How to Get the Best Travel Advice for YOU

How to Get the Best Travel Advice for YOUI’ve done a fair bit of traveling recently.

For our first American Christmas together, Monkey requested we extend our travels beyond Massachusetts, so we journeyed through Washington, DC and New York, seeing friends and sites along the way. By the time this post is published, we’ll be on our winter holiday in Paris, our essential out-of-Scotland February break. So as I compile itineraries for myself, I have also compiled my tips on making those itineraries for you!

How to Get the Best Travel Advice for YOU

Find a global guide you can trust.

Start by doing your own research. I swear by the Wallpaper* city guides and 36 Hours guides, and tried them out on my hometowns first to ensure they aligned with my preferences. The 36 Hours guide to Oxford was about a 90% match, so I knew their tips on other cities would be a safe bet. At first I avoided Wallpaper* because I didn’t recognise their picks in the Boston guide, but I realised it’s because they tend to skip the obvious and cite more hidden gems – this often means forgoing the tourist traps as well. Wallpaper* tends to feature major cities, while 36 Hours has more extensive geographic coverage, so between the two I’m sorted!

How to Get the Best Travel Advice for YOU

Get recommendations from friends, keeping in mind your common interests.

Often people will list places to their taste, which is fine, as long as you take note of what you have in common. One of my favourite traditions is getting my friends to fill in their own recommendations in the extra pages of my compact Wallpaper* guides. I get a range of suggestions based on my range of friends and their unique interests!  

Ask with a purpose: Narrow down your requests for travel recommendations. 

Know what you’re looking for. For cuisine I like to sample a bit of everything, but prefer healthier, lighter dishes with vegetarian options that aren’t too cheesy. 

When I went to Prague for the first time, a friend of mine told me I “had to try the svickova!” For some reason I thought it was a pastry, and got really strange looks when I would ask for it at bakeries. I finally found out that it’s sirloin, available at pubs. She must have forgotten that I don’t eat meat!

When getting restaurant recs, here are some ways to narrow down your request:

  • A few types of cuisine you’d like to try
  • What you don’t want to try – when I lived in Boston, New York’s array of European cuisine was appealing, but from the UK, we’d rather not have what’s more readily available on our doorstep
  • dietary restrictions/preferences
  • location/neighbourhood
  • atmosphere: cosy, funky design, formal, theme/experience
  • features of the experience important to you. Do you love wine? Cocktails? Or would you skip the drinks menu but never dessert?

Ask yourself, what do you want to get out of a dining experience?

  • Sample haute cuisine?
  • Try and amazing cocktail?
  • Discover a new favourite beer?
  • Grab something quick but authentic en route to your next adventure?
  • Try something quintessentially location-specific?

Define what you enjoy most about travel.

I love finding favourite restaurants and local designer boutiques around the world, seeing theatre and art, and also exploring bookstores and coffeeshops. So I will specifically request these kinds of suggestions. “Somewhere we can sit down and read books and sip tea”. 

What I enjoy doing in new cities seems obvious and unoriginal to me, but I have to remind myself that everyone travels differently. I’d prefer to avoid bus tours, and have very specific shopping interests based on what I’m looking for at the moment. I am always up for live jazz, but never night clubs. I adore visiting my faraway friend’s favourite local coffeeshop, even though to that friend it may seem utterly normal.

How to Get the Best Travel Advice for YOU

Every moment of travel is about learning what it’s like to live in someone else’s world.

I want to get everyday glimpses into people’s lives, whether through seeing local haunts or attending exhibits that tell me stories about how people live or lived in the world.

I travel to gain perspective on how others live. What is obvious to me becomes questioned in a different culture, and heightens my awareness of my own habits. I love discovering new things exclusive to certain places – I keep a list. I love collecting exclusives, my favourite jelly from Wellesley, Massachusetts, tea from San Francisco, facial spray from France. One of my favourite moments from Gossip Girl is when Chuck jets around the world, collecting Blair’s favourite things from different countries. 

Plan your day, but don’t over-plan your day.

Centre your day around one main event, and allow plenty of time to wander and explore. I aim to collect one Wallpaper* adventure per day, which tends to take me down streets I never would have found, stumbling along other spontaneous treats along the way.

I’d love to hear your travel tips and wanderlust wish lists. We share them weekly in the Heroines in Training Facebook group – care to join?

P.S. Going somewhere? See if I have a guide for your destination and step into the footsteps of other heroines in my fit for a heroine travel series.

Reader, You are a Part of Something

Reader, You are a Part of Something

“Clever marketing, wannit? Now the Americans can feel like they’re a part of it too.”

This single British accented comment I overheard behind me at opening night of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them stabbed me in the heart.

I wanted to get up and slap him, Prisoner of Azkaban Hermione style.

Then I thought maybe that would be an overreaction. But I was nonetheless hurt by his comment, and spent the evening figuring out why.

Here’s the thing, English chap. Harry Potter does not belong solely to Britain.

What Hogwarts represents is a safe place that collectively celebrates its students as different. It is a space where people who feel disconnected can feel like they belong.

