Beyond the guidebooks

Isle of Skye

I’ve been traveling solo for eighteen straight weeks, twelve of those in Scotland and Portugal. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things that aren’t in the guidebooks.

Never miss an opportunity to visit a restroom. You don’t know when or where the next one may appear.

If you are lost, tired, or need to regroup safely, duck into a library or church to gather your thoughts in quiet. Don’t be the confused-looking tourist on the corner with the open tablet or unfolded map. Libraries often provide free Wi-Fi, although in Scotland I had to apply for a library card first. Coffee shops and cafés work just as well, but you will be obligated to buy something.

Museums almost always have good restaurants and clean restrooms and you don’t necessarily have to pay admission to use them.

Rent the smallest car available. They are much easier to maneuver and park on narrow streets, plus they are cheaper to rent and fuel. Cars with standard transmissions are cheaper too. Make sure you know how to shift into reverse and open the fuel-tank hatch before you leave the rental office.

Pack cables and adaptors for charging your laptop, tablet, and phone in the car.

When using public transportation, watch and do what the locals do. Getting on and off trains, subways, and buses often involves pushing inconspicuous buttons or levers.

Take advantage of luggage lockers at bus and train terminals. Stow your bags for a few hours while touring, then pick them up on your way out of town.

Avoid hotels that charge for or limit access to Wi-Fi, a major frustration.

“Steal” an apple, bagel or hard-boiled egg from the B&B breakfast spread for a mid-morning or afternoon snack.

I quickly grew tired of eating three meals a day in restaurants. Too time-consuming, too expensive, too much of a production, and too much food. Instead, buy lunch at a grocery store: a sandwich, apple or banana, cup of yogurt or bag of pretzels, and a drink. Typically, this costs only three or four dollars. Find a nice view and enjoy your picnic, then splurge later on dinner.

Washing clothes in the room with tap water might seem like a good idea, but drying takes more than a day unless there is outside ventilation or a heated towel rack. Most B&Bs will help you launder your clothes or direct you to a nearby laundromat.

Guidebooks are indispensable, but heavy and bulky. Download them to your tablet instead. Same with the book you are reading.

Don’t carry hard copies of your passport, credit cards, ID, and itinerary in your luggage, as used to be recommended. Instead, back them up to the cloud. Use a file-sharing site like Dropbox or a password manager like LastPass. If your documents are stolen, you’ll be able to access needed info from any public computer, such as those in hotel lobbies and libraries. Share access to your sites with a trusted family member at home.

Plan each day, but always have a Plan B. Be flexible and take what the day gives you. Build some downtime into your schedule.

Take advantage of the local knowledge of B&B managers, cabbies, waiters, rental car agents, and barbers. Before you ask for help, pause a beat, make eye contact, smile, and say hello in the local language. It’s amazing how effective this is and how much it will improve your traveling experience.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the guidebooks

  1. Kirk — I’m at the almost-plunge state about tablet purchase, and am still seeing your impressive ipad demo at our house last month.  Can’t recall, tho, what model you had, Mini or Air. I’m leaning toward 32GB Mini2, unlocked w/ cellular. Have you used yours as a phone, either via wi-fi or SIM cellular?  Can you use for GPS navigation when driving? Any thoughts? Flash

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