!

So, the first thing you should do is get online & check the weather of the place you’re going. But! If you’re going to be there for longer than a week, I also suggest looking at the Wikipedia page of your destination & checking the average highs & lows of the month. Trust me on this. When I was packing for New York, I looked at the weather forecast & saw that it was pretty much the same temperature as in Melbourne (i.e., cold). I packed accordingly. I did not think about the fact that, golly, I was going to Florida, & hmm, I might be there for a couple of months in the hottest time of the year! Do not make my mistake! I packed faux fur coats & leather jackets & wool stockings & winter boots, which were fabulous for the first week & now just take up space in my closet. If there is even the vaguest possibility that your trip might be extended, plan for all eventualities!

For short trips, check out my article How To Pack A Suitcase. But for longer trips, you really need to use your discretion. What are you likely to do while you’re away? Will you be clambering around Machu Picchu, attending a wedding or shopping until you drop? Sometimes though, it’s very hard to know. It never occurred to me as I packed my suitcase that I would need an outfit for Disneyworld, something to meet Louis Vuitton in & a mermaid costume! Just do what you can.

The things that have gotten the most wear on this trip are my black jeans, my mind-bendingly versatile American Apparel dress, my super-comfortable & lightweight American Apparel sweater, my most comfortable boots (New Rocks, I’m looking at you) & my accessories. I packed a Hello Kitty lunchbox with all my favourite pieces of jewellery — pearls, crystal bracelets, sparkly rings etc. — & they have had a lot of wear. If I’m wearing something simple, like for example the black slip I bought from Urban Outfitters for $10 last week, & have been wearing non-stop since I got it because it is so insanely hot, it’s easy to dress it up with a headscarf, a huge bundle of necklaces & a pair of boots. Seriously, do not skimp on accessories. With the proliferation of stores like Topshop, H&M, Uniqlo & American Apparel, it’s easy to buy a plain dress or t-shirt, but not so simple to get your hands on accessories that really speak to you. Take statement pieces of jewellery & allow them to be the focus of your ensemble.

How to pack? I employ a combination of familiar techniques. I fold some pieces, roll others, & pack things inside other things. I stuff shoes with socks & small soft items to help them maintain their shape. Bulky items go in the bottom of my suitcase & delicate items go near the top, protected by a layer of t-shirts & other plain clothing. Underwear, socks & accessories like hats & scarves go in a separate zippered compartment, because I need to access them straight away.

NPR had a story a little while ago on how to pack everything you own in one bag, which is definitely worth a read. Bundling your clothing is a fantastic idea. Though they do say “never take more than two pairs of shoes”. HA! I have six pairs with me & it’s still not enough! It’s never enough! (Picture foam coming out of my mouth!) This is another good article on packing light.

Don’t forget: Geek stuff & accessories (laptop & power cables, cameras, chargers, cellphone, etc.). Sunglasses. Cleanser & moisturiser (don’t assume you’ll be able to buy it where you’re going). Tweezers. Prescription medication (& a script on paper just in case). A scarf.

Documenting your adventure

As you probably all know, I am a huge fan of pen & paper. To me, there are few things as satisfying as scrawling words. I love the way pages feel when they’re covered in loopy writing — crunchy but soft, well-loved & bristling with secrets. So I think the ideal way to document your trip is to write it all down. Buy yourself a Moleskine (or some other notebook which charms you), take a couple of good pens & make time, every night, to detail what you did. Trust me on the every night thing. If you leave it a couple of days, you’ll get confused or out of the habit & you’ll end up with big gaps in your memory that you cannot fill in, no matter how hard you try.

If you want some great ideas for journalling your travels, Kolby Kirk has put together these tips which are fabulous.

Having said this, I admit that I have not been writing about my NYC adventures every day. I’ve been writing them up sporadically on my Macbook — I just don’t make time to put it down on paper, & plus, when I publish them on Livejournal, I can link to pictures & videos & people’s websites! So, if you take your laptop on holiday with you, typing it all up is an excellent option. Thankfully I have a Moleskine diary with all my appointments written in it, which gives me clues as to what the hell I actually did last week. Otherwise I would be at a complete loss! While typing it up electronically isn’t as authentic or as much of a keepsake, if your travelling schedule is hectic, it comes in at a fantastic second place to a notebook.

I think a digital camera is an absolute essential when you’re travelling. You can take as many shots as you like, delete the ones you don’t like & try again. While digital SLR cameras are incredibly sexy & give you great quality pictures, they also tend to be big, bulky & heavy. Not the sort of thing you want to lug all over Paris. Get your hands on a good quality point & click. I am an avid Nikon fan, & when I’m wandering the streets, I biff my Nikon Coolpix P5100 in my bag for snapshots on the go. It also has video capabilities, so it’s great to not have to take two cameras. Before you leave for your trip, I also suggest jumping on Ebay & buying yourself a huge memory card. I have an 8GB card which I adore & don’t think I will ever be able to fill! It’s brilliant not to worry about taking too many pictures.

