By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 1/8/2008 12:07:26 PM ET 2008-01-08T17:07:26

I was working a full flight to Germany, and the entertainment system had broken down mid-Atlantic. It was winter, and after a bout of flu had ravaged my family, I was pretty burned out. Besides, after 20 years of flying, I had been to Germany hundreds of times. Now, with a layover coming, all I wanted to do was barricade myself in my hotel room.

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I hadn't realized it until that trip, but somewhere along the way I had turned into one of those flight attendants that I both pitied and mocked when I first began flying: a "slam click" — so called for the sound of the hotel room door closing and locking behind them. My plans — or, rather lack of plans — were set until I met Frank, a new-hire flight attendant. He was roughly my age, on his very first trip, and he was eager to see the world. He had a wide-eyed grin and asked endless questions about Germany.

I was happy for Frank, but I never intended to show him Munich until he asked me if I would join him for his first authentic German beer. The other crew members were all staying in, and I couldn't let him partake alone, so I joined him on what turned out to be a truly memorable experience. By the end of the trip, the teacher had become the student and I had relearned some very valuable lessons.

1. Look out the window
I envied all the enjoyment Frank was getting just looking out the airplane window. Yes, you may have seen it all before, but if you take a second look, you might just find some interesting scenery, or some play of shadow and light, that will let your mind escape the monotony of flying.

2. Go ahead, talk to strangers
You can see every landmark, museum and cultural exhibit a destination has to offer, but if you don't talk with any of the local people, you really haven't experienced the heart and soul of the place. Frank managed to strike up new conversations just about everywhere we went. In a conversation with some local teenagers we were shocked to discover that "Baywatch" is one of the most popular TV shows, and that David Hasselhoff sells out most of his concerts (!) in Germany. Sing? I thought the guy just couldn't act.

3. Get excited
I don't care if you have been there a hundred times before, there is always something that you can look forward to doing or revisiting. Pull out a guidebook, get tickets to a local sporting event or concert, query the concierge for ideas — plan just one outing before you go, and it will change your whole trip.

4. Be a tourist — even when you're on business
Frank wanted to go to the Hofbräuhaus, a 400-year-old beer hall that ranks as one of the biggest tourist traps in Europe. I hesitated, remarking that it is a bit touristy. Frank replied, "So what? Aren't we tourists?" He had a point. We ended up sitting at a table, drinking from beer steins, singing beer songs in terrible German, and talking with a crowd of Russians, Australians and Chinese — all of whom, of course, were tourists.

5. Avoid preconceived notions
Don't assume that a place is going to be a certain way, or avoid other places and activities for fear of encountering hassles. You might be surprised at what you find.

6. Ask questions
When Frank didn't understand something about Bavarian culture, he wasn't afraid to ask the locals. What followed was often an interesting lesson. For example, did you know that Bavarians regard beer as a basic nutrient? In fact, the average Bavarian drinks 170 liters of beer a year. Bavarians are also very proud of the purity law established by the Duke of Bavaria in 1516, which allowed only three ingredients in Bavarian beer for more than 400 years: water, barley and hops. Modern beer-making is still strictly controlled, according to our slightly intoxicated sources. Mind you, not all of Bavaria's culture centers around beer, but if you ask questions in a beer hall, you tend to get drinking facts.

7. Be flexible
You may have a list of things to do when you get to your destination, but if something better comes up, tear up the list. Sometimes the best experiences abroad happen by chance and flexibility.

8. Take pictures
Stopping to say "Cheese" might break the spontaneity of the moment, but a photo can really bring back the smiles and memories — especially if your own memory is clouded by jetlag, Or in our case, beer.

9. Leave your comfort zone
You may have a routine at your destination down pat, but routines aren't going to lead you anywhere new. Try a new restaurant, pub, tour or even a new part of town. Comfort zones are for home, not abroad.

10. Keep an eye on you spending, but don't obsess
It's good to have a budget, but don't let it prevent you from taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. Yes, the dollar isn't worth much in Europe these days, but you never know when — or if — you will return to that destination again.

On our layover, Frank and I drank in the Hofbräuhaus, sang in a piano bar, partook of a German feast, went on a tour of the city, met many new friends and formed memories that will last a lifetime. The next morning I had an empty wallet, a bigger gut and a small hangover, but I wouldn't have changed a single thing. I guess you could say that when you are abroad, it is good to be Frank.

James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, “Flying High With A Frank Steward: More Air Travel Tales From the Flight Crew.” For more information about James, visit his Web site or send him an e-mail.

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