13 Habits of Zen International Travel

Zen Garden, originally uploaded by euart.

Everywhere I travel I see different types of travelers from the harried and stressed who would rather be at home to those who seem to be having the time of their lives. I like to be somewhere in between, in a state of travel zen, with everything researched so that I can be flexible, but not so planned that I am insulated from my surroundings. I want everything to feel familiar, but uncomfortable, because I want to experience what is going on around me.

I don't want to be a road warrior who soldiers on and only sees hotels and airports constantly. My personal travel philosophy is just like the Russian literary term Ostranenie: having the "familiar and commonplace made strange or alien." What you see below are my 13 Habits of Zen International Travel. Even if you haven't figured out your personal travel style, you can follow these on your next trip and perhaps discover your personal travel style along the way:

1. Source your information the way you want to. There is no "right way" and doing it somebody else's way can stress you out. If you need a travel agent, fine. For me a search of travel blogs, a dictionary and a read through of several online guidebook sites and some e-mails to friends who've traveled or live in the area will put me on the right track to start off. My husband wanders Europe with his Rick Steve's guidebook firmly in hand.

Our online favorites:
  • Travelpod - to find the bloggers who have gone before
  • Virtual Tourist or Nile Guide - make your own guidebook online and then print it to take it with you.
  • Trip Advisor - found a great hotel in Venice there, gives unfiltered reviews unlike Expedia and others for both activities and accommodations
  • Fodors - Traditional guidebook online. Good walking maps to print out and put in your travel journal.
  • Frommers - Another traditional guidebook with good online material.
  • Rick Steves - We buy Rick Steves books because they are actually worth taking with you, but for brainstorming and day dreaming about Europe his website is a good place to start.
2. Determine what culture means to you. None of my friends travel the way I do, even my own husband travels differently. We each have different styles of travel, different things we enjoy, and different levels of comfort in uncomfortable or foreign situations. And that is ok.
What is culture? For me to experience a local culture the way I want to usually means that I know someone on a first name basis who lives there and take their advice into account when planning my trip. If that isn't the case then I make friends with the concierge or find a local who blogs.

I don't want to just hit up the top 10 sites and call it a day and never encounter a local except in a financial transaction. That might not be you. Your goal might be to relax, to have a good time and experience the culture through the food, the music, or the shopping. Make sure that you plan your trip with your definition of culture in mind.

3. Be loyal, it pays. Be loyal to an airline or at least an airline alliance. Stay in the same hotels when possible, or get them to give you mileage instead of hotel points. It is worth it to me to spend a little more to buy a plane ticket that is an Alaska airlines partner than to get the best deal.

If I am forced to buy a ticket with another airline I will register for their frequent flier program, even if I think I'm never going to fly that airline again. I can use those miles on things other than flights. My ill used American Airlines miles that I got from flying one of their small partner airlines just turned into 5 magazine subscriptions, which will serve as workout and layover reading material over the next year. If you need to keep your miles from expiring you can buy a few miles for cash. Even a small earnings will protect the rest of them from expiring most of the time.

I have switched from earning miles on my credit card to earning cash back. I was earning enough miles for a mileage fare to anywhere within the US each year. With my cash-back card I can use the money to buy the ticket outright and bring my husband along with a $50 companion fare (can't do that without spending double miles) and still be eligible for upgrades because it isn't a mileage ticket. I also then earn miles on that flight, bought with cash. So what do I do with all the miles I earn? I save them for buying tickets to really expensive places like Europe where I can't use a companion fare.

Why is this a zen habit? Trust me, when you're sitting in a seat the folds completely flat into a bed on a 13 hour flight and have a warm shower at the elite lounge to look forward to when you land you'll know the feeling of true travel zen. Staying loyal means more than just seat upgrades and free flights, it means a consistent travel experience. I know the ins and outs of Alaska airlines, its partners and a few hotels. It means I'm not stressed figuring out something new at 2am. And if something goes wrong, I know the policies of those I'm dealing with so I can immediately get my issues resolved.

4. Know where you're going. This can save you time, money and frustration. Sounds pretty basic to know where you are going, but you can never assume that your taxi driver know where you are going unless you are in London. I have had taxi drivers in Los Angeles force me to get out and ask for directions halfway to my hotel and overpaid for cabs in Chile. You must know your address in the native language. My Spanish speaking friend who I met up with in Chile paid less than half of what I did for the same 4 words of conversation. You don't necessarily need to print out directions, but maybe you should jot down at least the cross streets in your travel notebook. For every trip I take I put together a travel notebook with little directions and maps in it to our hotels, it has saved me more than once.

