I started my first year-long backpacking trip around the world in the early 1990s and did two more after that. Since then I’ve heard and read a lot of bad travel advice, much of it written by people stuck in a NYC or London office who don’t travel much. A lot of that travel advice I frequently ignore.
I frequently have conversations with people who have not traveled much internationally and it is disheartening to me sometimes to realize how much editors love to scare people, especially in publications that only cover travel occasionally and their audience is infrequent travelers. Since I’ve suffered very few negative consequences but lots of joy from just playing the odds instead of worrying about the occasional “what if?”, I’m going to share a few of those here.
Here’s what bad travel advice I ignore on a regular basis on the road.
1) Don’t drink the water.
Here’s a more sensible (and less costly) way to phrase that: don’t gulp down tap water that’s not treated or trustworthy. Where the water is really fine, drink away.
In Mexico where I live and in and many other developing countries, even the locals drink water from a 5-gallon purified water dispenser, the kind you see at an office water cooler. Guys deliver the refillable containers door-to-door all week. Virtually all ice, licuados, agua frescas, smoothies, etc. are made from the same. Use one of the water filters for travelers or a purifier (like a SteriPen) for those rare cases where you are without. Ironically, the place where it’s often hardest to fill up your water bottle is at a nice hotel: they love to foist single-use plastic on you every chance they get, ignoring the fact that it’s killing our environment.
The people most inclined to tell you”Don’t drink the water” are those who have something to gain, especially waiters in restaurants. Bottled water is one of the highest-margin items they sell and many hate to hand you something that doesn’t add any cost to the tab. Plus many of the bottled water brands are sold by huge marketing machines like Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle.
This is especially annoying in places that have great tap water already, like New York, the Rocky Mountains regions, and most of Western Europe. Where do you think those “spring water” companies are sourcing what they’re selling you–at 100X the cost?
2) If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it.
While this has some basis in reality, it’s going to make your diet pretty limited if you’re traveling around for more than a week. “If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it” means you avoid most of the fruit and vegetables available in any given country. Are you really going to exist on nothing but bananas and oranges for weeks?
Life’s too short for that and food is too big a part of the travel experience. People who follow this advice seem to get sick anyway because their body freaks out when they face anything that doesn’t come in a factory-sealed package.
If you don’t want to completely throw caution to the wind, it’s not that hard to compromise. Any country where the water is iffy (see #1) will have widely available iodine drops you can use to soak/wash the fruit and vegetables before you eat them. If you’re in a country where the tap water is fine, just wash them first. A quicker solution is to carry unscented alcohol wipes to wipe your apples and plums with. (Or just pour some vodka on a napkin and it might taste better.)
What about that delicious-looking cut-up tropical fruit and the juice stands you see all the time in hot countries? I say go for it. They’ve already peeled it before it got to you anyway.
I’ve eaten cut-up fruit and ordered fresh-squeezed juice almost every week since I first started visiting Mexico in the ’00s. I’ve frequently gone a year without encountering even a mild case of the runs. Last week I returned to the USA and got my first case of them for ages three days after arrival. Something can upset your stomach anywhere, but unless yours is super-sensitive, the odds are on your side that you’ll be fine most of the time. Put stats above scare tactics.
3) Don’t eat street food.
So many of the great dishes I can remember enjoying in various countries around the world came from a street stall. This is where local people eat every day and if they get sick they’ll stop coming. From Mexico to Vietnam to southern India, street food is the essence of the country. Sampling it is the best way to eat local. We ate street food every day when we spent a month in Bangkok, with zero issues. It’s fresh, it’s hot, and it’s made right in front of you.
In a restaurant, who knows?
When I’ve looked back on where we’ve gotten really ill, the kind of food poisoning that’s laid my wife or me up in bed a couple days, the suspect meal has always been from a restaurant, not a street food stall. Me in Bali, my wife in Nepal and Egypt, every single attendee at a conference I attended once in Chiapas, Mexico, following a banquet meal. Meanwhile, my Guanajuato food tour company has taken out hundreds of foreign visitors at this point and not a single one has come back later and said they got sick from the street food. You can see all the glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.
What does happen sometimes is that someone will cancel before the tour starts because they got sick. From a restaurant meal. Nobody sees what’s going on in the kitchen in most of those.
Here’s another reason to eat from street stalls: nearly all the money not spent on supplies is going to the business owner. It’s an easy way to have a positive impact on the local economy at the ground level, a good responsible travel tactic.
4) Be extra careful in/Don’t go to [insert place here].
I don’t keep tabs on how many countries I have visited, but it’s a lot, and a good number of them I’ve been to multiple times. I live in Mexico and have been to countries many perceive as dangerous, or did, like Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Egypt, Israel/Palestine… The worst thing that has happened to me is a stolen camera twice in the ’90s (in a hostel in Singapore–likely by another traveler, and on a train in India). The worst thing that has happened to my wife was a stolen watch 17 years ago (from a Hyatt hotel room).
Sure, we’ve been in dicey situations that we had to wriggle out of and rode on some buses that felt life-threatening, but overall the world is generally safe to move around in. It’s certainly as safe as the gun-obsessed USA. Unless there’s a war going on, I just don’t buy it when people tell me a place is unsafe.
The accompanying advice to “Be careful in____” is to “Ask the locals,” but in my experience, that’s awful advice too. It seems that everywhere you go in the world, people are suspicious of the place one town over, or the other side of the train tracks. I’ve personally been told to “avoid Centro, especially at night” by well-meaning Mexicans in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Oaxaca, but have had a grand time going out in all of them with no worries.
Common sense still prevails, of course. You might want to avoid a city that shows up as “the murder capital of the world.” Keep your money inside your clothing or use some Pickpocket-Proof Pants, especially in notorious cities such as Barcelona, Rome, and Athens. Leave your jewelry at home, and your laptop or other gadgets locked up in your room. Don’t be shooting videos with your iPhone and a fancy gimbal when you’re in a dusty backwoods town where it takes people an entire year to earn what that combo costs.
Oh, and don’t get wasted on designer drugs at a Full Moon Party in Thailand and then bitch about how someone stole the $200 you had in your back pocket. That’s called being “a mark” and you had it coming.
5) Don’t book a flight at the last minute/ Don’t book a flight too far in advance.
If I listen to an article I saw recently about how to find the best airfare deals, I should be booking at 2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday six weeks before departure.
I see strangely specific flight booking advice like this every month and most of the time it’s worthless. Ask anyone who flies a lot and they’ll tell you the main factor impacting the price is how much flexibility you have. If you leave all your travel variables open, you’ll probably find a great deal. If you must fly the morning of December 23 to go where lots of other people are going, you will pay top dollar no matter when you open your browser.
The same is true of hotels, vacation rentals, and tours. If you’re a contrarian traveler, you’ll always make out well. If you go at the peak of high season to a place everyone else is headed, you will always pay the highest price. There are usually no shortcuts, no magic windows. There’s this thing called artificial intelligence and another thing called dynamic pricing. Travel companies use both the way that college kids in Cancun use booze on spring break. Frequently and in excess. It’s supply and demand taken to a minute-by-minute extreme.
Of course there are macro forces at play also. When the pandemic hit, nobody was flying so the flights that were still running regularly were cheap. Now that half the USA’s population is fully vaccinated, flights to popular vacation spots are expensive again. First there was no demand, now it’s through the roof.
IF you are flexible though, keep an eye on sites like SecretFlying, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and Airfare Watchdog for random deals.
How about you? What bad travel advice do you see a lot that is just plain wrong?