Readers of my blog – both of them – know that I am nothing if not an inspiring force to get them out of their comfort zones. Not just with regards to travel, although there may be no greater method to effect inner change than a change of scenery. Even day to day, a person can take small or great steps toward self-improvement and independence in this desk-straddling, keyboard-jockeying, boot-licking society of ours. But travel remains the most effective way to making the paradigm shift – to understanding that your problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
And yet, your fear persists. There are three main obstacles people will cite when talking themselves out of traveling: Time, money, and foreign language and/or customs. All three are manageable, however, and completely within your control. The only real obstacle, as with most things, is your self-determination. Unless of course you’re on the U.S.’s terror watch list.
Time. Ticking away, the moments that make up a dull day… Time is your most valuable resource, and you are right not to squander it needlessly. Especially vacation time. If you live in the U.S., you probably have somewhere between zero and three weeks of vacation. A bit unfair compared with those bastards in France or Denmark or Sweden you’re always hearing about, whose companies pay for 18 weeks of vacation, a house in Tuscany, first class airfare, and top notch cosmetic surgery. Meanwhile, you’re scrimping away vacation days so you can fly back to Minneapolis for Aunt Trudie’s 86th birthday, or the same old dysfunctional family Christmas. Two weeks away from work – what are you, a senator?
Here are some ways to “find” time:
1. Take an UNPAID vacation. Yes, this will require a hit to the bank account, but if you plan right, you can do this. Just ask your boss or talk to HR. Explain that you need a week off, and you’d like to do it unpaid. You know what corporations love? Not spending money.
2. Offer to travel for work. Of course, traveling for work is still work, but if you can change the airline ticket and have a few extra days, why not stay in the locale you’re visiting? Or take a side trip from there? If you’re going to a conference in Topeka, and Topeka bores you, take a side trip over to Colorado. You’ve already flown halfway across the country on the company dime, so you’ve saved some time in that respect. And believe me – not everyone WANTS to travel for work, so your “sacrifice” will be appreciated.
3. Build your vacation around holidays. There is NO LAW (yet) that requires you to eat turkey, watch the Detroit Lions get pasted, and pass out at 7 pm on Thanksgiving. Yeah, it’s a tradition because the Pilgrims did it. You know why the Pilgrims did it? THERE WAS NOTHING ELSE TO DO IN 1620. If a Pilgrim had the chance, he’d have been on a JetBlue flight to Aruba; that goes double for the natives, since they were about to be evicted.
Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day…all good reasons to celebrate – and escape. There will be another one next year.
Money. I’m all right Jack – keep your hands off of my stack. (Somehow Pink Floyd got mixed up in this.) Okay, so you have time. Can you afford it? Of course you can. Vacations don’t need to be extravagant, but you’re going to need to do a little digging to find some deals.
1. Airfare. The current bane of our existence is air travel. People bitch about it, terrorists aim to disrupt it, suspenders-clad comedians make hackneyed jokes about it. But when you think about it, air travel is a pretty good deal. Yeah the lines are long, the security is frustrating, and the freebies are disappearing. But the fact that you can hop on a bird and be in London or Honolulu or Bangkok in a matter of hours for a few hundred dollars is still pretty amazing. And for all the concerns about safety, deep down you know you’re safer on a plane than behind the wheel of your Nissan. That said…here are some ways to game the system, especially in these days of high gas prices.
1. Search the aggregators and meta airfare search engines. What does that mean? Well, some sites, AA.com, United.com, Delta.com, etc., will find you fares on their airlines. Others, Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, etc., will find you deals on many airlines. But aggregators will search ALL of the above sites – the airlines, and the searchers. Kayak.com, Mobissimo.com, Momondo.com, CheapOAir.com – these will bring up the cheapest prices found on Expedia, American, Orbitz, Continental, etc. So far they offer the widest dragnet for you to find the best tuna.
2. Be flexible. Depart or arrive on Wednesdays or Saturdays (the two cheapest days of the week). Travel on December 25 or July 4. Be willing to depart at odd hours or make an extra connection. Be willing to fly one airline to Europe, for example, then a discount carrier (EasyJet, Ryan Air) within the continent.
3. Let the tail wag the dog. I didn’t plan on going to Morocco this year. But for $350? Sounded all right to me. Ditto when I went to Buenos Aires (a second time) for only $287. If money is a concern, look for the deals first, consider whether the price is worth it to you, and go. This goes back to escaping your comfort zone. I’m sure if you read up on a place you’re unfamiliar with, you’ll find plenty of reasons to visit. (With the obvious exceptions of places mired in war, genocide, lack of government, or the wake of a natural disaster. Or Illinois.)
4. Lodging. Again, you should use meta sites to your advantage. But you can also explore alternatives. Apartment rentals (try Vrbo.com), guest houses, home stays, or even housing swaps. You live in an age where everything is user-reviewed and rated. When you find good deals, see what people have to say about them on TripAdvisor.com. (Take everything with a grain of salt though).
When I was in Costa Rica, I stayed in a guest house in Cahuita on the Caribbean. It was 500 feet from the beach, 200 feet from the jungle. I had the run of the place, and would sit on the porch in the evenings, drinking beer, watching frogs and crabs in the nightly rain, listening to howler monkeys. I paid $20 a night for that place, which was clean and hospitable. No, my towels weren’t replaced every day, and there was no adjacent celebrity chef-owned restaurant. The point is, you can relax like a prince on a pauper’s budget, if you do a little research and give up some frivolities.
A home stay – literally staying with locals who open up their homes to travelers – is a great way not only to crash for cheap, but to meet the locals and practice the language, which brings me to…
Language and customs. Can’t think of a Pink Floyd verse for this. But you know the litany of fears people have, especially for (but not limited to) international trips: I don’t speak the language, I’m afraid of the unknown, and of course the self-flagellating “people hate Americans and want to hurt us.”
1. You don’t need to master a foreign language. In fact, let me help you relax by telling you that you won’t in time for your trip. So save the $300 you were about to drop on Rosetta Stone. What you can do is learn a few useful phrases. People will appreciate the effort you’ve made and excuse you for your lack of fluency. Maybe not in Paris, but most places.
2. Local customs CAN be intimidating and vexing. Admit this to yourself. Then go anyway. You’re trying to get out of your comfort zone, remember? Again, study up before you go so you don’t commit any major faux pas. You’re likely to be forgiven if you do.
3. Believe it or not, most people receive Americans respectfully and amiably. (I know we just slipped into a sovereign country and shot a mass murderer in the head, then absconded with his body and dumped it into the ocean. Bear with me.) First – get over yourself. You don’t work for the State Department or the President. When you meet a French person, is your first reaction to grill him over Libyan airsrikes or secret handshakes with Iran? Do you blame him for his country blocking UN resolutions against Sudan? Do you mock France’s national obsession with Jerry Lewis? Of course not. Neither are you likely to be blamed for your nation’s myriad misadventures and offenses. And presuming otherwise implies that the people in the country you are visiting cannot think for themselves. Give them a little credit. Just don’t make yourself a target – leave the Tony Romo jersey, flag bandana, or Calvin-peeing-on-a-Chevy t shirt at home.
I haven’t even touched on things like airline miles and finding cheap restaurants. But the bottom line is that if you really want to, you’ll find the time, money, and wits to take the trip of a lifetime. It is up to you to make the next move. And for heaven’s sake, lay off the French. They deserve better.