Here are some of my favorite Nerd Travel Tips.
DISCOVER WHERE YOU WANT TO GO
Start by discovering what draws YOU. What piques your interest. What do YOU want to see and experience (versus what everyone else says to do)?
What are your natural interests? What excites you? Follow your own instincts and don’t worry about “missing out” on other things other people like.
Look up images of towns and cities. Which make you want to click and research more? Which ones make your heart beat a little faster? Which ones do you daydream about while at work or wake up thinking about? That’s where you want to go.
Pull up a map in one tab and begin clicking on links to different cities and villages. If I am going by train, I’ll pull up the DeutscheBahn (DB) App so I can estimate travel times. Begin sketching out an itinerary.
You’ll eventually have to make the tough choices-what do you skip and what remains? That’s the tough part and whap people ask me to do for them a lot!
You’ll run into road blocks and that’s where it gets fun. Because you begin studying your map and see a little town or country you’ve never heard of, or maybe that a friend visited. And so you begin looking up images and articles. And three hours later (!), you have forgotten to eat or go to bed. And now you MUST go to this city you just discovered. That was Ljubljana, Slovenia for me (and still is).
I try to avoid going from one big city to another. It gets overwhelming. So in between visits to cities, intersperse time in villages, countryside, mountains, and by the water. It makes the trip more diverse and enjoyable.
Do not do daytrips. You get crushed by hordes of travelers in the worst heat/light of the day, jammed together to see the same thing, and don’t really get to see the city at its best. Stay overnight. See the city after the tourists leave, catch a sunset on a hill, explore after dark when it’s quiet. My favorite memories are almost always of early morning walks before and as the city is waking up. It’s quiet, you can smell the bakeries, you get the best light of the day. It’s a special time.
Get up early. You’ll never regret seeing a city or village in the morning.
Beat the tourists. In the summer, get up early and walk around the city while it’s waking up. Be at your most important tourist attraction/museum (if at all) before it opens to beat the crowds. Buy tickets for museums ahead of time on your phone and skip the waiting lines. We usually see touristy things in the morning, enjoy a relaxing lunch, then either take a siesta or find a local swimming hole in the heat of the afternoon. Then we are refreshed to meander through ancient streets and alleys after the tourists are gone. So you get to see three versions of the city—and you’ll end up loving the bookend parts.
Wander away from the city center. Some of our best memories are when we left the tourist zone and wandered through neighborhoods where locals live. With no agenda. Just observing and taking it in. In Istanbul, my favorite memories are not of the square with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, but meeting shopkeepers and café owners and stumbling upon a baptism in an Orthodox Church far from the tourists.
Beware of checking off boxes. Looking back, just going to see a famous site to check off a box NEVER brings satisfying memories. I regret wasting time fighting the crowds at Pisa when I could have been exploring the picturesque little village of Pisoia and surrounding Monte Cimone.
Buy tickets ahead of time when possible. You can often walk right by long lines standing in the blazing summer heat.
Hike or climb early. It’s simply incomprehensible to me why people (and tour guides who should know better!) begin hikes when they will be exposed to blazing sun and/or frequent afternoon storms in the mountains, not to mention tourists. Get up and hit the trails early, then be back in time to relax in the shade.
Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk instead of taking buses, trams, or cable cars. Sure you can check off your box quicker by taking that cable car, but then you miss walking through mountains farms and neighborhoods and seeing how people live.
You can do the tour bus to Hitler’s home at Kelstein, but wouldn’t it be way cooler if you spent a few hours hiking up the mountain, out of breath, enjoying the views as you go? Having a trail literally all to yourself while tourists are crammed into hot metal boxes and pushed around?
You can take an expensive cable car to the top of Murren, Switzerland to check off the box…or you can pack snacks and water, encounter sheep on hills, and the most stunning views by hiking up that steep mountain. On the way down, you stop at a mountain hut or restaurant for a beer and appetizer, kick your feet up and take in the views. You end the day with a sense of accomplishment, that good tired, satisfied feeling.
I don’t think I have ever regretted walking. Get good comfy clothes and shoes. Sometimes we stay outside the city center either to save money or be in a residential neighborhood with a 20-minute walk into the center. We purposefully stayed in a soviet era apartment in Tallinn, Estonia and stumbled upon our best experience there…because we stayed in a neighborhood. If you have the option to walk or take a tour bus, walk. The things you see along the way are often more meaningful than the attraction you are going to.
Do your homework. Be strategic. So we’re in Florence, teeming with tourists. We want to see Michaelangelo’s David. So we arrive early, first in line, with tickets pre-bought. We know where in the Accademia Gallery the monumental statue is. So we skip the other rooms and floors, and head right to it. As a result, we have three minutes alone with this amazing sculpture.
