The act of travel is, at its heart, an act of rebellion. When we board a plane, we are rebelling against convention, against our nine-to-five routine, against our smaller selves. That’s why we tolerate the airline seat designed by Marquis de Sade, the pet-quality food, and the temporal whiplash of jet lag. Yet many travelers, consciously or not, belie this noble act of rebellion by following an unofficial set of rules. A list of dos and donts that constrain the traveler’s souls. This is a shame. Rules, as they say, are made to be broken, and nowhere is that more true than on the road. So, in the spirit of revolutionaries everywhere, here is my list of five travel rules worth breaking at least once in your life.
Rule number one: Travel to an exciting destination
This rule seems like a no-brainer. If we’re going to endure the sundry hassles of travel (see above), we might as well journey to the most “exciting” destinations, right? Not necessarily. Exciting is largely in the eye of the traveler. In fact, after a lifetime of traveling, I find that my favorite places are ones others consider boring. Geneva and Cleveland (yes, Cleveland) spring to mind. Boring places are less crowded, less thumbed-through, than supposedly exciting ones. More than that, boring places challenge our travel skills; they force us to find beauty and meaning — and, yes, a kind of excitement too — in the ordinary. Isn’t that why we travel in the first place? The truth is there are no boring places, only boring travelers.
Rule number two: Do your homework
This is a favorite among “serious” travelers. Before they jet off to, say, Guatemala, they bone up on the country’s history and politics, customs and culture, flora and fauna, so that by the time they land they know more about Guatemala than most Guatemalans. Sure, it’s good practice to know something about your destination, but too much knowledge clouds the mind and blinkers the eyes. Instead of relating openly and authentically to a place, you end up confirming preconceived notions you’ve acquired through all that research. Remaining a bit ignorant of a destination ensures that you arrive with few expectations. This is important. Research shows that happy people have relatively low (or, better yet, no) expectations. Denmark, for instance, is one of the happiest places in the world, yet in surveys Danes consistently report having low expectations. This is a lesson every traveler would be wise to heed.
Rule number three: Stay in the best hotel you can afford
To be clear, I’m not advocating you stay in the Bed Bug Inn, but I am suggesting that a little bit of discomfort isn’t such a bad thing.
I like luxury as much as the next guy but the truth is nothing sequesters a traveler as much as an over-the-top five-star hotel. I’m thinking of those marooned far from the city center, surrounded by moats, real or imagined, and offering so many amenities, from lavish spas to gourmet restaurants, that there is little reason to venture beyond the castle walls. The fact is that luxury, a certain kind of luxury, is the enemy of the authentic travel experience. It deadens our senses, numbs us to the presence of The Other in our midst. To be clear, I’m not advocating you stay in the Bed Bug Inn, but I am suggesting that a little bit of discomfort isn’t such a bad thing.
Rule number four: See and do as much as possible
By trying to see everything you run the risk of seeing nothing.
You’ve spent a lot of money and endured a lot of hassle in order to reach, say, Nepal. Why not take in as much of the country as possible? This do-it-all approach comes at a cost, though. The sights you studiously check off your list are all a blur. By trying to see everything you run the risk of seeing nothing. Better, I say, to plant yourself in one or two locales and drill deep. I’m reminded of that old saying about water divining. You’ll never find a water source by digging six shallow holes. Better to choose one spot and dig deep.
Rule number five: Travel with a loved one or close friend
This rule seems so romantic. Witness the myth of the happy traveling couple or the two old college buddies who, years later, hit the road and reconnect. Bullocks, I say. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against romance and friendship, yet for every happy travelling duo, there are countless more miserable ones. I almost always travel alone. Not because I’m a misanthrope (well, not only that) but because traveling solo forces me to engage with my surroundings. A traveling twosome says leave us alone. A solo traveler says talk to me. Traveling solo makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability lies at the heart of the travel experience.