Knysna, South Africa. 2013.

10 Travel Tips Rick Steves Won’t Tell You (Or Doesn’t Know)

  1. Always carry a pack of cigarettes and a lighter (even if you don’t smoke)

This is by far my number one piece of advice for solo travelers. I was standing in an alleyway in Bologna when a tall, dark and handsome Italian man came up to me and said something that I mentally translated as “you must be the American girl I’ve always dreamt of”. Turns out he actually asked, “Do you have a lighter?” As fate would have it, I did not. He turned on his heel and headed to the next prospect. A lost opportunity in my book. From that point forward, I kept a lighter on me and, seeing as I was in Europe, took up smoking as a casual hobby. I made sure to have both items on me the first time I travelled by myself. I arrived in Dublin with a full pack of Marlboros and left with an empty one, but a handful of new friends and acquaintances. If you’re savvy, you can turn a request for a smoke into a lifelong friendship.

2. What to do if your luggage is lost

No fancy GPS or luggage LoJack needed for this trick. It was Christmas of 2013, and I’d just landed at Dulles after a 4 month stint in Cape Town. During my time, I slowly curated and collected the Christmas gifts I would bring back to my family. After being told ever-so-politically that I could “file a claim” in California to recover my bag and tromping through the airport to every United kiosk, I ran out of morals.

I sheepishly asked the last desk in baggage claim if they had seen my nondescript black bag, to which they assured me they had not. A few tears welled up while I explained to them that they had taken my bag before boarding the plane (true) without giving me a chance to grab my insulin (not true), and that in about 5 minutes I would likely not be calm nor standing.

The bag appeared within 3 minutes.

Capri, Italy. 2012.

3. Ask your cab driver about their life

This tip has yet to fail me— regardless of city, country, or continent. Cab drivers tend to have the most unexpectedly rich, extensive life narratives of any social group. In the last 4 months alone, I have met and listened to more heart-wrenching stories than one often hears in a lifetime.

Honorable mentions go to Khaled and Yusuf. Khaled worked for the UNHCR in Syrian refugee camps, and bore witness to more atrocities than a human should ever have to endure. In years prior to that, Yusuf was run out of his war-torn home country of South Sudan as a child. He walked with thousands of other Lost Boys to Kenya to seek refuge, where he finally was granted asylum in later years.

4. Learn 3 impressive phrases

In many countries, tourists are not expected to know a single word from the home language. Most of Eastern Europe falls into this category. Because of this, taking the time to learn just a few words or phrases goes a long way when bartering or trying to make the local shopkeeper smile. People are far more inclined to help a foreigner who doesn’t simply expect everyone to speak English.

5. Keep a little black book

After returning from my travels, I often loathe the fact that Facebook ends up being the only mode of communication between me and those I want to stay in touch with. What happens if Facebook gets phased out? Or if I want to delete my Facebook? Keep a little black book of names, addresses, emails, and phone numbers. This will ensure that you stay in touch longer than the life span of social media platforms, which is quite helpful if you decide to find someone twenty years later.

The Vagabrothers filming for the Biggest Baddest Bucket List in Gugulethu, South Africa. 2013

6. Leave your camera at home

As most of us are, I’m constantly strapped to my camera while traveling. Consider leaving your camera in the hotel or hostel every once in a while. The freedom you experience from not being able to take a photo is more liberating than one would assume. And you’ll be surprised at how much longer a memory lasts when you don’t have to refer back to a photo to enforce it. Photos are wonderful for the future, but living in the moment is difficult to do while looking through a lens.

7. Ask for directions, even if you don’t need them

People like to feel needed. That’s a fairly common denominator among countries. If you can strike up a conversation by asking someone for advice or directions, it often leads to a warm invitation for tea, or even a partner to dine with. Be friendly, be needy.

Sunrise from Lion’s Head Cape Town, South Africa. 2013.

8. Listen with your whole heart

When was the last time you listened? Like really, really listened to someone? If you’re anything like me, you often forget to listen with a full and open heart. But when you do, people notice. They become more open, more honest, and more candid. I once walked into a rug store owned by an Iranian man, became engrossed in his stories, and came out with a marriage proposal (I think?). He could tell I was one of the only people who actually listened to his story of the rugs. We both received things— for me, it was a good story. For him, it was the true rarity of an open ear.

9. Choose your travel partners wisely

As you probably learned in college, sometime the best of friends don’t make the best of roommates. The same theory applies to travel. Traveling with friends can sometimes be the very best option possible, but it can also be a disaster. It truly depends on your personal travel style. And although solo travel might sound like a good idea, you should keep in mind that you won’t always have someone to share a memory with, which is half of the thrill.

10. Don’t plan extensively

There are two things that should be planned in advance— flights and event tickets. Everything else is just a fallacy. Flights and event tickets can get pricey if you try to be spontaneous. But, hostels, hotels, and plans tend to drown in a sea of over-preparation. If you have the street smarts and flexibility to do so, try to travel where the wind takes you. The journey will benefit immensely, as well as your soul. ☺

Like what you read? Give Emily Fullmer a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.