Here are some less-traditional travel tips for the spontaneous of heart and light of wallet. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Lee Starnes.
1. Sit near the front of the plane, especially if you have a layover. You will be one of the first passengers off the plane after it lands, which sometimes can mean the difference between making or missing a connecting flight. You also will get out of the airport sooner. And on the topic of flying: Check in online. It saves time at the airport, and might spare you some nagging about the size of your carry-on, which is starting to become a hassle even with non-American airlines.
2. Grab a free map at a tourist office or hotel. This might seem unnecessary on a well-planned trip, but it’s often easier to pick up maps on the fly (hotels are everywhere) and they’re more useful than ones you’ll find in Lonely Planet.
Last year, I used a 10-hour layover in Ukraine to explore Kiev. So I left my carry-on in a locker at the airport, bussed downtown, and then roamed the capital with a map from a random hotel. It came with landmarks already highlighted as is often the case. There’s a lot of freedom in navigating on your own, rather than using a tour guide. Also I’m a visual thinker, so I haven’t really visited a city until I can picture it, feel my way around mentally, get oriented.
3. Get lost. Four years ago a friend suggested this when I asked what to do in Rome. So I left the hostel to wander the cobblestone streets and one-person-wide alleys until dark. Then I pulled out the map to see where I was and hopped on a bus to head back. It would have been better to do this only in daytime, but otherwise, most fears about losing your way (in a strange city, no less) are unfounded. Karl Pilkington (a podcast friend of Ricky Gervais) loves doing this in his own city. He argues you find a lot of treats along the way.
4. Go where locals go. That sounds obvious, like hitting the eateries that locals prefer. But I’m thinking of the even more ordinary, so much so it’s free. Parks are a winner because they’re a place for the utterly normal: families, joggers, classmates. But also because residents make them their own, from tai chi in Tao Dan Park, to sailboats in Tuileries Garden, to cyclists in Central Park. Some cities, especially in the United States, don’t have such a tradition of shared public space.
But they have libraries, some of which lend themselves to native culture and spectacular architecture. The Vancouver library pays tribute to First Nation tribes with displays and an indigenous writer in residence. Even in my overlooked hometown of Sacramento, the Library Galleria is a glass and chandelier masterpiece that invites special occasions (like my high school prom). One other highly visitable place I never hear about is the grocery store. Everyone thinks of bookshops and clothiers, but what’s a more local place to spend money than a grocer? You can buy backward magazines in Japan, chocolate eggs containing toys in Hungary, and no gum in Singapore.
5. Plan a little — but not too much! There are times when I wish I’d done more planning. During a layover in Tokyo this spring, I’d intended to just tour the town surrounding the airport, Narita, so I brought a list of what to do there. But our plane landed early and there were no lines at immigration, so I decided I could afford the hour to get into Tokyo. I enjoyed the lime-green trees, cruiser bikes, and ramen.
But if I’d planned to visit Tokyo, I would have known to go to a livelier cultural district and made better use of the time. Still I think people tend to have the opposite problem, too much preparation. It’s exhausting to shuttle from one activity to another and check off lists. Less planning allows for surprises. In Vienna, I was blissfully unaware of the Rembrandts and Raphaels that awaited me at the Belvedere museum, which made them all the sweeter. So plan enough to know where to go and a few sights to see, but leave room for when those street performers come along and spin inside hula-hoops on the banks of Barcelona.