I set out on this year-long travel adventure with an open mind, a very flexible schedule and few expectations. It’s hard to believe, but I’m now four months into my journey – more than a quarter of the way through my planned timeline. I’ve had so many amazing experiences, met wonderful people and seen more than I could have imagined. I’ve also learned quite a lot. Here are a few of those travel lessons. I hope they’ll help you as you navigate your own travel adventure, regardless of the length of your journey.
Lesson #1: Traveling Solo is Simple
In fairness, there is a bit of a learning curve to traveling on your own. When I first started traveling, bus schedules looked like indecipherable spreadsheets full of numbers. But as days and weeks passed, I learned how to read them and picked up numerous other insights as a result of experience. You will, too.
I’ve lived on my own for years and took some solo trips in the U.S., so I didn’t expect overseas solo travel to be especially difficult. But I’ve actually been surprised at how easy it really is. With user-friendly online resources for booking hostels, researching transportation options and learning about the attractions in every city (hello, TripAdvisor!), you really can navigate your journey fairly easily. I meet and chat with people all the time, so I rarely feel alone.
For me, the most challenging parts about solo travel have been: a) no obvious companion to go out with at night, and b) no one to watch my luggage at the bus station/train station/airport when I need to use the bathroom or want to grab a snack. Luckily, I’ve met other solo travelers at hostels that who are happy to join me for an evening drink on occasion. As for the luggage situation, that really can’t be helped if you’re traveling alone…so pack light!
I do make things easier on myself by scheduling all my travel during daylight hours so that I’m not wandering around looking for my hostel in the dark. If I get lost, I have time to find my way or can easily enlist someone to help me.
A wise taxi driver once told me that the hardest part about travel is making the choice to go. It’s true. Once you get on the road, even if you’re on your own, you’ll figure it out one step at a time. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be surprised at how easy it really is!
Lesson #2: Take Your Own Path
Notice that I didn’t say “follow” your own path…because this is not about following! You will not be tested on what you saw during your travels, and you really don’t have to see all of the “must see” sights on TripAdvisor. Use it as a resource, but realize that it’s not the Bible.
I always welcome suggestions on what to see from people I meet along the way, and I’ve tailored my trip based on many of those suggestions. However, it’s important to remember that in the end, this is your travel experience. You took the vacation time, saved the money and made the effort to leave your home and comfort zone. It’s always a good idea to be open to new experiences, but if you truly aren’t interested in visiting Scottish castles or seeing Gaudi’s architectural wonders, please do yourself a favor and skip them. Instead, rent a bike and follow mountain trails if that’s your thing, or hit up every whiskey distillery in Ireland.
Travel is personal and should be done on your terms. Tailor your travel itinerary to your own interests, and don’t feel guilty for a moment if you didn’t make it to the world’s largest ball of wire…even if your cousin’s co-worker’s best friend thought it was amazing.
Lesson #3: Don’t be Afraid to Slow Down
This was a tough one for me. When you’re traveling, nearly every place you will visit will be full of unique and exciting attractions and experiences. With only a few days in each city, I have been tempted to spend each one running from one attraction to the next, logging miles and miles on my pedometer, checking sights off my list and and dropping into bed exhausted at the end. I still spend some days that way, but I have learned that it’s okay to take a day here and there to catch up on laundry, journaling, travel planning and other activities that wouldn’t be worthy of a blog post. Yes…it really is ok.
Just as we avoid burnout at home by resting between high-energy work and social activities, it’s important to allow yourself downtime while on the road. There’s no specific formula. Find what works for you and go with it.
Lesson #4: Sometimes the Free Sights are the Best Sights
When you take the time to wander down city streets and through public parks and visit local markets and monuments, you won’t necessarily spend any money, but you will have the chance to meet locals and get a deeper sense of the life and atmosphere of a place than you would have if you had only visited the tourist attractions.
Many cities have legitimate attractions that cost nothing: scenic viewpoints, stunning cathedrals and great museums among them. Climbing up to the top of a hill or tower for a great view of a city is one of my favorite activities, and it’s very often free. Most cities also offer free walking tours, where the tour guides operate only on tips. I have enjoyed many a fantastic tour this way. Make the effort to seek out the free and very low-cost attractions, and you may find that you can fill several days with these memorable, free experiences.
Lesson #5: It’s Okay to Splurge (occasionally)
Partly because I’m naturally frugal and partly by necessity (um…I don’t have a job!), I am a big proponent of budget travel. I typically stay in hostels and travel by bus because it’s the cheapest form of transportation. However, I’ve learned that it’s worth it to splurge once in a while.
Decide what’s important to you. While I love food and trying out new restaurants was one of my favorite activities back home in Phoenix, I can rarely justify an expensive restaurant meal while on the road. What I has been rewarding for me, however, is to pay for an occasional organized tour. I splurged on a wine tasting at a centuries-old castle outside of Barcelona, a day tour covering the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and a food and wine walking tour in Lisbon, to name a few. Each one of those tours cost a little more than my daily budget would typically allow, but each one was also truly memorable and well worth the money. I could not have had the same experience on my own.
Some people don’t like tours but really value dining experiences, scuba diving lessons or a night in a fancy hotel. Whatever it is, make sure your splurge is something that’s important to you or will really improve your overall travel experience.
Lesson #6: Worry is Truly Unnecessary
We hear this all the time, but maybe that’s because it’s true. Early in my trip, I would have trouble sleeping the night before a complicated day of travel. “Will I be able to change busses three times, identify the right train and then find my way to the hostel with people all around me speaking a language I don’t understand?”
I worried when I couldn’t find a hostel on the hostel booking websites. I worried that it would rain during a tour I had paid for. I worried that the stone stairs I was climbing would suddenly collapse in a centuries-old watchtower.
Worry is a tough habit to break. But after realizing (almost on a daily basis) that my worries rarely come to fruition, I have learned to let the worry go a majority of the time. If I have a complicated travel schedule, experience has taught me that I will take one step at a time and get through it just fine. And if my worries do come true, the resulting situation works itself out or turns into a great surprise. Things always turn out as they should, whether exactly according to plan or not. And in light of that fact, worry is a complete waste of energy and time.
Lesson #7: Some Things Should Be Planned; Some Things Should Not
When I left Phoenix back in late April, I had four elements of my itinerary arranged: my flight to Iceland, my first week’s hostel in Iceland, my flight to Lisbon, and my hostel in Lisbon. That’s all. And that was a great decision.
I’ve changed my travel plans more times than I can count, but I’ve never had to cancel a flight or a hostel booking because I didn’t plan to far ahead. This has allowed me to check out places I only learned about while on the road, and I’ve seen some amazing places and met amazing people as a result.
That being said, except for one time in Provence, I always make sure my accommodation is booked for the first couple of nights in a new city before I leave the previous city. During the summer months when everyone is traveling, it’s even more important to book ahead. I was lucky to reserve a bed at a hostel in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival in August even though I booked three weeks in advance. Some travelers are okay spending the night on a park bench, but I need to have a bed, so I am careful to line that up before arriving in a new place.
Lesson #8: Be Present
Sometimes I’m moving so fast from one attraction to the next that I have to remind myself to breathe. Take in the sights, smell the roses, notice the clouds in the sky. Life really is beautiful, and travel can remind you of that reality several times a day…if you let it. However, when you’ve seen five incredible sights in a single day and you’re hungry and the sun is hot, it’s easy to get desensitized. Fight that urge…this moment will pass and be gone forever. Pause and notice the magic that’s in front of you. Invite the great moments to sit down and stay awhile.