Bucket lists have become increasingly popular in recent years.
People obsess over making these lists, feeling as though they only have a certain amount of time before they “kick the bucket,” and if they don’t see the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and every other “must” on the planet, they won’t be able to die happy. (Nevermind that your bucket list itself might actually kill you.)
It’s an understandable urge, but the fact of the matter is that obsessing over a bucket list often means missing out on the best experiences that travel has to offer. This guy must be crazy, you say. Scratch Paris off my to-do list?!
Think about it for a moment, though. Close your eyes and go back to the most interesting or memorable travel experiences that you’ve ever had. For me, it was when I was invited to join a soccer match by the local kids on the island of Gorée in Senegal. It was gloriously hot and the pitch was rather dusty, so in no time I was completely covered with a fine layer of dust. I treated my teammates to a cold Orangina as we caught our breath in the shadow of a large baobab tree.
I did walk up to the fort afterwards – which was the reason why I took the ferry to Gorée in the first place – but I can’t honestly say that it made a huge impression.
In other words, the best part of my trip to Senegal wasn’t something that I planned on doing. It was something that just happened and immediately defined that trip for me in my mind. Now, whenever I think of Senegal, I am immediately transported. I feel the heat, I smell the dust and I taste the cold Orangina.
So now you’re wondering, if I cross everything off my bucket list, what am I left with? How will I be able to see and do all the things I want to see and do if I don’t keep a list?
The most important thing you can do when it comes to making sure you don’t miss out on the important things is to just go. In some ways, it doesn’t even matter where you go. All that matters is that you hit the road (or the rails, or the skies) and get out there.
Many people use bucket lists as a way to dream about travel that they never really plan on taking. A classic example of aspirational thinking, Pinterest’s “Travel” section is chock-full of beautiful places that people idly pin but don’t take any steps toward actually visiting. Instead of spending your time on a bucket list, get a map out. Point to a place you want to go, and then just do it. Or at least start saving up to do it.
OK, OK, but what about once you get there? How will you make sure that you don’t miss any of the important sights?
If it’s really important to you, bookmark a few spots you know you want to hit. But make sure you don’t over-schedule or over-plan your trip. If you do, then you won’t have the chance to stumble on cool stuff like street fairs or impromptu concerts or the local bakery that hasn’t even made it on Yelp yet.
The only way you can find the spontaneous experiences that are the best part about travel is to follow your senses. Here’s how you can use them to make sure you have an awesome trip without wasting your time on a bucket list:
When you’re walking down the street in a new place, keep your ears open. Maybe there’s a drum circle going on right around the corner that you could jump in. Perhaps a parade is taking place two streets over. Or maybe a band is warming up for an impromptu concert that you’ll miss if you’re wandering around with your face glued to a guidebook, not listening to your surroundings. Perk up those ears and listen for the sound of spontaneous fun.
This one’s really obvious, but you’d be surprised how much tourists miss because they are constantly buried in their lists and maps, wandering around without using their eyes to take in the surroundings. One cool way to “see more” in a new place is to do a little research on the architecture of the city. Find out how it changed through the centuries and what kinds of flourishes differentiate a 17th century building from an 18th century one. What does a minaret represent? And why are those tiles arranged like that? Learning a little bit about the architecture and history of a city can help you identify the kind of fascinating details that many tourists miss. Plus, keeping your eyes open is another great way to stumble upon fun, spontaneous events that are happening all around you (and that won’t be in your guidebook!)
Never underestimate the power of scent. Perhaps you have a certain perfume or cologne that reminds you of a particular time in your life or a special person. Cities have odours, too, that change from day to day and season to season. Taking the time to identify the smells around you will help you develop stronger memories of each place that you visit. I will never forget the first moment I smelled India. Fresh off the plane it hit me like a truck at full speed. A rich odeur which is an incredible mixture of the equally strong scents of local spices and rotting garbage.
Use your sense of smell to build powerful memories and to find your way to incredible experiences.
We say it all the time, but that’s just because it’s true. The best, best way to experience a new culture is through its food. It’s an incredibly pleasurable and fun way to imagine what it would be like to live in a different place. Try food that is “typical” of the area — things that a local would eat for a normal weekday lunch. For example, in Nice, a kind of flatbread made of chickpeas called socca is a popular midday snack for blue collar workers. I’m always fascinated to find out what a new culture eats for breakfast. No meal varies more from country to country. In Japan, you might eat fish for breakfast. A far cry from cereal and eggs! Take the time to try out authentic local restaurants. And if you aren’t sure where to start…
5. Reach Out
This might be our favourite travel mantra: talk to the locals! We know, you don’t need their advice to find the best restaurants or bars because it’s all in your travel guide, but sometimes it’s just more fun to let a local point you to a random place and see what happens. You may end up in a place that was in your travel guide all along, but if you discovered it yourself (with the help of the locals) it will be that much more satisfying.
Now you’re well on your way to having a more memorable and authentic vacation. We bet you won’t even miss that bucket list!
NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.