I spent a lot of last year traveling the world to carry out research for my forthcoming church history project–a project that took me to 24 countries across 6 continents. Now that the travel is winding down, I’m beginning to think about a few of the travel lessons I learned along the way. I decided to jot them down and share them in case they prove helpful to you next time you set out on a journey of your own.
Travel light. Leave the giant suitcase at home and stick with a carry-on and backpack (or other “personal item”) whenever possible. Not only are you likely to use fewer clothes than you expect, but you’ll also find that with careful planning a carry-on can hold almost everything you need for a week or ten days. Figure out what you actually need, try to make sure every item is as versatile as possible, and leave the rest at home. Take shoes or boots that work for both casual and dressier situations; plan around outfits, not just individual garments; use packing cubes or another system of efficient packing. Sticking with just a carry-on makes travel lighter and quicker and greatly reduces the likelihood of a bag going missing or getting pilfered while out of your control.
Plan, but don’t over-plan. It’s wise and good to put some effort into planning a broad itinerary and even a day-by-day plan, but there’s also joy in spontaneity and serendipity. You don’t want your time to be so rigidly planned that you can’t take the winding road over the mountain instead of the straight road through the mountain. Also, remember that TripAdvisor and other similar sites are notorious for false reviews, so do your own research on the attractions that are really worth seeing. (When it comes to family travel, we tend to do one day that is tightly planned followed by a day or two that is more spontaneous. Our favorite vacations have been a day of traveling from point-to-point followed by one or two days of exploring an area. We typically repeat that pattern until the vacation is over.)
Go to church. Plan to go to a local church while you’re far from home. There is lots of beauty in the world, but nothing is quite so beautiful as God’s people. Find a church, meet some Christians, and enjoy experiencing worship and fellowship in a different culture and perhaps even a different language. You’ll be amazed how much you can appreciate a service even when you don’t speak a word of the language.
Get good luggage. Aim for luggage that is light, durable, and that conforms to airline specifications. If you’re going to make do with only a carry-on, make sure it’s rugged enough that it will survive if the airline forces you to check it–though in 65 flights last year, I only had to check a bag 5 or 6 times. Luggage goes on sale all the time, so do some research, keep an eye on your suitcase, and snatch it when it’s priced right.
Balance works and wonders. God displays himself in what I refer to as works and wonders, and it’s worth making time for both. Works are what God has done in history and wonders are the beauty of his creation. So visit some museums to see historical objects that have particular significance to the history of the church or stop by some sites or historic buildings where God has worked in unusual ways. Then go and see him displaying his handiwork in creation. In both cases, you’ll marvel at what God has done and how he has worked.
Make a food plan. There are many places in the world where food preparation standards are poor, water is untreated, and so on. Oh, the things I saw last year! Before you go anywhere in the developing world, you will want to do some reading about what to eat and what to avoid. You’ll probably want to stick with bottled water, skip shellfish and uncooked vegetables, and so on. Come up with a food plan and try to stick to it. You can almost always be polite and adventurous without being unwise. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t get as much as a cold last year.)
Walk. It’s often rewarding to skip the official tours and strike out on your own. Some of my favorite days in far-off places were the ones that involved the most walking. Rome, Jerusalem, the Scottish Highlands, New Zealand’s Bay of Islands—I have precious memories of each of these places that involve walking until my legs were tired and my feet were sore. But it was through walking that I really saw and experienced them.
Know the local customs. Standards of what is polite and impolite can vary widely from culture to culture, so be sure to do a little research so you don’t inadvertently offend others. Gestures, wardrobe, notions of personal space, tones and volumes of speech, interactions with members of the opposite sex—these all vary widely across the world so that what is utterly insignificant in one place can be deeply offensive in another. Learn what these customs are, respect them, and try to appreciate and enjoy them.
Use Uber or equivalent. Ride sharing apps are ideal for grabbing a quick cab ride, and often come at a very reasonable fee. Have Uber on your phone but also check for local equivalents (Gett in Israel, DiDi in China, etc). With these services, you can walk to the outskirts of a city or tourist area, then get a quick ride back.
Don’t fall for simple scams. There are an unending number of scams meant to take advantage of tourists. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid falling victim to a crime, but most of the ones you find in major tourist cities are crimes of opportunity which you can avoid with basic precautions. When you exit an airport, go to the official taxi line instead of accepting a ride from the guy who approaches you to offer a cheaper alternative. Don’t be afraid to ignore and walk away from hustlers or people who otherwise make you uncomfortable. Wherever there’s a crowd watching a street performer, you can be sure there’s someone nearby looking for an easy mark. Keep your wallet and passport in a safe, interior pocket; when eating at a restaurant, and especially a patio, put the strap of your purse or backpack through the leg of your chair so it can’t be easily snatched; keep at least one credit card separate from the others so you can’t lose it all at once. Mostly just be wise and aware.
I don’t ever expect my travel will take me as far and wide as it did last year, but, like you, I’ll be setting out again every now and again. These tips have served me well and I hope they do the same for you.