Unhelpful travel advice we think you should ignore

travel advice

Eat where the locals/ cab drivers eat

We think this is some of the most unhelpful travel advice ever despite it’s ubiquity.  We mean, seriously? Do you eat where cab drivers and these mysterious “locals” eat in the city where you live?  Well, probably yes and no.

No, in terms of cab drivers. If you can afford to take cabs and not have to drive one and you can afford to travel to all over the world, then what makes you think you would be a good culinary match with a cab driver in China? And have you smelled the cab drivers in Abu Dhabi?  That will kill your appetite.

Cab drivers eat where they can get food and get out in a hurry. They don’t do a bunch of wine swirling and sipping – they cruise the streets looking for those who did and they get them back to their hotels. They don’t care about honey glazed beet roots dipped in lavender sauce. (With any luck you don’t either but you get the point – maybe.)

Now when it comes to “locals” you probably do eat where they do in your home city. If you live in a groovy section of San Francisco you probably eat in groovy local places with other groovy local people. Makes sense.

If you go to Beijing who is a “local”? Anyone who was born there? Expats who live there? Communist officials whose lifestyles quite possibly differ from the romanticized version of “locals”? Locals eat where they can afford to eat. In many countries this means eating from street vendors.

If you’re in your 20s and backpacking then you will probably eat from street vendors and local dives and have some of the bad digestive reactions that are part of that phase of your life. If you’re an adult who appreciates hygiene, seats and not having people smoke and spit around you as you eat, then eat authentic cuisine of the area but don’t feel guilty about doing that in a nice restaurant!


Iceland sign

Local language in Iceland

Learn some of the language before you go

Where are you going? In the last year we have been in Iceland, Bhutan, and the Maldives. In each case it would have been nearly impossible, you would have learned a language spoken by people in only one country on earth and most likely you would have made a fool of yourself anyway. Even in Bhutan, which was intentionally set apart from the rest of the world until 1999, the kids learn English in school (as well as their own language).

Yes, it’s a very nice gesture to learn local phrases such as hello and thank you. And if you’re going somewhere for an extended time – maybe a month or more – then make some effort before you go. We aren’t linguists (we aren’t gymnasts either) but before going to Italy we both spent months trying to learn Italian. Brunette had more success than Blonde but even so when we were somewhere out in the middle of Tuscany and Brunette tried to use her Italian to ask a man a question he said “Lady, it’d be a lot easier if you just spoke in English”! And it was, for everyone!

Most of the developed world has people in tourism who speak English at a level where you can communicate with them. When there isn’t a common language various apps can help and good old charades are the most fun of all. In Sicily a waiter acted out swordfish by mimicking a fish that had a knife sticking out of its forehead. When we guessed “swordfish” he happily replied “yes, yes, fish with knife”. That was a lot more fun than learning the Italian names of all possible fish entrees in Sicily.

Learn a few words for the sake of goodwill and use your sense of humor and patience (if you have it) for the rest. When in doubt most people under 40 speak some English.

Trying to get into closed Movistar store in Spain

Trying to get into closed cellular phone store in Spain

Get an unlocked phone and a SIM card for the country where you’re traveling so you won’t get horrendous phone bills when you get home.

Travel writers make this sound so easy. Well they obviously haven’t tried to get into a phone store in Europe where it’s always siesta time, the lines are so long you could conceive and deliver a child while you wait and the employees close the stores when the magical hour comes even if you’re still in line (nursing your newborn).

So maybe you found a place to get the unlocked phone as well as the SIM card. Now no one back home knows your new phone number. If you send it to them they won’t want to call you at international rates just like you don’t want to call them! You will probably have to provide your passport information to get a SIM card (this is an anti-terrorism measure) and think twice about knowing who you’re providing with that information. Generally you need to enter a PIN code every time you use the phone. The PIN will have come with the SIM card so you have to memorize it or hang onto the printout. If you’re going to be in more than one country you need to watch out for roaming charges. You also may need to add time to your phone if you use it more than you thought and that brings you back to the joy of finding an open store.

How often do you actually make phone calls anyway, even at home? Tell people you’ll communicate only via email and only when you have access to free wi-fi.

Do your research before you travel so you will know of places you’d like to eat, play charades with your friends and teach people not to expect to ever speak to you on the telephone. You’ll have a better vacation with less pre-trip stress!








