I am at a cash machine in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Day One of a two-week vacation with my brother. He's just finished getting cash out, and now it's my turn to stock up.
I put my debit card in, then spend some time doing mental calculations of the currency conversion rates to figure out how much Vietnamese dong I should get out. I take the cash and quickly hide it in my money belt. I walk away to meet up with my brother.
A minute later, I realize I don't have my debit card; I forgot to take it from the machine at the end of the transaction. The machine ate it, and now I'm stuck without my debit card.
My brother laughs. "Oh! We [the family] thought you were this amazing, knowledgeable traveller," he says, "but it's not that you know what you're doing, you just like doing it and do it a lot."
So the reviews are in. Should you be taking advice from me, a girl who once relied on her brother's bank access for the duration of a trip? I'll leave that for you to decide. But I do have some long-term travel experience, and—most of all—I love it.
Here are my five tips on how to have a great travel experience.
Speak with local people
You could ask for someone to take your photo for you, or ask for directions. Whether you're travelling solo, with a partner, or in a group, it's important to interact with local people. I've always found that locals are very forgiving when it comes to speaking the local language, so just try your best to use a few words if you know some. There have also been times when I've resorted to charades or Pictionary approaches to communication—whatever works! I've gotten lucky, and a few times these quick conversations have turned into days spent with new local friends.
Request local advice
Local tourism offices are often my first stop in a new city. Besides getting the local scoops on events and other goings-on, they're great places to score free maps. In one instance, a tourism office worker in Niger also became a lifeline when my friend and I ran out of money and didn't realize that the entire country did not have ATMs.
Spend your money locally
Want to actually help the lives of local people? Spending your money wherever you are is key. This means not booking hotels, tours, and flights in advance, as this usually means money trickles out of the country and into the bank accounts of foreign tourism companies. In all my years of travel, I'm still in the habit of booking hotels upon arrival most of the time, and so far I have never slept on the streets—sometimes in bus terminals, but only on purpose.
Do your chores
Not, you know, vacuuming, but your other daily tasks, like haircuts, watch or jewellery repairs, or tailoring. I used to leave these until I got home, but have discovered that they're quite fun to do on the road. Often these chores take you to neighbourhoods you might not otherwise visit, so it's a great way of discovering parts of the city not frequented by tourists. This tip brings together my tips 1-3: you have to speak with locals to ask their advice for finding a watch repair person, and you spend your money on location instead of at home. And your watch is repaired sooner! It's a win-win.
Don't worry about "bests"
Pre-trip research online can be pretty overwhelming. It can be difficult to navigate through all the "Top Ten Places to See in" whatever city you're planning on visiting. You might be wondering how you can afford to see all the "Must-Dos" or if you have enough time to visit all the "Bests". I cannot tell you how to have the best time or tell you what you absolutely must do, and even if I could, I wouldn't want to. That, to me, is not what travelling is about. Your trip is yours, not anyone else's. Explore. Get lost. Enjoy your experience.