Five Common Travel Myths You Should Ignore

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Women sharing a secret (Photo: iStockphoto/Todd Keith)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 24, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, booking strategy, destination, guided tour, Jaclyn Liechti, solo travel, tour operator.

No matter how long you've been traveling, you've probably heard some advice that proved to be untrue. It seems some of these myths have persisted since travel was invented, so to speak, but we at SmarterTravel decided to dispel the most common ones once and for all. Read on to find out what recommendations you should ignore.

Don't take a tour if you want to see the "real" country.

Many people who claim to be "travelers" eschew tours, visualizing a group of loud, annoying tourists who are only interested in the gift shop at the end. Or, they see a guide who amounts to little more than a con artist, leading the unsuspecting visitors to the worst tourist traps and to stores where they get a cut of the profit. But in reality, joining a local group may be the best way to get to know an unfamiliar place—or get off the beaten path in one of your favorite haunts.

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Max Hartshorne, editor of goNOMAD.com and a frequent international traveler, agrees that this is one myth that needs to be put to bed, saying, "Some of the things I've learned from tour guides have been the most interesting" part of a vacation. For example, he adds, if you travel to the Chartres Cathedral on your own, you will certainly be impressed by the remarkable windows. But if you use a local guide, they can explain the story of each window, the idiosyncrasies of the artists, and show you the nuances in the glass that you probably wouldn't even have noticed.

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Indeed, reputable guides around the world are trained in the archeology, animals, history, and plants of the areas they offer tours. In Guatemala, for example, guides are certified through the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (INGUAT), and study the country's architecture, literature, and nature, among other things.

A local tour guide is a good option for even the most seasoned, independent traveler. Evelyn Hannon, editor of Journeywoman.com, recommends offering to "buy the tour guide a cup of coffee, a drink, or supper, and have a good chat about what you should do … There are so many things that aren't in the guidebooks that a tour guide would know."

Don't explore a destination at night.

While some destinations are safer than others, don't completely discount venturing out after dark. Common sense shouldn't be left at home, but travelers can often find a lot to do in a place after the sun goes down. Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn't Go There, says "In general, after dark is a great time to visit a destination—especially because some places don't really get interesting, socially and culturally, until the middle of the night." After all, would a trip to Rome without seeing the Trevi Fountain lit up, or to Spain without sampling the famed nightlife be a full representation of the destination?

"Some places are just nighttime places, like New York City," says Hartshorne. In a "city that never sleeps," there are bound to be plenty of activities waiting for you. Hannon recommends cultural events, like museums with extended hours or theater performances.

In major cities, walking around after the sun sets should be a safe experience, but it's important to take basic safety precautions. "As with your hometown, some areas of a destination are going to be safer than others after dark," says Potts, "and it's not too hard to get a little local information on where the safe and less-than-safe areas are."

Don't travel to Mexico, Jamaica, or other "unsafe" destinations.

Some countries are genuinely unsafe for tourists. Many others have a bad reputation, but are really fantastic places for travelers to explore and interact with locals. If you're considering ruling out a country because of rumors or a bad rap, be sure to do some extra research to find out whether the fear is warranted or not. You might just be missing out on the trip of a lifetime.

Potts recommends talking to other travelers to find out what life is like in a given country. "Some of the most fascinating places in the world have bad reputations, so it's worth talking (online or in person) to other travelers and getting a firsthand perspective."

Also, make sure you check the U.S. Department of State for its recommendations. For example, the double threats of swine flu and drug violence in Mexico have frightened many travelers away. However, the State Department's travel warning declares, "millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including tens of thousands who cross the land border daily for study, tourism, or business and nearly one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico)." Caution is urged, but the country is still a good option for travelers to consider. The violence is worst in the border cities, but tried-and-true tourist destinations are generally considered safe. Hartshorne says, "It's like saying 'There's lots of crime in Colorado, so don't go to Boston.' Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana might be dangerous, but Yucatan and Cancun are safe. It's really unfortunate that an entire geographical place gets painted with that banner."

