The best travel experiences aren’t found in the guidebook
It wasn’t until my early 30s, when I met one of my best friends, that I would become inspired to travel around the world. Patrick was working with me at a hotel in Hawaii, and I looked up to him because he had already been around the world twice, and I had never been anywhere. I would drool over the photographic journals of his expeditions, which were even more impressive when accompanied by the stories he would tell about his adventures.
So when Patrick invited me to join him on a trip one day, I didn’t hesitate. “Wherever you’re going, I’m in.” And thus began our first adventure together to Bali (still my favorite destination and one I’ve returned to many times since). Patrick and I became lifelong friends and travel partners, having since visited the ruins of Machu Picchu, the rice paddies of Vietnam, the volcanoes of Costa Rica, and the great pyramids of Egypt, just to name a few.
Often, on these trips, The Lonely Planet was our travel guide of choice. We would land in our new destination, usually without a hotel room arranged, and, using the maps and recommendations of the guidebook, we would navigate our way around. As guidebooks are meant to do, The Lonely Planet did a good job of directing us to the best things to see and do in the area.
But looking back now, on more than a decade of amazing travel experiences, I have to say that some of my favorites could not have been found in any guidebook. In fact, nowadays, I rarely bring a travel guide with me, preferring instead to practice some of these travel “hacks” I have learned along the way:
- Visit someone you know. It is one thing to visit another country as a tourist, but it is another thing altogether to get a sense of what it is like to live there. Some of my favorite travel experiences involved visiting friends in Bangkok, Mexico City or Paris and seeing the destination through their eyes.
- Veer off the beaten path. This is so cliché, I’m almost ashamed to include it. But it’s true. One of my favorite travel experiences of all time was when Patrick and I were driving down from the top of a volcano in Costa Rica and we decided to skip one of the hostels in our guidebook and see if we could find a place to stay above the clouds along the side of the mountain. We veered down a ridiculously bumpy dirt road where we were rewarded with lodging in a log cabin in the sky and one of the most amazing sunsets we had ever seen.
- Let the destination be the context. The best trips are those in which the destination is the backdrop rather than the focal point. In other words, forego all the famous sites in the guidebook and do something else you love. Take language classes, or take up painting, or surf, or hike or scuba dive. The ultimate travel experience is doing something you love in a new context with people from a different culture who love the same thing.
If you consider what a tourist guidebook to your own hometown might cover, you can quickly see that it would only show a narrow sliver. Unlocking a destination is about examining real life in a context that is different from what you know. Guidebooks are helpful, but nothing compares to the experiences you discover on your own, and the ones that change you.
Jeremy McCarthy is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing and hosts a blog at psychologyofwellbeing.com.