When I called up STA Travel to book my flights to Ireland in 2003, I had no idea what I was doing. None. My paper tickets arrived in the mail (this was before the days of e-tickets and Kayak) and I stared at them, full of excitement and a tiny bit of dread. Every day, I checked that the tickets were still tucked safely into the pages of my Lonely Planet Ireland. They were, of course, but I always looked at them, those innocuous paper rectangles that would take me from Indianapolis to Chicago to Dublin, where I’d trot out of the plane, armed with a working holiday visa, to meet my future. I hoped that by the time my future and I came face-to-face, I’d be a little bit more travel-savvy and prepared for the meeting.
Traveling the world has been responsible for the most comprehensive education I’ve ever received.
I wasn’t. I landed in Ireland just as clueless as I’d been a few weeks before, and you know what? It was totally fine. Traveling the world has been responsible for the most comprehensive education I’ve ever received (sorry Indiana University), and most of that was learned by doing -- by being on the road. While I don’t regret any of the mistakes I made or the times I embarrassed myself with a cultural gaffe, are there things I would have done differently? Yes, there are. Here’s what I wish I knew before starting my world travels -- the little things that could have made the initial transition that much smoother.
I don’t care if everybody tells you this, I’m telling you again: pack light. An oversized suitcase might hold everything you think you need, but you don’t need it. The warning lights should have sounded for me when my suitcase weighed over 20 pounds...when it was empty. Think of your luggage like a very needy travel companion: it can’t go anywhere without your assistance. Bringing All The Things will make it very hard for the two of you to remain on speaking terms. I eventually downsized from a behemoth of a suitcase to a 70-liter backpack, then more recently traveled through South America with a 35-liter backpack. It was amazing how much easier it was, and how little I cared about wearing the same clothes repeatedly.
So I’ve told you to downsize, but how, exactly, does that work? First, layering is your new BFF. That means thin, breathable tops in varying sleeve length that can be worn on top of each other if necessary. Bring one heavy layer to go on top, and one rainproof jacket or coat (if necessary). I’m a fan of leggings, which are comfy and don’t take up much room. A sarong or scarf can multitask as a blanket, pillow, or cover up.
Second, do a few practice rounds of packing. Be vicious and cut the non-essentials until you’ve got a bag that’s manageable for you. And the most important thing to remember is that if you forget something, you can always get it there. If you can’t, you can probably do without.
Know Your Budget
Budget doesn’t have to be a dirty word or a fun sponge that zaps all the spontaneity out of your trip. Because I’ll tell you what does suck the fun out of your trip -- running out of money. When I first started traveling, I did not save enough money. I also spent a good portion of what I brought on stuff I didn’t need, like muffins and magazines.
You can’t do that if you want to sustain your trip. When working out your budget, don’t guess on a ballpark figure for what things should cost. Do some research. What should you expect to spend on accommodation, food, transport, entry fees, and entertainment? If you know that you’ll want to sample local beers, make room in your budget for that. If you stay within your budget 90% of the time, then you make room to go outside of it sometimes, too. Keep tabs on your budget and adjust it as necessary.
Get a Travel-Friendly Bank Card
This can save you so. much. money. I started traveling with a debit card from my local credit union, and it charged me $5.00 for each withdrawal, plus it slapped on an extra charge for doing it in foreign currency. To compensate, I took out the maximum of $200USD every time, which was detrimental for two reasons: 1) If I had cash, I was more likely to spend it, and 2) If I had been robbed, I would have been kicking myself.
Look for a bank account that doesn’t charge international transaction fees. I now travel with a Charles Schwab account, and they refund all of my ATM fees at the end of the month plus give me market rate on international currency exchange. It makes withdrawing money practical and painless, and I can also use it as a debit card for point-of-sale transactions.
