What's your usual experience when you take a vacation somewhere? Do you reserve a hotel, lay by the pool, and drink cocktails at the hotel bar? Do you stay at all-inclusive resorts and take your pick from the wall of brochures for things to do? Do you determine your schedule of excursions before you even arrive to your destination?
While some of these amenities can be a pleasurable experience, they also rob you of experiencing the essence of the place you are traveling to. This entry is designed to show you how to get more out of your hard-earned travel time (and budget).
First understand this: pretty much anywhere you can fly (especially outside of your country) is choreographed to funnel you into the tourist trap that will leave you spending more money than you should have, for something less fun than you could have done. The locals who make money off of the tourist industry have got it down to a science; it's how they make their living, and that's why they wait for you at the airport- so they can influence you to before you figure out where you actually are and how things should work.
The taxi and bus drivers at the airport are holding hands with the people who run the hotels they bring you to; the hotel owners have back-door deals with all of the operators of the excursions and restaurants they'll recommend to you, and don't forget about that taxi driver who's oh-so-willing to drop whatever he's doing in his day to come back and bring you there, Mr. and Mrs. Tourist. He's not surprisingly nice- you're exceptionally profitable. Okay- maybe there are a couple decent taxi drivers out there.
I'm here to tell you there's more out there than the Tiki Bar at your Hotel. There's more than the really nice beach connected to it, and there's more than that hotel you're staying at in the first place. You'll have AC, you'll get a tan, and you might even be conveniently located to everything. But, you literally don't know what you're missing when you sign yourself up for a predetermined or "all-inclusive" vacation. It's not to say that it won't be a wonderfully amazing time, but if you were to compare it with the trip I'm suggesting you take- the trip off the beaten path- you'd realize that it doesn't really compare at all (read my last post about Bacalar- a place you've probably never heard of).
When you sign up for one of these "resort vacations" or excursions, the only element you are changing is your destination. When you travel, the places you stay, the different people you meet, the things that the locals do, the places they eat- these are the experiences that make each place you visit unique! Go to the Mayan Ruins, for example, if you want to see them! You should! But get to Mexico first! Talk to the locals and ask them which ones you should see before you get led like cattle on an all-day tour where more time is spent at their affiliated trinket shops than the actual ruins, or you'll wind up paying double for half.
So what do I mean, exactly? How can you get more out of your trip and experience more than the typical tourist will? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Don't stay at a hotel.
Look into options like Air B&B to post up in a private home that will help you experience more of what it feels like to live in the place you are visiting. It's often much cheaper and sometimes nicer than a hotel anyway. If you want to go for an even cheaper route, consider staying at a hostel. I've stayed at hostels that, for a fifth of the price give surrounding hotels a run for their money while providing so much more in terms of information and camaraderie. Hotels are so impersonal!
2. Eat where the locals eat.
This one should be a bit more obvious, but avoid eating where all the other tourists are eating. Instead, look for the places that always seem busy with locals. They've obviously been around long enough to figure out what tastes better or offers a higher quality of food and service. Better yet- ask some locals for a consensus. If more than one person starts pointing you to the same place, it's probably a no-brainer. When I was in Montreal, for example, I think five different people recommended the same location to try Poutine. And when we finally got there, it was packed!
3. Avoid signing up for excursions before arriving to your destination.
The fun things you can do where you're going are usually far more vast than the ones you're exposed to before you get there. Many people come to the Yucatán to see the Mayan Ruins, for example, but how many of you knew about the hundreds of Cenotes for example? Bring home an experience that people don't already know about! And if you do want to see the ruins (and you should), there are still far cheaper and more enjoyable ways to experience them if you were to take an excursion there. Again, ask locals how you can get there, which ones they recommend you see, and what you should expect to pay.
4. Ask locals how much you should expect to pay for things before you commit!
This is a great little trick to keep things cheap! Learn the numbers and how to ask a couple of simple phrases so that you can determine when someone's trying to rip you off or not. Stay stubborn!
5. Look for fun things to do and places to go that are not advertised.
It's crazy how many amazing places I've discovered that are very accessible from popular destinations, yet, you'd never hear about by just sifting through brochures. Generally speaking, the most beautiful places are the less touristy ones- and the ones kept a better secret by the locals! But they'll proudly tell you about these places if you simply ask!
6. Don't rely on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet guides to map out your trip.
Although you can get some good information from these resources, they are inherently problematic. As we are all different from each other, nobody is going to have the same feelings about any given experience. I've sought out "must-see's" that had me scratching my head, and I've also discovered places that I couldn't believe were left out of the guide. The best thing you can do is mingle with the people around you and let the journey unfold before you.
7. Don't be afraid of public transportation!
More often than not, public transportation is the most common way to get around the place you're going to, and it's always more affordable- sometimes at 10% of the cost of a taxi! Do a little bit of research how to get around, and use your better judgement of course if you really think it's a sketchy situation. Again, the locals can tell you what's up.
8. Rent a moped or a scooter.
I'd recommend doing this on the first day you get to your destination. It's a great way to quickly get familiar with your surroundings and discover potential places that you'd like to learn more about. It's almost always worth the money! Just don't crash it! Look how much fun we had on our mopeds in Thailand:
Hopefully you recognized the general theme in this article, which is ASK! ASK! ASK! If someone was coming to visit your hometown, wouldn't you be excited to tell them about all the little places you know about where they're sure to have a good time? It's the same when you go on a vacation somewhere. Be weary of the money-sucking tourist trap. The best experiences are found off the beaten path!
Do you have experiences or questions that you'd like to share? Post below!