I do a little of both, Kyle. As cool as it sounds to just let the good times roll in a big foreign city, you’re getting robbed of the cultural experiences that brought you there if you don’t have a general plan. But at the same time, you shouldn’t be so regimented that you can’t allow serendipity to happen. Here are four backpacking tips to keep in mind.
Tips for Backpackers: Study Up
Show some respect for the country and people you’re visiting by studying the culture a little beforehand. I was once riding in a cab in Bangkok with a buddy of mine, when he made a joke about the King. The driver slammed on the brakes and kicked us out. My buddy didn't understand what had happened, but I did: Insulting the King in Thailand is a criminal offense. A little knowledge and sensitivity goes a long way to making foreign friends and influencing people.
Learn a couple of phrases in the local language. Even if you butcher what you're saying, the locals appreciate the effort more than you think. Asking them, Did I say that right? is a fantastic way to break the ice.
Tips for Backpackers: Learn Your Way Around
When it comes to travel, paper is far from passé: Guidebooks are the first resource I use when planning my trips. They give simple but important information like the cost and operating hours of historic sites (so I don’t waste my time) and list the popular tourists hangouts (so I can avoid them). Get a map too: you can't commit a city's back streets and neighborhoods to memory. Just don't pull the map out in public, or you'll become a magnet for con artists and street hawkers.
Tips for Backpackers: Make a Plan (and Then Break It)
Before you get to a city, make a plan. List all of the places you want to see and things you want to do, and group them by location. If you're planning on visiting the Louvre one Paris morning, then you can easily walk to the Tuileries Garden and Place de la Concorde afterward. Don't avoid the icons either: visiting Hawaiian-shirt hotspots like Munich's Hofbrauhaus is part of the fun. Pick the cheesiest tourist trap in the city and embrace the schlock.
Still, don't be afraid to get lost. Target a safe, interesting area where out-of-towners generally don't venture, and make some time to wander through the streets in the daylight hours. My greatest experiences (and meals) in Venice, Beijing, and countless other cities have happened this way.
Tips for Backpackers: Get Out of the City
Give yourself two days, maximum, in a city and then get out. Villages in the countryside and mountains are much more interesting, cheaper, and generally less filled with tourists. Even though England’s Lake District may not have the nightlife or museums of London, you’ll learn more about the U.K. and its people in a day there than you would in a week around Piccadilly Circus.