    • says

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I don’t know anyone but my sister and my 94 year old aunt who still talk on the phone so I’ve quit worrying about it! (Of course that may say more about what it’s like to talk to me on the phone than phone usage in general but I’m not that introspective!

  1. nevafels says

    What a funny way of giving some very good advice. I’ll be laughing to myself next week in Europe, thinking of your comments, while we figure out the things you mentioned.

  2. says

    It completely depends. I agree with you on the phone thing – leave the phone at home – and tell people to email if urgent. However I disagree otherwise. I always eat on the street which includes Asia and South America. I’ve had bad food poisoning three times – Nepal, Australia, and NZ – in all 3 cases it was a restaurant that made me sick. I may be special, and have a cast iron stomach – but I’ve taught my partner to eat on the streets as well – and he’s never been sick – not even in Burma or Vietnam. Take your own cutlery or use throw away chopsticks – that’s where the germs are 90% of the time. Follow the crowds. Don’t eat foreign food – they don’t know how to cook it or store the ingredients quite often.

    In Beijing I’d eat where there are no menus in English – same as Thailand – that eliminates 95% of all tourists.

    No I don’t learn all languages – but before heading to South America I learned Spanish and I’d have been stuck without it. In Spain a few years ago Spanish was quite often necessary too. My French is bad – but me speaking bad French means the locals will use hte English they are otherwise too embarassed to speak – this was useful in Tahiti last week too. If you travel 5 star you can stay in a bubble, but if you travel local, eat local or stay in 3 star or below some basic local language in South America and Spain wil get you a long, long way.

    • says

      I ate at small vendors in Singapore because we have a cousin who lives there and took us to clean places he knows are reliable. But my Western hygiene standards (and the fact that a while back I had an unbelievably sensitive stomach for 12 years) make me chicken. Also a blogger friend got Hep A in Thailand and he only ate at food stalls. And I got food poisoning at the St. Regis in Beijing! All in all it’s like everything else – a personal decision. But I get annoyed when travel writers act as if you’re somehow less “authentic” a traveler if you don’t eat at vendors. Who said I was trying to be authentic?

      If I could learn languages I’d learn every one there is. Unfortunately, my head can’t process them. I have had years of Spanish and can converse enough to get by in it but my mouth just can’t shape itself to have French come out of it (luckily my sister’s can). I raised the language issue because when I talk to people about my travels I often hear them say they can’t go here or there because they don’t speak the language. I say go anyway – you can find enough people who speak English that it won’t be a problem. (Then I hope that’s true).

      And hey, what’s wrong with living in a bubble?? 🙂 Don’t break my bubble!

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts!

  3. says

    After almost 2 years traveling through Mexico and Central America our Spanish, even after countless classes and studying, is still fairly rudimentary and I was feeling rather intimidated by the thought that I need to find even more languages to fail at when we change continents in 2015! Like you, we’ve also found that areas with some tourism can speak at least a little English and charades and pantomime are terrific ice-breakers!

  4. says

    You have absolutely proven that you need a sense of humor when you travel. Sometimes your typical way of eating needs to be thrown out the window, due to the fact that “When in Rome” you need to try some new things. That being said, you are correct that you don’t eat exactly where the cab drivers eat. Trying to eat authentically instead of something Americanized is the key. When we were in Florence my husband was so frustrated that at our 4 star hotel the internet was really inconsistent. (The front desk said: “Sometimez itta work and sometimez itta doesn’t) Thanks for the cute post!

  5. says

    Good advice :-). But in our relationship, Janice likes to research everything in advance, particularly good recommended restaurants. George likes to choose places more spontaneously. This actually works well for us – we’ve discovered some great restaurants that aren’t filled with just tourists. As for the phone, forget that. We don’t even try calling home.

    • says

      Hey – if you have a way that works then use it! We just get so many people who seem to be totally overwhelmed by the idea of planning an independent trip that I put this together for them. We never call home either unless we haven’t told our 94 year old aunt we’re out of the country again and are trying to pretend we’re calling from Florida!

  6. says

    Awesome perspective. There is some value to “eat where locals eat” but I definitely agree with the cabbie thought. In fact, I cringe at “travel gurus who suggest asking cabbies for suggestions. Better, I say, to determine who is right for you and ask them. I do well with librarians, small shop owners, and police/fire/emergency personnel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *