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Imagine if you could get paid to travel for a living. We know that spending your money on experiences makes you happier than spending your money on things, so if you could get money and experiences, that would be some kind of cosmic jackpot. One man who won that spin of fortune’s wheel is the managing editor of the U.S. edition of Lonely Planet magazine, Alex Howard.
Curiosity wanted to know everything about how he travels and how he plans his trips. Because if he spends his life going from exotic location to exotic location, he probably knows more about travel than the guy sitting next to you on the plane with his sunburn, Mickey Mouse T-shirt, and weird neck pillow.
Know Before You Go
Curiosity: How do you decide where to go?
Alex Howard: It all depends. Sometimes I check out a place everyone’s been talking about lately (like Detroit!). Sometimes I go wherever a cheap flight will take me – a recent one took me to Boston for a weekend. Other times I make sure to check stuff off the bucket list, heading to Bali for some scuba diving or to Alaska to see grizzlies.
C: How do you decide your itinerary? Do you just wander or do you have a checklist of places you want to hit?
AH: I’m definitely a planner. I start with choosing a few key activities and places I want to see, and then pencil in everything around that.
C: How much do you research beforehand vs. showing up and discovering on site?
AH: I always hope for a little serendipity when it comes to travel. If you’re a big planner like me, it helps to leave an afternoon or a full day open for whatever might happen.
C: Any money-saving tips?
AH: Be flexible. The best way to save on airfare is if you wait for a good deal on any destination that you might be interested in. Use Google Flights to see a map of round trip prices and set up price alerts on Kayak.com.
C: Do you have a packing strategy? How do you decide how much to bring on your trip?
AH: I avoid checking a bag whenever possible, so I have packing everything into a carry-on down to a science. Roll, don’t fold; use compression bags; and limit yourself to two pairs of shoes. Stick to one color palette so everything goes with everything else.
C: Any airport/airplane tips for an easier journey?
AH: Put your in-flight essentials in a small bag that’s easy to reach. That way you don’t have to bother the person in the aisle seat every time you want your lip balm.
C: Are there any gadgets you’ve purchased that make travel easier?
AH: A pair of over-the-ear headphones is great on long flights, and a powerbank or portable charger will be a lifesaver when all those outlets are taken up.
C: Do you see value in taking tours of museums/sites or do you prefer to see them without guidance?
AH: I’m a huge fan of guided tours. It’s wonderful to experience a museum or a site with someone who’s passionate and knowledgeable about a subject. On my recent Boston trip, I took one of the Freedom Trail tours the National Park Service conducts, and it was one of the best experiences of my time in the city.
C: How do you seek out “authentic” experiences instead of the prepackaged “touristy” stuff?
AH: Ask the locals what they like to do. I’ve had some of my best meals based on recommendations from bartenders and bellhops.
C: How do you know which attractions are worth the hype?
AH: Honestly, Lonely Planet’s impartial, independent guidebooks will help you sort the tourist traps from the authentic experiences.
Get Up and Go
C: Any secrets for getting around the place you’re visiting? Do you research mass transit or use apps or plan to walk everywhere?
AH: Walking is a great way to see a city – it slows you down and lets you take in all of the sights, smells and sounds that you’d otherwise miss from a car or a subway. But when my feet get tired, I’ll rely on public transport or a rideshare app.
C: If people have never traveled abroad, it can be daunting. What would you tell someone thinking of taking their first trip to another country?
AH: Start small. For U.S. travelers, a trip to Mexico might be all they need to see that the rest of the world is a friendly and welcoming place.
C: How do you overcome any language barriers?
AH: I make an effort to learn the basics whenever I travel abroad – “hello, goodbye, and thank you” are essential. Linguaphiles can also learn how to ask how much something is, but remember to practice your numbers so you can understand the response.
C: What’s the #1 mistake most travelers make?
AH: Worrying too much. Flight delays, missed trains, and lost luggage will happen. Travel should be fun, enlightening, and a break from the worries of daily life. Don’t let it ruin your trip.
C: What’s your most important travel advice?
AH: Just go. People too often think they’re too busy/too broke/too nervous to travel. A trip doesn’t have to be a monthlong tour of Southeast Asia – it can be as simple as a trip to the next town.
Next Stop: Your Vacation
Armed with Howard’s advice, you’re almost ready to travel like a pro. But you’ve got to find the right destination. That’s why Curiosity recommends Lonely Planet’s “The Cities Book: A Journey Through the Best Cities in the World.” It’s a massive coffee table book that includes in-depth profiles from Abu Dhabi to Zanzibar. Flip through more than 400 pages of gorgeous photos and powerful prose to chart your next adventure.
Not sure where to start? “The Cities Book” curates vacations based on your interests. Chicago makes the list of Best Cities for Families, Belgrade makes their list for Best Nightlife, Dakar is a haven for music lovers, and San Sebastián tops the list for Best Food Cities. Looking for adventure? See the five top Lonely Planet recommendations here. Whatever you’re into, this book will be sure your vacation delivers.
The book breaks down each city’s history, people, strengths, weaknesses, and even the movies it’s appeared in. Check out a perfect day’s itinerary and the best time of year to visit. You’ll even get recommendations to eat, drink, do, watch, and buy. And the best part is that each profile spans two pages. You get a real flavor for each city in a quick read. And if you really can’t decide, you can always flip through the book and stop at random for true vacation roulette.