before-you-go

Learn, Socialize, Experience Before You Go: Slow Travel Prep

The flight isn’t the beginning of your slow travel adventures. Image by Polly Barks.

I could feel my cheeks getting redder and redder – the curse of being a redhead – as everyone stared at me expectantly, shots in hand.

It was my first day in Kaliningrad, Russia, and somehow I had found myself in the company of four local guys who had been quite taken with the idea of buying an American girl a drink or two.

Everything had been fine until it was my turn to make a toast. Several drinks in and my typically shy nature hadn’t yet dissolved via alcohol. Thankfully, I’d been studying Russian language and culture for a while, so I was able to proudly pull off, “Za mezhdunarodnaya druzhbu!” (To international friendship!) to much applause.

That moment in a basement bar with four unknown friends was when the idea of slow travel prep really crystallized into a tried-and-true, pre-travel ritual. While this preparation can be useful for any traveler, it’s particularly relevant for slow travel. Slow travelers don’t have the impetus to go, go, go and quickly hit the highlights like travelers with only a day or two in any given place.

With all that time to fill, it’s incredibly important not to lose yourself in a new country or culture.

Skip the awkward integration period, and dive right into your next adventure. Here are my methods for getting the most out of a long-term visit!

Get Culture-fied


One of the most useful ways to feel comfortable in your slow travel experience is to get to know the customs and trends before arriving. A quick study of local culture helps to ward against embarrassing moments (like saying you’re pregnant – embarazada – instead of embarrassed in Mexico), awkward interactions (not understanding that heads should be covered in Orthodox churches), and other issues you might not consider before departure (Are you a vegetarian entering a land full of meat?).

  • Browse the culture section of a guidebook like Lonely Planet.
  • Read one piece of modern literature and one piece of history from the area. Even if you just listen to audiobooks on the plane ride, they’ll give great insight.
  • Find local bloggers, and dive into their archives. Not only will you find some awesome ideas about where to spend your time, but you’ll be able to pick up on cultural cues from what they write about and how they write about it.

before-you-go

Doing basic cultural background studies mentally prepared us for the (delicious) horse meat in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Image by Polly Barks.

Learn the Stock Phrases


Slow travel skyrockets your chances of falling into unique, far-flung experiences that you might not have if you stick to the tourist attractions. These adventures almost always necessitate knowing a bit of the native language to smooth out interactions. Trust me, that Armenian honey farmer on the top of the mountain definitely won’t speak English or much Russian – knowing a bit of Armenian will butter him up enough to get the best honey of your life at a great price!

  • If you’re on a tight schedule and it’s available in the target language, Duolingo is an amazing resource for the basics. While you may not be waxing poetically about local 15th-century poetry, you will be able to puzzle out a menu in a town where no one speaks English.
  • If you have enough time to dedicate to your studies and really want to pick up the language, grab a Rosetta Stone set for a more in-depth look.
  • Find a conversation partner or two on LiveMocha, a site where language lovers can take lessons and exchange their expertise.

before-you-goThose language lessons might let you weasel your way onto a blocked-off street for the perfect shot. Image by Polly Barks.

Make Friends Before You Go


Chances are you’d never have found that ultra-secret hipster bar in Saint Petersburg if you hadn’t been led there by your new Russian friend.

While travelers can find the obvious with relative ease, slow travelers need local friends to truly enrich their experiences and not leave them sitting, bored, in their hostels for the last few weeks of their adventures. Mitigate awkward, desperate eye contact with locals at the bar by finding potential friends before you go.

  • Set up a CouchSurfing experience for the first few days after your arrival. A built-in tour guide and friend is just what you need to get the ball rolling. If you’re not interested in sleeping on someone’s couch, the CouchSurfing community has frequent events in almost every major city. Join the group on the CS website, or find the local Facebook group to see what’s going on when
  • Do a quick search for any local and/or expat groups who put on local meetings. It’s likely the people in these groups will be very receptive to answering questions you may have.

The culture studies I’d undergone before my two months of study in Russia saved me from plenty of embarrassment. The friends I made before traveling through Armenia for a month were integral in making the most of my time there. So while I’m definitely not a planner, I do acknowledge the necessity and usefulness of setting the groundwork before my next journey.

My slow travel prep ensures that I’m always feeling fairly confident and having fun during my slow travel adventures – even if I’m not exactly sure what that fun will be.

Have tips for prepping before a new experience? Share with me in the comments!

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