7 travel rules you should break

I am not what you would call a rebel. I floss nightly. I chew each bite of food at least 20 times before swallowing, for fear of choking. As a kid, I colored between the lines. In short: I obey the rules. I always have.

But lately, I’ve noticed a little rebellious streak has emerged within me, particularly in the realm of travel. I’ve realized that a lot of people like to issue travel rules. Definitive statements about what we should and shouldn’t do as travelers. And frankly, that seems silly.

Now, don’t get me wrong: if the U.S. government issues a travel warning about heading to a foreign land, I think you should listen (or, you know, at least read the warning). I don’t think that walking down dark alleys is strange cities is necessarily a good idea. But I do think that some travel rules were made to be broken. And that by doing so, you’ll actually have a better time than if you had obeyed them. Here are seven travel rules I recommend you ignore.

Rule: Never check your bag.

I’ve heard this rule repeated time and again by experienced travelers (and I’m not going to lie: I’ve said it myself a few times as well). They warn that checking your bag makes you that much more likely to lose it. Or have your stuffed damaged, stolen, or otherwise snooped through.

Still, this is a rule that is delightful to ignore. After all, checking a bag makes going through security a breeze — no need to worry about liquid restrictions, or having to lug your bag with you while simultaneously trying to remove your shoes, watch, belt, underwear, and dental fillings. Plus, checking your bag means that you’ll be able to purchase an array of items that you couldn’t otherwise pack (perfume, wine, etc). I’ll never forget the time my hubby and I didn’t buy an absolutely amazing bottle of liqueur because we didn’t want to check our bags. I still think about it, and would have gladly waited an extra 20 minutes at baggage claim to have it.

Rule: Pack light.

I once read an article in a travel magazine in which the author implored his readers to pack nothing for their next trip. Absolutely nothing. Underwear was meant to be washed in the sink. Shirts could be re-worn several times.

For me, this isn’t exactly a viable option — perhaps because “washing underwear in the hotel bathroom sink” isn’t on my vacation to-do list.And while I understand the joys of packing light, there’s something to be said about about over-packing. Having several clean outfits to choose from (and enjoying the decadence of changing your shirt twice in a day!). Swapping out comfy shoes for even comfier ones! And honestly — if you’re just going from the airport to your hotel and back, lugging a bigger suitcase isn’t that much of an inconvenience.

Rule: Avoid tourist traps.

I’m told on a daily basis how awful tourist traps are. They’re overpriced! They’re not worth it! They’re too crowded and cliche! They’re what everyone does when they visit !

While every city has it’s own fair share of tacky, touristy activities, that doesn’t mean you should avoid all of them — especially if means missing out on something you want to see. The Colosseum in Rome is always packed with tourists — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Nor should you skip the Empire State Building in New York. Or the Space Needle in Seattle. Are they packed with people? Absolutely. Why? Because they’re fun and iconic and worth seeing.

Rule: Don’t talk to strangers.

Okay, I admit, this one has a bit of validity. Travelers should exercise a bit of caution. I wouldn’t randomly walk up to some suspicious-looking character and tell them the details of my life, my social security number, or which hotel I’m staying in.

But one of the most rewarding things about travel is meeting new people. If you find yourself in a safe, public place, and you’re in the mood, why not spark up a conversation? I love chatting up cabbies, restaurant workers, doormen, and countless other locals I encounter for tips on what to see and do in a city. Even if I don’t end up taking their advice, I still end up having a richer experience.

Rule: Have an agenda … or at least some clue of where you’re going.

I constantly meet super-organized travelers who put me to shame. They have every minute of their vacation organized, scheduled and planned out. They’re researched tours, purchased tickets to shows, and made reservations months in advance.

I, on the other hand, am lucky if I remembered to book a return ticket home. And that’s not always a bad thing. There’s something incredibly liberating about arriving in a foreign city with absolutely no plans whatsoever. You can pop into whatever storefronts look interesting, roam a town aimlessly for hours, and snag last-minute tickets to a show or museum exhibit you’ve never heard of. Some of my best travel experiences are born from my lack of foresight.

