One major overseas adventure every year. Two adults, two carry-on bags. A tonne of research before and during the trip, which is a big part of the fun (really).
I’ve refined my approach to travel over the past five years and here are my learnings for anyone who’s interested in squeezing the maximum aesthetic delights out of a city with a minimum of fuss. (Please note, I don’t claim to have advice for people travelling with kids, or medical conditions, or on tight budgets. But plenty of other writers out there do.)
I tend to treat my city explorations like a serious sport – I’m like that even in my hometown. Browsing Instagram or other media, I’m always on the lookout for exciting new places to visit or explore, beautiful eateries to support and enjoy. I spend no more time browsing social media than most of my contemporaries and like to think that I’m at least using it for something constructive. I use the “Save” function on Instagram and save into city folders, so I have a ready well of inspiration when I finally book my tickets.
This kind of Instagram-based research is easy, free and plentiful. It’s also very visual which means it risks being a little light on substance. I try to make sure the weightier/cultural parts of travel are covered by investing in one high-quality, up-to-date guide book.
Because we travel so light (more on that soon) I try to consolidate my breadth of travel research into one simple, digestible list, segmented by area, that I can email myself and reference on the go. Leave the books and paper maps at home. (I do keep a physical travel journal though, an old-school habit I’m not prepared to shake.)
Google Maps is an absolute godsend. Not only to help me navigate to all the places I have earmarked in advance, but often I’ll use it in reverse. If we’re spending a bit of time exploring one area, and wondering whether we’ve missed anything before moving on, then I will check Google Maps for any historic landmarks, cafes, shops, museums that might catch our interest. Of course I know there’s value in getting lost and finding unexpected treasures that way, but it doesn’t hurt to embrace web-based navigation tools, too. Google Maps has often opened our eyes to things that we would never have found just by walking and sign-reading. (And no, I’m certainly not sponsored, I wish.)
That means occasionally relying on expensive data roaming, and after being burnt by a bill in the past I now pre-purchase travel packs to keep my phone costs in check.
I know this might seem intense, all this eager coverage and endless effort to suck the marrow out of a city. However, my husband and I do offset this go-hard-or-go-home approach in a few essential ways:
1. We spend at least double the amount of time in a city than is ‘normal’. It means we can be really leisurely about the amount of stuff we have to squeeze into one day, allowing for jet lag and/or off days or unforeseen delays or just those times when you’re inclined to spend two hours in one cafe reading a book (standard). It’s still a holiday, after all. It also allows time for me to research extra places, or to go back and repeat a really great experience, or even develop little habits like getting to know the corner barista and feeling like a local for at least a bit.
2. A minimalist attitude. That is, we undertake minimal travelling within a trip, minimal luggage (carry-on only! Even for a month in Europe!), and minimal organised or ‘locked in’ activities (e.g. ticketed events, restaurant bookings and advanced purchases). There’s nothing less holiday-friendly than needing to be somewhere at a certain time.
3. While we spend lots of time seeing lots of lovely shops, we aren’t shoppers. We don’t try on clothes/shoes as part of our day’s sightseeing (ugh, no thanks) and don’t find ourselves carting bags of shopping home each day. Most of the time, my photos are my only souvenirs. I’ve rarely, if ever, regretted not buying something. Our spending money flies out more than quickly enough on good food, admission tickets, eating and snacks. Also meals and did I mention food? In this era of online shopping, there really is nothing that you can’t buy from home, disappointingly, and usually more easily and for almost the same price. Obviously, there are occasional lovely exceptions. Flea markets are a good source of unique and memorable souvenirs.
4. Speaking of photos as souvenirs, a big part of the travel fun is sharing my own finds on Instagram, paying it forward to inspire the next person’s adventures. I only post a careful edit of positive, pretty things on Instagram, not because that’s all we experience but because it’s all I want to document in that space. In fact, what I choose to share online is only a tiny part of my real travel experience. The richest parts, the fruits of all the research, expense and legwork, are gift-wrapped and shelved carefully in my mind’s eye, remembered in a flash of déjà vu or an anecdote shared solely with my favourite travel partner.