How Do You Do It? (Part 2 – What to Do When You Arrive)

The first few days in a new city or new country are the most exciting.  I’ve developed a pretty standard routine that works for me to get settled in.

  1. Walk Around. On my first day, I typically don’t plan any activities. I just walk around. I find a coffee shop or park, and I sit and watch. If I only have one or two days in a city, I will not do any museums or tours or anything but walk around. I do like to have a map in addition to the google maps app on my phone, so I can find my way home. Also, I make sure I have the address of the place I am staying.  If I know I am going to be staying in the town or city for awhile, I like to scope out the best coffee shops and grocery stores.

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    Walking around my first day in San Jose, Costa Rica

  2. Find the Highest Point in the City. I got this tip from another travel blogger, and I think it’s brilliant. Whether it’s a hike up a hill or an elevator ride up the tallest building, getting a birds-eye view of the city can help you to get your bearings and decide what else you want to see.

    Tallest building in the city:  Eureka Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia

    Tallest building in the city: Eureka Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia

  3. Find out the local food, drink, crafts, wildlife, activities, etc. I want to know what the national drink is. Is there a local delicacy? Do the locals really eat it or is it served for tourists? I was surprised to learn that most Peruvians do not eat alpaca (this meal is geared toward tourists), but they do frequently eat guinea pig (cuy).
    Ceviche, a Peruvian dish much tastier than cuy.

    Ceviche, a Peruvian dish much tastier than cuy.

    Are there animals here that I can’t see anywhere else in the world?  What silly souvenirs or unique crafts can be bought here?  Finally, I want to know if there is something I can do there that I cannot do anywhere else in the world or something I have never tried.  What makes this city unique?  Volcano boarding, visiting a jaguar rescue, seeing the world’s smallest orchid, walking through the largest gold museum in the world, or jumping off a bridge…let’s do it!

  4. Get a new cell phone SIM card. With my unlocked iPhone 4S, it has been easy and cheap (less than 10 bucks) to get a new SIM chip in every country. It is convenient and affordable to have a local phone number, for both keeping in touch with new local friends and for booking future travel.  At this time, I also like to find out and program into my phone the local 911 emergency phone number.

    For $5-$10 I can get a chip for my iPhone and a local phone number

    For $5-$10 I can get a chip for my iPhone and a local phone number

  5. Take a walking tour or a bus tour. Many people are dead set against organized tours, but I actually enjoy them. Especially with a walking tour you can get a taste of the best sites in the city, and make plans to go back to spend more time there later. I like to take a map on the tour and highlight the route, so I can find places again.  If I don’t want to do an organized guided tour, I will find a self-guided walking tour online.
    Self-guided walking tour of Lima, Peru

    Self-guided walking tour of Lima, Peru

    In a guided tour, I will try to get to the front of pack, so I can listen carefully and ask the guide questions. I almost always ask the guide where they eat.  I remember after a walking tour in Florence, Italy, I asked the tour guide where she ate, not where she recommends the tourists go.  She took me to an unmarked restaurant on a side street. It was one of the best meals of my trip. After my walking tour in La Paz, Bolivia, I offered to take my tour guide out to lunch, where I was able to ask all the things I wanted to know about Bolivia from the politics to dating to reality TV to relations with the U.S.. I made an instant friend who I’m still in touch with.   Also, specialty tours can be fun, too.  I took a chocolate walking tour in Zurich, Switzerland, a horse and buggy tour in Cartagena, Colombia and a boat tour in Granada, Nicaragua.

    Horse carriage tour in Cartagena, Colombia

    Horse carriage tour in Cartagena, Colombia

So that’s my first few day when I get to a new place.  Tell me what you like to do when you get to a new city below…

Categories: Planning, RTW, Solo Travel | 1 Comment

How Do You Do It? (Part 1 – Deciding Where to Go and How to Prepare)

People often ask me how I decide where I’m going next in my travels. It’s usually a combination of two things, one is suggestions from other travelers (and travel bloggers) and the other is cheap flights. I try to ask everyone I meet on the road what’s the best place they’ve visited. I have a list on my iPhone of recommended places and places I want to go, and it’s been growing fast. The second way I determine where to go next is looking for cheap flights. For example, I knew I wanted to head to Asia in September, and I have a huge list of places I want to go, including Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Japan, so I consulted my favorite flight search website Skyscanner. You can enter your departure airport and the destination as “everywhere”, and the site will give you a list or a map of destinations and costs. When I did this, I checked flights both from San Francisco and New York, and the best I could find in September was a direct, one-way flight to Seoul, South Korea from San Francisco for $422. South Korea. Not on my list and I knew very little about it, but I thought, hey, why not? So South Korea will be my first stop in Asia. Now what?