We are introduced to Harry as a boy who was told by his guardians that he was different and unworthy. Through his Hogwarts letter he is told that he is different BUT worthy – cherished, even – and that there is a place that will celebrate his abnormality (more on this in my TEDx talk, “How Harry Potter Saved My Life”).

Both Voldemort and Grindelwald’s regimes are about preserving their exclusive dominance, through personal immortality and favouring pureblooded wizards over non-magical people. They are motivated by ensuring that the groups in which they feel prominent remain powerful. 

Don’t get me wrong. I am ALL ABOUT the importance of place in literature.

When Monkey and I watch a film based in Boston we can hardly follow the plot because I keep interrupting to astutely comment, “oo look it’s Boston!” And of course, I chose Oxford because I wanted to live in the place that inspired so many fictional places. That said, I’ve never been to actual Hobbiton or Wonderland and I still feel a part of those places. 

English chap, how can Harry Potter possibly be successful in America by your logic? “Wow this is a great story. Shame I can’t feel I’m a part of it because I’m American!”

English chap, I give you permission to feel a part of any American story and setting you desire. Not of course, that any permission is necessary.

“There is no frigate like a book”, wrote Emily Dickinson.

By opening its cover you are transported to another world. You can feel part of that world. You can feel like you’re friends with the characters. You can feel real feelings inside the pages of a book that shape your world outside of those pages. So beyond present sensitivities to nationalism (as explored in my Katniss Was Not an Activist piece), I think what stung me with this comment is a dismissal of the fictional world AS the real world. 

Because I knew you, [Harry], I have been changed for good. And yes, I can mix fictional worlds and references because in my world, they all exist. They are all available for me to explore. For you to explore. It’s cool when worlds converge. It’s cool when I see my Exeter College on camera in Dr Strange and The Golden Compass. But the setting is just one thing we happen to have in common, those stories and me. There are so many things: like Rory Gilmore and her bag full of books or Jo March and her living room plays and handwritten manuscripts. Yes they were New England girls like me, but that detail is just one of many that define who we are.

So go explore, heroines. The library is your oyster, no passports required.

xandra-signature

P.S. You don’t have to be English OR living in the 19th century to enjoy Jane Austen. Join me for a year of Regency-inspired letters and training with Letters from Jane Austen.

Letters from Jane Austen

You Need a Day Off

You Need a Day Off

It was Hermione’s birthday this week.

When I first read Harry Potter, I thought oh my god I am at home. There was the castle, and Diagon Alley, and everything, but for me, home was also a person: Hermione.

I’d never met a girl, in whatever world, who I could relate to more. I loved to do my homework, start clubs, raise my hand, and boss my friends around. She also encouraged me to take on impossible course loads, to start projects when it was clear no one else was going to start for me, and to say “honestly” a lot.

And you know what Hermione got Harry and Ron for Christmas in their sixth year? PLANNERS. #WeAreTheSame.

If I could floo powder myself into the Gryffindor common room during Hermione’s Hogwarts years, though, I would have a piece of advice for her. We saw her battling Arithmancy homework when everyone else was celebrating, we saw her bag exploding from carrying around too many textbooks – we saw her totally stressing out. And who can blame her?

You Need a Day Off

(illustration by @_mhiraishi)

Here’s what I’d say: Hermione, take a Hogsmede weekend.

Just a day, even. Get out of the castle, and take a day off. Spend a morning reading in The Three Broomsticks and and an afternoon browsing for quills. Take a walk in the Hogwarts grounds with Crookshanks, have tea with Hagrid. Put the Dumbledore’s Army agenda and Potions essays aside for just one day and do something to recharge.

I KNOW YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO TAKE A BREAK. I heard you. But I also saw you fall asleep in that squashy armchair in the common room, and I think that counts as a break. Just not a very fun one.

If I can do it, Hermione, so can you.

When I was at Oxford, I did a radical thing.

An Oxford degree is a marathon, but each term is a sprint. As an undergraduate Englishist, my time consisted of 1-2 hours of tutorials, and the rest of that time to go to optional (but encouraged…) lectures, and read and write a lot. Each term lasted only 8 weeks, and while most students got through on caffeine I took a different route:

I took a day off every week.

!

Maybe it’s the American in me, wanting to get the most out of My Experience Abroad. I would hop on the coach to London for the day and wander around, sometimes with a friend, often by myself [because to most, such an excursion during term time is absurd].

But when I joined the mountaineering club in my second year, I realised that I was not alone. That there was a whole club full of people [including Monkey] who drove several hours in the direction of mountains and spent the day – or even the weekend! – climbing.

I worried that committing to these trips would impair my work. But actually, they did the opposite, for a few reasons:

You Need a Day Off

My weekend became an effective fake deadline.

When I only had 1-2 deadlines a week, it was good to have a midway point in place as well. I had to work up to a certain point before going away, or I would be stressed all weekend and that’s no fun.

I got excellent exercise.

