The simple trick to blend in anywhere you travel

By Mark Ellwood  Bloomberg

At Bloomberg Pursuits, we love to travel. And we always want to make sure we’re doing it right. So we’re talking to globetrotters in all of our luxury fields — food, wine, fashion, cars, real estate — to learn about their high-end hacks, tips, and off-the-wall experiences. These are the Distinguished Travel Hackers.

Pauline Frommer is co-president of Frommer Media LLC, alongside her legendary father, guidebook pioneer Arthur Frommer; this year is the 60th anniversary of his first book. There are now more than 100 titles in the Frommer’s series; Pauline has written eight books herself.

She’s lost count of the number of miles she logs each year, but she is no slavish loyalist to a particular airline. Instead, Ms. Frommer follows the best deal. “My favorite carrier, at least in the US, though is JetBlue,” she says. “I like the legroom, and the staff seem to have a better sense of humor than many other carriers.”

She is married to Columbia University Professor Mahlon Stewart; they have two daughters. Here are her travel secrets:

• This simple safety hack will help you blend in almost anywhere.

“Evelyn Hannon of Journeywoman gave me one of the best pieces of practical advice I’ve ever heard. Because female travelers are more likely to be harassed in some countries if they’re seen to be outsiders, the first thing she does when she gets to a new destination is shop for something small in a very local grocery store or pharmacy. And then she carries the bag that her purchases came in around with her, because she knows that, no matter how different she looks from others in the place, the bag will mark her as a local — and possibly provide some protection. I used this trick recently in Chennai; I even insisted my teenage daughters did it when they went out alone. It’s kind of like a security blanket. I’m assuming it works, but it may just give me more confidence.”

• Here’s the one thing you didn’t know you needed for a family trip.

“Never travel without a headphone splitter — that’s my mom tip. It allows two or three people to plug in their headphones and watch the same movie at once. It’s been a lifesaver for me. My kids and I can gather round one laptop or iPad, then discuss the movie afterwards. It makes them play nice, and it also lets you keep another iPad fully charged, instead of running down the battery on several devices.”

• If you’re planning travel with your family, you’re probably looking at the wrong places.

“I think you need to go to countries that allow kids to do things that would be illegal here. In Belize, for example, my 10-year-old was rappelling off the side of cliffs, and we swam into these caves where there was a cathedral-like room with ancient Mayan artifacts calcified to the floor, including bones from human sacrifices. In New Zealand, my kids zorbed and bungee jumped. And on White Island, just off the coast of the North Island, we walked around the most active volcano in the country; you have to wear a gas mask and walk hand-in-hand in the group, as the terrain shifts every day. I don’t want them always to be comfortable. To me, on a vacation, it’s about being brave and challenging themselves. Even better, those were the vacations where my kids didn’t argue once, because every day had a different adventure. There was learning, but it wasn’t down-your-throat learning.”

• This single feature transforms any hotel room.

“I always book a room with a balcony, whether at an Airbnb or a hotel room. You can get out of the confines of your room and see the life around you, but still have the privacy to be out there in your robe, drinking a cup of coffee. I remember being in Paris, in a little complex right off the Boulevard St. Germain, in a room like that, in one of those French buildings set around a courtyard. I would sit there and watch the neighbors, seeing how they really lived their lives: hanging up laundry, kids playing on push toys. I felt like I saw a Paris the tourist never sees.”

• Always, always road test a traveling companion before a big trip.

“Do a two-day, short trip with anyone you haven’t traveled with first. I remember, on my first trip at college — I was on a research trip for my dad, as I’m a Frommer — I went for three months with my friend Darren. By the end of the trip, we despised each other; I don’t know if I’ve ever hated anyone more. It was because we didn’t travel in the same way: he always needs to be interacting, while I need time to burrow into a book or with my own thoughts. You both need to know who you are when you choose a traveling companion.”

• Oh, and if you’re going to the Grand Canyon, don’t make the same mistake everyone else does.

“Too many people just drive up to it, say, ‘Ooh, there it is,’ and leave. But you have to go under the rim — maybe just 400 feet, or a 30-minute hike — and that will change things immensely and add to your understanding. Go under the rim, and suddenly the landscape is totally transformed. At sundown or sunup, it’s a different canyon. And you have to force yourself to stand still and let it work on you. You have to just look and let it affect you. The same is true in a museum: If you try and flit around there and see too many things, you get exhausted. You have to commune with what you’re looking at, so it’s a revitalizing experience, rather than an exhausting one.”

• These are her favorite cities for picking up the perfect souvenir.

“Taipei, in Taiwan, has the most amazing, bling-bling stocking stuffers; I love Shilin Night Market. When my daughters were younger, I brought home two umbrellas — well, they were dolls that transformed into umbrellas. And they were their favorite thing ever, for such a long time. For me, I bought a cell phone case that was half-rhinestones, half-fur, which was so wacky, but it made me happy. The other place is Paris, especially the Rue d’Alésia, which is where a lot of the outlet stores are for the Parisian designers, like Sonia Rykiel, Azzedine Alaia. It’s where I got my first suit as a teenager, and I constantly go back. It’s last year’s fashions, but I’m not that bothered. Last year’s Paris fashions are pretty close to this year’s American ones.”

• Finally:  Here’s the one destination in America that Frommer doesn’t understand why it isn’t better known.

“I went to Mackinac Island in Michigan off season, and it blew my mind. So many places have history to them, but there’s always going to be signs of modernity around: traffic lights, wires for phones, and electricity. But not on Mackinac. It never allowed cars in its entire history, because the lanes are too small, so there are no traffic lights; everyone gets around by bike or horse and carriage. Yeah, people are talking on their cell phones, because you can’t get around that, but you really can go back in time in a much more complete way than you can in other places. It’s a visceral feeling. Don’t stay at the Grand Hotel, though, because you have to take their dining plan; I stayed at Chippewa Hotel instead, with a lovely balcony overlooking the lake.”

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