Rule: Don’t buy cheesy souvenirs

I had a friend, years ago, who I thought was the epitome of elegant. Her souvenirs from her travels consisted of obscure concert posters and hand-crafted jewelry that she had fiercely bartered for in the middle of busy European streets. She scoffed at mass-produced snowglobes, key-chains, and t-shirts.

While she did have a point (finding unique one-of-kind items while traveling is always fun) there’s something to be said for tacky souvenirs. They’re cheap, they put a smile on your face, and since the name is usually emblazoned across the front, there’s no question where it came from. Besides, a Leaning Tower of Pisa shot glass that actually leans? How cool is that?

Rule: Try new things.

I’ve heard time and again that trips are a time to break away from routine, to try different things, to experience a new place and culture. And while I agree with that, I also think that travel is about relaxing and having a good time — and sometimes that means doing the same thing over and over again.

If you love the chocolate croissants at your hotel’s breakfast, there’s no shame in getting them every single morning. If you absolutely adored wandering around Central Park last time you were in New York, why not go again? Yes, travel is about exploration, but it’s also about having a good time. If that means become a repeat offender at a restaurant, museum, or a hotel, then do it. You won’t regret it.

What are your favorite travel rules to break? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

[Photos: Flickr | NicolasNova; L. Marie; JonRawlinson; ElvertBarnes; Mr.Thomas; AndreaKW; StephYo]

Geraldine DeRuiter is the founder of The Everywhereist, a travel blog for the accidentally adventurous.

GADLING TAKE FIVE: Week of October 13-19

If you missed that big things happened at Gadling this week, then all I have to say is, “Where have you been?” Gadling has a brand new look and we’re enjoying it. It’s kind of like a shiny new toy. Wow! What does this drop down menu do on the left? The information we used to have is all here, it’s just relocated and gussied up. Also, perhaps you’ve noticed the slight name change. Instead of the heading “Gadling: The traveler’s blog,” we’re “Gadling: go there.”

Here our some of the offerings we’ve dished up this week that hopefully will help you go there where ever that may be. Hey, and if you’re not going off on some huge whirlwind mega trip, that’s fine by us. Sometimes, it’s the close to home treasures that are worth writing home about.

Abha Malpani, who just joined our Gadling forces this week, has some ideas for the best places to hook up with someone if you are so inclined, while Catherine’s got you covered when it comes to avoiding tourist traps. Grant knows just where you can get your hands on some of the best street food in Europe, and if you have a sweet tooth craving, check out Martha’s top places in the U.S. for a sugar fix ideas. To help you gather a bunch of facts that might come in handy at a party, or on a bus, or on an airplane –or just to amuse yourself in the privacy of your own bathroom, pick up a copy of Take Me to Your Leader. Kelly’s always dishing up good finds with her One for the Road Series.

Okay, that’s five and I still haven’t mentioned Matthew’s wealth of Japan know-how this week. Lastly, don’t miss Neil’s post “Visiting an American embassy, Simpson’s style.” Perhaps, you can relate.

The world’s tourist traps and how to avoid them

What constitutes a tourist trap? Forbes Traveler’s Chris Colin argues that it’s a place that eclipses the genuine article. Postcard racks block the actual view, and prices are considerably higher than they might be a few miles (or blocks) away. They leave you drained financially, asking yourself, “Why did I do this?”

How do you spot a tourist trap? Colin suggests that anywhere a cruise ship docks is a good indicator. Also, double-decker buses tend to deposit large numbers of camera-toting tourists. Fisherman’s Wharf and sections of China’s Great Wall are good examples of tourist traps. I also think of Koh San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, a backpacker’s trap (although I love it, I’m sort of ashamed to admit) filled with bootlegged-CD stalls, bland pad thai, and restaurants showing the latest bootlegged DVD.

But you shouldn’t avoid all places overrun with tourists. Sometimes it’s a matter of wandering a bit further, or coming at a different time of year. I know the pad thai gets a lot better just a few blocks away from Koh San Road, and that the Grand Canyon is less crowded on weekdays.

Thanks to Mamabrarian on Flickr for the photo she titled “Existential Tourist Trap.”