Samantha Brown has one of the best jobs in the world. She's been tasked with traveling around the country to find the best hotels and she's explored Europe and Asia (to start) to learn about their unique cultures, foods, and sights. From South America to Southeast Asia, we've been following her ever since she started hosting shows on the Travel Channel, 13 years ago.
Fresh off the set of a pilot for yet another new travel show (that she was very hush-hush about), she chatted with me about everything from how to pack for a long trip, her scariest travel experience, and more. See what she had to say...
Q: You’ve done a ton of TV shows – which one has been your favorite?
A: My favorite is Great Weekends – we did it for three seasons. The best thing was that it was really centered around the United States and all the great destinations, here. Rather than focusing on going to the must-see spots and museums, we wanted to focus on how a place makes you feel. How you can become more a part of the place you’re visiting. So, what do the locals do? We wanted to highlight a different approach to travel. The hope for that show was really to show that weekends are really times travel and to be someone different from yourself.
I live in New York but I love going to Nashville for the weekend. I can put on my cowgirl boots and be a honkey tonk! Not only can you escape a place. You can escape yourself. Traveling isn’t just about where to have the best coffee. It’s about being a different person. And there’s really no place like the U.S. to do that. The country is so vast in terms of the different cultures, from cowboy to urbanites and more.
Q: You seem incredibly approachable as a traveler, both on your shows and on social media; how have you stayed so down to earth after so many years in the industry?
A: I absolutely abhor snobs, I’ve always hated them. Where I’m from [New England], people are just people. You weren’t stuck up or snobby. It was always about just being down to earth. So, I saw what I didn’t want to become. I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh we only travel this way.’ The whole battle between the tourist and traveler doesn’t really exist with me. If someone wants to take a cruise or go on a bus tour, that’s still traveling. I didn’t want to show that snobbery and make people feel like ‘Gosh I have to be this way and travel this way.’
Q: So...how do you like to travel?
A: I like exploring on my own, without an agenda. I’m less about exploring a places’ Greatest Hits (museums, restaurants, etc.). I go out on my own time and head to where the neighborhoods are, not where the best architecture is. I go where the locals live, work, and eat; I sit down in one of their cafes. I know there’s a huge Yelp culture and everyone becomes a foodie. But you should just put the social media away. Who cares if 45 people found that café and said it was good? If you go out and stumble on a cool place, then it becomes all your own. It’s simple. Go for a walk. Go to where people live.
Q: Our readers want to experience how the locals live in a destination. You talk about doing this a lot, but how can average person go about experiencing this local aspect of life?
A: I guess I have a nice smile! I would say, always know how the football team is doing in that country. You can easily strike up a conversation that way. Also, I never ask the concierge where to eat. I ask the guy who took my luggage. Or I’ll track down a cleaning lady; if I detect an accent, I’ll say, “Where do you get your food?” There are these incredible, small ethnic areas that aren’t in travel books and those communities have a few restaurants that they always go to. You get the best of both worlds – they’re the most inexpensive and they have the best food. Sometimes if you go to the more well known places, you end up paying top dollar for maybe not a top experience.
Of course, you can’t be wall flower. You’ve got to ask people questions.
Q: You say you love being the only one who’s different in a room when you travel – a fish out of water. But, a lot of people are afraid of that feeling. How do you recommend they get over that fear?
A: For me I started with baby steps. Start small – go to Paris and London, and other places that are welcoming to Westerners. You’ve got nothing to fear, there.
I think we have this trepidation over visiting South America and Central America. But if you slowly start venturing outside of the touristy places – just a little bit – you’ll realize immediately how friendly people are. It takes practice stepping outside of your comfort zone. It’s really a shame that we get most of our travel news by watching the media. It paints travel in a really negative light and that’s not how it is normally on the ground. Especially for a female who usually travels alone, I very rarely, if ever, have felt uncomfortable or in danger. But I do understand the questions and concerns. You just have to keep your wits about you. It’s not when you’re on a crowded street that something bad is going to happen, it’s when there’s no one on the street that you should turn around.
Q: Speaking of dangerous situations, have you ever had to navigate a tricky situation in your travels?
A: There has literally only been one time. I was in Belize City, Belize. When I arrived at my hotel and asked the front desk about walking into the city. Was it safe, what was the route I should take? They said of course it was safe and showed me the right route to take.
So I started walking and immediately I felt like something was off. But, you know, I write and host a travel show and have to know what I’m talking about, so I continued.
