Tips for Independent Travelers
Tip No. 1: Go Outside the Tourist Season
In a later column Ill explain how an engineer and energy policy analyst from Baltimore wound up traveling almost nonstop to places
as remote as Mozambique, Estonia, and Laos. Ill explain how I came to develop these tips on the road and what I learned from travelers and locals. Ill
also emphasize the importance and extra rewards of socially responsible travel.
Youve probably heard this advice before, but you probably havent followed it. Work and school schedules, inflexible travel
partners, or monsoon weather deter you. Even the cheaper costs of off-peak travel cant break your shackles. However, you really can get a whole lot
more out of your experience when you leave the crowds behind.
The local atmosphere is much more relaxed, and hotels, restaurants, transportation, and events are much more easily available, often
making reservations unnecessary. Most importantly, people and places are more accessible.
During a cold winter in Europe, I was invited to play pickup basketball in Helsinki, Finland. Arpo, the big 27-year-old coach, looked
at my 150-pound frame and said, Youre going to need more insulation to keep warm this winter in northern Europe. Why dont you beef up like
I hadnt even considered going to Russia, but I found a discount package through a travel agency and the next day, from the deck of a cruise liner, I
watched Arpos thin, blond hair shift in the cool October breeze as he yelled good-bye.
Two days later I was gliding smoothly around St. Petersburgs Hermitage, the second largest art museum in the world. Except for
the employee who had nothing better to do than make sure I kept my slippers on my shoes, I was mostly alone. That night, I bought a discount ticket for the
regal Kirov Ballet from a scalper on the street. At the performance a young couple, eager to practice English, invited me to a posh restaurant. Foreign tourists
had been scarce for the past few months. After adding to my insulation on goulash and creamy chicken Kiev, I caught the night train to Moscow.
Unlike during peak season, only three of the six beds in my compartment were filled, and I awoke the next morning to clean rather than
cigarette-smoke-filled air. Exhilarated by the distant sight of the onion-domed St. Basils Cathedral at 7 a.m., I caught one of the deepest underground
metros in the world to Red Square.
After a visual snapshot of V.I. Lenin resting with good skin color in a fresh-pressed suit, I found a group of school children making
hats from brilliant colored leaves at a nearby park (see photo). Excusing myself, I met a sociable friend from Estonia and her son for lunch at a café.
We spent the afternoon visiting gold-topped Orthodox churches, and Moscow State Univ. She rushed me to an operetta just minutes before the 8 p.m. start.
We bought tickets right at the box office, again with no line, ending an action-packed day of just-in-time touring.
While waiting for my night train back to Helsinki, an old man in a bushy fur hat held out a letter and a bottle of vodka. His watery
eyes identified me as a reliable foreign visitor. He pleaded with me in gesture-enhanced Russian to carry his letter to Finland, where his friend would meet
me on the platform. Judging him to be desperate, and his flat package to be harmless, I chattered a D-D-Da. He knew I could still be warmed the
Russian way, with blankets and vodka, during the cold, off-season night unfamiliar to peak-season travelers.