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Skyscanner App

How I Prepare:
If you are time-limited, I recommend planning the crap out of your trip ahead of time. Book ahead of time, so you aren’t wasting precious vacation minutes doing this. If you love this research and planning, it’s a great way to get psyched up before your trip. If you find it tedious (like me) you can find a travel agent to do it for you. I used an agent to plan out my 3 week whirlwind around Australia and New Zealand. The agent planned and booked every flight, hotel, transfer and even some activities. This made things so simple for me to just show up and go.

I don’t love the process, and I have the luxury of time, so advanced planning is not required for me.  If you have time, I recommend booking things as you go, so you have the flexibility to make on-the-fly decisions. There is some basic planning that I always like to do ahead of time, though…

  1. Research the safety issues of the country or city. For me, this is important to know before stepping foot in country. What’s the crime like? What are possible scams? Are there potential natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, or hurricanes? Are there particular neighborhoods in cities that should be avoided? Recent terrorism, protests, strikes, political unrest? A quick internet search can get you this info, but I also try to talk to other travelers who have visited recently for real-time facts. After I get a feel for the situation, I file the information in the back of my mind and move on. I am not easily freaked out, I understand that there are risks everywhere, and I try to behave in a way to minimize the probability of something bad happening to me. I think that arriving completely ignorant is foolish, but obsessing over the potential things that could go wrong is paralyzing.
    Is this an active volcano?  Yes!  Ometepe, Nicaragua

    Is this an active volcano? Yes! Ometepe, Nicaragua

  2. Register with the U.S. Department of State and keep in touch. I am not trying to run off-the-grid or hide in a foreign country. Whenever I go, I let the U.S. government know where I’m going to be. In case something goes wrong, I want the government to know I’m there and to help me get out. I also let my family know where I am and where I’m going, usually via Facebook. If I know that I am going to be out-of-touch for a few days, I let my family know that as well.
  3. Find out about money. Before I arrive, I want to know what the currency used is, and what the approximate exchange rate is to U.S. dollars. Are credit cards accepted? Are U.S. dollars accepted? Are ATMs safe and available? Can I easily get or exchange money at the border or the airport?  I also research approximate costs for travelling there.  You can do a simple google search like “cost per day South Korea” to get some benchmarks for budgeting.  Be careful though, as you need benchmarks from like-minded travelers.  I’m not a ramen noodle-eating backpacker hoping to spend $20 per day, but I’m also not a luxury, 5-star resort kinda gal.  I have found some travel bloggers with similar travel styles, who can provide me guidance, so there’s no sticker shock when I arrive.
    How much is a Happy Meal in Guatemala?

    How much is a Happy Meal in Guatemala?

  4. Find out if you have any friends or friends of friends in the area. I like to put out on Facebook where I’m headed next to see if anyone lives or has lived there or visited, or knows someone to put me in touch with. Having a local contact has always been useful. There is also a Facebook app I like to use called “My Friend Map”, where you can see on a map the home towns of all of you Facebook friends. This was especially useful during my U.S.A. road trip.
    Sin título3

    What!? I only have one friend in Asia? I am going to fix that! (I’m also going to visit Courtney in Hong Kong for sure!)

  5. Book the first few nights. As a solo traveler, I am not comfortable just showing up to a city without a place to stay. I have done this, but it often gives me a bit of panic, worried that everything is booked and I’ll be sleeping on the street. My current favorite lodging for the first days in a new city is Airbnb. You are often staying with a local family, which is great to get an understanding of the culture first-hand and get great local tips. I find that Airbnb is better in big cities, so I did this in Lima, Peru, Bogota, Colombia and will be doing it in Seoul, South Korea. Hostels are good if you are more interested in meeting other travelers and hotels are great if you are more interested in having your own space.
  6. Read a book. I tend to avoid travel guides, as they are expensive and heavy, and I hate navigating them on my Kindle. What I do like is to find a book that takes place in the country where I’m going to visit. Reading a book about a place (either fiction or non-fiction) can give you a glimpse into the country. Some of my favorites: Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today by Yoani Sanchez (Cuba), Gringo Nightmare: A Young American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua by Eric Volz (Nicaragua), Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young (Bolivia), and Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams (Peru).
    I read about it, then discovered Machu Picchu, Peru myself.

    I read about it, then discovered Machu Picchu, Peru myself.

  7. Check the weather. I try to determine what kind of clothes and supplies I need before I arrive, but like the crime, I don’t dwell on this too much.
A baby sloth completely unrelated to this blog post (Costa Rica)

A baby sloth completely unrelated to this blog post (Costa Rica)

What do you think?  My ‘no planning’ actually involves some research.  How do you travel?  Leave me some comments and suggestions below.

And stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, where I tell you what I do when I get there…

Categories: Planning, RTW, Solo Travel | Tags: | 1 Comment

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