Learn even a few key phrases in the local language
You don’t have to take a college course: a few hours with an app or MP3s will demonstrate a lot of respect. And even if you procrastinate until after your arrival, and you should be able to say “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” and some sort of polite apology by the end of an afternoon of study. Throw in “bathroom,” “hotel,” “how much,” and the numbers 1-10, and you’re quasi-independent.
Going somewhere where the language is so obscure -- Macedonia, say, or Finland -- that learning it feels like a wasted effort? Remember that other travelers have made that same calculus. Making the effort will make you stand out all the more.
Couchsurfing can be great. (It can also be awful.)
Couchsurfing.com changed the landscape of independent travel. Behold, a social media platform that connected travelers with local hosts. Personally, it’s saved me hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms and introduced me to some very fine folks.
But when it’s a miss -- oh, boy. I once booked a trip through Central America that overlapped with my birthday. Spending the day alone sounded depressing, so I found a host to take me in in San Salvador, El Salvador. Luis was a young man who -- by his profile -- seemed nice enough. Then, back at his modest one-bedroom in a walk-up apartment, he revealed to me, in turn, that he liked to draw swastikas; that “Hitler is a really interesting guy;” and that, rather than a couch, I was to sleep on a bare of linoleum kitchen floor with an undressed pillow. “Sorry I don’t have a couch,” he told me.
There was no air conditioning, and so I tossed and turned on that sticky floor all night, ruminating on how -- no matter how far off the beaten path you go -- locals aren’t all magical unicorns. Some are genuinely assholes, same as back home.