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Breaking the Tourist Barrier; Chapter 1: Planning Your Journey
To successfully break the tourist barrier, you must start with the planning for your trip. Many people tend to get overwhelmed with the logistics of travel and contract with travel services and companies to help them plan where to stay, how to get around, and even sometimes what they will eat. This is the first mistake many people make, as these tourist companies very deliberately wall you deep inside the tourist barrier.
The hotels that you end up staying at are likely ‘tourist hotels,’ and are rarely frequented by locals. The transport that they arrange is via tourist vans, buses, or transport options that locals would never consider. While I do not fault these companies for what they are doing, I avoid using them like the plague, unless I’m absolutely forced to utilize their services by the government, such as in the case of ‘closed’ countries such as Turkmenistan and Bhutan.
In my experience, you can save yourself a significant amount of money and get much closer to breaking the tourist barrier with the locals if you attempt to arrange for lodging, transport, and food by yourself. Do not be afraid to ‘wing it’ with some of this as well. Some of my best trips start with only a rough plan to arrive in a location and then figure it out from there. For this strategy to work, however, you must travel light, a topic I cover in my next chapter.
One reaction that I almost always invariably get when I am talking to someone about my travels is that they assume that it must cost me a fortune to travel as much as I do. The reality is that this is a big misconception…many amazing places in the world are dirt cheap by western standards, and you can end up spending less than if you had stayed at home!
SIDEBAR: Pro Tip: Consider Visiting Low Cost Countries
If you’re on a budget, consider travel to some of the countries listed below. I’ve found that, overall, these provide for the best experiences for the lowest per-day cost:
· Laos – A culture and experience very similar to Thailand but even cheaper
· Slovenia – Cheap by European standards and incredibly beautiful
· Nicaragua – Just as beautiful as the more visited Costa Rica to the south but cheaper
· Bolivia – Incredible people, sights, and food but yet incredibly inexpensive too
· Indonesia – Bali gets all of the fame in Indonesia but some of the other islands are just as beautiful and very inexpensive.
On average, the greatest expense involved with most international trips are the flight tickets required to get you there. While there is no silver bullet in terms of how to get the best bang for your buck, there are a few approaches you can utilize to get the best flights at the lowest cost.
Start your planning using online travel agencies. Tools like Kayak, Google Flights, and others can help give you a rough idea as to what the overall cost of your flights will be and what the flight itinerary options are.
That said, you do not have to simply swallow the fares that are shown. Many times, some smaller, low-cost airlines aren’t included in the online travel aggregators, so one of the ‘tricks’ I do sometimes is to use a phone app like ‘Flightboard’ to get a list of all incoming and outgoing flights to a specific airport on any specific day, and then examine if there are airlines in the flight lists that don’t show up in the search results. You can then try to price out the flight options for that airline by using their individual websites.
Another useful trick is to attempt to break up your total trip into multiple tickets. This can often dramatically lower the total cost of all of the tickets. For example, instead of pricing out a round trip ticket from San Francisco to Madagascar, consider instead pricing out San Francisco to Johannesburg as a round trip ticket and then buy a separate Johannesburg to Madagascar ticket. You will often find that you can save yourself hundreds, if not thousands of dollars by breaking apart your trip into separate tickets.
Let us start with an example to help illustrate how you would go about planning for your flights. We’ll say you really want to visit the beautiful island of Mauritius. The rough process I would use to book this type of a trip would be as follows:
1. Get a First Estimate – Use a ‘traditional’ travel website like Expedia, Kayak, or Travelocity to price out the entire flight, from source to destination. Guess what? It is probably going to come back as fairly expensive. Why is that? Well, smaller locations such as Mauritius are not well served by multiple carriers, so the partner airlines will end up quoting you some ridiculous sums to get there with a single ticket. This is where you need to get creative and start to break out your trip into multiple tickets.
2. Find Your Bookends – What I like to call the ‘bookend’ flights are the long-haul flights that get you to a local major hub. In the case of our example of Mauritius, the closest well served hub would be O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. It is served by multiple competing airlines and is subsequently much cheaper to fly into than smaller airports such as the one in Mauritius. Figure out the price of a round trip to Johannesburg and you will generally find that it is considerably cheaper than a single ticket directly to your destination.
