I think every 20 Something needs to travel, whether it be simply to new places in their state, or completely new countries. I just completed my third European excursion, and feel the need to share some wisdom with other 20-Something’s as they embark upon their own expeditions:
1. Determine the purpose of your trip: The purpose of your trip will significantly alter the kinds of things you choose to do. My first European excursion was definitely to celebrate graduating college, and we sought out activities that would fit under that category: going to discotheques, hanging out with the local university students, enjoying a sangria in Venice, etc. My second European excursion was to Paris, and the purpose of that trip was to do all the cultural things Paris has to offer: go to the Louvre, attend mass at Notre Dame, see a show at the Moulin Rouge. This last trip was simply to go on a trip, so we did a little bit of pubbing, a little bit of seeing the natural-scapes of Ireland, a little bit of relaxing and breathing in fresh air. There are all kinds of different reasons people travel, and whatever the purpose of your travel will alter how you decide to spend your time.
2. Print out accommodations: Upon our arrival to London, we hopped into a taxi cab, and asked the driver to please take us to our hotel. The only problem was–we did not have a name or an address, so that kind of turned into a debacle. Your phone probably will not work in these foreign countries (and if it does work, it’s a steep fee), and you may get Wifi in some places, and you may not, so it’s best to at least have all of your accommodations (hotel, flight, attraction information) printed out just in case. I usually plan my trips using a Google Doc. My Google Doc is usually color coded with (a) flight information, (b) arrival/departure times, (c) where we are staying each night, and (d) the things we hope to do on each day, perhaps what the local weather might be, and what other options for activities we have. I print that out too, just in case.
3. Any experience is an experience worth having: It will probably happen that you will miss a train, or you will have to spend two extra hours waiting in line. You will probably start feeling anxious, like you are wasting precious time, because now you are going to miss the opening of the castle, and now you will have to stand in line for longer. But, you can gain so much cultural knowledge from sitting at train stations, or waiting in queue lines that just being in a different country, doing things out of your ordinary is an experience worth doing. One of my favorite parts of traveling is sitting in train stations, and observing the people going to and fro their daily lives. I like to listen to the different languages they speak, and try to guess what their conversations are about. I like to watch the parents corral their children around, and look at their different parenting styles. I like to imagine where these people are going, who they are meeting, what line of business they are in. I like to look at the kinds of books they read, the kinds of fashions they wear, the kinds of headlines on the newspapers, and what is showing on the news channels. Doing any of this, while waiting, is enriching within itself.
4. Always bring more underwear than you think you will need: You just never know when you might feel the need to wash yourself of the pollution, or you get stranded in New York for two extra nights. Nothing is ever worse than having to put on dirty underwear. Plus, a couple extra pairs do not really take up that much space.
5. Remember, American’s do not always do it best: In my opinion, there are plenty of things that Europeans do better than Americans: their public transportation system, for one, is way better. I ride the LightRail all the time without a ticket, but in Europe, you are NOT getting on a subway without paying for it. They recycle better than we do, prevent DUI’s better than we do, make way better bread and pastries better than we do. If I come into the country with my elitist attitude, I am going to pigeonhole myself. We have an ethnocentric view that Americans are better than everyone else in the world, and sometimes when we take that attitude to foreign countries, it takes away from our experiences (and gives us a bad rap). My theory is that, I am coming into your country and intruding on your territory, so I better either abide to your customs and your language, or at least know there will be consequences.
6. Hit the ground running (and allow yourself a little snooze later): Jet lag is THE WORST. You feel dazed, drunk, hungover. You can’t make decisions, you fall asleep everywhere you go (such as the bus tour that results in a sun burn). Unfortunately, you experience jet lag going to the place, and then coming home (thus, why I am up writing this right now). The best way to beat jet lag is to integrate yourself into the time zone as soon as possible. If your flight lands at 6 AM, no matter how little you slept on the plane, you should hit the ground running. I would recommend doing a few ‘standing up’ things on your first couple of days; it’s when you sit down that you start feeling the effects. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to allow yourself an hour or two nap in the afternoon on the first couple of days (but no longer) so that you can reset and enjoy the reminder of your evening, but give yourself an appointment so that you don’t just sleep all night (read more about sleeping in airports here from Casper, the sleep experts for more than just their mattresses)
7. It’s natural to bicker with your travel companion: I always think it’s practice for being married to someone someday. Traveling with someone is different than them being your room mate, because you are literally experiencing every single moment of being human with them; the good, the bad, and the ugly. You will find you have differing opinions, they will say something that offends you, but just remember that you both are probably tired. Naturally, even though you might share the same purpose of the trip, you both will have different desires. You may really want to eat bangers and mash, while she really wants Italian. You may really want to go to the Imperial War Museum, while she really wants to go shopping at Zara. You may really want to go take a nap, and she really wants to go see another historical monument. But, it’s all about learning to compromise. My travel companions all know that I am super nerdy, and need to do the really nerdy stuff: visit Oscar Wilde’s grave, buy some Fitzgerald at the book store, see a play at The Globe. And, in exchange for them letting me nerd out, I try to compromise and do something they want to do.
8. Use the bathroom at every opportunity: Europeans and their bathrooms…you just never know what you are going to get. Will it be free? Will it be clean? Will there even be a bathroom around? I just like to be cautious, and always use it when the opportunity presents itself.
9. Bring comfortable shoes: You will most likely be doing a plethora of walking, and nothing is worse than tired feet. My rule of thumb is to always bring a pair of tennis shoes, a pair of other shoes (my Birkenstocks in the summer, my Sperry’s in the winter), and a pair of sandals for going out. And, while I am planning my outfits, I try to change up my shoes to change up the support to prevent my feet from getting too tired. You will notice that Europeans walk everywhere, and even their high heels (for the most part, unless you encounter an American, or a hooker) are designed to be comfortable when walking.
10. Don’t be afraid to meet new people: The great thing about traveling abroad is you get to meet people from all over the place. In London, I really enjoyed listening to the different versions of English accents; there are the Americans, the British, the South Africans, the Jamacian-Canadians and Turkish-British. Of course, you need to use your best judgement, because there are dangerous people out there (never accept anything with a clipboard, and always have your purse in check). But, if they give off friendly vibes, new people might be able to give you restaurant recommendations, help guide you if you are lost, or answer any questions you might have about European-life. And, if anything, meeting new people gives you another person to talk to–so that you and your travel companion are not bickering as much.
11. Pack accordingly: The less you can pack, the better. When I went to Paris, we took our bags from the aeroport to the hotel, and then back, so taking a big suitcase was not really a big deal (and it was cold, so we needed lots of layers). However, if you are going to be traveling to different countries, staying in different places, taking planes, trains, and boats, the less amount of stuff you can bring, the better (and, the less likelihood the Gatwick aeroport will confiscate your precious hair cream).
12. Take a bus tour on the first day: Every major city has some kind of double-decker sight-seeing tour, and it’s totally worth the $20-25 it costs. For one, you can use it for your transportation for the day, and can save money on buying metro tickets. But, bus tours also allow you to see the layout of the city from the top level, which will help you navigate the city; if you get lost later on, you might remember, “Oh, I remember seeing the Armory on the bus tour just before the capital”. And, the bus tour will give you information on the city you would not gain otherwise and allow you to see things that you might want to come back to later.
13. Have a list of must-sees, and don’t-care-to-sees: Unless you stay for two weeks in Paris, you certainly will not be able to see everything the city has to offer. Things will take longer than you anticipated, things might be closed, tours might be full, and on your Big Bus tour, you might see something you would prefer to see instead. Make a list of the things you will regret NOT getting a picture with, and a list of things that you could do your life without seeing. And, I would also recommend, for those must-sees, checking out the times of operation before you go. For example, in Paris, many places are closed on Sundays, so we planned our Disneyland Paris trip for a Sunday, just to maximize our tourist attractions. That way, you don’t show up at the place that is supposed to be the highlight of your trip and find out it’s closed for the year.
