Twelve key lessons from 40 years of travel

I am 64 years old. I have been traveling internationally, for business and pleasure, for 40 years.

It is one thing I never tire of, and it has become my life. I have traveled in luxury (usually at others’ expense on business trips) and I have backpacked on a shoestring. I have begged on the streets of San Francisco and stayed in plush hotels on Park Lane in London. I have traveled with organized groups and I have been around the world erratically and alone.

Forty years is a long time. Like most people my age I wonder where the time went and I wish I could have some of it back so I wouldn’t waste as much of it. But that is the nature of life – we must play the hand we are dealt with, and in your mid-60s you’re running out of aces.

So what have I learnt in a lifetime of travel, apart from the fact that it’s definitely the most worthwhile thing you can do?

Here’s a few tips and observations. They are a little random, but I regard them as lessons well learnt.

1. The world is a big place
There is a saying that it’s a small world. That’s bullshit. The planet Earth is large and complex, with almost an infinite variety of places to go and things to see. Even if you go back to places you have visited before, your experience is likely to be entirely different. You can never go everywhere, nor see everything. The past is a foreign country, as they say, and seeing anywhere 20 years later is like seeing it anew. I went through Checkpoint Charlie in the Cold War days, now it’s a shopping strip.

One of my pet hates is people who say they ‘do’ a place. Just last week I was on a ferry and talking to a woman who said, “Oh, we don’t need to go to Europe. We’ve done Europe.” The stupidity and intellectual paucity of such a statement is astounding. I will go to Europe as often as I can, even if it means Death in Venice. Her mentality is of someone who ticks boxes, rather than experiences things.

In the words of the Merle Haggard song, “down every road there’s always one more city.”

2. There are many paths to enlightenment, Grasshopper
There are many ways to travel. There is no right way or wrong way. You hear a lot of rubbish about travel, usually by people who haven’t done much of it. People say you should always travel light, or you should never travel alone, or you should avoid package tours, or you shouldn’t go to Europe in winter. Again, it’s all bullshit. What works for some people doesn’t work for others. There are some handy rules or guidelines, but there are always exceptions.

We offer all sorts of advice at Third Age Travel. It is designed to help make you think, not to tell you what to do and what not do. As my old grandmother used to say, “it would be a funny old world if we were all the same.” I sometimes travel with hand luggage only, and I can backpack around Asia for a month with three shirts, one pair of trousers and a laptop PC. But sometimes I take an enormous suitcase and lug it around Europe for weeks.

GP finds Nirvana in a bar in Hanoi

3. Eat local, meet local
Eat where the locals eat, drink where the locals drink. Why are you traveling, after all? It breaks my heart when I see tourists lined up at McDonald’s on the Champs Elysee or drinking at a Starbucks in London. What earth are they doing? If you want the comforts of home, then stay at home.

Most countries have a wonderful local cuisine, and one of the delights of visiting them is to taste it. Also avoid the upmarket restaurants and the tourist traps and follow the locals. I remember me and Shaz sitting down in a bar in Paris once, with a nice view of the Eiffel Tower. We were about to order a beer but we were shocked at the prices. The service was lousy and no one came anyway, so we hopped up and walked two blocks down a side street to a small random restaurant. The beer was half the price, the place was full of locals, and the inexpensive food was delicious.

Local bars and neighborhood restaurants are particularly good places for meeting people and having a great conversation. Stay away from chains and tourist haunts.

4. Stay an extra day
It doesn’t make sense spending a single night in a place. Two nights gives you a full day. You go to bed where you woke up. Anything less and you are not doing the place justice. And whether it’s a hotel or an AirBnB or whatever, you never get 24 hours accommodation with an overnight stay – you’re typically in at the earliest mid-afternoon, and you need to be out by mid-morning. Arrive late and it’s even worse value.

There are exceptions of course. You might be in transit or in a hurry. But if you are travelling, in the real sense of the word, it is absurd to spend just a single night anywhere. Two nights gives you two breakfasts and two evening meals and a full day to do whatever it is you came to that place for in the first place. And you can have an afternoon nap!

If you’re trying to fit as much as possible into a short vacation or similar, use the two night rule as much as you can. Five places in ten days, with two nights in each, is much better than one night in ten places.

Boarding the London-Paris Eurostar

5. Trains are best
I will always take a train whenever I can. Buses are cheap but uncomfortable. Air travel is an absolute hassle. Trains take you from city center to city center in comfort and with a hint of romance. In some places, especially Europe and Japan and China, they are the only way to go. Trundling around Thailand or Vietnam or across the South African veldt on a slow train is enormous fun.

Trains are my default. I consider them first and other modes of transport second.

6. The concept of the sweet spot
One of the basic rules when buying anything in a competitive market is to never buy the cheapest nor the most expensive. The cheapest is very likely to have been put together down to a price, and the most expensive is likely to have had its price inflated to catch people who don’t care or know no better.

Is also often the case that there is no direct relationship between quality and price. This is true of items like clothing and furniture, and it is especially true of many products and services when you travel – especially accommodation.

It really pays to shop around. In the modern world, where virtually everything is online, there are all sorts of price comparison and aggregation sites that make this easier for you. Many of them are very good, and they can help you a lot, but you still need to do a bit of homework to get the best value.

