Ten great travel tips from John Flinn

Last month, San Francisco Chronicle travel editor John Flinn wrote a great column called “Idle thoughts on street food, postcards, diets and bribery“, which collected random bits of savvy travel observations and advice. Here are my ten favorite:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You know those weekly 2,000-word dispatches you send to family and friends from Internet cafes? They’d rather get two witty sentences on a postcard. Really.
  • 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.
  • Build time into your schedule to wander aimlessly. Those magic moments rarely happen when you’re following a tight itinerary.
  • 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.
  • Leave your diet at home. This is the time to indulge in coq au vin, a genuine Sachertorte or a slab of Argentine beef the size of a catcher’s mitt. If you get out and walk every day, you’ll come home a pound or two lighter.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • An imperfect trip is always better than a perfect trip you never get around to taking.
  • I’ll be interviewing John Flinn on my Writers page next month. For a sneak preview, click here.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | April 20, 2006
Category: Vagabonding Advice

5 Responses to “Ten great travel tips from John Flinn”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    I agree that talking to people is an excellent idea, unfortunately there is often a language barrier, something I’ve experienced while teaching English in Russia. So the question is, Is it worth starting a conversation if your language abilities won’t allow you to finish it?

  2. elizabeth Says:

    Re: Vanessa’s comment: When travelling, yes, absolutely! I’ve had some of the most hysterical experiences that way. You don’t need language to communicate; a smile, gestures, clothing worn that respects the mores of that country, it all works together. BUT an expat experience is different. I live in Cambodia, speak little Khmer, and often grow tired of having the same stilted conversations on a nigh-daily basis. For travellers, though, those gesture-filled communications can be a charming novelty.

    Rolf, thanks for the article link. Absolutely agree with it all, and am sending it off to friends who are on their way to visit me in SE Asia.

  3. Ayun Says:

    I’d add that a picture is worth a thousand words. Even if you draw like a donkey smells. I had so many pleasant interactions just by sketching the various children I encountered, who never seemed too hung up about it if my drawings didn’t flatter them.

    I spent some time with a Thai monk, who didn’t actually speak Thai, being that he was from Surinam. He told me that he behaved as if he were a baby, an innocent, loving baby who would gratefully accept all attempts to take care of him and as far as evil plans go, this one seemed to be working beautifully. It’s hard to shed all those adult trappings that constitute our identities back home, but usually, to so is rewarded.

  4. Patty Says:

    I would add that spending any time in an internet cafe (unless you have a professional obligation) is a crime. It takes away from the time you can be spending in a real cafe–people watching, conversing with locals, and generally enjoying the destination.

  5. John Houston Says:

    If I have any regrets, it will be that I did not travel enough when I was young. Though any chance I get, I pretty much do as you describe (well at least with food). As long as the water has been boiled and the meat cooked thoroughly.