Recently, I was scrolling through my social media posts from our first month in KL to revisit the things we felt were worth “writing home” about at the time. It was a nice reminder of how far we have come, in terms of cultural adjustments and what no longer seems strange anymore. (Of course I grocery shop in the mall! … OK, that one is still a little odd.) In response to one of my sarcastic comments about some first time achievement, a friend said, “You should write travel guides!” I replied, “They would be sarcastic and full of semi-helpful information.” Now that we are coming to the end of our expat year and we have more experience with international travel, I thought I would write about what we have learned. I’ve tried my best to tone down my sarcasm, so here is my semi-helpful travel guide: How to Travel like the Tex-Pats.
Disclaimer 1: We’ve done all of our traveling childless, so far. I reserve the right to update this guide once we start traveling with The Kid.
Disclaimer 2: This style of travel works for us, obviously, but we’re not saying that it’s the only way to travel or that it will work for everyone. If you follow my advice to the letter and hate your trip, you’ve been warned.
The first thing you should do when you are thinking about traveling to a new place is get a travel book and make a plan. If you’ve read this blog before, you might know that we are faithful followers of Lonely Planet. This really suits our style of living and traveling. So browse your library or bookstore and figure out which series works for you. Lonely Planet has a lot of walking, a lot of self-guided stuff, and a lot of tips for you to maximize your local experience. If you are a “stay at a 5 star resort and be pampered” type of traveler, this series will not be for you.
Sidebar: I’ve shifted to mostly reading books on my Kindle, mainly for convenience. But I would never get an e-version of a travel guide. You’ll want to highlight it, fold the pages, maybe tear out a map, put in some sticky tabs, write some notes about things you wanted to do… Definitely go hard copy for travel guides.
Now that you are armed with your trusty travel guide, you can start to make your plan. What do you want to do while you’re there? And how long will you stay? The answers to Question 1 are likely dictated by the answers to Question 2. And that’s fine. Both are important questions to answer, no matter which order you tackle them. We’ve gone in both directions. Most recently, I wanted to go to Melaka. I read the section in the book on Melaka and decided there was probably about a day’s worth of stuff we would like. So we’re taking a day trip. In this case, the decision on how long to stay was made by the amount of activities available. However when we went to Penang, we went for a holiday weekend and the decision on how long to stay was made based on amount of time off Micah had from work, without using vacation days. Then the decisions on what to do were made around our flight schedule.
While you are making your plan, stay flexible. You might read about something that sounds really fun in the book, and then you get there and decide that there are other things you’d rather do instead. In Sydney, we thought we wanted to see the Aquarium and the Sydney Eye. Once we got there, we realized we were really enjoying the various hikes and outdoorsy things we did and would rather spend more time doing that. Decide what parts of your itinerary are negotiable and what parts are not. (Seeing the Opera House in Sydney, not negotiable!)
Related to the idea of flexibility is to utilize the local sources. Your hotel probably has great suggestions for things to do and places to eat. In Thailand, we only had a very vague idea of what we wanted to do. We knew there were lots of options available to us, and thought we’d see what the hotel recommended as far as what company to book a boat tour with, etc. As it turns out, arriving in Thailand with very little plan was great because the suggestions from the hotel were wonderful. If we had decided all of our activities in advance, we would have missed out on some great stuff. So finding out what is worth doing from a local perspective will give you a much different picture of where you are than if you stick to the big, touristy stuff. We also had some really excellent food in Thailand based on the front desk guy’s recommendation. Smaller, local restaurants are often much better and cheaper than the big popular ones.
Speaking of utilizing your local sources: Go local as much as possible. What kind of experience are you only going to get in that place? What kind of food should you try? What museums or other activities will help you learn about where you are? In our non-expat lives, we make a lot of decisions based on the Go Local mentality. We would much rather support a small business than a chain in most cases. When you buy local, eat local, stay local, your tourism dollars might have a better impact on the local economy. (I’m not an economics scholar, so I don’t know the specifics. But it makes intuitive sense to me!) Not only that, but having a unique experience that is specific to where ever you are is very rewarding and makes great vacation memories. Lonely Planet also believes in this philosophy, which is one reason we like the books so much.
Figure out public transportation options. Many places have tourist passes, some kind of unlimited pass that you can buy. This might be really worth it! It’s definitely good to have some idea of what bus options and subway options you have. My original sarcastic comment that spurred the idea for a travel guide was, “All public transportation is basically the same. You will need a ticket, and you will need to know what stop to get off at. Acquire a map and figure out how to get a ticket and you will be unstoppable!” I intended it to be snarky at the time, but it’s true at its heart. Familiarize yourself with the map and figure out how to get a ticket. Now you can go anywhere!
One thing we don’t use Lonely Planet for is hotel recommendations. I’m sure their recommendations are great. But the hospitality business changes more rapidly than they publish new editions. There are always new hotels and changes at old hotels. Trip Advisor is a much better current source for hotels. You can search by price range, area where you want to stay, rating, or a combination of all of them plus more. You can read customer reviews and decide which “3 star” things you are willing to put up with and which ones you are not. We like to look for smaller, boutique-type hotels. I think the service is a little more personal and they often have a good network of local businesses to recommend. Plus, our theory of life is to support a small business over a chain.
This might sound silly, but in choosing a hotel, consider your location. Even if you think you’ll only be at your hotel to shower and sleep, this is very important. You can usually save some money by staying outside of the city center or town, but then you might spend that on cab fare or waste a lot of time getting to where you want to go. To me, it’s worth it to leave my hotel in the morning and be walking distance to the things I want to do. This is especially true when you are somewhere for a long weekend. If you only have 2 days to see the sights, you don’t want to spend an hour or more getting to them! Your criteria probably will change depending on where you are. In Cambodia, we stayed in the middle of nowhere for a cheaper price rather than in the heart of downtown Siem Reap. But we knew they had free transportation to town and also would arrange our tours with no booking fee. As it turns out, the hotel in Cambodia was our favorite place we’ve stayed.
Most of all, be flexible. (If you are a careful reader, you might notice that this is the second time I’ve said this. That’s not an accident. It’s that important.) There will be things that go wrong, things you don’t get to do, or other potential disappointments. Don’t stress over them and certainly don’t dwell on them! Enjoy the trip you are having, rather than spend time upset about the trip you didn’t have. For example, in Penang we were really enjoying the national park and spending time on the beach. We stayed longer than we had planned and didn’t end up having time for several other activities we wanted to do. We decided staying on the beach was worth skipping some things and if we could only do one more thing in Penang, it was going to be to find a hawker center. We would really regret not having some amazing street food, but we wouldn’t miss seeing some of the other sights. Dinner at the hawker center more than lived up to our expectations. And we were in the right place at the right time to see a Wesak Day parade after dinner, too! Dwelling on the things we didn’t get to do had the potential to ruin the rest of the trip, but it just wasn’t worth it. The trip to Penang was really fun. In the end, that’s what we will remember and look back on, not the stuff we didn’t do.
So, let’s recap. How to Travel Like a Tex Pat in 4 Easy Steps (patent pending): Be prepared. Do local things. Be flexible. Enjoy your trip!