Another thing to take into consideration is why a country is rumored to be unsafe. "A lot of fear is leftover fear," says Hartshorne. For example, "Colombia gets a bad rap because of the drug violence in the 1980s and 1990s, but most of the drug cartels have dried up." And Potts names Burma and Syria as two of his favorite destinations, even though neither is necessarily held in high esteem. He says, "Places get their reputations for often sketchy reasons, so it's good to get specific information instead of acting (or not acting) on hearsay."

If you do go to a destination that might be unsafe, be sure to take proper precautions. "Each country has its own challenges," says Hartshorne, "so you have to be smart and logical about it." No matter where you travel, you're bound to encounter some sort of safety questions. As Potts says, your trip is more likely to be ruined by petty crime and local scams than by violence.

Don't travel alone.

Traveling solo can be intimidating, but the benefits can certainly be worth the risk. Even if you have a great travel partner, stepping out on your own can reap rewards. There are plenty of reasons why those who love to explore new places won't do it alone. Maybe you're afraid of being bored without company to chat with, or maybe you don't feel as safe on your own. But Hannon (who always travels solo) says heading out alone gives you the full travel experience.

If you travel alone, "you don't get someone else diluting the travel experience," says Hannon. You get to choose your own itinerary, and see the things that are most important to you. And traveling alone opens you up to meeting new people. "In a group," says Potts, "you are likely to fall back on your companions for conversations and entertainment—and in the process, you miss a lot of your destination and host culture." If you travel on your own, don't be afraid to strike up a conversation with other travelers and locals; they can often give you insight into the best places to try or see while you're there.

Solo travelers may not have personal growth marked on their itineraries, but that's exactly what happens. As Hannon says, "You test yourself against the world. It's the time to bring what you've learned personally out … and see how it works." Hartshorne also encourages travelers to experience life on the road without a partner. "Get out of your comfort zone," he says. "That's what makes travel fun."

Don't drink the water.

Traveling to new destinations brings the opportunity to sample local cuisine, but many people are so afraid of contracting Montezuma's Revenge from local water or food that they stick to packaged goods. But while tap water and improperly washed and cooked goods do pose a risk, you shouldn't eliminate street fare completely.

If you're concerned about travelers' diarrhea ruining your vacation, make sure you go well-informed. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before you leave to find out if tap water is safe to drink. Popular tourist areas are more likely to have drinkable water, especially in upscale areas. In Cancun, for example, many hotels provide filtered water. If the water isn't potable, though, they should provide bottled water (but be sure they are sealed before drinking them). And know your own body. "Some folks," says Hannon, "seem immune to 'local bugs,' while others are affected immediately." Hartshorne agrees, saying, "Even if your hosts eat it all with no problems, you're going with a totally different set of enzymes in your stomach, so for you, it might really take you down."

That being said, noshing on local goods doesn't necessarily mean you'll spend the remainder of your trip inside the four walls of your hotel room bathroom. The key is to know which options to choose. Hannon offers several tips for deciding which vendors are best. Watch how the food is stored and how the sellers cook the food. If you don't see them turn on the grill, it's probably best to avoid them. Try to stick with vegetarian options, and avoid meat products. And finally, choose vendors that have long lines of locals.

Potts agrees with looking for restaurants and food stands popular with locals. He also contends that "eating local cuisine is one of the most enjoyable parts of the journey—and in fact, it's the healthiest way to travel, since eating pizza and burgers in India is invariably going to be less healthy than eating paneer and masala." He also recommends avoiding leafy salads (which are often washed with water unfit to drink), beef, and shellfish.

Make sure the foods you eat are served hot and fresh, since heat will help to kill off germs. When you eat fruits, choose ones that you can peel yourself, like oranges and bananas. Additionally, don't leave your manners at home. Washing your hands before you eat will reduce the germs you ingest. If you don't have immediate access to soap and water, use antibacterial gel.

Your Turn

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