The street was empty. Then a man came out...and suddenly I was surrounded by 10 men. They started pushing me and taunting and teasing me. I just kept walking, kept my cool. And then they just stopped and I kept going. It was like there was a line in the road that they wouldn’t cross to follow me. It was a scary moment but I continued on. I learned a lesson: Trust the hairs on the back of your neck. If you don’t feel safe that’s your gut telling you to leave. I should have trusted it. In my 15 years of travel all over the world, though, that’s all that has happened.
Q: You love spending time in airports – what is your favorite and why?
A: Changi Airport in Singapore. It’s pretty low profile. It has beautiful earth tones. There’s a butterfly garden and an orchid garden. I actually almost missed my connecting flight there – which never happens! They had this exhibit of these paper stamps that you could use. I took out my passport, which probably isn’t legal, and got lost in the activity.
Domestically, I would say Minneapolis is my favorite. Sometimes instead of taking the most direct and quickest route, I’ll opt for a long layover in Minneapolis, instead. I always go to the tried and true local restaurant, Ike's (two locations in airport). They have this amazing 20 ounce bloody mary that comes with shrimp and olives and I always try to get lunch there. I also really like to walk around and see what they're doing with the different seating environments. I realized recently that in the women’s bathrooms they added these helpful cubbies for your luggage – it’s such a struggle, normally, to get bags in the stall with you!
Q: Have you ever purposely booked a long layover to get out of the airport and explore a nearby city?
A: The one time I left the airport during a layover was in Amsterdam’s Schiphol. It’s just a 20-minute train ride in to the city. And you usually end up having an 8-hour layover there, no matter what. It’s an awesome airport but it’s the best because it’s easy to get into one of the greatest cities in the world.
Q: You always bring peanut butter when you travel – what else is a must-bring on your trips?
A: I always bring Pinky Balls. You can get them at any toy store. They’re just these solid pink rubber balls. I’ve had the same set of pinkie balls for 10 years now! They help work out the kinks in my back after a long flight. You just put them on the floor and lay on top of them and push all the way back. You can also stand on them; helps to work out the kinks in my arches. They’re so cheap and massages can get really expensive, so it’s like the poor man’s massage. Definitely helps you recover from economy seating.
Q: You have your own luggage line – what are some of your ultimate packing tips?
A: If you’re going on a long vacation, don’t pack for a month, pack for seven or eight days, tops. You can get a month’s worth of clothes out of it if you plan. My biggest tip is to match everything; match your pants to your tops. In the end if you have four pairs of pants and four tops, if everything matches, you have 16 outfits. You can dress those outfits up or down with accessories, which don’t take up any space. Bring scarves, belts, earrings, jewelry. And I wash dirty laundry out in the sink, if I need to.
Q: What is your craziest travel story?
A: I was getting into a penn at a panda preserve in China. There were probably six or seven 1-year-old pandas. The producer really fought to get me inside. The zookeepers kept saying no, and then at the last minute they said yes, I could go in.
I go in with the panda handler, who I was told didn’t speak a word of English. And all of a sudden they turn to me and say, "Keep moving." And I suddenly realize: Oh my god, they’re bears. Oh my gosh, she’s right. They’re cute little bears, and they’re an endangered species, but they’re bears! So, I tried to keep moving, you know, walking around in circles, but my cameraman kept yelling to stand still to get the shot and the handler says to keep moving. So, I stop. And then, of course, the panda charges at me – the handler pushes me away and says ‘Run!’ You know, a 1-year-old panda is the size of a big Rottweiler! That segment was a bit shorter than expected, but of course, in the shot it looks like nothing went wrong.
Q: What are some of your favorite destinations?
A: I love places that have had a little bit of difficulty in the past: Cambodia, Berlin, Nicaragua. I also especially love cities; they’re phenomenal places where cultures, people, and ideas converge.
Q: What are a few of the destinations you think will become really popular in the next five years?
A: Southeast Asia. I spent almost a year there. It’s just amazing. Everything is completely different from what I know to be true. I had this constant fascination. I felt like a child discovering the destination. In Europe, you feel like you have to know certain things about the history and the culture, but in Southeast Asia, I could let that go. There was too much to learn and know. I just wanted to have a nice time and it was so freeing to be able to ask those silly questions like "Why do you eat that...what are you doing?" And they, in turn, asked me the same types of questions. I felt this reciprocity of ideas of cultures.