If you want people to be able to keep up with what you’re doing as you’re doing it, sign up for a Flickr account, let your friends know the address, & upload your pictures & videos when you have a spare moment. The instant feedback is like an addictive drug, so beware! When it comes to videos of your trip, if you have an Apple computer, try using iMovie to turn your little video clips into one big exciting show!

Think about documenting your trip in an innovative way. Keep concert & movie tickets, receipts for unusual purchases, take photobooth strips & buy postage to put in your journal. You could even turn your trip into an art project of some kind, if you were so inclined.

You might also like to compile a list of email addresses of people who want to hear about your travels, & then you can send them a mass update when you have fun things to share.

Making the most of it

Be charming at check-in. This should go without saying, but if you make an effort to be charming, it pays off. Hotel & airline employees work their butts off, & often bear the brunt of raging customers with a sense of entitlement. If you chat to them & treat them like a friend, they will often help you out. This could mean upgrading you to the next class on the plane, not charging you for excess baggage, organising you an entire row of seats to yourself or giving you a bigger & better suite with a fabulous view. Don’t go into it with an agenda (i.e. thinking, ‘I’ll only be friendly because I might get something out of it’), just do it because it’s the right way to behave, & you’ll reap the rewards. If not immediately, then sometime after. Promise!

Allow yourself to be swept away. I love to organise the main details of my holiday but I think it’s important to leave a lot of it open. It is my belief that a vacation shouldn’t be a military operation — you need time to mooch about, gawk at architecture, hide in an air-conditioned ice-cream parlour, & if everything is scheduled to the nth degree, it sucks a lot of the fun out of it. What if you meet someone cute & they want to take you out for a drink? Or you meet your idol on the street & they invite you to a party? What then?! Chill out a bit, go with the flow. It’s worth it.

Take your cellphone — or purchase one, if need be. Before you start squeaking about how your phone doesn’t work in Guatemala, or about how expensive it is to use your phone overseas, realise that in most places, you can buy basic phones & connectivity packages for about $30 American. Eet ees nussink! Especially if you’re going to be meeting people, organising social events, or trying to keep in contact with your parents on the other side of the planet. My phone has been an incredible asset to me since I arrived in the States, I use it constantly & would be quite lost without it!

Write postcards. Picking a postcard from a rack, deliberating over what to scrawl in that tiny space & purchasing foreign postage are all fun activities & good things to do when you have a moment of down-time. Even if you don’t document your adventures, writing a postcard (which usually ends up being a summary of the coolest things you’ve done) is a great way to remind yourself of all the fun you’re having! Seal with a kiss & send to your friends (& other deserving people).

Relax. Even though you’re in an exciting new place & you’re dying to get out there & conquer it all, allow yourself plenty of time to just do nothing. When I say do nothing, I mean: do nothing! Lie on your bed. Watch television. Eat some food. Read a book. Otherwise you just end up exhausted & grouchy. I prescribe at least one day a week of sweet, sweet absolute nothingness. It is a sanity preserver if nothing else.

Always carry your camera. Always! At the very least, make sure you have a cellphone that will take pictures… because you never know where you’re going to go, what you’re going to see or who you might meet! (Squeal!)

Learn a few local phrases. It will make your life a lot easier! Even if you’re going to an English-speaking country, if you brush up on their slang or colloquialisms, it will help prevent those moments where you stare at someone slack-jawed with that very confused look in your eye!

Drink lots of water & take your vitamins. I promise that it will help keep you feeling fresh & alert. You can read more about keeping your body happy at The Raw Girl’s Travel Guide.

Enjoy it for what it is. I think this is the most important thing. The key is in removing your expectations; detaching from the need to experience this or that, or for it to resemble something you’re comfortable with. In some places, you’ll have to eat weird food. In others, their toilets may terrify you. A friendly Australian going to France might feel confused by how long it can take the French to warm to you, while a meticulous clock-watcher from Germany might be frustrated by the easy-going attitude in Brazil. (Please excuse the stereotypes!) My point is, there are always going to be little things that aren’t quite how you like them, but you’ll improve your experience greatly if you can let go of those needs.

Above all, have fun! Do your best to appreciate every day & soak it all in.

Extra For Experts:
Five Ways To Get An Edge Over Other Air Travellers
Where To Find Cheap Last-Minute Or Emergency Tickets?
How Not To Be The “Ugly American” — customs & traditions from around the world.
Extravigator is “haute travel talk”.