Traveling is something I’ve always been passionate about, but sometimes it can be stressful. I’ve gotten better at it the more I do it, as with all things in life, but there are always unexpected hiccups and changes of plans along the way.
In the end, though, I’ve found that all of these things that don’t necessarily go according to plan make my adventures better, more exciting, and ultimately more meaningful. Every time I reflect back on a travel experience I’ve had, I realize something new that I learned and usually wish that I had taken the time and the effort to be more in the moment when it was happening.
It’s an odd form of nostalgia, acknowledging that I truly enjoyed the experience while also wishing I had the clear eyes and head to foresee exactly what it would mean to me later. As a result, I’m working on being a more mindful traveler so I can better remember and enjoy my adventures.
So, I wanted to share with you some things I’ve come up with in order to become a more mindful traveler:
Don’t use data on your cell phone
This mostly applies to travel outside your home country. First of all, it’s cheaper this way. Keeping your phone on airplane mode will disable your cellular data so you won’t rack up crazy international fees. I must admit, the money was my main motivator when I first decided not to spring for an international data plan. I was trying to save, so I figured I would buy a little burner phone for calls and texts within the country, and keep my smartphone on airplane mode to use only when connected to WiFi.
This was my short-term plan when I moved abroad, for six months at most. Well… two years later and I still don’t think I’ll be buying a data plan anytime soon. Not only is it still cheaper this way (the Czech Republic has the highest data fees of any country in the EU), but I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it makes me a more mindful traveler.
I love having an excuse to be completely disconnected when I’m out and about. It means I’m forced to observe my surroundings, talk to strangers, ask for directions when I’m lost (which used to happen all the time) and be aware of everything that’s happening around me. It lets me take it all in without having even the temptation of scrolling through my phone. Normally, it stays in my bag and I don’t get it out at all because I’m aware that there’s literally no point.
Another bonus is that you’ll improve your social skills, your confidence, your sense of direction, and overall you’ll be more self-sufficient. My friends always ask me how I get around without data as a young woman who doesn’t speak the native language here and my answer is just that you get used to it.
I don’t feel unsafe and I rarely feel worried about things that having data on my phone could fix. If an emergency were ever to crop up, I know exactly where I can go to get free WiFi and I also have that little burner phone as a last resort. So really, it’s not as hard as you think!
Don’t wear headphones
Just don’t do it. Listening to music or a podcast or whatever else you fancy isolates you when you’re in public and just serves as another distraction or defense mechanism for you to take comfort in. Stop it!
If you want to be open to new experiences, you need to be aware and open to new people, as well. Wearing headphones while walking around or using public transportation makes you look much less approachable, so other lost English-speakers won’t feel comfortable asking you for help––and who knows, you may have just missed out on an incredible conversation or friendship.
Taking the headphones out will insert you into the present moment and again help you focus on what’s around you. Take in everything that’s happening, including the sounds of the new place you’ve traveled to––how the language sounds, the street performers playing their instruments, or the quiet of the streets as the city goes to sleep.
You can’t truly experience a new place if you’re just in your head all the time, so save the headphones for the plane.
Keep a travel journal
This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s an important one. It can simply be a notebook you carry around with you or something you write in at the end of the day to reflect and better remember your experience. Or, alternatively, you could buy a prompt journal or cards that present you challenges to complete in the new place.
Let your whereabouts inspire your creativity for a few minutes and just write or draw whatever you’re thinking. If you opt for travel cards, complete the activities given to you and write about it later.
When you travel, it is inevitable that you’ll think new thoughts and have new ideas, and those are an important part of your experience as well! These thoughts and ideas will change your perspective and help shape the person you are becoming, so it’s good to acknowledge them as they happen.
No one likes a vacation where they’re constantly running around trying not to be late to the next event. Don’t try to fit too many things in your itinerary and make sure you give yourself some free time. If you are having to rush around to different tours and reservations all the time, all you’re going to do is stress yourself out by constantly thinking about the next thing you need to do or how to get to the next place you need to be.
Give yourself some room to breathe and fully experience each moment without jumping ahead to the next. Avoiding the hustle and bustle will also tire you out less, so you’ll be better energized for the activities you do choose to prioritize and you won’t need five shots of espresso to make it through the afternoon. I know you want to see everything you possibly can, but resist the temptation to completely pack your schedule.
Similar to tip #4, this one involves letting go of a little control when it comes to your schedule. If you’re one of those people who likes to have a plan, make sure you pencil in some free time. Give yourself some time to be spontaneous and take yourself to a pub or a coffee shop and sit at the bar to have a chat with the staff.
Be open to meeting new people at your hostel or hotel, and make sure the plans you’ve made for yourself aren’t set in stone. If you get along swimmingly with a new person, don’t be afraid to invite them to dinner or a drink, or be able to join them when they tell you about a free walking tour they want to go on.
Give yourself flexibility, so you have time to meet new people while still getting what you originally wanted to get out of the trip. You’ll make tons of new friends this way and usually the spontaneous memories are the best ones of all.
Don’t avoid the mundane things
Get out of the tourist areas if possible and try as much of the real local stuff as you can. The whole point of traveling is to get out of your comfort zone and learn something new. You can’t do those things if you’re sticking to the same chain restaurants and shops the whole time! Take part in a cultural event, try the local specialty, and throw all your preconceived notions to the wind.
The oldest pub in the center with “the best goulash in town!” that sells t-shirts outside might be tempting, but I can guarantee that you will not only find better (and cheaper) goulash at a family-owned restaurant 30 minutes out of the square, but you will also find a much more authentic experience there. Sure, you want to do and see all the amazing things that made your destination of choice famous in the first place, but make sure to get a feel for the local culture and how the people actually live. You’ll be shocked at both the similarities and the differences to your own hometown or culture, and these little things are the ones that you’ll remember most.
Be a local for the day. Shop in a grocery store, eat at a hole-in-the-wall pub or a street food stand, figure out the public transportation, and explore the residential areas. You’ll come out of it with some unique stories and a truly authentic experience, which is more than most people can say.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. No one wants to struggle with their luggage by themselves on the public transport while the locals stare at you trying to guess where you’re from (because you’re clearly not from here). Heavy bags will just weigh you down and give an otherwise pleasant experience a dark spot. Leave anything unnecessary at home and make sure you leave some extra room in there for any souvenirs you might want to bring home!
If you can implement at least one of these tips on your next adventure, you won’t regret it! The more of an effort you make, the more change you’ll notice, but don’t beat yourself up if there are moments when you catch yourself being caught up in other things during your trip. That’s the whole point of travel, so don’t shy away from it. And now, it’s time to start planning your next vacation!