About five years ago, San Francisco Chronicle travel editor John Flinn published a column called “A few things I’ve learned in a quarter-century-plus of travel.” I enjoyed his insights so much I saved the article as a text file — and I recently stumbled across it again on my laptop. Here are my ten favorite bits of advice from Flinn’s column:
1. When you’re on a lean budget, one step up from rock-bottom is always worth it. Five dollars is often all it takes to upgrade from squalid to tolerable. It’s the difference between sweaty torpor and air conditioning in a Marrakesh hotel room, between a writhing dog-pile and a seat of your own on the bus to Dharamsala, between dicey hygiene and the meal of your life in a Luang Prabang restaurant. Don’t be a cheapskate masochist.
2. Street food is always cheap and often excellent, but limit yourself to items fresh off the grill. Don’t eat anything that’s been sitting around; watch the guy cook what’s going into your mouth.
3. Plan your trip well, prepare a Plan B in case circumstances change — and be ready to toss both plans out the window when an unexpected opportunity presents itself.
4. Force yourself to be an extrovert. Talk to people. You might find that the white-haired man at the bus stop in Yorkshire flew in the Battle of Britain, or that the Indian woman on the ferry to Koh Samui is a vacationing Bollywood movie star.
5. Build time into your schedule to wander aimlessly. Those magic moments rarely happen when you’re following a tight itinerary.
6. Everyday experiences take on new poignancy in foreign countries. Wandering through a Guatemalan supermarket or attending a church service in Rarotonga can provide more cultural insight than a week of guided tours.
7. Watching television in foreign countries is always fun and sometimes instructive, even if you don’t understand a word.
8. Force yourself to get up early. Before 9 a.m., even the most tourist-clogged of cities belong to the locals. You’ll find corner vegetable markets, fishermen hauling in their nets and nobody but locals in the cafes. Jet lag is your friend here: On your first day or two in Europe, you won’t have to set your alarm to wake up at 5 a.m.
9. When things go wrong — and they probably will — remind yourself that if this doesn’t kill you — and it probably won’t — it will make a great story. Your friends don’t want to hear how beautiful the Taj Mahal is. They want to hear about the psychotic driver who kicked you off the bus and left you stranded in a one-dog town.
10. Remember: An imperfect trip is always better than a perfect trip you never get around to taking.