Whether I was rock climbing or walking through London [or running across Hyde Park chasing down the bus], my body got to stretch out and recover from sitting in the library all week.

My brain got a well-deserved break to calm down.

Climbing takes up all of my brain’s capacity. When I’m dangling off a cliff, desperate to find a hold, my brain tends to focus on the puzzle at hand. It is meditation brought upon by urgency. Plus, I learn valuable lessons that can be applied to my work [+ there is a whole section in my book about this].

London, on the other hand, is cultural candy. I would spend the day taking in the sights, browsing galleries and weird Shoreditch shops, often concluding the evening at a West End play. Dedicating a day to appreciating art reminded me why I was doing an arts degree in the first place. Introducing my mind to new ideas put the academic ones I was working on into context. Often a theme I picked up during my Day Off would weave its way into my next essay.

[The effects of this are similar to Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Date].

Taking time off work made me miss my work.

On the ride home to Oxford, I started to get excited about getting back into my work routine the next day. Sometimes I craved it, sometimes I was just ready. But somehow I’d manage to shake off any degree of dread.

I took a break on my own terms.

If you’re working at full speed, you WILL crash and burn at some point. I know many people at uni who also took a day off, but due to a hangover. Whatever reason comes up, your body will force you to take a break at some point, so you might as well choose how you spend it.

 

You Need a Day Off

Taking a day off is not just for students.

I recently decided to take my own advice in my post-university life. Because I love my work, and writing articles like this one, sometimes it can be hard to stop. But I’m much better for it when I do!

Between the Fringe Festival craziness and Monkey’s outdoor excursions of his own, we had limited windows of free time to spend together, so we set a Saturday aside. We drove to Dunkeld, where we climbed in the morning and went for a walk in the afternoon before driving home to the Goblet of Fire audiobook in time for dinner, and I realised: we need to do this more often.

It’s so easy to collapse at the weekend and do nothing, or work straight through til Monday, then collapse involuntarily from overwork. Get out of the city, or to a different part of your city, for a more mindful vacation.

You Need a Day Off

Adventure fuels creativity

I need a day away from my desk to remind me that my work is not all about scheduling social media and sending Important Emails [as much as oh my god I love that stuff]. I founded Heroine Training as a digital retreat into fictional worlds as our own, and to preserve that magic, I need to go out and live it myself.

For a while I’ve been thinking that “I should host a retreat” because that is simply what is done. But going to Scone Palace for an afternoon got me visualising what that could be: a castle-side retreat, with available activities between sessions like navigating hedge mazes and reading in the gardens. You can’t dream that stuff up from your desk, at least not as vividly. [It’s gonna happen now; I’m sure.]

Give yourself time to get bored.

We are addicted to doing things. Sitting still for even a minute can seem excruciating. One thing I love about going on walks with Monkey is the conversations that are drawn out of us due to boredom. We talk about the books we’re reading and the ideas they’re giving us. We talk in depth about our work projects. And usually, we end up dusting off old stories from our childhoods, often surrounding nostalgia for computer games.

Get off autopilot and scare your mind a bit. That’s how it grows.

You Need a Day Off

Here’s how to get started:

Do a tiny bit of work in the morning.

At Oxford, this meant taking one short article with me on the journey. Not an entire bag of books. I would get it done in about half an hour, and then feel accomplished for the day.

These days I let myself work on a project for a bit while Monkey codes his game. Then we power off the computers and get outside.

Leave the rest of your work behind.

This is your physical break from work, as well as a mental one, so lugging around the work you’re taking a break from is counterproductive.

Go somewhere unfamiliar.

Whether it’s an urban or rural retreat, give yourself a new setting to stimulate your senses and spark new ideas. Shake up your routine.

But don’t completely abandon your routine.

Remember to eat! Sometimes when we go on a road trip, we stay out til the sun goes down and get really cranky on the way home. I prefer to allow time to cook dinner at home, or make a reservation at a gastropub we’ve been meaning to try.

You Need a Day Off

You will be rewarded for your adventuring.

On Dunkeld Day, the plan was to do one of the walks in my guidebook. We had picked one out, based on location and time. When we got there, that path was closed, so we had to improvise and go for a different walk instead. This one happened to lead us through Birnam Wood, which – Isn’t that the place from Macbeth??

So without even intending, we had stumbled upon the last remaining Birnam Oak, which yes, is part of the final prophecy in Macbeth. Which I didn’t even know was a real thing. !!! When you’re as crazy for Shakespeare [and Sleep No More] as I am, this is the ultimate treat.

It’s the kind of thing I would have forced Monkey into making a road trip out of, but here it was, randomly in front of us [because Scotland is freaking MAGIC]. Imagine if we had stayed in, on our computers, venturing no further than the same farmer’s market we attend every weekend? We never would have known about the Macbeth tree.

Now that I’ve recommitted to adventure, I actually look forward to my weekend off. I know. Crazy.

Where will your weekend take you?

xandra-signature

P.S. Navigating a hedge maze was one of the tasks on my Birthday List [YES. done!]. Here’s how to write your own annual list of adventures.