We at Atlas & Boots are occasionally approached for our “expert advice” on travel. We find this in equal parts flattering and embarrassing. After all, what makes an “expert traveller” anyway? Is it just knowing how to pack well, where to buy insurance and how to collect air miles? Or does it run deeper than that?
We asked our readers what exactly constitutes an expert traveller. The resulting list of travel skills gives us – and our readers – something to aim for in the year ahead.
1. Speaking a second language
It was at El Hostal de Jackie in Santa Marta that we came across our first embarrassing tourist in South America. The girl, a redhead in her mid twenties, was trying and failing to communicate with the receptionist.
She rolled her eyes at a fellow backpacker. “I came down earlier but they didn’t help at all. They just spoke Spanish at me.”
The receptionist interrupted politely to ask for her ‘nombre’.
“My number? What do you need my number for?” she asked testily.
I leaned in gently. “Erm, ‘nombre’ means name.” I tried to sound helpful instead of judgmental but I’m British so it was somewhere in between.
The truth is, I’ve made the same mistake before (I turned up to Berlin without a word of German) but have since learnt my lesson. I think we can all agree that learning a second language is one of the most useful travel skills one can master. Make 2016 the year you start.
2. Talking to strangers
The first time Peter started chatting to a stranger was on our first-ever trip together (Iceland a few years ago). The stranger in question was a pretty waitress, so I figured he was just exercising his male instinct.
An hour later, we were sitting with two strapping Icelandic lads, swapping stories of our travels abroad. I fast realised that Peter was very good at talking to strangers. He had travelled alone far and wide, which had forced him to start conversations and make friends across many cultures and locations. I’ve certainly become better at this over the course of our big trip but I still have a way to go. This year is the year of getting better.
3. Photographing locals
Interacting with locals is such an integral part of travelling and, by extension, photographing them too. Unfortunately, we at Atlas & Boots have never been completely comfortable taking pictures of people. Stopping and snapping has always felt intrusive but there are better ways to do it.
Participating instead of observing is the most effective way. When you talk to people without an ulterior motive, you’ll often find a natural opportunity to photograph them. Whether you’re a shutterbug or not, you’ll find this one of the most useful travel skills to learn.
How to do it:
Tips for photographing local people
4. Switching off
An expert traveller can switch off all her devices and enjoy the moment for what it is. She doesn’t have palpitations when out of wifi range or religiously check email numerous times an hour.
I used to find it very easy to switch off on my travels… until I started a travel blog. Now I’m usually connected wherever I go, but I always appreciate it when I’m not. Having zero distractions allows you to slow down, to enjoy nature and take a breather. In 2016, I will try to travel more like I used to.
How to do it:
Delete your social apps, disconnect your email and turn off notifications. If you can, leave your smartphone at your hotel or hostel. Consider booking a stay at a hotel without wifi. If you need to go nuclear, visit an island or area that doesn’t have wifi at all. We recommend Mafana Island in Tonga, or Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The latter does have wifi but it’s so expensive, you might as well be on the moon.
5. Travelling alone
I prefer travelling with a companion but going it alone can be exhilarating. Exploring an unknown place in which you know no-one is challenging, frightening and exciting. It allows you quality time for yourself, helps grow your confidence and forces you to be self-reliant. There are several practical benefits too. It makes trip planning easier, gives you complete control over where you go and what you do, and helps you stick to your budget. If you’ve never been abroad alone, make 2016 the year you do.
How to do it:
Tips for travelling alone
6. Saving money
“Have you guys won the lottery or something?” a friend recently commented on a Facebook photo of us in Easter Island.
Alas, the answer was no. We were in Easter Island because we had spent a year saving for our big trip. Over the course of that year, Peter and I steadily filed away an amount each month until we hit our target of £20,000 ($30,000). Saving was far easier than we had anticipated and, as any expert traveller knows, being on the road is so often cheaper than living at home.
If you have always dreamt of travelling long-term, make 2016 the year you set a target and start saving.
How to do it:
How to save for a year of travel
My family are Bangladeshi, so bartering is in my blood. I don’t care if we’re at a market stall in Marrakech or an electronics store in San Francisco, I’ll always ask if “something can be done on price”.
In LA, Peter was adamant there was no way I’d get a discount on my cracked iPhone repair. I asked anyway. The sales assistant said no but, at checkout, he put it through with his staff discount and gave us $20 off. An expert traveller knows how and when to barter, when to push and when to back off.
How to do it:
Always barter with a smile on your face, have a target price in mind but let the vendor name theirs first. Push but don’t offend (if you reach your target price, don’t push further just for sport). Finally, the good-cop, bad-cop routine works wonders. Peter plays the perfect English gentleman and I play the shrew – always with a smile of course.
8. Basic survival
It was on the slopes of Nevis Peak in St Kitts & Nevis that I realised just how hopeless I was at picking up a trail. Every time I lost sight of Peter, I would lose the trail and have to call ahead to him. I was equally hopeless at other basic skills like reading a compass and a map, finding a good camping spot, starting a campfire and packing the right gear.
Basic skills are useful for all travellers, particularly those who enjoy adventure. It’s easy to be complacent when your travelling companion is an outdoor expert, but it’s important to learn these skills yourself.
In London, waiting 15 minutes for a bus used to leave me agitated. On the road, hours would pass in waiting and I’d casually put it down to ‘island time’, the universal time zone for travel.
Expert travellers are able to switch into a different mindframe on the road. They accept that plans will go awry and connections will be missed but they retain good humour and optimism nonetheless.
How to do it:
How to keep a sense of humour when travelling
If you had a good time and no-one knows about it, did you really have a good time?
It seems that for an increasing number of people, the answer is no. For some, the compulsion to snap and share every meal, every cocktail, every sunrise and sunset is just too strong. We as travel bloggers understand this just as much as anyone but there is a fine line between sharing your travels and being smug about it (think Instagram pics of cocktails captioned with ‘my Monday morning commute’).
If you’re on the road in 2016, try to empathise with those at home who cannot travel right now. Boasting about your 17th sangria in Shangri-La won’t endear you to anyone.
How to do it:
Instead of sharing a blow-by-blow account of your travels, try uploading one album of your photos at the end of your holiday. This will have the added benefit of helping you switch off. If your work revolves around travel, you can share more often but be humble about it!
Which of these skills have you mastered and which need work? Tell us in the comments below.
Find travel inspiration for 2016 with Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel, a list of 500 amazing places to see across the globe.
(Additional photography: Dreamstime)