One of my goals for life is to make sure the number of countries I’ve visited is greater than the number of years I’ve been alive. With 34 countries so far, I could sit tight for several years, but I really hope I don’t have to.
If I’m not on a trip, then I’m planning one. Even now, when my travel dreams are indefinitely put on hold, I’ll catch myself researching the miles of bike paths that stretch through Eastern Europe or reading thousands of words on the Silk Road. In all my travels, here’s what I’ve learned.
Organize pre-trip logistics.
- Compare flight prices (obviously).
Also, check what your costs would be if you were more flexible on your dates. There are plenty of sites now, like Skiplagged, Google Flights or Scott’s Cheap Flights, that break the algorithms in ways I am not sophisticated enough to understand. If you’re just using third party sites and apps, (Hopper is another good one!) be sure to check the flight prices on the actual airline’s website. I’ve occasionally found them cheaper there than on other sites.Pick your travel companions wisely. Everyone has a slightly different set of priorities when they’re traveling, and that’s OK! Some people want to relax. Some people want to go hard all day. Some people are independent enough to visit different sights during the day, and some won’t want to split up the party. These may be small differences in everyday life, but when you’re on a trip together, these specificities can cause real rifts. It’s hard to know who you’ll travel well with until you actually try it, but at least try to have a conversation before you leave.
- Do lots of homework!
There’s no way to know everything, but researching the place you’re visiting is an important part of being a respectful visitor. It’s easy to get into the mindset that your trip is about you having fun, but that’s the kind of hubris that earned Americans the reputation for being bad tourists in the past.Try to think of it this way: You’re a guest in someone else’s home. It’s on you to learn about and respect the way they do things. It’s not on them to bow to your idea of fun, but the homework can be fun! Reading about a place before you get there, scouring travel blogs and learning a few words of the language can help build up the anticipation for your trip and add meaning to the things you see once you’re there!
- My only packing tip is this: You probably don’t need it.
Just pack a few basics and a couple pieces that help you mix those basics up. Don’t take a whole different set of shoes and accessories for every day. Leave the room in your suitcase for treasures you find along the way!
Plan too much, but don’t plan to do it all.
Once I have the details worked out, I make three lists.
The first list is the things I have to do on the trip, and it’s always the shortest. I pick a few of the basic sites all tourists have to go see, but I make sure the list also includes things I’m actually excited about. For me, that usually means bookstores, restaurants (or street food!) or museums that may be a bit more obscure.
The second list is things to do if I have time. These things are priorities, but if I have to pick what I’m doing with an afternoon they fall behind the first list. This is where a lot of the cliché sites tourists are supposed to visit fall. Then, there’s the “if we get bored” list.
I’ll loosely plan my days around the first list, but structuring a trip too tightly isn’t always a great idea. A little structure helps me make sure I don’t miss things, but too much could take a lot of the fun out of things.
Structuring a trip too tightly isn’t always a great idea, but a little structure helps me make sure I don’t miss things
Travel is the perfect time to make friends. You’ll never see these people again. So you don’t have to worry about making a fool of yourself. Sign up for tours with strangers and strike up conversations at bars!
Sometimes, those friendships last for the short time you’re traveling. Once, I split a room in Cambodia with a German girl I’d met on the bus that day, and we cackled over rom-coms all night. My Airbnb host in Thailand decided she liked us enough to make us a huge, traditional Thai dinner our last night. I spent a great afternoon eating Lebanese food on the banks of the Seine in Paris with a gorgeous Spanish man I met in a bookstore. I didn’t stay in touch with any of those people, but we had a lot of fun for the time we spent together.
Sometimes, you click with people, and they define the next trips. I met a Danish girl on a beach in the Philippines who offered me her entire apartment when I came to visit Copenhagen. I have a couch available whenever I make it back to Paris (for the fifth time) thanks to a great friend from my study abroad. Guidebooks are great, but local guides are way better. When someone is willing to show you their city, you will get a trip way better than the guidebooks could send you on.
Guidebooks are great, but local guides are way better.
Caveat here: Obviously, use common sense. Don’t tell people where you’re staying or whether you’re there alone. Know where your friends are and keep your wits fully about you if you go out. I’ve never actually needed to get in touch with any kind of consulate, but I usually get a basic idea of where the closest one is when I’m out of the country.
Be careful about building up too many expectations when it comes to travel. Approach your trips with open arms, staying flexible and accepting bad days as they come. They’ll definitely come. Long trips can get lonely and even short ones can be exhausting. However, at the end of the day, I’m always glad I went.
Traveling should be a pretty humbling experience. I love the challenge of understanding and navigating a new place, and I love the feeling of being uncomfortable—always new, always learning. Being able to travel is a huge privilege worth sacrificing for, and it’s taught me more—both about myself and other people—than maybe anything else.
Do you enjoy traveling? If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Image via Raisa Zwart Photography