Anyone can fumble their way through security and learn a few words in a foreign language. But expert travelers are the ones who can pick up a specific skillset that makes traveling easier wherever they go. Here are the 10 essential skills that will help you with domestic and foreign travel—and the best part is you can practice them all at home.
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Drive a Stick Shift
Only a small percentage of new cars sold in the U.S. come with a manual transmission, and getting an automatic is pretty much guaranteed when you rent domestically. But renting a car in Europe is easier—and cheaper—if you know how to drive a stick. Manual transmissions are more common and often the cheapest rental option overseas. Being able to drive one means you can worry less about requesting a specific make and more about getting to the nearest restaurant.
While there are various online tutorials and videos describing how to drive a manual car, there’s nothing quite like actually doing it. Ask a friend to teach you in an empty parking lot, or search for driving schools in your area that offer lessons.
De-bone a Fish
Ordering food at a restaurant doesn’t usually require much thought: Pick what sounds good and then eat it when it arrives. Occasionally ordering fish complicates things if the chef decides to cook it and serve it whole. You could just cut into it and work around the bones (or pick the bones out of your teeth), but there’s an art to fileting a fish that will make eating it easier and less messy. Try practicing it at home—before you attempt it at the dinner table.
Read a Map
In an age of ubiquitous GPS, it’s still good to know how to read a map—a skill that’s especially critical in areas where there’s no cellphone service. It’s also an essential tool for hiking, for road trips, and for navigating a city center where you may want to save data for emergencies (versus Yelping a restaurant for dinner). Level up your orienteering skills by teaching yourself how to use a good old-fashioned compass. Studying maps of where you’re traveling beforehand can also help you acquaint yourself with unfamiliar places.
Haggling is a craft. It’s also a skill you need if don’t want to pay full price for things. And bargaining comes in handy in more ways than you think, so it’s worth practicing every chance you get. Most people think of haggling when they think of shopping street markets where it’s common practice: start low, walk away if the vendor isn’t budging.
But negotiating also comes in handy any time you’re booking lodging. Start by booking your accommodations via phone; it’s easier to feel more confident when you’re not face to face and, since there’s more of a chance of losing you as a customer than if you’re physically in a hotel, you may get a better deal. Even if they can’t budge on the rate, you may be able to get extras like parking or breakfast.
Growing up, you learn never talk to strangers. On the road, strangers can help you locate the best restaurants, local shops, and under-the-radar attractions. And if you’re lost, you may be able to find someone who can point you in the right direction. Approaching someone you don’t know is sometimes intimidating, but you can start by talking with shop owners or hotel staff (even if you’re not staying at a particular spot). No matter where you are, folks in service industries often know multiple languages.
Saddling up to a local bar is another great place to chat with others. After some practice, you’ll feel more comfortable and be able to determine who may be willing to spare a few minutes to have a conversation. Try it first near home in your own language.
Change A Flat Tire
Knowing basic car maintenance is helpful for everyday driving. But having the ability to change a flat tire, especially if you’re heading out on a lengthy road trip, can save you from hassles and headaches—and keep you moving. Of course, services like AAA are great for peace of mind and larger snafus.
Learn where to place the car jack, how to boost up the car, and how to loosen the lug nuts. If your car has wheel locks, make sure you know where your key is, otherwise even kind strangers that want to help you change a flat won’t be able help. Other useful skills to practice are jumpstarting a car (knowing where the black and red cables get clamped) and parallel parking (then you won’t have to pass up the best on-street parking spots).
The bulk of the world deals in kilometers and liters and Celsius versus miles and gallons and Fahrenheit. Having a basic understanding of these will help you obey speed limits without checking your dash every few seconds, order drinks in restaurants, and dress appropriately for any given day. Additionally, familiarizing yourself with the local currency and exchange rates will not only help you find places offering the most bang for your buck, but can also prevent you from overspending.
One thousand Swedish kroner, 1,000 Japanese Yen, and 1,000 US dollars are all drastically different amounts. Being able to quickly estimate how much a meal, train ticket, or tchotchke will cost you in your native currency will help you avoid purchases in excess of your budget. Of course you can do all these things on a phone, but it’s easier to just learn it.
It’s also a good idea to set your phone to 24-hour time. By the time you get to your destination, you’ll be a pro at knowing 1500 is 3:00 p.m. Reading train timetables or making a reservation will be that much easier.
Use a Squat Toilet
Depending where your travels take you, you may encounter the squat toilet, particularly in the East. The first thing to do when you see a slab of porcelain on the floor is decide if you’re keeping your pants on (if you’re comfortable with squatting) or taking them off (if you aren’t sure about the whole process). Placing your feet on either side, squat down, hugging your knees if you need extra support. Once you’re done, use the pot of water to “flush” the toilet. You may or may not encounter toilet paper (that’s also what the water is for—and why people generally greet others with a right-handed shake), though bringing your own paper is okay—just don’t throw it in the toilet since it can easily clog.
Learn the Local Language
It’s great to know a language other than English, but some of the best travelers don’t. Instead, they know enough key phrases to get by wherever they go. Go beyond learning—and relying on—”do you speak English?” and show you’re really trying. Your efforts will give you the confidence to navigate new territory, and the locals will appreciate it.
Apps like Duolingo can help you get started with the basics: greetings, yes and no, numbers one to 10, and how to order in a restaurant. Tools like Google Translate are helpful in-country and for translating specific phrases you find yourself wanting to use.
Acquire Basic Survival Skills
Whether traveling alone or with others, it’s good to know how to use a first aid kit, if needed, in addition to other life-saving skills like the CPR and the Heimlich (on yourself and others). It’s best to take a CPR class to feel more confident and ensure you’re getting the most up-to-date procedures. Additional seemingly basic skills like knowing how to swim, learning how to stop yourself or someone else from bleeding, self-defense moves, or treating shock are invaluable, too.
Many REI stores around the country offer a comprehensive Wilderness First Aid class that will ensure you feel comfortable in back country emergencies. They cover a range of topics that include cold and heat injuries, wound management, and altitude sickness. The skills are also handy to know even when you’re not miles from the nearest road.