Tom Gates, a refugee from the music industry, quit his job, sold everything he owned and set out on a mission: Travel 12 countries in 12 months, one month at a time. The countries: Chile, Argentina, Fiji, Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, India, England, Germany, Italy, France (OK, there’s one extra; he’s apparently an over-achiever). The result is a book, WAYWARD: Fetching Tales From a Year on the Road. I haven’t read the book, so I’m not going to tell you that you should read it. But he does offer nine tips if you’re planning to travel abroad this summer and they make a lot of sense, so here they are:
Tweet the Tourism Board: Even the most drab countries and cities now have a social media “expert,” and many are desperate to show their bosses the value of their work. Tweet or Facebook these handlers and you may be treated to a red carpet of deals and insider info. Start your own blog about the time spent in their country and they’ll weep at your feet for positive feedback. Tourism boards are waking up to the fact that Aunty Becky’s 100 followers may be more apt to take her advice over that of Travel & Leisure’s endlessly repetitive reviews of “opulent rooms” and “mouthwatering sea bass.” Aunt Becky’s gonna put it plain: “This place kicks ass and the food's real good.”
The Cheapo Airlines vs. Trains/Buses: Particularly in Europe, the cheap flights can be huge scams. They’ll drop you at airports 45 miles from the city you’ve intended to go to, charge you baggage fees that would make US airlines blush, and you’ll be stuck on a plane with 200 18-year-olds who are downing mini bottles of Svedka like it’s apple juice, headed for an island where people with baggy pants will dance to vapid beats. Conversely, trains generally go to and from city centers, and an upgrade to a business class can be less than traveling coach, if you factor in all of the hidden “tolls” that airlines can hit you with. Let alone the $50 cab ride from Girona to Barcelona that you didn’t see coming. Flying into some countries will also smack you with an entry fee ($150 in Brazil, Argentina, Chile), whereas train or bus travel will whack you considerably less. I have been on a 16-hour bus ride through Argentina, during which I was fed veal and whiskey, with a La-Z-Boy sized chair, finally finishing the book I’d been trying to put away for a fortnight – and it’s my favorite transportation memory of my life. It was a $50 bus ride or a $600 plane ride. I won.
Download Guidebook Regional Chapters: Just going to Tuscany? Don’t buy the entire Italy guidebook. Most of the guides are now offering chapters online for either free or as a chunk of the book. Lonely Planet Mexico is $19.99. Lonely Planet’s Puerto Vallarta chapter, available for PDF download, is $4.95.
The Deals Aren’t Only Online: We’ve become so obsessed with booking online that we forget that there are real people at these hotels, especially the boutique or family-owned ones. Call Luigi at Luigi’s Hotel in Italy. Guess what? He’s going to pick up. He’s freaking Luigi, not Paris Hilton. Email, fax, smoke signal them direct – you may come up with what’s better than on that discount website. I’ve stayed at the #1 hotel in the world (Singita, South Africa) with $100 knocked off the top just because I asked right (it was, after all, my dream to stay there, and it was off season).
Consider One Place for a Week, Rather than a Frantic Dash: “Slow Travel” is the current buzz term for a reason. Subletting an apartment is painless with sites like Airbnb.com and their local competitors. If you are really looking to suck up local life, park your butt in one place. Two weeks in one spot may seem boring, but it’s not once you realize how much you can soak up local life. You’ll ache to go back to the hole-in-the-wall restaurant discovery and leave town promising to send Christmas cards to the laundry-mat owner downstairs who cleaned your underwear for a month. I’ve lived above The Wee Grocer in Edinburgh and in Buenos Aires’s Tango District, where as a local I had many free, private lessons.
Cash Strapped? Break Even by Teaching Short Term: You don’t need to be a teacher in order to teach English. In Spain, Vaughan Town will put you up for a week in exchange for conversing with adult English learners, with three square meals a day at a 4-star hotel. Several programs in Italy can find you living with a for-real Italian family and teaching English summer camps, which could pocket you $1,000 (enough to offset your flights). Both require surprisingly little training and no ESL degree, and both allow you to get to know real people, not just a concierge at your hotel. I’ve done both, although teaching Italian boys did about just kill me.
Don’t Rule Out Getting a New Crown: If you’re without health insurance or stuck with high deductibles, don’t rule out spending a day getting some work done as a pit stop. I went to a sparkling dental hospital in Bangkok and had three fillings replaced for what it would cost to fill my gas tank. Investigate and you’ll find high-end establishments, filled with doctors who’ve been trained in America, are now at home and working for local costs.
A Language Translator App Might Be the Best Invention Since, oh, Fire: Onions are my enemy. To be able to say, “I will throw up if you feed me onions” everywhere I go is a huge win, and to be able to translate a menu on my phone is a big part of the process. If you’re seeking out roads less traveled, you’re going to find less English speaking help. These apps help. I’ve had entire conversations with locals by handing my phone back and forth, each of us typing in our own language and spitting out the other’s. It’s also the best weapon in your arsenal if you’re single and mingling … search for the word for “kiss” right away.