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Taking a more immersive approach to your global travels

5 traditional and non-traditional travel tips for a truly memory-filled adventure

When you stop in the Boston airport for a three-hour layover, would you count that as having traveled to Boston? No? What if you eat a Boston cream donut while you’re there??

You might think it’s laughable to add layovers to your list of places traveled, but the truth is, sometimes we stay in foreign countries for weeks and get about as immersed in the culture as we would if we’d stayed in the airport the whole time. The good news is there are ways to effectively immerse yourself in the country you’re planning to travel to–before and during your visit. Whether it’s for a week or a month, here are five ways to more fully prep for and embrace your upcoming foreign getaway.

Learn the language

Even if you don’t have a year to study the language, there are ways to immerse yourself in the language of the country you’re traveling to.

Tim Doner, a polyglot who can speak 20 languages, has some language-learning tips that he has actually used himself (clearly successfully!):

  • Listen to rap songs in the language and practice repeating what you hear (that’s how he started learning Hebrew)
  • Use mnemonics to integrate vocab words into your spacial memory (watch him describe the method here). Basically, start by imagining yourself in an environment you’re familiar with and incorporate vocabulary words into the imagined scenario. Let’s say the environment is your favorite restaurant, and you’re trying to learn French. You enter (entrer) through the door (la porte) and sit down (s’asseoir) to wait for your friends (des amis). While you wait (attendre), you smell (sentir) the scent of the food wafting from the kitchen. You try to decide (decider) what you will order.
  • Do similar-sounding words keep tripping you up? Don’t avoid the similarities–embrace them! Learn similar-sounding vocab words in batches, so that when you hear one, you think of the others. Deliberately sort out the similarities and differences between the words.

Another way to learn a language is through apps like FluentWorlds. Language learning apps can gameify your language studies, making them more fun and effective. FluentWorlds, for example, teaches language “through conversation and interaction in real-world environments. Immersive learning in this way is the proven best way to acquire languages quickly.”

FluentWorlds has also released a virtual reality app, which takes users to virtual Las Vegas and lets them practice identifying English words and phrases.

Add social media to your travel research

World traveler and author of an upcoming travel memoir for Counterpoint Press, Maggie Downs, admits that she consults Instagram for a lot of her travel research, but not for the most Insta-worthy selfie locations in places like Paris or that incredible swing in Bali. Instagram is her first stop for food scouting.

“I follow the hashtags for my destination, which often leads me to the accounts of local people. I love to scroll through their feeds looking for things to feed myself,” Downs said. “I’ve found some hidden gems I never would have located otherwise.”

Study the cultures and mores

When I was traveling in Japan, I learned from some very thoughtful Japanese friends that things Americans take for granted are considered extremely rude in that Asian culture. Eating and putting on makeup while on public transportation—subways, buses and commuter trains—is considered very rude.

One way to learn about those mores before you jump on your flight is to establish a cultural exchange friendship with someone who either currently lives or has lived in the country you’re traveling to. Chat with them beforehand and then meet them when you’re in the country and enjoy some time doing rudimentary things like grocery shopping to learn, in a non-threatening way, how to communicate and interact politely during your stay.  

Put down the guidebooks

Yes, studying guidebooks and perusing your favorite travel website for the best attractions and excursions is great, but there’s something to be said for just immersing yourself, becoming one with the people and setting your itinerary aside for a day or two to truly breathe in the culture and not focus so much on those bucket list items for your Chatbooks album.

You might consider choosing one day to intentionally “get lost.” Write down the name of your hotel so you can take a taxi back. But start the day by choosing a direction and just walking. You might be surprised at the amazing things you come across.

Another idea is to volunteer for a worthwhile project.

“Not only is [volunteering] a very rewarding experience,” says Matthew Karsten, an adventure travel blogger, “but you’ll often learn more about the country and its people while also making new friends.”

Stay with a local family

Airbnbs offer privacy for travelers like never before. But to have a truly immersive experience, you might consider staying with a local family for at least part of your trip.

“While some people explore the globe to escape reality, more travelers are looking for authentic experiences abroad,” says Katie Foote, a physicist and world traveler. “Eating traditional dishes, taking public transportation and exploring with native tour guides are all good strategies for going local, though if you really want to go beyond the typical tourist experience it’s recommended to stay with locals, as well.”

Whether through a formal homestay or just with your old roommate’s cousin, staying with locals adds an authentic level of immersion to your travels. You’ll be immersed in the language, witness customs up close, and gain a real understanding of how the locals live.

Fully prepare for and embrace your travels by learning the language, sourcing must-visit ideas from social media, studying the culture, putting down guidebooks and staying with local families. By following these tips, your next foreign trip can be a life-changing adventure.

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