Close 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. Our Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing is a good starting point.
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 TV personality 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 recent report from the U.S. Secretary of Education, only 18 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.
Following are a couple more suggestions submitted by IndependentTraveler.com readers:
Useful: The ability to stay calm when faced with a large, exotic bug in the bathroom of your hotel or rustic cabin in the rain forest.
Essential: The ability to remove aforementioned bug from the room! (Submitted by TravelBird)
Useful: Bringing along a phrasebook for a particular country/region.
Essential: Being able to quickly locate/point out the specific question or response (and/or which pages to earmark). (Submitted by Craig)
Which qualities would you add to this list? Leave them in the comments below!
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-- written by Sarah Schlichter