The globetrotting chef, author, and TV host estimates that he’s been away from home “about 250 days a year, for nearly the past decade,” which makes him, among other things, one of the world’s foremost experts in surviving the constant indignities of travel. Here, Bourdain proffers some wisdom on withstanding the tribulations of life on the road.
—As told to Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn
The first thing I do is I dress for airports. I dress for security. I dress for the worst-case scenario. Comfortable shoes are important — I like Clarks desert boots because they go off and on very quickly, they’re super comfortable, you can beat the hell out of them, and they’re cheap.
In my carry-on, I’ll have a notebook, yellow legal pads, good headphones. Imodium is important. The necessity for Imodium will probably present itself, and you don’t want to be caught without it. I always carry a scrunchy lightweight down jacket; it can be a pillow if I need to sleep on a floor. And the iPad is essential. I load it up with books to be read, videos, films, games, apps, because I’m assuming there will be downtime. You can’t count on good films on an airplane.
I check my luggage. I hate the people struggling to cram their luggage in an overhead bin, so I don’t want to be one of those people.
On the plane, I like to read fiction set in the location I’m going to. Fiction is in many ways more useful than a guidebook, because it gives you those little details, a sense of the way a place smells, an emotional sense of the place. So, I’ll bring Graham Greene’s The Quiet American if I’m going to Vietnam. It’s good to feel romantic about a destination before you arrive.
Before getting on a flight, I buy a big pile of magazines. And I’m a big fan of airport massages. I’ll get a chair massage if there’s one available, or a foot massage. If there’s food available I’ll load up on whatever the local specialty is. In Tokyo I’ll get ramen, in Singapore I’ll get something from the airport’s hawker center. Shake Shack at Kennedy airport is the best, although airport food options in the States are usually really bad.
I never, ever try to weasel upgrades. I’m one of those people who feel really embarrassed about wheedling. I never haggle over price. I sort of wander away out of shame when someone does that. I’m socially nonfunctional in those situations.
I don’t get jet lag as long as I get my sleep. As tempting as it is to get really drunk on the plane, I avoid that. If you take a long flight and get off hungover and dehydrated, it’s a bad way to be. I’ll usually get on the plane, take a sleeping pill, and sleep through the whole flight. Then I’ll land and whatever’s necessary for me to sleep at bedtime in the new time zone, I’ll do that.
There’s almost never a good reason to eat on a plane. You’ll never feel better after airplane food than before it. I don’t understand people who will accept every single meal on a long flight. I’m convinced it’s about breaking up the boredom. You’re much better off avoiding it. Much better to show up in a new place and be hungry and eat at even a little street stall than arrive gassy and bloated, full, flatulent, hungover. So I just avoid airplane food. It’s in no way helpful.
For me, one of the great joys of traveling is good plumbing. A really good high-pressure shower, with an unlimited supply of hot water. It’s a major topic of discussion for me and my crew. Best-case scenario: a Japanese toilet. Those high-end Japanese toilets that sprinkle hot water in your ass. We take an almost unholy pleasure in that.
Maybe my biggest travel splurge on the road is if there’s one of those old restored colonial hotels in places that were formerly part of the British or French Empire. Like the Grand d’Angkor in Siem Reap or the Metropole in Hanoi. These are magnificent hotels. Drinking a cold G&T in a rattan chair with a fan overhead — I like that a lot, especially after a few days where I’m out in the country and living in some not particularly great situation, camping or staying in a guesthouse with no air-conditioning.
I’ve stopped buying souvenirs. The first few years I’d buy trinkets or T-shirts or handcrafts. I rarely do that anymore. My apartment is starting to look like Colonel Mustard’s club. So much of it comes out of the same factory in Taiwan.
The biggest rip-offs in the world of travel are tourist-trap restaurants in places like Rome or Venice, places where there’s so much great food but the overwhelming likelihood is that you’re going to get a bad meal. To be in a place like Saigon or Rome and find yourself someplace that’s serving a bogus tourist-friendly version of national cuisine — that is the worst.
When I’m in a city that’s new to me, I try to go to the central market very early in my trip. I’ll go at 6 a.m., when people are shopping for businesses. You get to see what people buy and really eat. There are usually food stands and trucks geared exclusively to locals. You get an idea of what a city or country is good at, because they’re catering to local tastes.
The other great way to figure out where to eat in a new city is to provoke nerd fury online. Go to a number of foodie websites with discussion boards. Let’s say you’re going to Kuala Lumpur — just post on the Malaysia board that you recently returned and had the best rendang in the universe, and give the name of a place, and all these annoying foodies will bombard you with angry replies about how the place is bullshit, and give you a better place to go.