My three best travel secrets!

I was thrilled when I received an email a couple of weeks ago inviting me to become a Travel Secrets Author on Tripbase, publisher of the free Travel Secrets e-book.

The eBook series is the result of a unique collaborative project, the first of its kind to take place on the Internet.  Starting with just one blog post back in November 2009, the Travel Secrets project spread quickly with 200 travel bloggers revealing their most closely guarded travel secrets.  The secrets were too good not to share! So all 500 of them were compiled into a series of inspirational travel eBooks, available for free download here.  A new edition will be coming out in the next few months.  For every person who downloads a Travel Secrets eBook, Tripbase will make a $1 donation* to the fantastic cause, Charity: Water whose mission is to help bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.  Their campaign target is to build 4 freshwater wells, providing clean water for an entire school for the next 20 years.

(*$1 Donation per download up to $5,000, half a dollar to $10,000, and 25 cents to $15,000. Total donation cap is $15,000)

It was difficult to decide what three tips to choose.  When I travel, I like to seek out authentic (as much as possible) experiences and my first two tips speak to that:

1. Rent a house or apartment

Yes, unless you are by yourself (and sometimes even when you are!), renting an apartment or a house is a much cheaper way to stay in a foreign country.  We’ve rented places in Hawai’i, France and Italy and each time, it has allowed us to really experience the local culture (shopping at markets and supermarkets and cooking with local incredients) in much more depth than a hotel stay would have afforded.

Not your typical hotel apéritif in Umbria, Italy?

Morning sun peeking in on our balcon in Cassis, France.

You can’t get more “valet” than this in Biarritz, France (with the lovely Lizzie!)

Genuine “poutres apparantes” (exposed beams) to lull you to sleep in Paris, France.

A kitchen of your dreams in Paris, France.

You can’t get much cuter than that in Dinan, France.

All these rental properties usually work out to much cheaper than a hotel because they afford you the luxury of a “day off” constantly eating out – which can be fun but sometimes you just want a home-cooked meal, right? And all those meals out add up. Splitting the rental costs between a few people also means you might be able to afford a trip you otherwise might not have.  How much I appreciate travelling in this fashion really hit home when I was in Philadelphia recently – after 6 nights of hotels I was going stir crazy.  I just wanted my own food! Not to mention the cost.  Nearly twice what I paid for two weeks rental properties in France at Christmas.  Concerned you might not be able to find a reputable agency?  VRBO and Great Rentals are good places to start and were where we rented our first properties from.  Go ahead – try it – once you’ve tried it you won’t look back.

2. Take a class

I can’t stress how much I enjoy taking (cooking) classes when I am travelling.  Because one of my favourite things to to is bring a little piece of my travels home with me in the form of food when I return from vacation (now there’s an idea for a great cookbook, don’t you think?), I love to learn new and authentic recipes when I travel.   We usually buy cookbooks and or magazines to bring back but there is no substitute for learning from the locals.

Joy at the Tamarind Riverside Cooking School in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Which we replicated when we came back by teaching our friends all the recipes we learned!

Getting the lowdown from Anne at the New Orleans School of Cooking.

Learning all about les macarons from the masters at Lenôtre in Paris.

A tour of France in wine and cheese at Ô Chateau, Paris, France.

Working in the magnificant Electrolux kitchens at the ArtHome Installation, Paris, France.

All these experiences have given me great ideas and recipes to use in the kitchen upon returning from my trips and it’s my little way of making sure I keep the memories of my trips alive just that little bit longer!  Neil and I like to host themed dinner parties on a fairly elaborate scale and part of the the fun is introducing our friends to cuisines they might not have tried before.  Classes are a great way to learn culture-specific techniques that feature in foreign recipes.  Everywhere we go now, we always seek cooking demos or classes to attend as part of our regular routine on vacation!

My third tip might seem a little touristy but don’t write it off –

3. Get the lay of the land – take a tour!

I am not kidding – when time is of the essence and you find yourself in a big city, sometimes those cheesy double-decker bus tours are just what the doctor ordered. Or perhaps a walking tour is more your speed. Don’t be embarrassed – they can be so useful to help you find your feet and get your bearings, in short, be  able  to find your way around without looking like a tourist!

