There's a smartphone app that generates a map of the nearest public bathrooms when you're desperate for a place to squat. There are countless travel review sites offering first-hand critiques of anything with a front desk and a bed. There's even a Web site dedicated to globetrotting canines, DogFriendly.com, that features dog-focused travel guides and a compendium of canine beach etiquette.
In today's world of information overload and species-specific travel tips, it's easy to forget about the most fundamental (and free) means of improving our travel experiences. You don't need a smartphone or a computer to positively change the way you travel. Below are five refreshingly simple ways to make the most of your trip — easy tips for pulling off a more enjoyable, less stressful vacation.
1. Slow down
A surefire way to turn any vacation into an epic wreck is by crafting an itinerary with too many activities — or by not making an itinerary at all and simply expecting to see and do way more than your two-night weekend getaway can handle. Expectations set too high are bound to cause disappointment. The solution? Always make an itinerary (discover clever tips in How to Create the Perfect Itinerary), and when you do, stick with the old cliche: less is more.
The "slow travel" trend is a step in the right direction. Slow travel is a way of spending more time exploring fewer destinations, thereby creating a more intimate travel experience. It's the kind of trip where you take your time touring every ancient church, cobblestoned alley and pocket-size cafe in your locale, as opposed to following a whirlwind schedule that leaves you five hours of sleep a night. Get useful advice on planning a "slow" getaway in The Art of Slow Travel.
2. Skip the reviews
I'll admit it. I'm a TripAdvisor addict. And I've found some fantastic places by poring over reviews online. But my obsession with reading the reviews about everything, whether it's a trendy new restaurant or an out-of-the-way B&B, can sometimes backfire.
I recently spent a great deal of time thoroughly researching the perfect restaurant for lunch during a trip to Greenwich Village in New York City. But when I arrived at the restaurant I'd selected based on a horde of positive reviews, I was dissatisfied. I eyed the establishment's immense dining room, its pseudo-ethnic interior strung with cheap-looking pagodas and paper lamps, and immediately understood that this place was ... a chain.
I don't have anything against chain restaurants. Sometimes I seek out American chains in foreign countries when I'm craving familiar flavors or curious to see if the menu's the same. But that wasn't what I was looking for. I was seeking something exclusively Greenwich Village, a neighborhood with an internationally renowned array of distinctive culinary gems. The reviews of the chain restaurant were overwhelmingly positive, but none of them happened to mention that this establishment was not unique to the Village.
I would have been far better off winging it, asking a local to suggest a good spot or reading menus on display until I found something intriguing (this was during lunchtime on a Sunday, and as I was looking for a casual place, I wouldn't have needed a reservation).
3. Hire a guide
The idea that guided tours are adverse to independent travel, an activity for amateur tourists, is a silly misconception at best. Hiring a guide could be the best move you make on your next vacation.
On a visit to Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, I did a few nature hikes through the rain forest sans guide, and saw very little wildlife. I wanted to save money, and I figured I was clever enough to spot my own endangered squirrel monkey. I wasn't. I spotted an obvious iguana that was sunning itself in the middle of the beach, and that was it.
Once I joined a guided group, it suddenly seemed like sloths and monkeys were hanging from every branch. Animals tend to hide quite well when people come tramping through forest paths, and hiring a guide is key to spotting wildlife on nature-focused trips.
Tour guides can add a lot to pretty much any kind of vacation. In particular, it's a good idea to hire a guide when you're in a destination for a short amount of time (like on a cruise) or when you're in an exotic place where you don't speak the language. Uncover 10 more reasons to hire a tour guide in When Do You Need a Tour Guide?
4. Take the less-traveled path
Unexpected crowds can wrinkle a well-planned vacation like salt on a slug. The line for the Anne Frank Museum takes three hours, and the next thing you know, you've missed your lunch reservations, you're late for the show you were planning to see, and you're sweating, stressed, starving and on the verge of attacking your travel partner.
The best solution for this is to travel during shoulder season or low season whenever you can. The weather probably won't be optimal; that's the downside. But prices for airfare and hotel stays will be low. And best of all, you'll get to see more in less time.
If you must visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras or fly to London on the eve of Will and Kate's wedding, be prepared for crowds by planning ahead. Before you arrive, call the attractions you want to visit and ask how long the wait will be. Time your visit for the lunch or dinner hours (keep in mind that standard mealtimes vary based on local custom. In Spain, for example, dinnertime happens at 9 p.m. or later). Buy tickets online to save time. And bring a guidebook or a magazine to leaf through while queuing up.
5. Be polite
What advice would you give to someone preparing for his or her first trip overseas? We recently posed this question on IndependentTraveler.com's Facebook page, to which Deb Bortel Crosby responded, "Patience! Remember you are in their country so don't expect things to be the way you are accustomed to. Don't be the 'ugly American' demanding things to be the way they are in the U.S."
We hear you, Deb. Traveling, at times, can be maddening. The combination of language barriers, cultural differences and lack of sleep can devastate your natural composure, adding up to an angry exchange with an unresponsive flight attendant or a tussle with an aggressive street vendor. But beyond reinforcing the imperfect reputation of the American traveler, abandoning your manners while traveling will make things more difficult than they have to be. You'll find that locals, TSA officials, tour guides, concierges, wait staff, flight attendants ... and, well, pretty much every person who crosses your path, will be eminently helpful as long as you offer a smile and some kind words. Make a serious effort to pull yourself together when things get messy. Take the high road.
Want more tips for being a better person while traveling? In Embrace the American, Leave the Ugly at Home, Ed Hewitt explains how to prevail over that ubiquitous stereotype.