For 3 glorious years, I was the travel editor of the Washington Post. While we had young kids then, my wife and I were still able to take a few international trips, a bunch of domestic vacations, and many quick visits around the mid-Atlantic region, all on the newspaper’s dime.
Along the way, I picked up quite a few lessons, many hard-won from both delightful and near-catastrophic experiences, and some picked up from our writers, correspondents, and readers.
I left the Post some time ago, but I’ve made use of those lessons ever since. They’re even more valuable as I’ve become a traveler approaching a certain age, where I want to wring as much engagement, fascination, and joy out of every opportunity — and limit stress and misfires whenever possible.
Here are the top eight tips I still apply today. I hope they’re helpful to you, too.
1. Ignore The Concierge, Ask The Bartender
Over the years, I learned that the prime sources of local knowledge work not at the concierge desk, but behind the bar.
Bartenders are gregarious by nature and get out quite a bit. They’ve heard a lot of other travelers’ experiences. They know the bright and the dark truths about other restaurants, bars, and attractions. They have no conflicts of interest. Get to the bar early, be curious and respectful, and drink in all the local knowledge that flows.
Pro Tip: A lot of bartenders are younger than you are. You may need to change “Where do you go on a romantic date?” to “Where do your parents go on a romantic date?”
2. Get Everywhere Early
My wife and I once had to run, literally, through the Frankfurt airport, up and down far too many ramps and maddeningly long concourses, to catch a plane to Barcelona. This was one of those last-one-through-the-door sprints, both of us heaving and sweating and, once buckled in, properly embarrassed to be those people.
This event became my lesson: Get everywhere early.
This rule applies to, well, everything. Restaurants, bars, museums, shows, national parks, attractions; I haven’t found an exception. Get there near the opening and the staff is clear-eyed, the docents unfatigued, and the good seats unoccupied. Lines are short or non-existent.
At the Uffizi in Florence, I got the earliest time tickets. There was a modest queue, but the crowd was cheerful and fresh. Once admitted, we had the exhibits nearly to ourselves for a blissful half-hour. I rushed to Michelangelo’s David. There were just three of us quietly admiring it, lingering without having to nudge the competition to see those magnificent (huge!) veined hands and, when viewed in person, that surprising, slight look of vulnerability. Sadly, by the time I backtracked to the Birth of Venus, the masterpiece was surrounded by a scrum of tourists angling their cellphones overhead. The magic was gone.
Of course, the go-early directive applies to airports too. My wife and I get to the airport no later than the recommended 2 hours before boarding every time. We let those hustlers briskly clacking their bags pass us with equanimity. We’re sanguine about security lines. We’re loose and unbothered, comfortably nursing our coffee or catching a snack at an airport restaurant. (Hint: Sit at the bar. The service is way better). We chat about our hopes and dreams for our trip. Sometimes we actually hold hands.
Pro Tip: To ease airport passage, go ahead and pay for TSApre status, even if you fly just once a year. It really reduces tension and lets you capture more time to relax.
3. Bring A Bunch Of Ziploc Bags
I got this one from our readers when we asked for their most useful tips. Bring Ziplocs of different volumes, from one gallon to those the size of a business card.
They take up no room in your suitcase and make life easy in ways you can’t predict. We’ve used them to stow a damp swimsuit, keep earrings paired, bundle medications for easy unpacking, transport the smooth stones we pick up as souvenirs, and, one time, protect a Paul Klee print we somehow found in a small Anguilla shop.
Pro Tip: Keep the unused bags in your suitcase so you never forget to pack them.
4. Plan For Spontaneity
Sure, you should prepare for your trip by doing your Internet grazing, reading a guidebook, and poring over a map. Got a bucket list or must-do experience? Book it. But for the rest, pick out stuff that sounds good and make that list your fallback. Your best experiences are likely to come from something you stumble across, or a whim you follow.
On a guided group e-bike tour in Costa Rica, my wife and I had an “on our own” night to kill. We’d planned to hit the recommended genuine-Tico restaurant the gang was headed to. But in a gametime reversal, based on a random tip from the hotel staff, we chose to hit a hot spring that was a manageable walk away. Not on our itinerary, and somehow not even on our trip planner’s radar screen, it delivered one of our most spectacularly romantic nights.
The place comprised a dozen or more semi-private pools of different temperatures, fed by a natural spring cascading down a hillside. Flowers and ferns lined some pools; cabanas and privacy tents surrounded others. We felt like we’d parachuted onto the set of The Bachelorette. (We later learned that, in fact, an episode had been shot there.)
If we’d followed our script, we’d have missed one of our most memorable travel experiences.
Pro Tip: Leaving a few blank slots on your schedule creates openings for spontaneous exploration.
