You can make the most of your next adventure vacation with a few basic rules of thumb -- that don't require extra cash.
Above: Asia's food markets are as fascinating as its temples -- but some travelers never think to enter the small shops.
The author: Sasha Alyson is the founder of Alyson Publications, the country's leading publisher of gay and lesbian books. He sold that company in 1995 to start Alyson Adventures, which specializes in active and adventure vacations for gay men and lesbians.
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Table of Contents of Venturing Out columns
We all know (or assume) that more money will buy you a better vacation. But over the years, I've discovered that some of the best ways to get more from your vacation don't require extra cash -- merely a bit of effort. The following tips are among my favorite rules of thumb for travelers. Most of them are based on the idea that people, within reason and with few exceptions, want to get along. You want to show respect for your host culture, and they want to share their way of life. Our differences make us interesting, even vital, to each other.
Make a native friend before you go. Have someone to look up when you arrive. Traveling to Thailand? Tell the waitress at the local Thai restaurant. She may have a brother in Bangkok. New Zealand? Many gay organizations there host a website. France? You must know someone who spent a year in Paris. Once you have a few names, and assuming you have a common language, call or email them. Let them know when you'll be in town, and make a courteous request. Could you take them out for coffee for an hour? Most people will say yes. If you know of common interests, mention them. Then see what good things happen.
Break the ice. You're waiting at the airport, a restaurant, or a castle. If you greet both locals and other travelers, you might make a new friend, or have one of those serendipitous encounters that you treasure long after you've forgotten the museums and statues. Learning just a dozen words of the native language will smooth your journey: Hello, Good-bye. Thank you. Please. Sir, Ma'am, Miss. And, finally, learn to ask, "Do you speak English?" If they do, they probably want to practice. If they do not, then you've avoided the obnoxious travel sin of assuming that they should.
Learn basic local customs. Tipping is the first one to learn about. Even the small Berlitz guides include a few pages on this subject, and that's enough to prevent major embarrassments. Some actions, even simple hand signals that are common at home, can deeply offend someone in your host country. Don't make the O.K. sign in Italy; it's comparable to flipping your middle finger at someone in the States. Tipping is not expected in Japan. Pointing your feet at someone (when you sit on a temple floor for example) is highly insulting to Thais. Do yourself a big favor and read those few pages once before you depart -- and again after you've been in a new country for a day or two.
Take time to browse. You cannot absorb French culture from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Sure, you want to see the Parisian skyline, but also peruse the narrow streets, browse the local food markets, shops and cafes; study the local craftspeople at work, even if you are not buying. People-watch from an outdoor cafe or a park bench. Even if you do not speak the language, a visit to a bookstore showcases the culture and its values. It's a fascinating experience, one of the best places to learn. Enjoy your position as an outsider to make observations about the local culture.
Ask for information. Most people want to help a confused traveler. Beyond that, you will find that a simple request often affects a more generous exchange. I once asked for directions to a cafe, and was invited into someone's home for coffee instead! While these experiences are among my most treasured, I still regard such generosity with healthy caution. The instinct to help is sometimes too strong. Someone uncertain of the right way to the train station may point down the wrong road, only because they are so eager to assist you. I routinely ask directions twice, after I have passed the eyeshot of my first advisor.
Prepare for the unexpected. Murphy's Law is international, and things can go wrong on a trip. Carry at least two credit cards, and keep them in different places: One in your wallet in your back pocket, one in your fanny pack, perhaps a third in your suitcase. I organize traveler's checks and vital information in the same fashion. For a critical item such as your passport, designate a special place. After use, always return it to that spot as soon as possible.
A great vacation is not the perfect destination. It's an attitude! Wherever you travel, keep an open mind and smile. You may find that you save money and add great value by making new friends.
Next Month: The Intimate Adventure: Gay Romantic Vacations