I appreciate works of art, but I can’t spend forever in a museum. While I will stroll through at times, it gets exhausting and I have mental overload. So on occasion, I will research the museum and make a list of the Top 10 paintings I want to see, then lay that out strategically and go see what I came to see. I don’t view that as “checking off boxes,” because it gives me more time to really soak up the paintings I really want to spend time enjoying.
Pack lightly. I always regret packing too much and never regret packing lightly.
I never check bags when flying overseas. It eliminates the chance that you’ll be separated from your bags, which is a huge inconvenience. Plus if you need to make last-minute changes, you have all your stuff with you.
Even on six-week trips, whether in summer or winter, I pack enough for a decent size pack I carry on my back and one small bag in my hand. Within that small bag is usually a small daypack bag I carry on hikes or just walking around town.
Now I know I’m a guy so it may be easier, but you will enjoy your trip so much more when you aren’t bogged down.
Many places don’t have elevators so you will be carrying your bags up multiple floors. Or from the train station to your hotel/apartment. And you want to avoid bumping your big suitcase down cobblestone streets.
In the summer, I just take a couple lightweight shorts (with a zipper on the side for my passport and money), three Under Armour shirts, and dry-fit socks that can all be washed in a small hotel sink and hung overnight to dry. If you have a washing machine in an Air B&B, all the better.
I usually just take tennis shoes and sandals, but occasionally include hiking boots and a pair of wool hiking socks that dry overnight as well.
In the winter, you don’t sweat much so you can wear things on multiple days. I just use layers and don’t care what other people think. I travel for comfort.
FINDING COOL EXPERIENCES
Here are a few tips to find cool experiences and places you wouldn’t normally find in guidebooks.
– Read through forums on different sites (Rick Steves, TripAdvisor, etc.) and you’ll often come across a recommendation by a like-minded traveler about a special event, site, or restaurant to visit.
– Read reviews on Booking.com and AirB&B. I have discovered lots of local tips while reading reviews of different lodgings. These often lead to great experiences.
– I discovered the Hike With A Shepherd and Beer & History Tour in Romania through Air B&B Experiences. Sometimes you can take the idea and replicate or do it yourself. Want to save money? These providers pay Air B&B a hefty fee, which gets passed on to you, the customer. So if you find someone offering a cool experience, google them and see if you can find their private website. We saved 20% on our Ugly Kiev tour by doing this.
– Just make your own experience. Turn down a side road, walk away from the tourist center. Wander and observe and be open to what unfolds in front of you. Be curious. And you’ll find adventures that are memorable and usually free.
GREAT RESTAURANT EXPERIENCES
Ask locals to teach you how to say, “thank you” and “hello” and “very good.” All human beings love to show off their culture and are honored when someone is interested enough to try. In most cases, you will also get much better service and your host will be proud of you for trying. Or laugh at you for your awful pronunciation. Either way, you make a connection based on respect.
Ask the owner or waiter, “What do you recommend?” or “What do you like?” or “What is your favorite?” I pantomime this even when I can’t speak the native language. People love showing off their delicacies. It’s also a good way to get locals to bring you more food!
And don’t be so picky. Eat what they bring you. It’s not worth fighting. And it’s usually so inexpensive you can just order something else.
Look for the old local guys going into restaurants. I have learned to watch where older locals hang out. I remember in Spain seeing several guys my age going into a local restaurant that looked like a dump. Turns out it was a local hangout and a memorable experience. I was just in Sarajevo looking for lunch and saw an older gentleman enjoying cevapi. A local person walked by and talked to the guy, which told me he was a local. I asked him if the cevapi was good. He replied, “Best in the city.” And this I enjoyed a wonderful lunch.
Bring baggies. Pack lots of baggies and when possible or appropriate, grab extra nuts and goodies at breakfast for your hikes later in the day.
Go to local markets for fresh food and to see what locals eat. You will rarely be disappointed visiting the local farmer’s markets to wander around, sample, and buy fresh cheese, meat, fruit and veggies for your own picnic that day. Restaurants often advertise great views, but the best views are when you’re sitting down by a river or on top of a mountain with your own snack.
Go into grocery stores and see what’s popular, how they often like brands that were popular in the 70’s in America! I love strolling through grocery stores. Don’t know why, but it gives you insight into how locals eat and shop.
Pack picnics. If you’re going to be driving through mountains or in the countryside and unsure of available restaurants, then stock up on whatever snacks you like before your road (or train) trip. Getting some wine, cheese and local specialties can make for an awesome adventure. This past winter in Bulgaria, I dropped by delis for soup I could heat up with fresh bread, good European butter and other snacks.
When walking into a town, I use TripAdvisor at times for recommendations on restaurants. I’ve found it to be relatively reliable. Leave the city center and walk into the local neighborhoods to see where locals (not tourists) eat. Sometimes I get really good tips while reading reviews on Bookin.com or AirB&B.