Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad  FacebookTwitterGoogle+  
As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2003
Related Topics
Independent Travel
More by the Author
Independent Travel Tips: Tip #2: Seek Out Traditional Festivals
Tip #3: Learn to Say 30 Key Words in the Local Language
Tip #4: Meet Strangers
Tip #5: Get off the Beaten Path
Tip #6: Don’t Carry the Whole Book
Tip #7: Go to Nonpublic Centers
Tip #8: Carry Few Valuables
Tip #9: Write a Trip Summary

Tips for Independent Travelers

Tip No. 1: Go Outside the Tourist Season

In a later column I’ll explain how an engineer and energy policy analyst from Baltimore wound up traveling almost nonstop to places as remote as Mozambique, Estonia, and Laos. I’ll explain how I came to develop these tips on the road and what I learned from travelers and locals. I’ll also emphasize the importance and extra rewards of socially responsible travel.

You’ve probably heard this advice before, but you probably haven’t followed it. Work and school schedules, inflexible travel partners, or monsoon weather deter you. Even the cheaper costs of off-peak travel can’t 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, “You’re going to need more insulation to keep warm this winter in northern Europe. Why don’t you beef up like the Russians?”

I hadn’t 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 Arpo’s thin, blond hair shift in the cool October breeze as he yelled good-bye.

Two days later I was gliding smoothly around St. Petersburg’s 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. Basil’s 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.