Write Things Down
There will come a time on your trip when you order something at random and it turns out to be the most delicious dish you’ve ever eaten in your life. Find out what it’s called and write it down. (There will also be a time when you eat the worst meal you’ve ever tasted -- write that down, too.) While many of the more common foods quickly become familiar, there are others that are tough to remember. If you know what it was called, you can order it again or attempt to re-create it yourself.
It’s shameful to not know if you’ve visited a particular place or not because its name got lost in the bowels of your memory.
This goes for places you visit, too. I have so many photos of “some museum” or “that one town” and it’s been so long that I actually have no idea what it was. It’s shameful to not know if you’ve visited a particular place or not because its name got lost in the bowels of your memory.
You Don’t Have to Eat Every Meal Out
I found being a hostel newbie very intimidating, convinced that everyone else knew what they were doing and I was a complete fraud. To compensate, I ate every meal at a pub, restaurant, or café instead of hitting up the grocery store and using the hostel kitchen. One one hand, I learned to be confident when dining alone. On the other, I missed out on the money-saving social benefits of cooking at the hostel. A hostel’s not like middle school -- everyone belongs, and the kitchen is open to all residents.
It’s YOUR Trip
It’s okay if you don’t make it to the Taj Mahal in India, and it’s okay to wait in line for hours in Florence to catch a glimpse of Michelangelo’s David. The only rule is that you make the rules, because it’s your trip. Don’t let people tell you you have to see something, or that it’s a waste of time to see something else. When I started traveling, I was mildly obsessed with ticking things off the list for no particular reason. Eventually, I realized that it was okay if I missed something, or ended my trip early, or extended it for longer, or spent the whole time eating french fries from McDonald’s (okay, I’ll say it, that last one is totally not okay in my book, but -- it’s your trip so I’ll shut my mouth).
If you get ripped off, don’t punish yourself -- it happens to all of us. If your Spanish, Korean, Thai, or German is abysmal, don’t let it stop you from trying. Learn the words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Use them. If you pronounce it wrong, go ahead and be embarrassed, but try again. Do your best to learn cultural practices for the area you’re traveling in, but if you make a blunder, don’t consider it a failure. Learn from it and do it better next time. Heck, you may even use the opportunity to take a course in Spanish, Korean, Thai, or German.
That’s what travel is -- rolling with the punches, experimenting, and putting more wrinkles in your brain than you ever thought possible. Even if when you make an honest mistake, people are human. Do it with grace and respect and hopefully everyone will have a good-natured laugh about it.
You Are a Cultural Ambassador
Like it or not, you may find yourself representing your home country when you’re on the road. That means fielding questions about politics, obesity, values, money, racism, beauty standards, and everything in between. Sometimes the questions will surprise you (“Is it true that every American in New York City carries a gun?”) and sometimes they won’t, but be prepared for them either way. You don’t have to have the answer, but remember that everyone’s got a different perspective and we’re all trying to learn from each other.
Your Things Are Just Things
You might get robbed. You might leave your expensive phone behind in a hostel and not realize it until you disembark from your overnight bus. Your laptop might break. None of these things are the end of the world. Does it suck when it happens to you? Absolutely. But your things are just that -- things. You can choose to freak out and panic, or come up with a solution. Once I loosened my grip on my laptop and realized that I was doing everything I can to keep it safe while traveling, I let go of my suspicious paranoia of those around me.
Sometimes, It’ll Be Hard
When I was lugging my suitcase to my hostel in Galway, I was flashed by a short man wearing a trench coat. It was upsetting, to say the least. I questioned my decision to travel solo -- if Ireland wasn’t as safe as I thought, what was I in for?
I’d be lying if, in those hard moments, I didn’t wish to be in the safe cocoon of the familiar.
Then there was the time I contracted an airborne virus and fainted in the stairwell at a hostel, and when I got a stomach bug on a train in India...I’d be lying if, in those hard moments, I didn’t wish to be in the safe cocoon of the familiar, surrounded by a fortress of pillows where the world couldn’t find me. Those moments pass, and the next time will be easier.