With most things, there is a sweet spot. I love the concept. Not too cheap, not too expensive, with good value for money for what you get. But we all have different tastes and different budgets, and the sweet spot differs for each of us. I love finding a great hotel at a good price.

7. Trust people
There are scammers and thieves out there, but most people are honest and friendly, and your default position should be to trust them rather than be suspicious of them. You meet many more people and have a much better time if you don’t assume everyone is out to get you. Don’t be scared – remember why you are travelling. How often do you hear that the best thing about a place is the people? Meet as many of them as you can – and trust them.

8. Walk quickly
This may sound a little odd. I’m expressing it this way because it is exactly what I was told by a sales trainer when I was young. He said he couldn’t think of any other way of expressing it. What he meant was to act confidently – don’t look or behave like a dumb tourist.

You can rarely hide the fact that you are a visitor, especially if you are ethnically different. But don’t gape and dawdle and look as if you don’t know what you’re doing. It looks stupid, it makes you an easy mark for pickpockets and bag snatchers and beggars, and it is unnecessary.

Even if you have no idea what you’re doing, act as if you do. Stride confidently down that mysterious street. If you see a restaurant you like the look of, walk in as if you own the place, rather than tentatively peek through the front door. It’s amazing how much better an experience you will have.

9. Don’t be obsessed with photographs
I like good photographs, but I’ve never taken too many. I see far too many people when they are travelling snapping photographs all the time. It’s as if that’s the main reason they are travelling. Pictures are great reminders, but so are memories, and you’re much more likely to remember somewhere if you are not preoccupied with taking a picture of it.

10.  Take things slowly
I’m one of those people who is always in a hurry. At least, I used to be. Travel has taught me the virtues of slowing down a bit. I used to pride myself on not wasting time in airports or at railway stations, and always just making it. Not anymore. Nowadays I give myself all the time the world.

It’s not a competition, and we are not in a hurry. Take it slow. Give yourself lots of time. Go to the airport hours early and have something to eat there before you fly. Airport food is expensive, but it’s much better quality than you get on planes (I have a firm policy never to eat anything hot on the plane).

Airports and railway stations are the best places on earth to people watch. Sit and relax and watch the passing parade. There’s nothing worse than rushing around and putting yourself under pressure.

An important corollary of this rule is never to jaywalk in a foreign country. At home we often cross a street against the lights or commit other minor illegalities as pedestrians. Do not do this when you travel. The traffic is different, the conventions are different, and the safety factor is very different. Often the traffic flows in the opposite direction. Winston Churchill was nearly killed as a young man when he didn’t look both ways crossing a street in New York. He spent a while in hospital, but if he had been killed we would all be living under the Nazi yoke.

I have sprawled in the gutter in Etai Dori in Tokyo running across that busy street and tripping on a median strip. I was restrained by a fellow pedestrian from stepping out in front of the truck across the road from the Boston Tea Party site. I was almost taken out by a bus on the Auckland waterfront. All because I didn’t obey this simple rule.

Take it easy! Slow down!

11.  Get up early
Some of the best sights around the world are to be had early in the morning. Get up as early as you can. Go for a walk before breakfast, even if it’s just ten minutes around the block.

I’ve seen two men slaughtering a pig in the gutter in Xian in central China, a fisherman taking his catch to market in Provence, and jaded and drunken teenagers lolling around outside a closing all night club in Tokyo.

I’ve walked on a deserted beach as the sun comes up over the Pacific in northern New South Wales. I have wandered the forests above Heidelberg early on a midsummer morning. I’ve seen them doing tai chi in Saigon as the sun comes up. I have walked in the snow around Oxford at dawn. It’s all magical stuff.

These are some of my fondest memories. It’s also the best time of the day to take photographs.

The other good thing about getting up early is that you can hit the sights before many other travellers and most other tourists. Most people start late, and being early is a great way to avoid the crowds.

One Sunday morning we went to the Atomic Bomb museum in Hiroshima. We were waiting at the doors when it opened, and still had time to get the ferry across to Miyajima, the ‘magic island’ and one of Japan’s most popular attractions, well before lunchtime. We jumped on the cable car and scaled the peak to one the world’s most memorable sights.

We never waited in line. But by the time we were coming back down, there was a 45 minute wait to do what we had just breezed through.

Early is good. Very early is very good.

Miyajima, off Hiroshima

12. Visit Japan
My last key lesson is the only one specific to a particular location. Japan is, quite simply, the best destination on earth. Just about everybody who goes there loves it, but what amazes me most is the number of people that have not visited Japan or have no intention of doing so. They don.t know what they’re missing.

I have been there over a dozen times, for business and pleasure. Japan has it all. It is not overly expensive, though it once had an unjustified reputation for being so. The cities are a wonderful and the countryside is beautiful. It is just about the cleanest and safest place on earth.

The food is wonderful. There are great little bars and restaurants everywhere. People are unbelievably friendly and polite. And it is so easy – everything works. The language barrier is a minor inconvenience, and is actually fun to grapple with. Japan is unlike anywhere else. It is not Asia. Nor is it like Europe. It is another planet, but on ours. If you do not visit Japan in your lifetime you are doing yourself a major disservice.

 

And it took me only 40 years to learn this stuff! (Shaz says the picture of me drinking a beer in a bar in Hanoi and looking very pleased with myself shows I have learnt absolutely nothing. I would say it shows I have learnt a lot).

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