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man mountain lake view happy success arms raisedClose your eyes and picture the perfect traveler. Would she be toting the finest-quality luggage, speak a dozen foreign languages fluently and have a magical knack for never getting lost?

If you don’t resemble this paragon of travel perfection, don’t fret. I’d argue that the qualities that make for successful and memorable trips are much more mundane — and can be developed by any traveler.

Useful: The ability to read a map.
Essential: The ability to chill out when you inevitably get lost.

Sure, your companions will thank you if you have a knack for deciphering a subway map or navigating a flawless route from Point A to Point B. But even with a map, even with a handheld GPS, even with “you can’t miss it” directions from the guy at the local newspaper stand … I promise that sooner or later, you will wander off course. How you respond to getting lost spells the difference between a sour afternoon of arguing with your spouse over who’s to blame and a serendipitous detour to a place you might never have found otherwise.

Useful: A good bag.
Essential: A good packing strategy.

While I’d never minimize the value of a sturdy, well-constructed suitcase, what’s more important is what you put into it — and what you don’t. Even a “Miracle Bag” can’t save you from overweight fees if you’re a chronic overpacker, or help you remember the umbrella you always seem to leave at home in the closet. Forget buying some $400 piece of luggage and instead invest a little time in improving your packing strategy: create a packing list that you can customize for each trip, and think back over your last few vacations to evaluate which items you really could’ve left at home.

Useful: A stomach of steel.
Essential: An open mind (and a stockpile of Tums, just in case).

If you’ve ever eyed a steaming plate of mystery meat with trepidation, you might have wished you were one of those travelers with an ironclad stomach — like the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain, who munches his way through the street food of the world with almost nary a taste of food poisoning. But according to Bourdain, it’s not his biology but his sense of adventure that keeps him from getting sick on the road: “My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses,” he told WebMD. While I encourage travelers to take reasonable precautions (see our Food Safety Tips for ideas), don’t let fear get in the way of trying those unique local delicacies.

Useful: Fluency in a second (or third, or fourth…) language.
Essential: Fluency in the universal language of hand signals and smiles.

According to a report in the New York Times last year, only 9 percent of Americans speak a language besides English. Guess that explains the sheer number of Yanks bumbling around the world asking, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Knowing the local language can ease your trip in countless ways, which is why I’d always recommend learning as many basic vocabulary words as you can before a trip. (Hint: “Restroom” should be one of them.) But keep in mind that when you hit a language barrier, you can often convey just as much — if not more — with a simple smile.

Which qualities would you add to this list?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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10 Responses to “The Four Qualities of Highly Effective Travelers”

  1. Vicki says:

    I remember preparing for trip to Ecuador and determining it was important to ask for directions to bathroom (donde es el bano) …….. but that didn’t help me to understand the answer!!!!! oooooooops!!!!!

  2. TravelBird says:

    Useful – Ability to stay calm when faced with a large, exotic bug in the bathroom of your hotel/rustic cabin in the rain forest.

    Essential – Ability to remove aforementioned bug from the room!

  3. debbie says:

    Flexibility! To be able to change and go with the flow at a moments notice. Another thing is to not expect everywhere in the world to be like America! You can’t change foreign places to be like the U.S.A – so let them change you to be like them during your visit. Enjoy the country you are visiting and let the locals show you around, where to eat, where to stay. Lower your standards – you can’t expect to have a 5* hotel or that type of standards. In fact, staying in locals homes (b&b’s)has always been a highlight of my travels. The last thing – a sense of humor. Things will go wrong and mistakes will be made – but laugh about them! Getting upset just doesn’t help the situation.

  4. Craig says:

    Nice list by Sarah.

    Similar to the hand signals..

    Useful – Bringing along a phrasebook for a particular country/region.

    Essential – How quickly you can locate/point out the specific question or response (and/or which pages to earmark.)

  5. Traveling Granny says:

    Remember when you are asking for that basic necessity, a bathroom, that the right thing to ask for in another country may be a toilet. In some countries, a bathroom will mean a room to take a bath in and a restroom may have a place to lie down and rest.

    You have all given some excellent suggestions for being a more pleasant visitor in another country as well as being a better companion to those who are traveling with you.

  6. Max says:

    As important as packing is the pre-travel checklist. Having a trusted neighbor or relative watch the home while one is away should be a primary consideration. Prepare for your departure as well as you prepare for the trip. Stop the mail, the newspaper (for those that still subscribe) and make sure the garbage is either put out or is disposed of prior to leaving. Look around your home for utilities that can be set to vacation mode, never completely turn off the heat during winter absences. Remove wieghts from gravity driven clocks. These are just some of the things this family performs before turning on the alarm and lcoking the doors. Have a great time on you next trip!

  7. Nora says:

    When ever I travel to somewhere I’ve never been the phrase I always say to everyone is Do As The Romans. You are on their turf, and they don’t want to hear how things are done in the USA. Just as we don’t like to hear how things are done in their country when they visit the USA.

    Also, nothing helps break the ice if you try, try to speak the language even if you butcher it. It’s the thought that counts, and shows you are interested in their culture. Same for food. Turning your nose up isn’t going to win you any points.

  8. Carolyn says:

    When using hand signs,PLEASE be aware of the culture you are in, as neutral signs in our culture my be VERY insulting in theirs!!!

  9. Adrienne Lee says:

    I would add the ability to relax and go with the flow. We often embark on journeys with our detailed itineraries and schedules. I’ve had some of my best travel experiences when I got off the beaten path and allowed myself to enjoy the pleasures of the moment.

  10. Bodybuilding protein says:

    Highly developed hand gestures and signs work for me just as well. Since I really don’t have that much of a grasp on other languages I just have to hope we can communicate by gesturing and a good translator!

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