All aboard the Big Bus Company in Philadelphia!

Getting ready to see the sights in New York City (with the lovely Ann!)

Checking out Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith’s Shop in New Orleans, Louisiana on a Haunted History walking tour.

Getting to the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans on a bus tour. With no car, we would not have been able to see this important piece of NOLA history had we not taken a tour.

Whilst some people might pooh-pooh this and say it’s too touristy, taking a bus tour can really help you find your way and see many important sights in limited time.

In another lifetime, I found myself in London, England, with 22 ten old Parisian school boys who were on exchange with a school in Kent. They had one day to “see London”. I convinced the school that the cost of the double-decker tour was worth it (at the time, it was not insignificant!), and thankfully, they agreed.  For four and a half very happy hours, the little guys sat up top, took hundreds of photos, ate their packed lunches and had a ball. Me? I was pleased because at any given time I knew where they were. All of them.  When we got off the bus in Piccadilly Circus, the boys stood against the window of the nearest souvenir store and took it in turns to go inside in groups of 4 to buy whatever they liked.  On the train on the way back to Kent that night, they were ecstatic that they had “seen” London. And they pretty much had.  That’s what I am talking about – great value for money and limited time.

Recently in Philadelphia, my friend and I had a ball on the Big Bus tour – there’s noone better to tell you all about their city than a local.  And there were even locals on our bus, taking out of town visitors for a spin. If the locals are doing it, it can’t be half bad!

Go ahead – rent an apartment, take a cooking class and hop on a bus. Your trip experience will be so much richer for it!

Oh and the photo at the top of the post? That’s Cleo’s travel secret: Always pack a big black cat in your carry on.

62 thoughts on “My three best travel secrets!”

  1. Great suggestions…sweet photo of the cat in the suitcase. Whenever we travel our cats always know something up the minute the suitcases come out.

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  4. I have a bit simpler and budget version of this – what you are saying is really nice, but it’s even simpler – a) couchsurfing b) exchange cooking skills with your host c) ask you hots to tell you (or perhaps even show you) places around and in his town. Astonishing, how mach more colorful your vacation appear.

  5. Great tips! I love taking classes and the Segway tour (that seems so silly) is actually pretty cool. Staying in rented homes is always the best way, but I haven’t done that yet when on vacation so will need to!

  6. Great tips! I’m a BIG fan of vacation apartment rentals. I did that in Paris and we saved a TON of money.

  7. So true! I am a firm believer in the guided tours. My first trip to NYC is most memorable to me because it involved all of that (it was a school trip). I was proud that, when I returned with my parents, I could let them in on the history of the buildings we strolled by casually, interesting stuff you would never find out unless a local let you in on it.

    Another good idea for travelling to Europe is to stay at Bed and Breakfasts. I stayed at a few this past summer and had such a great experience. They’re usually family run and the families usually live their too. That results in the place always being super super clean, it usually includes great home cooked breakfasts, a chance to meet the locals and get to know them on a personal level. It is a good way to get tips on places to see, where to eat, etc from the people who know the town best! I’ll never forget the owners of the B&Bs i stayed in. They made my trip extra special.

  8. Great tips, Mardi! We always take a “tourist” bus tour when visiting a place for the first time. There’s no better way to get the lay of the land and enables you to pick out the places you’d like to see in depth.

  9. I agree with your suggestions of renting an apartment and taking a class. I spent two months in Sicily and my husband last winter. We rented an apartment that looked out onto the Ionian Sea. One of my favorite days was the day I made cheese. It wasn’t an organized class, it was just me and three cheesemakers and quite splendid.

  10. Wonderful tips!

    Is it true that “they” are trying to make it so travelers can no longer rent apartments in Paris? I read an article on it a few weeks ago but haven’t heard much since. It would be a huge disappointment if I couldn’t rent an apartment the next time we go!

  11. Wonderful travel tips. I especially love the “rent a house or apartment”. It has always been so much less expensive when we do that. No, you don’t get the 5 Star treatment of maids and things, but it is usually so much bigger, furnished, and you get to feel like a local!

  12. Great post Mardi! I esp agree with tip #1. We stayed in a top floor studio apt in the 6th arr. in Paris and had the best time with a balcony, views of eiffel tower and les invalides, and grocery stores. So much better than a hotel and much cheaper!