5. Engage Locals Directly
This is harder than you might imagine. Most people you encounter are in the hospitality industry, merchants, or strangers who briefly give you directions on the street. But it’s worth the effort to be more real.
When our kids were very small, we visited a Jamaican resort, complete with a guardhouse, a private beach patrolled by security, and a tall fence on both sides. That was proper for a family vacation. But I got restless. One day, I prowled the perimeter fence, slipped through a gap, and walked to the adjacent beach where a few vendors chatted quietly in the heat.
A lanky local guy saw me and, sensing opportunity, offered me some ganja (cannabis). I declined but sensed an opportunity too — to see a sliver of Jamaica our resort vacation would never provide.
He offered, for $10 USD, to give me a tour of the immediate beach area. The tour included a former hotel wrecked by a hurricane 3 years before, the blue-roofed mansion of a rich guy of suspect income sources, a tidal pool for harvesting crabs, and a path to the topless beach. Along the way, I got bits of his tough life story; kids he rarely saw, two women he never married, a family that farmed up in the hills, a lot of bad luck, and a few bad choices. I did my journalist thing, just asking curious questions, and he opened up.
Sure, there was some risk, but I made sure we remained in view of others. I gave him $20 and a beer. We shook hands in a near-hug before I slid through the fence back to our resort.
I’d had at least a small taste of life in Jamaica far more real than we got at the resort.
Pro Tip: Ask questions and show interest in locals’ lives. You’ll be surprised how much they share — and how it enriches your travel experience. Of course, all the travel safety rules apply: Stay in daylight, in a public location, where others are around; carry only part of your money, and in a hidden belt or sealed pocket; let others know where you are.
6. Carry-On Bags Only
If you fail to fit your travel wardrobe in a single carry-on, you’re traveling into a headwind. The benefits of single-bagging are plenty. You speed through airports, never suffer lost luggage, simplify transfers, and avoid agonizing over what to wear. The only downside is you won’t impress anyone with your favorite outfit — a small price to pay.
How to pull this off? You’ve heard all the tips. Invest in a wardrobe of lightweight, wrinkle-free fabrics that hand-wash and dry quickly; stick with garments that layer, in colors that mix and match; two pairs of shoes only, and stuff each with small belongings. Sure, there are exceptions — weddings or visits to polar climates, for instance.
Pro Tip: Make full use of that “personal article” allowed on the plane. A Dopp kit works nicely.
7. Headed To A Challenging Place? Get Professional Help
When my son and I planned a family heritage trip to Russia, I did all my research, read a bunch of guidebooks, watched some videos, talked to the Post’s former Moscow correspondent… and quickly realized I was overmatched. We had no clue how to navigate such a difficult destination.
I put my pride and my cocky yeah-I’m-a-travel-journalist persona in time out. I found a Russian travel agency and let them do all the work: flights, transfers, accommodations, train tickets, museum passes; the whole thing.
When we got there, I knew I’d made the right decision. Moscow’s tough to visit, disjointed, dense, and surrounded by a 12-lane ring road with highly creative drivers. It’s a metro teeming with masses propelled by elbow thrusts and a populace that even 10 years ago was disinclined to show much generosity to baffled Americans. While challenging on the ground, our trip was much easier thanks to the knowledgeable agents greasing the skids on the big stuff.
Pro Tip: Always seek out a U.S.-based agency that specializes in the specific country you’re visiting, and has an office in that country. (When utterly confused one day, we visited that office for a bailout.) How to find the right agency? Look for native-born and -speaking staff members.
8. Travel Like A Journalist
Travel journalists are always looking for the pointed story others will love to hear — vivid, memorable, distinctive experiences that by anecdote convey the essence of the place, or an experience you have there.
When visiting friends in Vermont one recent summer, our hosts offered us the choice of a tour of the town or a ride up the ski lift to the peak of a nearby mountain. That was an easy call. The ride up offered a delightful view of the verdant terrain. We think we spotted a bear, but who knows? But beyond the peak, up a trail 100 vertical feet higher, stood a fire tower. We’d never scaled that sort of structure and were not quite sure it was legal. We committed anyway.
The ascent, which involved a jury-rigged wooden ladder missing a step that led to the top platform, was breathtaking in the literal sense, and the view was in the figurative sense. You could see the whole magnificent sweep of the region in 360 degrees, including two other ski resorts, a jarring clearcut prowled by yellow heavy equipment, and in the other direction, a hazy emerald swath that merged with the horizon. We looked down on the town we skipped, where we might have been nosing through the inevitable candle and maple syrup shops. I had my “story,” and our trip was richer for it.
Pro Tip: Ask locals for the one or two distinctive attractions or experiences found only in their area, the ones that make their home turf singular — but where visitors rarely go. Push past the quick replies and ask the who, what, where, when, why, how, and why not. Let the answers guide your adventure.
For more travel tips like these, check out these articles: