When someone asks for our best tips for traveling, it often comes down to these basics.
As someone who travels about 250,000 miles a year for business and pleasure, travel isn’t an art—it is art. It’s a way to learn and experience new places, whether you’re biking through Bhutan or on business in Baltimore. To that end, it’s shouldn’t be completely planned. It can’t be about making safe and easy hotel and restaurant choices and not leaving yourself open to the full experience of a place. And the only way to be a better traveler is to practice being a better traveler.
Light Preparation for Bars, Restaurants, and Hotels.
We’ve mastered it for several reasons. First, the right amount of preparation. When we research any destination, even for a two-day business trip, we don’t look to Trip Advisor or Yelp, which tend to offer mass opinion and frequent rants. We curate our sources to gain access to unique and creative hotels, restaurants, and destinations by tapping into places like Wallpaper, Cool Hunting, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine. We also look to the most respected local newspapers or monthly magazines for what’s new and what’s highly rated in their market. A quick cross-check with James Beard for semi-finalists and nominees, and the restaurant research is complete. It doesn’t take long to buzz through these resources and create a great list of possible restaurants, hotels, and places that balances a good sampling of the local vibe with spots that are notable nationally.
For hotels, I look to what’s new, unique, and creative, and use resources like Tablet Hotels. I know most travelers are loyal to points (and there are some cities and neighborhoods where that’s more valid), but I like to get a more unique hotel experience rather than just a consistent one. (Nothing against chain hotels; many of them are our clients.) It does sometimes result in a not-great hotel stay, but every good and bad adds to the overall learning and experience.
Don’t Overprepare. Talk to the Locals.
But there is such a thing as too much preparation. If you plan every second of your trip, it means you’re not leaving yourself open to new ideas and experiences. The best way to get an insight into local life is to find a great bar or restaurant, sit at the bar, and tap into the local bartender’s knowledge. They know the industry, they know what’s hot, and they are truly a hidden gem when it comes to recommendations.
Our first stop is always just a drink at the nearest local watering hole. This successful first step resulted in us finding the Gin Joint in Charleston, Drifters Wife in Portland (before it became national news), haley.henry in Boston, and Maydan in Washington, DC (again, before it became the go-to place).
Because we always like to try several places, the best gameplan is usually a drink and an app at a few different spots before heading to the night’s backstop reservation.
In many years of travel, we’ve had surprisingly good experiences as well as laughingly bad. The key is to roll with whatever happens and make the most of it. If your connecting flight is cancelled out of Hartsfield Jackson and you have no choice but to stay in Atlanta, don’t just go to the airport hotel (unless it’s midnight). Look up recent restaurant reviews in the local paper or Eater and find someplace great, even if it means a little extra car time.
In Atlanta, we headed into a hotel in Buckhead and hit Miller Union and the Ponce City Market and had a great time. It’s more effort, but we’ll hardly remember that extremely inconvenient delay. When you’re stuck in an airport hotel room, you’ll just spend your time mad at the airline, when you could be having a new experience somewhere.
Always Pack Lightly. Carry-on Only.
There are thousands of lists of how to pack and prepare, but I’ve found the best approach is not to pack for every scenario, but instead to pack lightly, relying on carry-on only, even for two weeks in Southeast Asia. Carry-on allows the flexibility to take earlier flights or accommodate delays and changes, without the constant stress of where your bag will be when.
Packing is down to a simple system. The day before, make a pile of everything you think you need. Later that day or the next, cut that pile in half. And use the packing cubes. They are as good as advertised. There is always somewhere to do laundry, and you can buy what you really need—the only critical items are a phone, a passport, and a credit card. And, for me, lip balm and Aquafor.