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How Not to be Stupid While Traveling

After dinner my first night in Split, Croatia, I started back to my hotel only to realize I had no idea what the name of it was or where it was located.
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After dinner my first night in Split, Croatia, I started back to my hotel only to realize I had no idea what the name of it was or where it was located. It was one of those moments that was hilarious at first, but quickly became a "situation" I had to deal with if I ever wanted to be reunited with my mother and sister, both of whom I'd had dinner with, but who'd wisely returned to the hotel before nightfall.

We'd arrived in Split - a labyrinth of narrow streets that all look alike, especially in the dark - a few hours earlier, and were in and out of the hotel quickly since we were anxious to explore and go eat. So quickly I forgot to note the hotel's name, though it had way too many consonants for me to have ever recalled it anyway.

Since it was 2005 not 2015, I couldn't just type "small hotel on hill in Split Croatia" into my iPhone and be on my merry way. Calling my mom or sister for help was out of the question too since neither had international phone service. Needless to say, I couldn't call the hotel without knowing its name.

I did eventually find it after basically "trick or treating" my way through most of Split's hotels. The "winning" desk clerk was not amused when I jumped up and down yelling, "Score one for the American!"

Hence, ten tips for how not to be stupid while traveling:

Always take the hotel's business card with you.
Hotels keep their business cards on the front desk for a reason: so you can remember where you are staying. I can't tell you how many times I've forgotten the name of my hotel or street it's located on. Or the times I've so grossly mispronounced the names when asking for help or directing a taxi, that knowing them didn't matter anyway. Hotel business cards are to travelers what ruby slippers are to Dorothy: your ticket back home. No matter where I am in the world, whether I understand the language or not, I know if I can show someone the hotel's business card, I can always get back there.

Write down where you're going before you go. For the same reason as above, always jot down the name AND address of where you're going before heading out. It's so much easier to ask for help when you have something to show someone, versus standing in front of them butchering their native tongue. Not that I'm not a huge advocate for learning and trying to speak the local language, but there's a time and place for everything - and it's generally not when you're lost. No matter how many people in Poland I asked where the train to Worclaw was, I was never going to find it since "WOR-CLAW" is not even close to how it's pronounced. I still have no idea how to say it properly.

Go old school. Map apps are the best invention in the history of the world, and do an excellent job directing you from one discrete location to another. But they're terrible at helping you learn a place. In other words, if you're blindly following what the little lady in your phone tells you to do, then you aren't paying as much attention to the visual cues that will orient you in unfamiliar surroundings. When I go places without 3G and, gasp, have to use my eyes, I learn how to navigate like a native in no time. On the other hand, when I'm in cities like London or Paris, where I've been dozens of times but rely heavily on map apps to find what I'm looking for, I still get lost. It's like being a passenger in a car instead of the driver - if you aren't forced to pay as much attention to where you're going, you won't learn as quickly how neighborhoods connect.

Whisper sweet nothings to me. When I do use map apps, I always do so through ear buds. Someone out there will probably say it's not safe to have headphones on when walking around, but I disagree. First, by listening to directions, you're free to keep your eyes looking up and scanning your surroundings. Second, nothing screams, "I'M A TOURIST... WHO'S LOST" more than someone dithering this way then that way while staring at their phone. With ear buds in, you're able to keep moving without ever breaking stride, looking as self-assured as a local.

No fare. Before taking a taxi anywhere, I always ask a local how long the ride should take and how much it should cost to get there. Their answer may not be 100% accurate, but even a ballpark figure helps ensure I'm not taken for a dum dum. I ask for even more help whenever I'm anyplace where taxi drivers are sketchy or fare schedules inconsistent or non-existent, for tourists at least (HELLO Moldova). I'll get a local to help negotiate the fare before getting in a cab, and ask them to make sure the driver knows I am not to be trifled with (and then I try to act scary). In places with cellular data, I'll map the route on my iPhone to ensure the driver is headed the right place, especially if I feel uncomfortable for some reason, or just to be sure we're taking the most expedient route. And last, it's not uncommon for drivers to charge you more for a ride if they pick you up in front of nicer hotels or restaurants, so it pays to walk a few blocks to catch a cab sometimes. In Panama City the ride from the hotel to the Old Town cost $20; the ride back cost $5.

All you can eat. If allergies or dietary restrictions make dining out difficult for you, you'll need to take extra precautions when traveling. I've been a vegetarian most of my life. I don't consume any meat or animal products, or anything prepared with meat or animal products. This concept - particularly the "made with" part - is more difficult to explain in some countries (including, at times, America). When I'm headed someplace where I suspect I'll have trouble with the language or the country's typical cuisine, I'll make a point of having someone who knows the language write, "I don't eat meat, chicken, pork or other animals, or anything made with meat stock," so I can show waiters in restaurants. This may sound extreme, but it can literally be a lifesaver. And I defy anyone to explain "gluten-free" to half the world. I still can't figure it out in English.

Call before you carry. Even though credit card companies claim you're no longer required to set up travel alerts before leaving the country, my personal experience has shown otherwise. In fact, aside from American Express (who swears you don't have to tell them), most companies have made it even easier to do so by allowing you to set alerts online instead of via phone. Regardless, the annoying truth is that even when I've taken the time to dutifully place travel alerts on each of my cards, half will still suspend further transactions due to "suspicious activity" after my first purchase abroad. But I still play the game in hopes that one day they'll hold up their end of the bargain.

Be liquid. At home in New York, I can go months without ever touching cash. I use my debit card and iPhone apps to pay for almost everything these days. But when I'm traveling, it's an entirely different story. In fact, the first thing I do whenever I arrive anywhere is hit an ATM machine - usually before I even leave the airport. Many establishments don't take credit cards, especially in off-the-beaten-path places. Even when they do, machines are often down because of power outages or other issues, or there's trouble with your card. The farther flung I go, the more cash I take out when I find an ATM. You never know when you'll find one again (in some countries it may be days), or if it will even have any cash in it. On paydays in certain countries, I've spent entire afternoons searching for an ATM with any money left. And for budget-minded travelers, cash is king, as they say. You can usually negotiate a better price if you flash cash.

Stash your cash. I'm not a particularly paranoid person so I generally don't worry, but if I'm someplace where the vibe is dodgy or I'm carrying a lot of cash (which you should avoid, but in some instances, i.e. places with no ATM machines, you can't), I never keep it all in one place. Instead I'll keep small stashes in different places - usually a couple places where I'm staying, and several on my person. That way if I'm burgled or robbed I won't lose everything. As far as trusting room safes, locking things in your suitcase, and/or leaving things with the front desk versus keeping them with you, for me, it's on a case-by-case basis. Evaluate the individual circumstances and always trust your gut. One more tip: count your cash before you hide it and mark the hiding places in a way that only you'll recognize - that way you'll know if someone's tampered with it (same goes for hiding all valuables in your room).

Copy that. My entire life is on my phone, which makes life super convenient unless I lose my phone. When I travel, in addition to storing copies of my passport, immunization records, important telephone numbers, copies of my credit cards, and travel documents on my phone, I also upload them to cloud apps that I can access from any computer with Internet. And because I travel to many places with unreliable or no Internet access, I also take paper copies of everything. And because I'm paranoid about things being lost or stolen, I make two copies - one I hide somewhere in my carry on (luggage), and the other I carry in my day bag.

How have you learned not to be stupid when traveling? Comment below and find/follow me on Facebook to help others not be stupid when traveling.

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