  13. I thought these were MY secrets to traveling! 😉 This is exactly the way I prefer to travel!! I get so much more out of my trips by first getting the lay of the land [go back to the places I want to delve deeper into] and taking a cooking class [interactive stuff]…

    I haven’t stayed put in one place long enough to take advantage of an apartment but I am hoping to do so [in France, of course!!]

  14. I’ve traveled quite a bit but have yet to experience a ‘rental’. It’s something I really want to do but for an extended period of time (not my usual 3 or 5 days in a city). I’ve also taken a classes when traveling – once in Florence and another time in Chiang Mai – and just like you, I came home and recreated the meals. Lastly, bus tours are great way to get the lay of the land. I love to do that on day 1 and then go back at leisure to visit.

  15. Great tips ! I endorse all three . We started renting houses for vacations when our first child was born and we have never turned back. In addition to all the great reasons you gave, for young kids a house is just more practical in terms of naps, food and space. I always take a cooking class its the only thing that I pre book before leaving o n holiday.

    This year for summer we are renting a house near Cahors (France) and the view from the photos already has me hooked.

  16. I really enjoyed your post!! These are the exact tips I would have written about and in fact, I’ve been thinking about doing a post on what to bring when you are renting an apartment/flat overseas! ! I have always tried to rent apartments/condos/cabins whenever we travel – with a family of 4 it simply makes much more sense – there is more room (especially in Europe where hotel rooms are a bit smaller) and it gives you so much more flexibility. Just returned from a trip to Ireland and London and rented flats in both countries!!!

  17. Great tips!! You have traveled much more than I have, so it’s great to hear your take on it. I especially like the ideas of taking a class and a tour. Those are some of my favorite things to do – especially culinary classes and tours!

  18. Your taking a class tip is one I subscribe to — so much fun, and you meet foodies from all over the world too!

    • Oh Jenn – I am so envious! Hope you had fun! Funnily that’s one of the cities I never did a tour in. When you live somewhere you never feel the need to do those things but sometimes it’s nice to be atourist in your own town too!

  19. What a great way to travel. I tend to do more activities while traveling and less rushing around to see famous monuments. I must even admit, although I like museums, I don’t have the patience to spend hours in one.

  20. Great tips, Mardi! I’m actually a big fan of taking tours although my family and friends usually groan and think it’s too touristy…love getting a lay of the land this way. And yes, renting an apartment’s the only way to go. Usually works out way cheaper than hotels. Good luck with the write-ups for Tripbase. Exciting!

  21. Great post Mardi. I love doing my sightseeing buses wherever I visit, particularly if there is no full day bicycle tours available. Did Barcelona and Paris by bike. Tried a sedgway in Barcelona without too much success. After falling off a couple of times opted for the bike.

    & you know me, I’m the backpacker girl, how else could I afford to stay away for three and five months at a time!! Even manage to get cooking lessons on occasion when I meet people in the kitchen from different cultures.

  22. We often rent an apartment or condo now when we travel. Definitely so much nicer. And we often take a tour. But I really need to start taking a cooking class. What a fabulous idea!

  23. Can you recommend anywhere to stay? Or a website to find places to stay? I am going in December with my husband, so we just need a little place… but we are staying for 2 weeks! I’m so excited!

  24. Taking a class would be a luxury. When we travel, we’re often trying to cram so much in that taking time out for a class involving food or wine doesn’t seem feasible. One day…

  25. Thank god I had a big black cat to see me through my lost luggage fiasco. Thank you Cleo. I now know what I should be filling my carry on with – spare undies, toothbrush, change of clothes, and a meow machine. Oh, and keep the Tim Tams in there too, just in case.

  26. terrific tips, mardi! used vrbo for the first time on spring break a few months ago and had a great experience. the apartment we rented was so much better than a local hotel would have been – bigger, less expensive, allowed us to make our own breakfasts – great for a family with small children. also love the idea of taking classes – i’ve given steve cooking classes in several places we’ve visited and it’s been a great way for him to really immerse himself in a little bit of the culture via learning to prepare the local food. lots of fun. and as for tours? well, were it not for a tour of tunisia, we’d have never met you and mr. neil, so i say YES to trips. 🙂


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