Using Systems Thinking for Better Travel

Written by Hank Martin in Travel Tips

Item: I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily, for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a cell.

-Lewis Thomas: "Lives of a Cell"

Traveling with Margaret Thatcher Skill

Travel is a frustrating endeavor, at times. The things that frustrate us the most also waste our time. After all, you just spent thousands of dollars, not to mention precious vacation time to visit this specific part of the world and now you have to deal with tourist traps, scams, transportation and other things that detract from your experience.

In pin pointing things that waste time when traveling, and in using travel patterns we can actually travel more efficiently, getting a greater return on our investment, and decrease our time spent dealing with the non essential.

We don't travel to wait in lines, eat crappy food, sit on a bus or a train...we travel for the boiled down essentials: the culture, experiences, memories and new opportunities. By eliminating the latter we can expand on the former. So, what are the things that waste time when traveling:

  1. Decision Making: choosing what attractions to visit, what hotel to stay at, what restaurants to eat at, etc.
  2. Tourist Traps: Tied to number 1 this is the fear of getting taken for a ride by scammers and those looking to just make a quick buck at the expense of your lack of knowledge about an area.
  3. Directional Awareness: getting your bearings and finding your way
  4. Transportation

Forming Travel Patterns

Humans love patterns. Our bodies like waking and sleeping at the same time every day. We tend to eat at around the same time throughout the day. From a young age on we are born to think in terms of patterns. It is not surprising, then, that when we grow up and change the world we still think in patterns.

Patterns are a way for rational minds to expedite the decision making and calculation process. Realizing that everything is connected we batch things together in a way that allows us to hold and process huge amounts of information in split seconds. This sort of systems thinking is also useful when traveling.

Taking the problems that waste our travel time above we can use patterns to travel more efficiently and maximize our time spent enjoying travel, not dealing with the unpleasant portions.

1. Decisions Making: Guidelines for making good decisions
In regards to hotels and restaurants:

  • Highest price doesn't always equal safest and highest quality
  • Food and hotels near main transportation hubs (airports, train stations, etc.) are usually priced higher for convenience, not quality
  • Large Chain Hoteliers offer consistency but not culture
  • Contrary to popular thought, many good restaurants and accommodations exist right next to main tourist attractions (see getting your bearings in number 3 for more details)
  • The best local restaurants, pubs and bars are in residential neighborhoods

In regards to attractions:

  • Places run or sanctioned by the local or state government are usually higher quality and already vetted by being a state run facility (ex. the Roman Forum in Rome)
  • For attractions, judge a book by its cover. If the cost to visit a castle in Scotland is 20 euros...and from outside the castle is crumbling...chances are the inside will be just as old and in a similar state of disrepair.
  • Beware places that advertise the story behind the attraction more than the attraction itself. Attractions build on stories are using the story to compensate for a shoddy attraction

2. Dealing with Tourist Traps

  • Pub Crawls are designed to make money. They get you in the door with one free drink...or which they make up for by charging you higher rates for drinks. They are also breeding grounds for pickpockets, date rapists and other malevolent people.
  • Even better then using the internet for reviews and ratings is talking to locals. As locals they can give you insight into places like no tourist review.
  • Rule of thumb: If a thing is easy it is probably too good to be true. Real accommodations, restaurants, entertainment, etc. is made ideal for locals living in a city who have access to vehicles and strong knowledge of public transportation. Tourist accommodations, entertainment, etc. must be easily accessible and close to tourist hubs to make money.

3. Getting your Bearings

  • Cities are formed with a specific pattern. There are old parts, new parts, commercial/ business districts and residential areas. Business districts that rely on tourism and hospitality are usually close to tourist attractions. Residential areas are geared towards residents. To find these areas, and hence local experiences, cuisine, bars, etc, look for Laundromats, dry cleaners, doctor's offices, and other amenities and services that locals would primarily use.
  • The airport and main train stations are usually located outside of downtown and on the outskirts of the city.
  • Metros run logically underground, either in an "X" format through the whole city, a "cross" format, or a straight line with branching off stations. By knowing what part of the city you are heading towards you can easily figure out metro lines. (ex. if I'm heading to the Northwest part of town and the metro lines are an X then I need to get on the train, regardless of the stop, that heads to the upper right segment of the X.
  • The old part, or downtown of a city, isn't always in the center of town. Usually a city doesn't expand proportionately in all directions from the center.
  • Most older downtowns are born not built, with crisscrossing streets, circular roads and no grid system. If visiting for a short period of time, navigation will be difficult and getting lost is easy. (it took me 3 months to fluidly navigate the center of Rome without a map)
  • To make navigation in older cities easier 1) know the general direction of where you need to head. 2) take a taxi if you need to get somewhere quick 3) utilize main roads when possible and veer off into the maze of roads only at the last minute

4. Transportation

  • Ranked reliability (least delays, setbacks, etc.) of ground transportation: walking/biking, trains, taxis, buses
  • Learning curve of ground transportation ranked by shortest learning time: taxis, trains, walking/biking, buses
  • In many countries, if traveling with 2-4 people to multiple locations for the day, negotiating an upfront price for using a taxi service for multiple hours is the best option
  • Since you can control more variables, walking is always preferred to getting a taxi when you have the time. Plus, you see more of the city up close and personal
  • Find taxis at main hubs...right outside main squares, near airports, train and bus stations, and near bustling business districts. Flagging down, or even seeing a taxi unoccupied is difficult in residential areas.

About the Author

Hank Martin

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Traveling for a world education and writing about the life lessons learned.


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