I’ve picked up a few tips throughout my travels. Here’s a compilation of what I think are the most important points to share.
- A passport full of stamps is worth more than a full wallet.
- The first step of any journey is to actually buy the tickets. Yes, traveling is expensive. But it’s an investment with an invaluable return rate. I could’ve spent my scholarship stipends on a car, a nicer apartment, a new wardrobe. Instead, I bought plane tickets and set out for adventure. And I haven’t regretted that decision for a single second.
- Pack light. Then pack even lighter.
- If you’re backpacking, this is a no-brainer. You will not be dressing to impress so skip out on the fancy clothes. You can do laundry in most major cities so don’t bring ten pairs of pants, either. Just remember, you will be lugging that backpack along with you during your entire trip. Less is more.
- It’s OK to do things alone. In fact, it’s usually better.
- I started out backpacking with someone who I though was a friend. It ended up being a terrible decision; we didn’t get along very well. He needed to always have a detailed plan whereas I enjoyed playing things by ear. It’s true that you really get to know someone when you travel. You will need to share things (beds, food, money, etc), work together when things go wrong (which they will), decide together where and when to go places, etc. It’s not easy to adventure with others, and large groups are even worse. If there’s something you really want to do, just do it regardless if you have someone to go with you. Most places aren’t as scary as people make them out to be. But you will regret it if you’ve always wanted to hike the Alps and your friend has never hiked a mile in his life. Travel should mostly be an investment in yourself. Take full advantage of your time abroad and do what you want to do. If you don’t have to worry about pleasing travel buddies, you won’t have to compromise.
- You don’t always need a plan.
- At the start of my trip, I thought I had to have all the trains and hostels and days planned out because that’s how my travel buddy made it seem. But I found that the best days were completely unplanned. For example, my favorite day of perhaps my whole backpacking trip was when I made an awesome new friend at a hostel in Cinque Terre. The next morning, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. and hiked all the villages. We stopped for gelato after horsing around a little bit at the Mediterranean docks. It was one of the most beautiful places and memorable days I’ve ever had. Reducing the amount of planning takes off some of the stress, allowing you to enjoy your days as they unfold.
- Roll with the punches.
- This was especially relevant during my trip. While I was exploring Europe, France decided to have a rail strike. Surprise. Many of my trains were cancelled or delayed. But I never panicked and despite minor changes to my plans, I always ended up at the right places. Perhaps the worst experience I had was in Casablanca, Morocco. Our plane had been cancelled and the Moroccan airline staff was completely unhelpful. It took us hours to get to the right person, who was then even reluctant to help us. I panicked a little bit, knowing I was stuck in North Africa with no flight back to Europe. Luckily, everything panned out. It might have taken many hours and frustration but I made it back to Europe safe and sound. No one can completely avoid bumps in the road. You just have to buckle your seat belt and work with what you’re given.
- Be a traveler. Not a tourist.
- By far, my least favorite places were those crowded with tourists. They swarm around major monuments, shamelessly using selfie-sticks and attracting aggressive vendors that sell cheap souvenirs. The best places are away from the crowds. If you know locals, contact them and see if they can help you find the best things to do in the city. Do your research before you go so that you have an idea of what you want to see and do beforehand. My favorite parts of Morocco were not the crowded and flashy streets of Marrakech, but the mountains and caves where we met Berber families and camped out in the Sahara. My favorite parts of southern France were not the streets filled with designer shopping but the hiking and swimming in the Calanques and hidden coves of the Mediterranean.
- But don’t be afraid to do the tourist things either.
- That’s not to say you shouldn’t do what you want because you’re afraid of looking like a tourist. There are some things that just have to be done, such as taking a picture in front of the Eiffel tower. By all means, it’s your trip. Do what you want. And if you know you will regret not doing something, definitely don’t skip out. Just don’t get stuck doing all the cliché touristy activities either.
- Try everything.
- This was especially important to me as a vegan. I debated maintaining a vegan diet while abroad but decided that it would take away from my experience. And I’m glad I made the decision to be more relaxed with my diet. I’ve tried so many different foods and realized that the cuisine is really part of the culture. An important part. When I get home, I can easily return to my strict vegan lifestyle. But while I’m in France I will try the fancy fromages and saucisson. Because you never know the next time you’ll have access to fresh bread and pastries on every street corner.
- Keep an open mind
- America is a very special place, whether you’re fond of it or not. It’s very different from all the other places I’ve traveled and the culture shock is real. I never understood how modern, clean, and friendly America was until I found myself abroad. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy or appreciate the lifestyles and cultures of other countries. But it was very different. For example, my first few days in France made me dizzy from navigating the maze of French cultural norms. You kiss people instead of shaking their hands. Everyone speaks much more softly. Never ask to modify a dish because “ce n’est pas possible.” Customer service doesn’t exist as it does in the United States where the customer is always right. In France, the servers are doing the customers a service. It is completely reversed. There is no sense of urgency anywhere. Some cities in Morocco were filled with women that covered themselves completely except for little slits for the eyes. Wearing shorts in Italy attracted way too much unwanted attention. Toilets did not equate with toilet paper in North Africa. Yes, it’s different out there. But the worst thing you can do is shut down and dwell on the differences as irritations. Enjoy the culture while you can. Use the extremely lengthy waiting times in France to enjoy your surroundings. Shrug off the rude waiters and enjoy your gelato. Learn to dress to avoid unwanted attention. You’ll be back on the plane head to the U.S. before you know it.
There were days when I was tired, travel-worn, sleep-deprived, hungry. I was caught in rainstorms. I missed trains, had trains and planes cancelled. I visited the hospital. I was scared, exhausted, frustrated at times. I spent several days that consisted of only sitting on cramped trains for hours. I was sore, sleepy, uncomfortable, out of my comfort zone. I was sunburned, sun-tanned, bitten, stung, and drained. But somehow, at the end of the day, I always found myself smiling. Adventure is worth it. Embrace it.