Question: What advice do you have for inexperienced travelers?
In the past year, television host Samantha Brown took a total of 45 flights. She zipped through 88 airports and checked into 32 hotels. But this bustle is not unusual.
Traveling from Dallas to Budapest and so many places in between, Brown was busy filming her Emmy award-winning show, “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love.” The third season premiers January 11 on PBS.
Brown has been traveling on television for 20 years, hosting over a dozen TV series and specials and lending her expertise as a guest on numerous other travel-focused shows. She is a travel icon.
Brown might be blessing an AmaWaterways cruise ship or selling her popular luggage on HSN when she’s not filming her series.
Also the executive producer of her current show, Brown oversees everything from editing to funding.
When she started her first TV job in 2001 hosting Travel Channel’s “Great Hotels,” she and Rick Steves were among the few big names taking viewers along on their vacations. Now, everyone is doing it.
YouTube is full of people documenting their adventures on video. Everyone from former corporate executives to entire families are filming their trips for social media, some reaching millions of followers.
Brown believes the world’s obsession with travel — influencers and the whole nine yards — is mostly a great thing, especially as travelers making videos for YouTube and Instagram slowly grow more diverse.
“When I was growing up, I thought travel was for the privileged,” said Brown. “Not just people privileged with money, but time and confidence. The travel influencer, the blogger, they show you, ‘Hey, I’m there, so you can do it, too.'”
The problem, Brown says, is when travelers only share the absolutely perfect stuff. That photo showing one beautiful woman alone at the Trevi fountain, known for its insane crowds, is not real and it’s not what traveling is all about.
“Travel is imperfect,” Brown says. “Travel is messy.”
Her own evolution as a travel host shapes the advice she gives. When she started out, she felt she had to have a flawless itinerary, never making a mistake on camera, and effortlessly making her way around the world. These days, she has a stronger sense of humor about pretty much everything.
“Now I understand that being imperfect doesn’t mean you’re not an expert, doesn’t mean you’re not a good traveler,” Brown said. “It means you’re a really good person and a good human being. That’s what you really need when you’re a traveler. I’m just going to make the best of this.”
Ahead of her show, Brown sat down with CNN to offer a few ways to make the best of any travel situation.
Tip #1 – You don’t need to learn the language ahead of time
Brown admits she’s never once studied a language before traveling — and she’s been to 74 countries and counting.
“The best thing you can do to connect with locals is smile and say hello,” explains Brown.
That said, she never starts out a conversation by blurting out, “Do you speak English?” This phrasing puts the onus on others to already know her language. She’s always found people would help if she first spent a moment being polite.
To practice being cordial when you don’t know the native tongue, Brown recommends learning just four key phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting:
May, I please have … ?
The first three are simple good manners. The last is something Brown has learned over time is useful in all sorts of situations.
“We’re always asking for things,” Brown says. “We always need something, whether it’s a bathroom or a really good flaky croissant. So, if I know how to say that in the most polite form, that makes the connection right there.”
Tip #2 — Plan for the inevitable airport anxiety
Brown half-jokingly suggests she write an ongoing blog on the sole subject of “how to survive in an airport.”
In fact, she can’t stop laughing when talking about air travel.
“Maybe that’s what we all need to do, is just imagine that we’re Chevy Chase, we’re trying to get home, we’re John Candy, trying to get home, and maybe we just put a comedy spin on it,” she suggests.
Brown believes you can avoid 90% of the anxiety you get at the airport by getting there in plenty of time. Therefore, she bases her arrival at the airport on her boarding time — not the takeoff time.
Brown’s a fan of convenience and likes the curbside bag check option. Even though you have to tip the handler, you often avoid longer check-in lines inside, which she argues makes the few bucks worth it.
Now inside the airport with plenty of time to spare, Brown is a proponent of taking advantage of all the small things on offer these days — again, even if it means spending a few extra dollars.
Brown loves the wider variety of local foods you can eat or activities you can try in airports nowadays, and she particularly likes flying into Tampa, Minneapolis and Seattle.
“I think the airport experience has become a lot better, where the flight experience has … ” Brown says before pausing for what feels like a long time. “I think it’s stabilized, but it has deteriorated for so long. It’s kind of now just keep your expectations really low and then you’ll be fine.”
Tip #3 — Parents, never use the pre-board
Brown lives in New York City with 6-year-old twins. When thinking about travel tips for parents, she reflects on a dreamier time when she was single and sat in the first class cabin.
“My move from traveling as a solo female traveler to a mom of twins was brutal,” said Brown. “I realized, here I am, a travel expert, and my kids reduced me to nothing.”
She allows her kids have gotten better over time, and now they’ve acclimated to air travel. It can happen for yours too, she says.
Brown’s first piece of advice for parents starts at the airport: Never use the pre-board.
If you do, your kids will be sitting on the plane during the absolute worst time of the entire flight. People are shoving their bags overhead, they’re being rude to fellow passengers and they’re forgetting they once had manners.
Meanwhile, children are absorbing the whole scene, while sitting on a plane on the runway for roughly 45 minutes longer than necessary.
If takeoff is delayed, tack on even more time.
If you’re lucky enough to travel with a partner, she advises sending them ahead to set up the car seats, while the other parent hangs back with the kids, boarding at the absolute last minute (when they’ve also hopefully burned off more energy in the waiting area).
On the flight or once in the hotel room, she blows up small balloons to entertain bored kids.
Pro tip: Duct tape keeps small fingers from unlatching things on the back of a train seat, and it also smooths over sharp edges in a hotel room (think: quick and easy baby proofing).
And don’t forget to bring something to eat. That’s food for you, not just food for the kids. A “hangry” parent is no good to anyone.
“Still, my kids would cry the entire flight,” said Brown. “I’m like, ‘You’re crying?’ I used to sit in first class.”
Tip #4 — Once you arrive, roll with the unexpected
Sometimes you score a great deal on a pretty hotel or find an Airbnb deal that appears quaint and cozy. Then you arrive to find out “pretty,” “quaint” and “cozy” are descriptions hiding a disaster.
The friendly tour you booked is full of party-hungry snobs, or the dream beach vacation is ruined with torrential rains.
“I think the number one rule of how to turn around a vacation is breathe and take a moment,” said Brown. “Let it be what it is.”
If you can’t do this immediately (and a lot of us can’t), don’t give up and don’t go home. Do what you can to try to find the humor in it.
Brown is an expert at traveling, and she has a team to help with the planning:
“Believe it or not, every single time I arrive in a destination that I’ve had so much planning and expectations, I get to my hotel and I literally sit in the bed and I say, ‘Now what?’ There’s just this moment that we have to allow ourselves. We had the fantasy. Now is the reality. They’re going to come together.”
She said travel’s reality is meeting people, but meeting people can sometimes be strange and it can often be awkward.
“Even when things have gone painfully wrong, it’s amazing how you can turn around a situation and just have a good time. You’re like, “Well, at least I’ll have a story for the next 40 years of my life.”