I get that checklists are sooooo 9 to 5, but I like them. I love them. I use them as pivot points and loose roadmaps for adventure. So there.
Here are my seven favorite things to do when I head out to a new city.
1. Check the local calendar
I’m a sucker for a festival. I like to know what weird little things are happening wherever I am. Hop festivals, wine festivals, brie festivals, bee festivals – the stranger the better. Some of these things aren’t found on websites, so grab a local paper. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Podunk, Louisiana or a hamlet fifty miles from Budapest. If I can read the language, I’m grabbing the town paper. I then stop by the tourism office (where I also grab a city map). In a town missed by guidebooks, these two things will let you know what’s going down.
2. Get a public transportation card (or figure out your own non-car transportation).
- Sometimes maneuvering the van in a small town is a hassle.
- Sometimes maneuvering the van in a big city’s rush hour traffic is a hassle.
- Sometimes I just want to see things without having to worry about where I’ll park…or worry if I’ll be able to get out of my parking space because some knucklehead parked right beside in (a nearly empty friggin lot).
I’m getting to the point where I treat all cities the way I handle London or Boston – I leave my van someplace outside of the city and then take the metro to move around.
In smaller cities, I grab a bus map or lean on the old (new?) standby of Uber.
This is also a good time to consider renting a bike in the city or buying one to keep in your van. My van doesn’t have any extra space, so I did the super responsible thing and purchased a skateboard.
Real talk: I hadn’t skateboarded…like…ever…prior to buying this. I’ve fallen a billion times in the weeks since I arrived. Lessons from a proper instructor are coming soon. I’ll keep you updated.
3. Look up the local stargazing group for a star party.
Cloud and smog free nights are rare. Take any opportunity to see the stars and catch a planet or two. No need to bring anything. Every stargazing night I’ve ever been to had open telescopes for the public. If you want to take something, bring a pair of binoculars.
Binoculars have two numbers attached to them, separated by an x. You can read those numbers as magnification power x lens size. Bigger is not better here – you need to be able to hold the binoculars for a long time without your arm tiring out. Shoot for something with the numbers 7×40 or 7×50. The Celestron brand is known for making rugged, inexpensive binoculars for the average backyard astronomer.
In addition to stargazing binoculars, also bring:
- A lawn chair, unless you intend to stand up all night.
- A jacket.
- A skymap app installed on your phone. The most popular free ones are SkyMap and Star Walk. They both allow you to hold your phone to the sky to find planets, stars, and constellations.
Okay, what exactly is a star party?
Just what it sounds like. Instead of a regular stargazing event, people bring food and drinks to star parties. Here, you camp out all night under the stars, going from telescope to telescope or food table to food table. Just make sure you wash your hands before touching someone’s $5000 scope.
Tip: Before you get out of your car, open your sky map app and flip it to the red/night view. It takes over 10 minutes for your eyes to adjust. White light will reset the clock and screw up your night vision. Finish anything requiring artificial light ahead of time. If you want to take a flashlight to guide your steps, paint over the lens with red nail polish to kill the white light. Any inexpensive flashlight/torch will work.
I just went over the plastic with a red Sharpie.
Stargazing Truth: If you drive a Subaru but don’t know who the seven sisters are, you don’t deserve your Subaru.
4. Nighttime Walking Ghost Tour
For some bizarre reason, I like to freak myself out. I’m terribly afraid of the paranormal (I still haven’t made it through The Exorcist), but I always go on these walks. Of course, never alone.
This is a crazy fun way to learn the history of a place. Especially for folks who don’t care for traditional tours. Bonus, they almost always end at a pub.
My three favorite ghost walks have been in New Orleans, Salem, and Paris. Scared crapless, y,all. Once, under a chorus of laughter, I walked away from the Salem ghost tour and opted to wait for my friends at a local bar. I intend to finish that tour someday…just not soon.
5. Visit a Farmer’s Market
I have to buy fruit and veg on the road, but I don’t have to go into Random Chain Store #27. Twenty minutes at a farmers market is worth my time. Plus, it gives me a chance to talk to the locals. They always know what’s up.
6. Find out where bed is (before you need to go to bed)
When you’re dead tired is the worst time to figure out where you’re going to sleep. You are drained, your feet hurt, and all you want to do is to crash on a mattress.
If you played your cards right, you’ve also had something to drink by now. In other words, not the time to slap together a sleeping plan.
So where to stay when not stealth camping?
Car Camping, Vans, RVs
State and local parks: Double check ahead of time that they allow overnight parking. I’ve seen prices range anywhere from $15 to $45 a night (without/with hookups). Even if the website says it’s full, give the place a call. If your rig is small enough, they may give you a tent site.
Boondockers Welcome: If you like to have every light on at night (while watching Netflix), stealth camping ain’t for you. Head over to Boondockers Welcome. The site hooks you up with farms, wineries, private homes… there’s even a squirrel sanctuary. The membership fee is ridiculously low. Note: Your vehicle must have a self-contained toilet.
I have stayed in 5-star hotels and 10 people-per-room hostels and have had wonderful experiences with both. I can’t say the same about Air BnB. Thousands of people have had fun trips with AirBnb, but two bad ones put me off.
On the other hand, there’s a great program for female travelers called She’s Wanderful. You have to go through a video conference before entering the program (each person is verified for safety) and you choose a room hosted by other women. I’m not affiliated with them – I just think it’s awesome!
You Can’t Go Wrong With Hotels
I can handle any temperature if I have electrical hookups. When I don’t, I won’t do more than a night outside of my nighttime Goldilocks temperature of 35-72F (2-22C). At that point, I’m verrrry likely to get a hotel. My one caveat is parking garages. They still freak me out. I mean, I know how tall my van is, but I have nightmares of a garage peeling my roof off like a sardine can. Because that fear is real (and I’ve seen it happen on Youtube so it must be true), I always:
- Find the hotel on Google Maps.
- Look at the parking lot for my own dang self.
- Then, because I’m still suspicious, I call the front desk.
When looking for the best rates, I usually go through the Deals Page at Hotels.com (easy price search / less hassle).
7. Get Money if Traveling Abroad (aka How to Exchange Money for lazy folks)
Horror: I don’t exchange money until the plane lands.
Back in the day when Traveler’s Checks were still a thing, I remember Ma taking us to the big First Union Bank (remember those) several cities away to get funny colored money and those blue and silver traveler’s checks. What a time to be alive.
I know every guidebook says to get foreign currency before you leave, but I haven’t done that in years. Mostly laziness. But, like, c’mon, airports have ATMs. I don’t mind paying the “convenience fee,” seeing as how it’s as inconvenient as a you-know-what in the you-know-where to get Botswanan pulas in the sprawling metropolis of Isle of Wight County (a place whose claim to fame is having the oldest ham). Again, miss me with that noise. I just wait until I land and go to the nearest ATM. I take out the equivalent of $200 -350 USD to get me started.
If you’re using a different card to the one you purchased your flight with, call your bank to let them know you’re overseas. Otherwise, you may be in for a nasty shock when you arrive.
Tl;dr The Round-Up
- Check the local calendar
- Figure out how to move around in the city
- Look for a star party
- Take a ghost tour because…yeehaw fear!
- Get food (and tips) from the local farmer’s market
- Figure out where to sleep when traveling
- Get money from foreign ATMs
So, that’s what I do. After many years of travel, this checklist has not led me astray. If you do something different, post it in the comments below!
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