5. Research when things are open yourself. Guidebooks are great, but they are written once a year at the most. I think going to the website of the attraction directly will save you time and money. We didn't wait in line at the Vatican because I booked a tour with them directly on their website and walked past 300 odd people in line right to the guard who looked at his VIP sheet and moved the velvet rope. We didn't wait anywhere because I had done my research. I also wasn't disappointed by a museum being closed, because I had checked ahead of time. In my notebook I jotted down a list of opening times to way more places than we were expecting to go and when the weather changed our plans in Paris and made Versailles miserable, we hopped the train back to town and had 3 good options to choose from. No stress, no fuss.

6. Take cash. Credit cards can be convenient, but their international transaction fees of up to 3% are not. Even with cards like those from Citi that don't charge the fee there will be situations like using mass transportation, tipping, and others where cash is a must. Get it before you go because there is no guarantee of an ATM when you land. You may have to search one out the next day after you arrive. Make sure the bills are new and have no writing on them. It is far worse to end up short of cash with no credit card option than to have to redeposit it when you get home. Put your cash in a money-belt if it makes you feel better, I don't do this, but if it makes your travel more zen, go for it. I do always have my passport attached to my body and not in a bag and NEVER in a safe.

7. Pack according to your travel style. I would challenge you to do a one week trip with just carry-ons. If you aren't convinced that it makes your life easier, then it may not be for you. Whatever happens, you must carry all of your own luggage during the experiment, don't let your husband/sig-other/friend or others take away your chance to truly live with less by hauling it for you.

I have two ways that I travel, with a wheelie bag and purse for business trips within the US and with an above seat bag and messenger style bag when my means of transportation is primarily mass-transportation or when I leave the US. I have tried other styles, like taking 3 full size suitcases and 2 carry-ons for a 1 week trip and it just isn't worth the hassle. For more ideas, you can read some of my posts on traveling light, or check out the sites OneBag.com and One Bag One World for some great information about how you can pack everything you need for weeks at a time into one bag.

8. Pack according to your tech level. I am not a low-tech traveler, I am a low weight traveler because of my carry-on only packing style. This means that I spend a little extra money on fewer devices. I bought an unlocked cellphone with a built-in GPS, mp3 player, 5mgpx camera, video camera, and wifi just so that I wouldn't have to pack each of these items separately if I need them. With the wifi I can even leave the laptop at home if I need to. I also bought a 13.3" Macbook and gave up my right-click privileges just to get the decreased weight and increased battery life that it comes with.With those two items I can do whatever I need to with less than 5 pounds of weight. Again, this might not be your style, you need to evaluate. If you're going to take a ton of digital photos for instance, you might consider getting an SD card reader for your iPod to download them every night so you don't have to pack a laptop for instance.
Learn to enjoy the process of travel as much as the destination. If you aren't comfortable using Skype for your international calls home, get a phone card before you leave.

9. Let people know your plans. You can meet up with friends who will also be travelling to the same area using websites like TripIt. I also recommend registering with the State Department before you go overseas. This way if anything happens in the area that will effect you the State Department can find you, evacuate you if necessary and provide help. You can sign up for e-news or text messages while you're away. https://travelregistration.state.gov/ This is one case where having the government know my business sure makes me feel better.

10. Know this: All plane tickets are changeable no matter what is written on them, and any fees for changing can be waived with the right airline agent.

11. Creative lodging opportunities can completely alter how you travel. Hostels are not always what you think, many of them have private rooms with bathrooms included, and they almost always cost less than hotels. Homestays are also getting more popular, allowing you a chance to save money and easily meet new people. If you can be loyal to a hotel brand go for it, it will make for a consistent travel experience and overall less stress, for this anybody can use Marriott.com or Expedia, but if your travel philosophy calls for more creativity check these out:
12. Don't have a To Do List that is Inflexible. There is nothing worse than feeling like you "have" to see anything and that this is a once in a life-time opportunity. This mentality will just stress you out. In Rome last year I packed way too much into our 2 days and it was the most miserable part of our trip. In London I let hubby do all the planning, or um, not planning ,and we had a fabulous time. Allow yourself to get lost in a city. If that stresses you out, plan a walk by taking a walking tour or hike:
  • Paris Walks - absolutely fabulous tours, they even let us use the value we lost by missing our Chocolate Tour of Paris (stupid Italian trains) for another tour of Montmartre, fabulous in every way
  • London Walks - great tour of the Tower of London where we learned way more than the average tourist wandering around with the beefeaters. We would go on their tours again in a heartbeat.
  • Every Trail - find local hiking trails
  • Google Maps - I put all of the recommended sites from all of my sources into one Google map as I do my research and then plot out my own little walking tour. I sometimes post them here.
13. Enjoy the process of travel as much as the destination. Ok, this isn't entirely possible, but we can all work on it. At least do your due diligence and see which of the coach seats is best. Treat yourself to a day pass at an airline lounge on a long layover. Don't drag so much stuff through the airport. Invest in a pair of noise cancelling head phones. Don't go for the cheap airport food, McDonalds will leave you feeling queasy. Stay hydrated. And just relax more now that you have planned, packed and prepared according to your own personal travel philosophy rather than what you think you should be doing.