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DISPATCHES: 16 WAYS TO BE A SMART TOURIST

Tourist4_1 You won’t find the word "tourist" in most travel magazines, blogs or websites. It’s thought to be pejorative, conjuring up images of a tour bus filled with befuddled Americans, the kind that populated the classic film "If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium."

Instead, the word "traveler" is nearly always used. But the reality is that most of us are indeed tourists when we go overseas or visit another part of this country. If you’re heading to Rome for a week, Anguilla for a weekend or Vietnam for a month on a planned itinerary, you’re most definitely a tourist. Yes, I’ll allow there are exceptions. Should you be sailing a 30-foot sloop around the world or backpacking for six months in Southeast Asia, I’ll happily call you a traveler. But two weeks in Costa Rica? Sorry, pal, you’re a tourist.

No matter. The very definition of being a tourist is that you’re visiting places you’ve never visited, you have a limited amount of time, and you want to maximize that time. So embrace your status and make the most of it. These 16 tips will help.

1. BOOK TRAINS AHEAD OF TIME

I had friends who were traveling to South America and scoffed at my idea that they should reserve trains or buses beforehand. "That’s for tourists," they said. And they were right. When they returned, they confessed that they’d spent about 20% of their travel time standing in endless lines in Peru and Bolivia and Argentina. Well, it did get them closer to the culture. But honestly, it makes a lot more sense to get point-to-point train tickets, passes and reservations before you depart. That’s true whether you’re going to Europe, Japan or South America. It’ll be more convenient, and you can save money as well. A Rail Europe pass, for example, can be cheaper than point-to-point tickets, but you have to get one here before you leave.

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2. BUY MUSEUM AND SIGHTSEEING PASSES

If you’ve ever spent half a precious morning standing in line with other footsore tourists at the Mus e d’Orsay in Paris, you already know where I’m going. A pass can be a bargain and save time. The London Pass (londonpass.com), for example, gets you into 55 attractions, from the Tower of London to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Visit six attractions and the pass pays for itself. And it gives you "fast track entry" at all these sites, letting you skip the queues. Other cities have similar deals. Check official city or country Web sites to find out about them.

3. WALK, WALK, WALK

No matter where you are city, town, village or countryside there’s no better way to explore than walking. Amble around the Marais in Paris, trek through the flea market in Buenos Aires, stroll the streets of Kyoto and take a hike in Bali. Slow is the best approach, and you’ll maximize your interaction with the place and culture. And be sure to carry a good street map in cities. I do, because it allows me to wander at will and never get truly lost.

4. THINK TWICE ABOUT A CAR

Don’t bother renting a vehicle if you’re visiting a European city. City driving in Europe is not for the fainthearted, gas and parking are expensive, and virtually every city has public transportation. But if you need a car to explore the countryside, rent it in the States before you leave. It’s far cheaper: You could pay upwards of 50% more if you rent in Europe. And then pick up the car when you’re ready to leave the city, not before.

5. BUY LIKE A LOCAL

When it comes to shopping, I happen to love antiques stores, flea markets and small retailers that sell locally made products like leather gloves in Florence or copper pots in Paris. But I’m also a big fan of local department stores, like the La Rinascente chain in Italy. They offer designer fashion as well as knockoffs at a fraction of the price. So unless you need that Hugo Boss or Armani label, you’ll find stylish goods for a third less. Oh, and if you like something, buy it now, because you may never see it again. Otherwise, you’ll waste hours, as I have, racing back to try to find an item you passed up the first time.Tourist3

6. READ A GUIDEBOOK BEFORE YOU GO

And bring it along with you. The best guidebooks set you up for sights and attractions, but they don’t spoil the surprise. And they can ensure that you don’t waste time on things that don’t interest you. If you’ve seen enough temples or cathedrals to last several lifetimes, a good guide can steer you in other directions. There’s no single best series, but visit Fodor’s, Time Out and others on the Web to get a taste of their style and content. Then go out and buy a book or order it online.

7. DON’T OVERSCHEDULE

Planning to see The British Museum in the morning, dash out to Hampton Court Palace for lunch and then return to the West End for an early dinner and theater? That seems like a lot of activity to me, with not much room for serendipity, which is about 50% of travel. Okay, I made up that percentage, but I hope you get my point. We all live by schedules. Being a tourist means feeling free to indulge in spending time, as well as taking in food and sights. You may see less, but you’ll enjoy it more.

8. GET UP EARLY OR GO LATE

One of my minor personal triumphs was discovering that I could waltz into the Uffizi Gallery in Florence about 45 minutes before closing time and have the Uccellos and Botticellis to myself. Where were the crowds? No doubt exhausted from a day spent lining up for museums and churches. Going very early or late to beat the crowds will serve you well at Karnak in Egypt, at the Eiffel Tower and in most museums around the world. A guidebook can help with timing, but the best advice often comes from a knowledgeable concierge or hotel desk clerk.

9. GO WITH A GROUP

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. There are times when signing up for a group tour can be the easiest way to go and provide entry or insight that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve on your own. For example, take a themed walking tour of London in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes or The Beatles; a trip to the Great Wall, which lies miles outside of Beijing; or a guided tour through the vast State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with an expert. The tourist office or a good guidebook often has a list of companies offering such excursions, as do many hotels.

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10. USE A PHONE CARD

Calling home? Keep an international phone card with a PIN number handy. You can buy them in the U.S. before you leave or at newsstands throughout Europe. Typically you’ll be paying something like 10 cents a minute, which can be a major savings even over your own GSM cell phone, which will usually have a rate of $1 a minute or more.

11. PUT EUROS, POUNDS OR PESOS IN YOUR WALLET

Carry local cash with you. Sure, credit cards usually get you a good exchange rate, but many merchants in South America, North Africa and Europe, from small hotels to family-run restaurants, will accept only cash.

12. GIVE YOUR ROOM THE ONCE-OVER

Choose your hotel room as a European does. In other words, ask to see the one you’ve been given before you accept it. This is how to avoid rooms that are small, dark, smelly or noisy.

13. LET THEM KEEP THE CHANGE

Don’t overtip. While custom varies by country, rounding up the bill is the rule in many places, since a service charge is often included already. Guidebooks are a good source of country-by-country tipping information. Bone up ahead of time.

14. EAT WISELY

As a rule of thumb, don’t go to the restaurants across the street from the Vatican, the Louvre or any other major tourist site. These places have little incentive to provide good food or service because tired tourists will flood them anyway. Instead, walk a few blocks and look for places filled with locals. Specials typically highlight what’s fresh, and eating in season is a way to taste what are often the best items on the menu, from white asparagus in Germany to porcini in Italy.

15. HAVE A PICNIC

And not just in Paris, where a piece of cheese, a crusty baguette and a bottle of Cotes du Rhone can make for a blissful afternoon in any park. I like to picnic on trains as I cross Switzerland, provisioning at a grocery chain like Migros before I board, and looking at Lake Geneva and the Alps as my backdrop. You can picnic on a beach, a boat or a bench. The whole point is to visit a grocery store and shop with the locals, a sure way to get a handle on a new culture. It’s also a way to avoid all that high-priced and usually dreadful tourist food.

16. REMEMBER, THIS IS YOUR VACATION

Use your week or two like the valuable time that it is. If a taxi ride can save you half an hour of traveling by Underground in London, it might be worth it. If there’s a crowd awaiting the Bateaux Mouches excursion boat on the Seine one evening, make a mental note to return earlier the next night and go to dinner instead. Build some flexibility into your travel plans, because time is not only money. It’s the most precious commodity any tourist has.

This story originally appeard in Diversion magazine.

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