There’s a lot of planning that goes into a trip. From finding the cheapest, most direct route to making reservations, you can find plenty of advice from travelers who have checked your destination off their bucket list. But traveling well requires more than seeing the sites—it’s about preserving your energy and leaving without regret.
There’s no way around it: traveling is expensive. Flights have followed pace with inflation and now that everyone’s finally back on the road again after being cooped up for years, the crowds are back.
News recently broke that Greece is limiting visitors to the Acropolis in an effort to combat overtourism. This comes two years after the National Parks system implemented a reservation system for its most popular parks.
It clearly makes sense to do your homework before your flight takes off (advice we haven’t always heeded ourselves this year, which led to a disappointing visit to Tulum).
While there’s so much information available online, we’ve found there are some things you simply can’t know until you arrive. That’s never been more clear to us than this year on our sourcing trips.
Leading up to our Marrakech trip, Kim was watching YouTube videos for a glimpse into the medina. She wanted to line up our budget with items. Pausing every few seconds to try to document what she saw was a pointless task. You had to be immersed to get a sense of the multitude of options.
Similarly, in Mexico you can try to Google best places for dinner in Mexico City or mezcal tasting in Oaxaca but the results will 100% be skewed. What does “best” mean to you? To some it may mean excellent dining on a budget. To others it’s the finest dining available—where you’ll need reservations two months in advance. FUN FACT: we met someone in Mexico City who waited to get a reservation to a popular restaurant and booked her flight and entire trip around that reservation. The hype is real.
Unlike the US, many businesses do not have a strong social media or website presence. They’re supported by and cater to the locals. To find out about these gems you’ve got to allow your trip to unfold a bit.
These are the lessons we’ve learned along the way. The hard-won lessons that required us to let go of control and allow the magic of the trip to unfold day-by-day. Read on for our 5 best tips for traveling, no matter where you’re heading.
01. Download Google Maps on Your Phone
We both have iPhones and default to Apple Maps. It’s served us pretty well at home, so we were surprised when certain destinations couldn’t be found at all on our trips. We’d double check the address or shop name on our browsers and flip back to the maps, enter the details again. Nothing.
That’s when we learned that Google Maps is updated more regularly and accurately than Apple Maps, especially abroad.
Maybe that’s because 70% of the world uses an Android device vs. 42% in the U.S. Not sure. But if you want to get where you’re going with minimal frustration, especially if you’re exploring on foot or in a rental, download the Google Maps app while you have strong Wifi.
02. Bring Cash With You
Let’s define “cash” first. Ideally you’ll travel with some amount of currency that you can use upon arrival. If you’re traveling to a country that allows you to exchange USD for their currency before taking off, I’d recommend at least changing over some.
Currency exchange booths at the airport are notorious for terrible exchange rates. On our first trip to Mexico this year we didn’t exchange any money beforehand and were headed straight to a resort, so I figured I’d change some money while waiting in line at customs. I got around 16 pesos per dollar vs. the local standard of nearly 18 pesos per dollar. Not a lot at face value, but when you start to think about changing $300, that’s a difference of 600 pesos.
If you have brought cash with you and want to exhange it at a local bank, depending on the country there will be a limit. In Mexico, the limit was $300 per day per person and you needed your passport for the transaction.
It’s worth noting that some countries have a closed currency, meaning you won’t be able to exchange money until you’re in country. That was the case with Morocco, so we traveled with cash and exchanged USD for Moroccan dirhams upon arrival. You should always check laws on how much cash you can travel with and what amount needs to be declared based on your departure and destination countries.
Maybe you’ve considered using your card for most purchases and keeping cash to a minimum. If so, do your research. Many economies are cash based, especially when shopping at small, local businesses or in markets. When we tried to pay with credit card in Sayulita, most businesses charged a 2-5% fee (on top of any fees your bank charges) on top of your purchase total to cover their fees. Those can add up quickly.
A final note on withdrawing cash: if you’re taking money out of an ATM and get the option to “accept the exchange rate,” DECLINE. In most cases this will be an unfavorable rate compared to what your bank provides.
03. If You Like It, Buy It
Between eating out every meal, hotels, and activities, travel budgets fill up quickly. Even when you have enough saved, it can be anxiety-inducing when you’re swiping your card all day every day. So when you see something that makes your heart pitter patter it’s normal to think, “Well, I’m not sure. We’ve spent so much already. Let me think about it.”
If this is something you love…If you’ve never seen this thing anywhere at home…BUY IT.
This is not coming from shop owner Kim. This is coming from Kim who’s seen too many things she’s loved, didn’t grab, and still thinks about it years later. It’s coming from Kim who hasn’t been able to find her way back to the shop she loved.
Once we began traveling I could see the difference between impulse purchases and purchases that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.
It took me 38 years to realize that Northern Virginia doesn’t stock my style of clothing. So when I was in Southern California and Greece, where the boutiques matched exactly how I envisioned my daily dress, I stocked up. Did I feel guilty dropping hundreds? Absolutely. Until I realized that this took the pressure off having to find what I loved, opting instead for things that were just okay each season at home.
Which leads to our greatest travel mantra: pack half, spend double.
Now we always travel with an extra suitcase that’s empty. Typically we take a soft side duffel, rolled up in one of our bags on our departure.
04. Resist the Urge to See It All
At the beginning of the trip there’s always a list. But you don’t want to return from a vacation feeling like you need a vacation. Whether you have 5 days or 2 weeks, you’ll be able to fill your schedule—even though you can, you should also reserve some time to do nothing at all.
When you think about your trip, what excites you the most? Is it the food? Is it an excursion? Is it a historical site? Start there.
If you’re traveling with family, consider giving everyone a day—or half a day if your trip is on the shorter side—to choose an activity. That can make the trip planning more fun and collaborative too.
When we were in Marrakech, the YSL museum came highly recommended. We didn’t reserve tickets in advance (even though everything we read said to do so) and when we arrived the wait was over 90 minutes. We could have waited, but knowing how crowded it was on the outside gave us a clue what it would be like on the inside. So we passed and walked the city instead.
Whatever you decide, make sure you leave your hotel grounds. It’s easy—especially when you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort—to spend your trip indulging in the resort’s comforts. But you don’t want to return home feeling like you could have been anywhere in the world. Try to get out to see the local area, order food from a street stall, and walk around the town square.
Years back we traveled to Jamaica with our two young kids. Having heard stories about poverty and crime, many detoured us from wandering away from the hotel. So while Brent golfed, Kim booked a driver to take the family around the local area. It was important to see life from that angle, especially for the kids.
05. Build in a Day Before Returning to Work/School/Life
Travel delays happen. And don’t forget: you’re returning to a whole life that you’ve taken a brief respite from. People will need things from you.
It’s hard to jump right back into life-ing when you’re jet lagged, need to grocery shop, and have a mountain of laundry. If you were dealing with burnout beforehand, this will put you right back on that path.
We like to return on a Saturday (or Sunday if it’s a holiday) and have even started taking the day before we leave off from work or leaving on a weekend. Giving yourself the space to pack, drop off the dog at boarding, and double check your documents eases a lot of stress that you could otherwise carry with you into the first part of your trip.
Yes, days off are precious but wouldn’t you rather ease in and out of your vacation rather than running on pure adrenaline until your head hits the pillow?