How to Travel
On the cheap, like a local, and without a lot of luggage.
I don’t travel like most people do. I don’t go to see the X wonders of the world. I don’t go for the museums. I stay away from the coolest neighborhoods in the world, which all end up being variations of the same thing.1
I travel to get an idea of how other people live. To inhabit, in a small way, their tiny slice of the world. To meet people on their terms, the best that I can. On a level that allows me to better understand how they see the universe and their place in it.
Like reading fiction, travel is a gateway into another life. But it’s better than fiction, because the plot is written in real time, by the characters themselves, and it never ends.
And like good fiction, travel changes you. For the better. Mostly.
It’s like taking a hallucinogenic drug, without all the bad stuff, like it being illegal and maybe killing you. You come back from the “trip” with a different perspective. A different sense of who you are, and why we’re all here.
This is my attempt to answer the questions I’ve gotten about the mechanics of how I travel. From the larger things, like where to go, to the smaller things, like how to pack.
This style of travel, of aiming to be a local, isn’t for everyone. I’m blessed with a lot of free time, and it’s best done in weeks, not days. Still, you can get a remarkably good sense of a place in a few days if you reset your priorities.
Which means wanting to meet people more than wanting to see buildings or mountains.
Where to go?
Traveling is my education, so I treat the question like choosing which course to take. What do I want to learn about this semester? For me, currently that’s faith and religion. So I’ve been trying to go to places of deep faith, and ones different from what I’m familiar with. To see faith as it’s practiced by the average follower, not by the high priests, or the most sacrosanct. The local mosque rather than the Blue mosque.
So to the degree I have a longer term plan, it’s about majoring in world religions.
You’re probably different. Your grand plan might be to major in food. Or sports. Or political systems. Or architecture. Or philosophies. Or whatever. But everyone has a grand plan they’re working on, whether they know it or not.
Know your grand plan, and then ask yourself, what country, or region, or version of it, do I have the least familiarity with? Then chose a place that has that.
Choosing the city
I believe in doing deep dives. In doing one place for as long as I can, rather than running all around trying to see everything. To become a local, or at least blend in as best I can.
That means finding a single city, and spending all my time there, with only a few days dedicated to side trips, but side trips that residents actually do.
Once I’ve narrowed down the region (Muslim countries, or Buddhist cities, etc) I try to find non-traditional tourist destinations. Cities that are viewed as ugly, or without a lot to see. Cities where the residents are more focused on living their life, for themselves, not for a global audience.
When I decided to go to Vietnam, everything and everyone told me to go to Ho Chi Minh City. It had better food. More art. More high culture. Less government. So I went to Hanoi.
The US equivalent is to go to Indianapolis instead of NYC or Houston instead of LA.
While NYC and LA are absolutely great, and you can learn tons from them, they can lull you into a skewed sense of the US. They’ve got such a strong self-image, a strong desire to be seen as special, that many residents have become actors playing NYC, or LA.
That doesn’t mean entirely ignoring places like NYC, Istanbul, Seoul, or Tokyo. Some cities are so important they can’t be missed, and every city is a confederation of very different neighborhoods. NYC is as much Dyker Heights as it is Upper East Side.
That makes where you stay in a city more important than the city itself.
Choosing the neighborhood and place to stay
My general rule of thumb, like in every choice I make when traveling, is to go to the less visited parts. The neighborhoods where most people live, but few visit. The un-cool parts of town.
To figure out where those are, google maps is your best friend. Especially google street views. It allows you to tour a city from your laptop. Do all the essential and logistical stuff before doing far more interesting meeting people stuff.
My first step is bringing up the city on google maps and click the restaurants tab. The first places that pop up will all be clustered in a few areas. These are the well known restaurants that often pay to show up first, have thousands of reviews, and are reflective of a very narrow part of the city.
These are usually the cool parts of town and I mostly avoid2 them. They are the places of quaint storefronts mobbed with American retirees, hip bars filled with plastered 25 year old Brits, and a few monuments with millions of Instagram posts.
Despite being in very different cities, they all feel the same. You have your five star hotels. Your restaurants that everyone says you have to go to. Your buildings plastered with historic plaques.
