Four Must-Have Skills for Any Traveler

by  Blane Bachelor | Mar 29, 2013
Travelers ordering food in Rome
Travelers ordering food in Rome / TFILM/iStock

As someone who learned to drive stick when I was 14, I've always maintained that it's an essential life skill everyone should have. Knowing how to maneuver a manual transmission also has come in quite handy on my travels, especially in Europe, where stick-shift vehicles are the norm (and automatics are pricey to rent). Here are some other must-have skills for every traveler, whether you're headed on three-week safari or for a long weekend full of sand and sun.

Be able to navigate without a GPS: These days, smartphones make it all too easy to forget which way is north, south, east, and west. But there are a few ways to find your way the next time you’re caught without an iPhone (or an ancient relic like a paper map) while exploring a new place. An analog watch, for example, can help you find the north-south line: Just hold the watch perpendicular to the ground, pointing the hour hand at the sun. Imagine a line running exactly midway between the hour hand and 12 o’clock – this is the north-south line. During daylight savings, you’ll need to draw the line between the hour hand and one o’clock.

Another helpful tip, courtesy of adventurer and navigation expert Tristan Gooley (whose book, The Natural Navigator: A Watchful Explorer’s Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill, is a fascinating read): Tennis courts are usually aligned north/south to avoid the sun’s glare, and most Christian churches are laid out west to east.

Learn to travel like the locals: Not only will hopping aboard the bus, subway, or tuk-tuk along with the locals save bundles of cash, but it will provide a truly authentic taste of a destination's culture. While many big cities have great mass transit options, in smaller towns or rural areas, don’t be afraid to explore a mode of transit you may never have heard of before (i.e., when I was visiting the Dominican Republic for the first time, I decided to avoid pricey taxis in Punta Cana and opted for the gua gua, a local passenger bus, and motoconcho, or motorbike). Generally, however the local workers are getting to and from work, is a good option. Just make sure you allow plenty of time to navigate the system and arrive on time.

Know how to drive a stick shift: In many parts of the world, automatic transmission is a rarity – or altogether nonexistent. If you don’t know what “standard H” means, do yourself and your travel companions a favor: Before your trip, borrow a friend’s junker and learn how to go from first to fifth and back again, without leaving the transmission on the pavement. And make sure to get some practice time under your (seat)belt ahead of time; that is, before you have to slam your 4x4 in reverse to avoid a charging pack of rhinos on safari.

Be able to speak some of the local language: There’s really no excuse for not knowing how to say please, thank you, where’s the restroom, and, my personal favorite, another round!, in the language of whatever country you’re traveling in. There are dozens of great apps out there, but one of my favorites is TripLingo, which has a nifty SlangSlider feature that lets you say it like a local.

What travel-centric skills did we miss? Share them in the comments!

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