Travel Advice from a Total Novice

Sunday, June 12, 2016

I didn't fly until I was 22, and I didn't have a passport until more than ten years later. Suffice it to say I was late to the travel game. Having just returned from my third international jaunt - I know, I know, total globetrotter - I've learned a few things I think are worth sharing about planning trips abroad. Although you legitimate travelistas may be like, "It took you three trips to figure this out?"

Shoulder Seasons
Most popular destinations have peak travel times - often connected to when the weather is optimal for visitors. Hotels rates follow that trend, escalating during high-volume seasons. To maximize your enjoyment and your dollar, travel in the immediate shoulder season. For example, Ireland's peak season is summer, starting June 1. By going the last week of May, we benefitted from the tail-end of off-season prices and beginning of more temperate weather. A win-win. Beware of trying to save money by going too far out of season. When we did that in Saint Maarten, we nearly roasted to death from the equatorial heat - and learned that "low season" did not mean "low temperatures."

Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
I remember clearly the illustrations from the book we had growing up depicting this Aesop fable. It came to mind when we were traveling around Ireland and found ourselves much happier in the countryside than in the city. Knowing this now, we'll plan future trips differently, likely limiting our time in major metropolitan areas in favor of the roads less traveled. Not that there's anything wrong with liking the city! But you can maximize your time in your preferred destination, choosing a short stint in the travel hub or using it as a home base for a few key day trips.

Go with the Guides with a Grain of Salt
For the first two international trips we took, I poured over the Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet guides for our destinations. In both cases, I found that a lot of the recommended destinations were the obvious ones - the kind you find on the first page of Google. Finding the more out-of-the-way places and hidden gems takes a little more digging. I think this is especially true for food. The guides will give you the obvious, notable establishments, but the newer places or local dives may require a little elbow grease to find.

Don't Take TripAdvisor's Word for It
TripAdvisor is a great resource for vetting travel destinations. I've used it to find recent reviews on hotels I'm considering and find what travelers think are the must-see attractions for a given area. However, it's sort of  a self-fulfilling prophecy. The top destinations beget more visitors and reviews and stay at the top. So while, it's good for getting a sense of what recent travelers think, don't let it be the end-all, be-all of setting your agenda.

Use Social Sources
Since I ditched the guidebooks and took a tempered view of TripAdvisor for our recent trip to Ireland, I developed a more unorthodox approach to setting our itinerary. Obviously, if you know people who have been where you're going, solicit their advice. Also, use social media. I found twitter handles focused on tourist information and locals information for our destinations. I searched Pinterest for sample itineraries and "best of" lists as well as beautiful photography of Irish landmarks to help me map out a travel route. Speaking of photography, some of my best ideas came from Instagram. I found a local photographer who curates lesser known destinations across Ireland, and that profile led me to one of our most marvelous days in Ireland at Birr Castle.

Ask the Locals
Jason is so much better at this than I am, but ask the locals. We've had great luck getting recommendations from the concierge at hotels where we're staying. Know, though, that they may be getting a kickback for recommendations to certain restaurants and attractions. But Jason does a great job of remembering to ask any local with whom we strike up a conversation. His conversation with the proprietor of a chocolate shop in Kinsale resulted in our favorite pub experience in the seaside town.

Health Insurance
I learned this the hard way. Know how your health insurance covers you when travelling. Though I knew my own insurance covered me abroad, I had no idea what Jason's policy covered. So when he got violent food poisoning our first night in Dublin, I found myself madly Googling the repercussions of seeking foreign medical attention. Luckily, he was able to get back on track without a trip to the hospital, but I promise I won't leave the country again without understanding what happens if we have a medical emergency while abroad.

A Tip on Tips
Different countries have different tipping protocols. It helps to know what's expected from you with porters, wait staff, taxi drivers and other service people. We wished we'd had more small bills/Euro coins in Ireland because you couldn't put a tip on your card in a restaurant. Just a tip to Google tipping in your destination city or country so you don't get caught wondering if you stiffed someone unknowingly.

Get a Jackery
All credit to Jason for discovering this little device. It's an external charger for your cellphone. Or, as we discovered in what could've been a desperate situation, for the GPS when the charger Hertz gave us was faulty. You'll probably use your phone more than you think for taking photos, Instagramming, maps or the general searching for necessary information (e.g. what stores in Dublin sell Gatorade?). The Jackery will save you from a dead battery in a crucial moment.

Be Adaptable
We knew we needed an adapter to work with the voltage difference. But we're also two relatively intelligent people who are totally stupid when it comes to figuring out mechanical problems. Credit goes to Jason on this one as well. He read up and found out that the devices we'd need to plug in (our iPhones and my camera charger) could accept 220V. That left us needing only a less expensive plug adapter. Ladies, note that most of your hair-styling implements are not built this way, so I opted to use the hotel hairdryers and forgo my straightener. So I was frizzy but less fussy. And totally fine with that.

My globetrotting is just starting. And there's more to learn, so if you've got awesome advice, please share!
Crossing the Trinity College Library off my bucket list.