They are chock full of can’t miss spots, that you can miss, and you should.
Once you’ve eliminated the cool neighborhoods, concentrate on the blanker areas of the map.
Zoom in on them, then hit “search here” and see what restaurants come up. Start reading the reviews. If they have like 50 reviews, not 5,000, most not in English, that’s a pretty good sign.
Then look through the pictures posted by visitors3. If they’re of local families celebrating birthdays, or couples on dates, that’s also a pretty good sign.
If there are only fifteen pictures, all of the same four people. That’s an even better sign.
Once you used the restaurant filter to find a few neighborhoods, start using the Street View function. Start virtually walking through the area. Does it look like a place you will want to spend a few weeks in? Are you creeped out by the vibes? If you like coffee in the morning, is there a place you can walk to each morning that looks like your kind of place?
Then chose a random place in another part of town, maybe that cool neighborhood, and use the directions and public transportation option to see if it’s easy to get from your hood to there.
The best neighborhoods have lots of bus lines going through it.
I often spend days doing this, thinking through my day, imaging my routine, and virtually recreating it.
When you’ve narrowed down to the specific neighborhood, then drill down on where exactly to stay.
I’m an Airbnb4 convert. I like having my own space. I don’t like to be looked after. For some, who worry more about safety, I get staying in hotels. Which you can do pretty cheaply if you stay away from the neighborhoods with clusters of fancy restaurants.
Finding the exact apartment is a similar virtual process. Look at all the reviews and pictures posted. Does that sound and look like a place you want to hang out in at night? Can you image yourself happily stumbling out of bed at 6 am and walking down the street to get whatever breakfast.
I need four things in a place — a private bathroom, a washing machine, wifi, and a place I can sit for a long time and write. Beyond that, I don’t really care, and chose the cheapest home with those. Which usually means, given the neighborhoods I stay, between 10-40 bucks/night.
Visas and things like that
The US State Department has the best summary of what you will need (if any) in terms of paperwork before arriving.
Most non European countries will want a tourist visa, which you can get quickly online. What they really want is the money they charge you for it, usually about $70.
Covid restrictions are mostly gone, but some places still have them.
The State Department’s site is meant to scare you. Almost every country will flash a big red “Travel Advisory” and ninety percent of the time it is bullshit ass covering.
So use common sense. If they think someplace is dangerous (they almost always do), spend time reading the local news to see if it is a real issue, or the State Department being overly cautious.
How to pack (lightly)
I’m a hardcore light traveler. I spent three months traveling around the world using only a book-bag. I don’t expect everyone else to do that, but you really don’t need to bring much. Especially if you have a washing machine and don’t care too much what you look like.
Next time you travel, when you get home, unpack and see what you didn’t use. You’ll be surprised how much you’ve overpacked. Also. You can buy stuff on the road.
My backpack is absurdly organized. Everything in it has a place, and that place doesn’t change.
For clothing I basically bring the same things I listed in my “How to Walk 12 Miles a day” post. I wear the heavy stuff (carpenter pants, t-shirt, and long sleeve dress-y over-shirt with pocket5, and jacket for cooler climates) on the plane6. The lighter stuff (shorts, t-shirts, and four changes of socks/underwear) are stuffed in my backpack, rolled into logs7. Along with my laptop, charger, extra battery, and various cords. Which I wrap tight with hair-ties8.
I bring one physical book, for hard times, but smartphones have almost all the entertainment you need.
I also bring four tide pods, double wrapped in sandwich bags, for laundry. Oh. And two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Airport food is absurdly expensive.
I also bring lots of cash9. In hundreds and twenties. (I don't carry it on my walks though.)
You can almost always change cash with no commission and at a better exchange rate than credit cards charge. Just don’t do it at the airport. Often the best place is local banks and jewelry stores (yes) that post the rate of exchange on a chalkboard.
Be very very picky about what 100s and 20s your bank gives you. The bills cannot have any tears or blemishes on them. Or stamps. Have to be crisp. So keep them crisp. Never fold them. Counterfeiting is a real worry around the world, not just a bad movie plot.
How to fly
As cheaply as possible. That means spending a few weeks checking out prices on places like Mondo and Skyscanner, and buying tickets about two months ahead of time. Unless you’re going around holidays, then buy at least three months ahead of time.