Watch Out For Entry and Departure Tax
Some airports (I’m looking at you, Buenos Aires) charge an entry or departure tax -- a fee that you must pay either on arrival at the airport or on departure to board your plane to leave the country. If you don’t pay, you don’t enter or fly. Sometimes this is included in your ticket price; sometimes it’s not.
You’re More Than Capable
At the start, even the London Underground can seem like the most overwhelming encounter in the world. Then, one day, you’re swiping your Oyster card and dodging crowds to swing into the train just as the doors close, never once checking the signs. It wasn’t long before “What am I doing?” became “Oh, I can do this!” when I started traveling. Your strengths can really come through for you, and your confidence builds, too.
A Visa is a Big Deal
I didn’t understand why visas mattered. I know; it was a huge oversight on my part. I actually overstayed my visa in London by two days, which could have gotten me into a heap of trouble; miraculously, it didn’t. Now I always, always check whether or not I’ll need a visa, how long it will take, if I can get one at the border, and how I’ll be expected to pay. And keep in mind that someone else’s experience may not reflect your own. Individual border guards and entry points may determine what happens, so be as prepared as possible and tick all of the boxes.
Check Your Passport
Allow me to state the obvious: Before you leave for the airport, check that your passport is, in fact, your passport. I checked in for my flight back to the US after ten months abroad, only to have the airline representative look curiously at my passport before turning it around to reveal...my former roommate. Somehow, we’d swapped passports and never thought to check. She had to get a very expensive taxi to Heathrow and I missed my flight, catching a standby one several hours later.
You’re Not Irish
There’s a reason my passport is American, and it’s because I was born and raised in the USA. Having Irish and Czech great-grandparents does not, in fact, make me Irish, or Czech. Apparently it’s an American thing to claim ancestry for a place that we’re not actually from. I confess that I did think of myself as ‘part Irish, part Czech, part English’ before I went traveling and realized that Irish = people from Ireland, Czech = people from the Czech Republic, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your family’s history, but are you Irish or do you come from an Irish background? The distinction starts to sink in when you travel.
Leaving Early is Not Quitting
Sometimes, things don’t go as you expected. The job you lined up turns out to be terrible, a family member back home falls ill, or an opportunity pops up in another location that you can’t turn down. It is always okay to cut a trip short. I was supposed to stay in Ireland for four months, but ended up leaving three weeks early to head to the UK, where the clock would start ticking on my next working holiday visa. I felt like leaving early meant that I’d failed, but in reality it was the right time for me to go. If I’d waited, I would have entered the UK right at Christmas time, which would have made finding a place to live and a job much more difficult.
You’re Supposed to Come Back
When you’re the one that goes away, you’re the one who is expected to come back. The onus, unfortunately, often falls on the traveler to go home, not for the people back home to come and visit. In some ways, this is fair and makes perfect sense; in others, it’s just plain frustrating. Expect that traveling around the world can create a disconnect -- even if it’s very, very small -- between you and your friends and family. Make the effort to keep in touch while you're abroad, and talk to your loved ones about making sure communication goes both ways.
Just Go Already
You’ll never know everything. You’ll never be 100 percent prepared. Things won’t go as you planned; they’ll be worse and they’ll be better. Deliberating on whether or not you’re doing the right thing isn’t helpful. Listen to your gut -- do you want to go? Then do it. Get your passport out and get on the plane. It’ll change everything. It’ll be scary. It’ll be incredible. But you can do it, so get moving.
Since I flew to Ireland over 10 years ago, travel has evolved. Goodbye paper tickets and travel agents, hello online bookings. The guidebook is no longer my #1 source of information, and has been replaced by travel blogs. No doubt travel will continue to change in the future, and the list of things I wish I’d known will continue to grow. But the great thing is that you don’t have to know everything. The things you do know will help you; the things you don’t, you’ll learn.