The real art of traveling lies in the ability to occupy some middle space on the preparation spectrum, the far ends of which are “following a minute by minute itinerary” on one side, and “totally winging it” on the other. As much as I like to advocate exploring an area and actually observing what’s around you instead of following smartphone directions to Tripadvisor locations with your head down as you hold your phone out in front of you (like Spock checking for signs of life), the fact of the matter is you are going to miss stuff if you don’t prepare a little bit. Trust me, nothing is more frustrating then talking to a fellow traveler about a place you’ve both visited, and having to listen to them describe their favorite site or spot there, and thinking it sounds awesome, and not having any idea what they are talking about. And conversely, nothing is more frustrating than spending time in a place, leaving, and realizing you didn’t have one spontaneous experience there.
All of this discussion of moderation is fine in the abstract, but it’s mostly useless. Let us try and bring this down to Earth with some concrete examples.
Here’s how to have a solid Flashpacking day that maximizes the chances of spontaneous experiences, while making sure you don’t wander around and waste your time.
Time to wake up. You slowly get up at your AirBnB and Couchsurfing pad which you secured a couple weeks before you arrived. If it’s an AirBnB pad feel free to walk around naked. If your couchsurfing, don’t. Also, say hi to your host and stop for a conversation before you head out the door, if he or she is there. Don’t be one of those creepy/awkward courchsurfers who silently occupies someone’s place and then is just suddenly gone, like some sort of weird internet-created infestation.
But really, you should do AirBnB. It’s like couchsurfing without the weird sense of obligation and the feeling you’re on an extended blind date with someone. You can find someplace near the action that is comfortable with plenty of room for $50 a night. Although if you’re on an extended trip, that might not be an option.
Then grab some local transport. If you’re in a less-developed country, grab a cab. In Colombia, for example, where half of the vehicles on the road are cabs, it’s almost crazy not to take one. In London, on the other hand, where only Hugh Grant can afford a cab across town, find the nearest Tube station.
Where are you going? Good question. You want to know enough about the neighborhoods of a city. Go to a historic part of the city near the center, or some place that is known for a bohemian flair. This is the part where research is required. But once there, wander around a little bit and find a cool looking or historic place to grab some coffee and get some breakfast. That’s the spontaneous part. Don’t be afraid to walk down side streets in your search.
After you get some breakfast, being sure to try something local, and you chatted with the server about what there is to see in the area (provided language barriers aren’t too
great) you should explore the area you’re in. You came here because it’s cool right? Find the best public spaces, be they markets or parks. Chill for a minute. If this area wasn’t the neighborhood you thought it was then go somewhere else and find the spot there. Then head to a bench and talk to the locals. Ask people about directions, and at least try it in the native language first. Lots of times the younger generation will be able to speak some English. As long as you’re in a place that isn’t too touristy, they should be interested in where you’re from and what you’re doing there. If it is really touristy, they will be used to people like you, but might not be used to genuine, respectful questions about their opinions. Try to find out about the area. Ask for a lunch recommendation. If there is some food the place is known for, ask what’s the best place to get it. Ask about nightlife. (Also, don’t be the asshole who is just using them for information. Ask them about themselves and be genuinely social. Be, you know, a normal, friendly human being and engage them. Maybe even get their number, especially if the person you’re speaking to is an attractive member of the opposite sex. )
For lunch, track down a recommendation that you received. For lunch you should have looked up an interesting place in an interesting neighborhood. Avoid anything that has multiple locations. Ask somebody if they know where it is, even if you do, and ask what they think of it. Judge their reactions accordingly.
Spend a little money on lunch, and get something real local and as authentic as you can find. Use the money you saved on lodging by not staying in a hotel. Try out a new area if you feel like you saw everything to see at the first place. Or keep exploring, some cities don’t have that many interesting sections so you really spend a lot of time in one area. All depends on how long you’re there.
After lunch, you want to hit up the main attraction that most interested you when you researched this place. This is museum time, or maybe it’s beach time. Either way this is your time to chill out and enjoy the tourist stuff. This is camera and Tripadvisor time. Be the tourist.
Or maybe this is go home and take a nap time. Again, kind of depends how much time you have at this place and whether you plan on going out hard that night.
Afterwards, get some dinner. Hopefully you have this planned already, because like any smart traveler you sent out a bunch of messages to locals on Couchsurfing before you arrived. (Couchsurfing has just as much, probably more, utility as a social networking site than as a lodging locater). It’s a great idea to try and make contacts in a place before you go, and sending out some messages on Couchsurfing explaining your situation and trying to find someone to meet up for dinner or drinks is a great way to get in touch with some locals. But don’t play it too much as a numbers game, even though it is in essence a numbers game. Look for people you’d actually want to meet and don’t just send them a form letter. Talk about common interests, etc.
Or maybe, you made plans with that local from the park this morning.
Afterward, your new friends will probably have an idea of where to go out that night. Hopefully they’ll bring you and show you. If they say they have work the next day and can’t go, then don’t be afraid to go out by yourself. Here’s a guide to going out.
Then when you wake up the next morning, wash, rinse, repeat. Pretty easy. Just make sure you take time to explore, and get local recommendations over Tripadvisor reviews that are all written by tourists. But don’t be afraid to use Tripadvisor or your smartphone when necessary. You want to choose the middle path, like a Buddhist (or Goldilocks.)