Again because I’m not pressed for time, I don’t mind changing planes, often. Or layovers. I opt for the cheapest tickets over convenience.10
Once you find the flights you like, I prefer booking on the airline's webpage. For simplicity and to lower any confusion. Like when I accidentally bought a ticket to Seoul, that was part of a package to then go to Manila. Which the airline tried to force me to do.11
I don’t like layovers less than hour and half since many airports, especially in Europe, make you go back through security, which makes for a lot of unnecessary stress.
Everyone has their long flight hacks. Mine is to sit near back of plane, in an aisle seat, where I can get up and walk around a lot.
The very back of the plane, where the main flight attendant's nest is, is a little social club. It is perfectly cool to hang out there stretching, chatting, and munching on snacks, which they will give you if you ask nicely. Especially on very long flights.12
God bless those who can sleep on planes. I can’t. But I don’t mind much because I actually like long flights. They are oddly relaxing. Fifteen hours of enforced meditation.
I also watch the local movies on the entertainment system. Especially local versions of rom-coms, which are a little, often fun, window into how a culture views itself.
First few days and how to get around
Never change money in an airport, especially before the baggage claim. They charge absurd rates. Wait until you get to the main lobby, find a bank machine, and take out like $40 in local money. Just enough to get you through the first day.
Then find the bus into town. There is always a bus into town (unless its very late), and it’s usually between free13 and seven dollars. The ride into town is a great way to get an early feel for a place. As well as maybe meet a few people, who are mostly airport employees.
The only downside is it might drop you off in the middle of a very busy road. Like they did to me in Hanoi. But as my father would say, that’s an experience.
On my first full day in a new town I literally walk across it in one direction. The next day I walk across it in another direction. Then over the next few days I slowly fill in the gaps, changing and refocusing my walks on what interests me the most. I’m never sure what that will be, but it’s usually something I stumbled on during those first two walks.
I try to walk every day and everywhere, and let events, not mileage, guide me. I like to do at least ten miles a day, but its not a hard fast rule. It is kind of a random walk learning process. A more focused version of what I wrote about in Why I Walk.
The only real rule I try to stick with is never taking cabs. Buses I use a lot, to fill in the gaps, or to go to a new starting place, then walk back. Subways sometimes, but cabs only if I’ve got to get to the airport like at 5 am.
It’s not that I got anything against cabs, its just that its very singular. You are being shuttled from place to place, zooming past the things most people have to deal with.
Where to eat and drink
I try to be a regular. I find a few places, and go back over and over. I realize that’s not everyone’s idea of travel, which is about experiencing as much as possible, in a little time as possible, but for me, dwelling on a few spots is the best way to learn and to meet people.
Being a regular allows you to become part or the neighborhood, in a small way. To see the ebb and flow of lives you wouldn’t otherwise know about. Like jumping midstream into a reality tv show, streamed for nobody but you and a few others.
In my roughly eight weeks in Istanbul, I had about ten restaurants I rotated through. And two bars. None of them were particularly fancy. In Bucharest, I ate dinner at the same place roughly three quarter of my nights there, and drank at the same bar almost every night.
I find these places by accident. Places I randomly go into early on during walks that appeal to me.
What attracts me to a place is almost always the ambience. The people inside, rather than the quality of the food.
People and community, not the food, is the subtext behind Anthony Bourdain's shows, as well as Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods14. I take that a little further, to the point of almost not caring at all about the food. As long as it doesn't get me sick too often.
My first night in Istanbul, after a year away, I went back to my favorite restaurant/old-man-bar, and was immediately recognized and welcomed back. All the regulars were still there, in their same spots. Little had changed.
The owner, Jamal, doesn’t speak any English. And I don’t speak any Turkish. But he came over, greeted me with a big handshake, then quickly pulled out his phone and typed something into google translate.
He handed me the phone, which said,
”You have gained much weight.”
Well. Maybe being a regular isn’t always that great.
I’m not a big museum fan, but I do love Military History Museums, because they are almost always empty and are like museums of museums. Places locked in time, with dioramas of awful things. Which feels like a very dark version of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride.
