Lonely Planet Writer

Get happy! 5 rules for travel happiness

A couple years ago, before attending a powerhouse travel conference – complete with PowerPoint, flowcharts, the whole deal – I made a t-shirt. A plain blue tee, with white block letters that read ‘TRAVEL IS FUN.’ I wore it as a gentle reminder. Yes, travel may transform and educate and benefit places we go (and make people money, of course). But that's not really why we do it. We travel, mostly, just because it's fun. Because it makes us happy.

Of course there are no guarantees. In Happy, Lonely Planet’s new book on smile-inducing customs from cultures around the world, Maureen Wheeler writes, ‘Traveling to find happiness is probably always doomed to failure.’ It comes when you forget yourself and immerse yourself wherever you go.

I agree. Yet, I couldn’t help but try to steer people into the path of oncoming happiness with a few tips I've learned over the years:

1. Say ‘yes’ as much as you can.

Always delay a plan, or skip a museum entirely, to take up a local invite. It’s almost always better. I’ve had tons of offers inconvenient to my schedule that ended up delivering more memorable experiences. A day with a beekeeper in Siberia, a pick-up soccer game with kids outside the Hue citadel in Vietnam, a homestay during Diwali in the Punjab, a ‘potato on a stick’ demo in rural Oklahoma, coffee with the former Prime Minister of Bulgaria at a Dunkin’ Donuts.

On my first day in the Middle East a decade ago, jet-lagged and without local currency, I headed straight from the Dubai airport to Muscat, Oman by bus. I was feeling a bit out of my element until I accepted an invite for a curry at a stop from a giant robed man with a gray beard and a Jedi vibe. I started to hesitate when he ordered ‘Eat!,’ he said with a wave you couldn't refuse, then added Yoda-like, ‘What name they call you?’ And all was good.

2. Talk to be people, ask stuff.

You can do a lot more than you might think, and be interested in stuff you didn’t think you cared about. Just ask. I’ve stopped at grain elevators and gotten personal tours by asking, collaborated on a ‘Chester Arthur sandwich’ with an Armenian-American sandwich-maker, trained with Mounties, became a colonial reenactor, and found out why South Dakota highways are pink (the quartzite). Just by asking.

I’m not really into fossils. But once at a small roadside dinosaur museum in the Great Plains, I asked if the curator was around. Surprised by the request, he took me on a breezy tour of his favorite fossils, ones he had dug up himself. I won’t see fossils quite the same way again.

3. Try making lemonade out of delays.

Sometimes a bump in the road can be a good thing. To write this post I drafted a list of 100 happy travel moments, and more than a handful centered around a broken-down car or a delay – like when I discovered the Montego Bay, Jamaica airport had one-cent video games during a 10-hour delay.

More recently, I drove a ’72 Moskvitch around Bulgarian Black Sea coast. It was wonderful hunting out isolated beaches and talking with amused locals at gas stations, but the best came after I destroyed the clutch between two villages. After a helpless hour, I got a push to a mechanic with matching pirate earrings. He rushed to buy me beer, drove to nearby Burgas for a part, fixed it for almost nothing and meanwhile let me ride an old Soviet motorcycle (straight into a bush). ‘No steering – bad bike,’ he explained afterward. I drove away feeling better than I had the whole trip.

4. Get creative with views.

Wherever I go somewhere, I try to start with a view. I always climb the towers (I love the Monument, Christopher Wren’s Great Fire Memorial in London) or find lower vantage points (the wee ped walkway on New York City's Pulaski Bridge between Queens and Brooklyn is underrated).

You can find them in surprising places too. Updating Lonely Planet’s USA book a decade ago, I learned that flatlands have mountain-top views without the altitude sickness. Kansas, for example, isn’t pancake flat (Florida is closer to pancake-flat actually), but rolls gently atop what once where prehistoric seafloors. The horizon out of one window on the interstate looked dozens of miles away, but just a mile or two out the other. I detoured towards it. And found myself on the crest of a swelling plain – with huge views. And I was alone.

5. Stop.

Ever notice how you can’t find a parking place circling blocks in a car, but once watching from a sidewalk you find them open up - and open up? That’s sort of my travel rule: slow travel (by bike or foot) is more rewarding than fast travel (by bus or car), and 'stop travel’ – just stopping and looking for a while – is best. You’ll learn more about a place in 30 minutes of staring than in a museum.

My favorite ‘stop’ destination is Saigon, a city that thrives in sit-and-stare culture. It's a messy non-stop place, best understood from a cafe stool -- particularly the jury-rigged one set up each day on a cracked sidewalk -- where you sit, sip ice coffee and stare at a weaving mania of street vendors and motorbikes passing by. I love Saigon.

Part of stopping means looking for a spot first. Once in Hanoi, I saw a dozen locals pointing on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, I went then managed to see the city's elusive, mythical turtle surface. A local friend told me, ‘I’ve lived here nearly 40 years and never saw it.’

I was happy for my luck. I just hope it brings luck.


See how 55 world customs and celebrations manage to get a smile out of life with Lonely Planet's new book Happy.