14. Spend your money on things that matter: I am out of the hostel phase of my life, so spending a few extra Euros on a hotel room is worth it to me. But, things like going into wax museums, eating at bourgeois restaurants, sitting first class on the aeroplane, and shopping are not necessarily things that I need to spend money on. Of course, everyone is going to have different tastes; some people like to collect shot glasses from every place they visit, so they spend their money on that. Some people like to travel via taxi, so they spend their money on that. Some people like to go into all the castles, so they spend their money on that. No doubt you will spend probably more money than you anticipate on your vacation, but if you spend it on the things that matter to you, then it’s not a waste (and, if you have done your research, you will know which attractions are worth their entrance fee, and which are not).
15. Bring snacks: Ok, I don’t know about you, but I never see Europeans drinking water, or eating, and when I am traveling, I am ravished all the time. Eating out three meals a day can get quite pricey (in some places, as soon as you sit down in a restaurant to eat, the price automatically goes up). I always bring a few granola bars, some peanut butter cups, maybe some dried fruit, with me to help off set some of those meal costs, and to make sure I don’t get hangry, and pass out from starvation. I also bring fruit and vegetables vitamins with me, because it seems like Europeans also don’t eat fruits and vegetables, and by about day three, I am craving a carrot.
16. Be aware of your surroundings: We have all seen that movie ‘Hostage’ and go into Europe, fearing that could be us. The chances of someone kidnapping us is probably pretty slim, but still, always be aware of your surroundings. There are warnings everywhere to ‘be aware of pickpocketers’. Anytime you get a large amount of people together, especially tourists, where you know they are carrying money, is going to be a potential for getting robbed. Make sure that you bring a purse that zips or closes at the top. Make sure your purse is always in sight. Always be aware of your surroundings. If the dark alley at night feels like a bad idea, then probably don’t go down it. If the person approaching you with a clipboard seems random, then don’t take it.
17. Exchange money before arriving: It’s probably a good idea to have some cash on you before arriving so that you have money for transport from the aeroport, and for food once you land (and, especially if you are traveling to Greece now). Plus, it might take you a few rounds on the bus tour to find an ATM that your bank will allow you to pull money out of. Depending on the length of the trip, I usually take out $300 worth, bring my ATM card, and my credit card just in case (they will ALWAYS take your credit card, but there is usually a conversion fee to use it). I have a travel checking account through my bank which allows me to dump a certain amount of money into the account, and if the card gets lost/stolen, my other accounts cannot be touched. When making larger purchases (admission to museums, restaurant bills, etc), I always try to use that debit card first, just so that I can keep my cash flowing a little longer. I also try to leave half of my money in my purse, half in the security box at the hotel (along with my passport), just in case one stash gets stolen, I still have another stash to be safe.
18. Come up with a separation plan: The trains can be very crowded, and there is a good possibility that the door shuts on you and separates you from your travel companion. Before you arrive, talk to your travel companion about what you will do IF you were to get separated: will you meet back at the hotel? will you meet back at the station you were separated at? That way, if anything were to happen, and you have no way to contact each other, you have a plan in place. Nothing is worse than being stranded, alone (especially if your flight reservations are under their name….)
19. Integration back into society takes time: You will bring some new found knowledge back with you. You will have learned a new way to toast, be exposed to different types of food, and you will suddenly have a whole list of other places you want to go. When I get home, it always takes me a few days to adjust to people speaking my language in my accent; even when I read books, the characters are speaking in German or French or Irish accents. There are a few things you neglected during your travels: work e-mails, going to the gym, clipping your fingernails, sleep. But, eventually, you will get caught up on those things, and life will go back to schedule. That’s kind of what travel is for: to allow you to break your cycles, so that you can return to them, a more enlightened individual.
20. And, always remember: people are people, no matter where you go: The magic of Paris was ruined for me when I saw some late nighters peeing in the metro station; the allure of London when I watched a British couple inappropriately and drunkenly making out in a Turkish restaurant, the charm of Venice when I noticed the gypsies splaying wounds all over the streets, the splendor of Dublin when some guy did a line of cocaine at the bus stop. No matter where you go, people are people. People have needs; they need to work to make money to eat and provide shelter. When people get drunk, they get into fights and cause ruckuses. There are nice people, sketchy people, opinionated people, people who were born to unwed mothers, people who feel guilt of never going to college, people who have to be taxi drivers and grocery store clerks and police men. No matter where you go, people are people, and just because you are in the safest–or most dangerous–part of the world does not mean those things will or will not happen to you.