I especially like to see how they handle, uh, complicated parts of their history. Like Romania and Ceaușescu, or Hanoi and the Vietnam war, or Istanbul and the Armenian genocide. Coping with propaganda.
Soccer matches. Every country has its own soccer league. I try to find the leagues equivalent of the Jets, the team that sucks, and go to one of their games. Then cosplay as a life-time fan. It is a reminder just how much people care about sports, and that it isn’t really about winning, but about shared suffering. Like life. Go S.D. Aucas! Go Hong Linh Ha Tinh! Go Nottingham Forest!
Opera houses and concert halls outside of US and Western Europe are wonderful places that are often pretty cheap. I went to a top notch opera in Kyiv for $5. Sadly I barely missed Lima and Bucharest’s opera season.
Bring travel sized baby powder and a small bar of Castile soap, which can get you through most rough spots.
Malls outside of the US and western Europe are still the go-to place. Especially for the middle class. Especially on weekend nights. Places where the whole family goes to splurge. To maybe ice skate, get a hamburger, and then see a movie.
They are also nice windows into the often massive inequality in most countries. In Jakarta there is an upscale mall, complete with fancy western fashion stores, with shacks literally against the back wall of the mall. Using it as one side of a tin roofed home.
Although being in a Kyiv mall two weeks before the Russian invasion gave me a pretty blind vision of what was about to happen. All I saw were happy families oblivious to the encroaching danger, which I mistook for some commentary on what was about to happen, rather than people trying to do their best to ignore the ugly.
I prefer to travel to a city the time of year its most uncomfortable. So like Montreal in the winter, or New Delhi in the summer. I want to see a place when it’s at the apogee of its essence, not when it’s the most comfortable. A kinda, if you are going to do X really do X thing. It’s also when it’s a lot cheaper.
I get to airports pretty early. International travel is chock full of small and unexpected bumps, so no point stressing out about the clock. Also. I like airports, post security. They are pretty relaxing.
PS: If there is anything I didn’t answer here, please feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to answer it!
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Read their 51 “Perfect Days” in succession. It sounds like a Groundhogs Day hell.
The exception to this is smaller spread out cities, where finding places to stay or eat is far harder. Then, you want to be within walking distance of the “hot neigbhorhood.” Preferably on the fringes.
This is also how to view cities that don’t allow Street Views. Look at the pictures posted in reviews of malls, gas stations (yes people review them), bars, shops, and even hospitals.
There are other home sharing places. Especially in eastern Europe and Asia. But Airbnb is easiest, and will give you a sense of what is available.
You want pockets in the airport. You don’t want to be the person carrying nineteen pieces of paper when going through security.
Like when I walk, I only carry a credit cards, about twenty in cash, my medical ID, my driver’s license, all wrapped with a hair tie. No wallet. I keep a backup credit card and photocopy of my passport in my backpack.
My actual passport I keep in my pants pocket, wrapped in a sandwich bag.
An old flight attendent hack. Roll your clothes, rather than fold them.
A small pack of hair-ties are the travelers best friend. You can use them to wrap your clothes into a roll, hold wires in small loops, and so much else.
I used to rarely carry cash. Then a friend asked me, why. I said, in case I’m robbed. He said, how often you been robbed. I said never. He made his point. But I keep the bulk of my cash hidden in my apartment/book bag. I don’t actually carry it around when walking.
I will pay the $30 dollars extra for not having a middle seat in flights over 7 hours.
Long story. But basically it was cheaper to fly to Seoul as part of a package deal of also then flying to Manila. Its legal, but the airlines hate it and they made my life a little three hour hell of trying to prove I wasn’t going to skip the Manila leg of the journey. Which I did. But they made it hard to do.
Blood clots from long flights is a real issues. Especially for me. Getting up every few hours and doing a loop of the plane is best way to deal with it. It’s also not a big deal. People often forget planes have huge ambient noise that makes you walking around not an incovienence.
Buenos Aires bus was free. I think it was supposed to be equiv of dollar, but it was all Airport employees and they didn’t seem to worry about paying.
Bizarre Foods, despite its good intentions and being a good show, is a pretty offensive name.