My Two Best Pieces of Travel Advice.

I wish I had kept a list of all the places I’ve visited during my travels over these last fifty-plus years. Some took me to the South and Western Pacific in search of clients needing honest, professional help in tourism promotion, my advertising agency’s specialty. Other destinations were experienced while traveling as an ordinary tourist for my own pleasure.

It was during these travels that I learned two important lessons that have added immeasurably to the pleasure I found on my many travels.

1. Don’t dine “on the cheap.”

When it comes to hotels and restaurants, it’s always a mistake to opt for the cheap hotels and that’s almost always true of restaurants. Much of the fun in traveling is in sampling well-prepared traditional foods in good restaurants. 

But how to find a good restaurant serving well-prepared traditional dishes? Don’t ask the desk clerk or the doorman at your hotel. Chances are he gets a commission or free meals for referring you to an expensive restaurant. (If he gives you a printed card with the name of the restaurant on  it, that’s a dead give-away.) Instead, ask a taxi driver to take you to a restaurant serving good local food.  They will know where to take you.

2. Hire your own personal guide.

I have hired my own guide in many cities, including St. Petersburg, Beijing, Shanghai, Sienna, London and Edinburgh. Yes, of course it’s more expensive than seeing the sights in a bus with 50 other tourists. But check out the guides on the internet—just type in “personal guide-Sienna” and up will pop a dozen names, their credentials, and their contact information.

For instance, well in advance of my visit to Russia, I exchanged emails with Natasha, one of the guides listed on line for St. Petersburg. In no time we had agreed that I was not interested in seeing more than one or two Russian Orthodox churches . . . that I was interested in learning about the Germans 1000-day siege of the city in World War 2 . . . and, for our second day, I said I would like to visit the Tsar’s Summer Place, which is located about 35 miles outside of the city. (I had learned from the internet that Natasha owned a car!

The next day, there was a large crowd waiting to get into the palace with a uniformed guard posted at the entrance door. Natasha approached the guard, whispered in his ear, then she turned and beckoned for me to come. On that busy day, Natasha and I were inside the Tsar’s Summer Palace 15 minutes ahead of the crowd.

One last word of advice: tell your guide you would like to have him or her join you for a leisurely lunch at a good local restaurant. It is in that relaxed, informal setting that you learn the really interesting things about the lives of ordinary people living in very different parts of the world. 

It was over just such a lunch with my guide in Shanghai that I learned her elderly parents had recently been given two weeks notice by the Chinese government to vacate their comfortable family home of many years and move to a 400-square-foot apartment on the 45th floor of a new high-rise apartment building.

You don’t gain insights like that to different cultures if you’re on a bus with 50 other tourists.