Where are you now? And where would you like to be?
Few things attract more longing than the prospect of a vacation. Sure, we’re all exhausted by our jobs, tired of the weather and bored by the drabness of our surroundings — but what is it, fundamentally, that possesses us to undertake the much more exhausting, wearisome activity of travel? For many of us, it’s about escaping ourselves, if only temporarily, and embracing a new persona. When I go on vacation, and particularly if I go on my own, I immediately turn into a more gregarious, charming, laid-back version of myself. I enter into conversations more lightly, eat and drink copiously, fill my days with my very favorite things — and loosen the purse strings to make it all possible. And therein lies a problem with vacations; we prepare ourselves to be a little more profligate and yet often harbor a residual guilt when we return home and find our bank account emptier than expected. But there’s no need to throw in the beach towel. Here are a few ways in which a little language has stretched my funds a long way on vacation and vanquished that guilt once and for all.
1. Saving from the second click
We can consider ourselves lucky that English really has become the lingua franca. A whopping 54% of internet content is in English, despite the fact that English native speakers only constitute 27% of all web users. How often do you surf in a foreign language? If you embark on a Google search for vuelos baratos a Madrid (cheap flights to Madrid) you might end up flying with Vueling rather than Ryanair, and then you might jump on a return flight to the Canary Islands with Iberia Express for under 100 euros. Of course these sites are also available in English, but they rarely pop up on the first page of results of an English searcher. A few simple phrases in a second language can vastly broaden your travel options simply by making you aware of them.
2. Happening on a world of opportunity
The internet has changed everything, and few industries have been so disrupted as the travel industry. Gone are the days when travel agents organized trips for all but the most adventurous. This is Generation Easyjet, after all, with slimline seats and speedy boarding. The middlemen are now websites like GetYourGuide, where you can book anything from a cruise down the Seine in Paris to a quad tour in Dubai. If you really want to spice up your trip and protect your pockets, however, you may want to start filtering through local forums and social media to discover the hidden gems. That’s how I found a heavenly lake near Berlin, an abandoned factory turned exhibition center in Saarland and a beach in the middle of a field in the north of Spain. There wasn’t a word about these places on any English-language sites. The cost of those day trips? €15 bike hire and a sandwich to keep me going. The rest? Priceless, obviously.
The heavenly lake:
A beach in a field:
3. Finding the fairer fares
So you arrive at your destination with a few day tours in mind, but the change of environment is disorienting. This often shakes our confidence, leading us to shed extra dollars in return for a little extra security. But speaking the language immediately makes a city eminently more familiar and navigable, and traveling the way the locals travel offers an edifying authenticity to one’s experience. You can navigate the local bus or metro system instead of splurging on taxis, take advantage of many cities’ free bike schemes instead of piling onto a sightseeing bus, and talk to locals instead of losing yourself in guidebooks. The biggest saving I ever made on travel was achieved when eight friends and I chipped in to buy a camping van in Mexico City for around $100 each. We then spent six weeks chugging around the country before selling it off again for a cumulative loss of about $50.
4. Eating like a king on a shoestring
For much the same reason we opt for taxis, we often plump for the first restaurant we see with a translated menu dangling by the entrance. These are likely to be the tourist traps — overpriced and of questionable quality. If you make a little effort, however, and ask one or two locals for recommendations, you’re bound to end up finding some great little spots. Food is a topic which unites and excites people irrespective of where they call home.
The most satisfying meal I ever had was on a beach in Sicily. We’d rented a Fiat in Palermo and traversed the island, coming to a halt in a small village near Agrigento. Having bartered down the price of a B&B in a garbled mix of Italian and German (the owner had done Erasmus in Frankfurt), we asked where we could eat. He pointed through the pines which separated the house from the beach to the barely-visible outline of a restaurant. We sidled over to the entrance in the early afternoon sunshine and proceeded to enjoy some outstanding food accompanied by delicious wine and a perfect view.
5. Tips for tipping
Tipping on vacation almost always carries the risk that you’re going to severely annoy or overjoy a waiter, either neglecting to tip in the belief that one doesn’t, or guessing that an extra 30% is the done thing. There’s a bewildering array of customs behind tipping. In Spain you’ll leave some coins on the bar or table prior to departing, while in Germany the waiters will wait with wallet open until you tell them how much you’re going to place on top of the bill. A combination of a poorly-calculated nod and über-politeness once cost me 15 euros in unintended tip in a German backwater. What you need is advice from an expert: ask a willing local on the table next door before handing over the money — this will resolve any awkward, expensive moments.
Whether you imagine yourself immersed in impassioned debates in cafés on the boulevards of Europe or simply asking a local for a suggestion to satisfy your hunger, knowing some of the local lingo imbues you with the confidence to behave like a local. And locals always pay less.