3. Book the Local Flights – The final step is to find the local airline that brings you on the final leg to your destination. In our example, this means looking through the various airlines that fly from Johannesburg to Mauritius. Sure, there are ‘standard’ carriers such as Air Mauritius, but there are also ‘alternative’ approaches such as Air Austral. Having this portion of the trip booked as a separate ticket can significantly reduce the overall cost.
A word of warning to this approach, however. If there are delays in your first ticket, you may not be able to even check in to your flights on your second ticket and may end up paying change and/or cancellation fees. This does happen occasionally, but rest assured in the end run it is much cheaper to take this approach and you can mitigate the risk by planning for longer stopovers in the bookend destinations.
The second biggest expense for most world travel involves lodging. The reality is that it does not need to cost much to stay in some stunning settings, particularly if you are flexible in your arrangements.
From my own personal experience, some of my most memorable stays have been ‘home stays,’ where I was invited to stay in a local’s home by invitation. This can be slightly uncomfortable if you are not used to the idea, but it also is one of the most sure-fire ways of really getting a true local experience. For example, in American Samoa, I had a long chat with one of the chiefs of a small village at the end of the road. He asked where I was staying, and I let him know that I had not found lodging yet. He immediately invited me to stay as an honored guest in his house, and I was able to stick around while the whole village played bingo through the night before heading to bed in his traditional house.
I fully understand that home stays may not be for everyone. The next best thing in my opinion is to utilize services like ‘Airbnb’ or ‘VRBO’ that allow you to sleep in someone else’s house or apartment. There are some incredible people in the world that rent out rooms in their houses through these services, often doing it simply to be social and get to know other people. I once stayed in a bayside house in the far north Archipelago of Svalbard with a Norwegian man who went out reindeer hunting while my friend and I stayed in his house. He returned with a load of reindeer meat and some great advice on what to do and see in that fascinating land.
For short stays or when needing ‘traditional’ housing, it is not a horrible thing to occasionally get a ‘traditional’ hotel. My recommendation is to stay away from chain hotels, however, and to find those gem independent hotels that truly treat their guests in a special way. My favorite hotel in Istanbul is the Hotel Sapphire, which for typically no more than $50/night, offers a Turkish delight when you check in, as well as providing for free WiFi and an excellent breakfast spread in the morning. Finding hotels like this requires a bit of snooping around, but modern phone apps can greatly help with this, as you can tell very quickly which hotels are excellent and which are not so good. Booking.com is my go-to service for this, though there are other services available as well.
Finding a like-minded travel companion is highly recommended, not just financially from a cost-splitting perspective but also to help you to break out of traditional habits and try things that you might not otherwise try. For over a decade I have traveled with my like-minded good friend Joel. We share similar ideas about how to explore and break the tourist barrier and having him ‘along for the ride’ makes it that much easier to connect with locals in a way I could not do by myself. Some of my best travel experiences have been with Joel, and you will find references to him throughout this book.
OK, so this is a no-brainer, so I will keep it short. Visit your local travel clinic and get every vaccine you can get covered under your insurance. You really do not want to come down with Hepatitis or Yellow Fever when traveling. Most people do not realize that insurance generally covers all of these vaccines, so there is almost no downside to this. And many countries in the world will actually require your ‘yellow card’ immunization records for you to even cross their border, so be sure to carry that with you at all times. The COVID-19 pandemic has added additional vaccination requirements here, and I highly recommend not only getting vaccinated against the SARS-COV-2 virus but also keeping records about your vaccination as you may be asked for this upon entry to countries in the future.
Nothing helps you cut through the tourist barrier like making a friend in a country before you visit there. A local working ‘on the ground’ will be able to cut through much of the local language, cultural, and procedural barriers you would normally face, and are typically more than willing to help immerse you into local life.
A word of warning on this approach, however. Your local friend may try to steer you clear of more ‘authentic’ local experiences as they may feel that more authentic local experiences are ‘below you’ or even be embarrassed by them. I once had a very nice friend in Bangalore insist on taking me to the ‘TGI Fridays’ in his city, despite my vocal protests. After I explained to him nicely that I really wanted to try local food choices, he softened up and took me to try a phenomenal local street food.
There is no one way to plan your trip, but hopefully this chapter can provide you some ideas about ways to prepare for your arrival without breaking the bank and/or ending up destined to spend your trip inside the tourist barrier.