It is hard to believe I’ve been home for exactly a month as of today. Moving to Brooklyn and starting law school at NYU has brought its own set of adventures (or misadventures). I’m thankful that I’ve had so much to keep me occupied and from feeling “homesick” for traveling. Although I’ve been very busy catching up with old friends, moving and settling in to my new apartment, and getting to know my new best friends (some substantially-sized Contracts, Torts, and Civil Procedure textbooks) really well, I am already counting down to my next trip (yep, it’s already in the works). I can’t wait!
I’ve received many messages and questions since my return about how to plan and execute a long-term backpacking trip. These amazing questions have inspired this post–what I know now that I wish I knew when I first set out for Thailand in May. I hope this post is helpful for those of you planning your own trips, and I am of course more than happy to keep answering questions via message (I’ll try my best to respond in a timely manner).
1- There is a lot that can (and will) go wrong. Jump in anyway. Case in point–my bag was lost for 3 weeks. Ok, maybe it’s good that I didn’t know this would happen before going, as this is the kind of thing that would have stressed me out before. This circumstance actually taught me even more that stuff is just stuff, and I don’t need all of it anyway. If I had to do it over again, I would not change a thing!
2- Don’t overplan— draft the outline but don’t write the paper before you leave. Plan a few big things, like flights and lodging in places where it may be expensive and booked up early, but try to leave as many of your plans as flexible as possible.
I felt a little frustrated on my tour in Cambodia and Vietnam at some points, as I felt almost every hour was planned and structured in certain cities without room to wander.
On the other hand, I feel I planned my Europe trip to the best degree possible, as I used flexible booking on Hostelworld (which allowed me to cancel reservations and get my deposit back to use towards another hostel), and I waited to book my transportation until a few days in advance of each place. This way, I could spend more or less time in places as I felt led to do so. Also, this flexibility allowed me to visit some places that were not on my original plan, like Provence with Nat and Bratislava. Book a few key things to have peace of mind, but allow yourself the freedom to drift and wander as you go along.
3- In Europe, bus> train. I had such a great experience with the bus in Europe (with the exception of Post Bus… Don’t use them!) I used Flixbus and Regiojet to get from point A to B often, and I only used the train once (from Prague to Budapest… At only 30 euro it was well worth it!) The bus is not only far cheaper 9 times out of 10, but it takes an equal or only slightly longer amount of travel time as the train in most instances. Hard to believe, right!? I thought I’d be using the train to travel within Europe as I started my trip, but I’m so happy I discovered Flixbus and Regiojet! I used GoEuro.com to compare prices across transportation methods.
4-“You are supposed to sleep on the sleeper trains in Vietnam” (or, find moments of comfort in uncomfortable situations). Those of you who know me well know that I have germophobic tendencies. The Vietnamese sleeper trains were not the cleanest, and I took 3 journeys on them ranging between 8 and 14 hours each. My sheets had sketchy stains on them, and I didn’t even use the toilet the first 2 trips because I was so grossed out. However, I had the deepest and soundest sleep of the whole Asia portion of my trip on these overnight journeys. The secret is that I let go of things out of my control and decided to embrace the moment. I not only survived the sleeper trains, but I have great memories from them now! I applied this principle to surviving 3 days in the freezing Bolivian wilderness without a shower, as well as sleeping in a cramped hostel in Paris (it was a great location and price though, and my bunk bed had a beautiful skylight!) It’s inevitable you’ll be out of your comfort zone at certain points… Just embrace it, and it’ll become a part of your story.
5- Don’t go to Bolivia during their winter (our summer). It’s absolutely freezing.
6- Embrace being a tourist. You’re not gonna fool anyone into thinking you’re a local in most places. So own it… Just don’t be obnoxious. Pay the 100,000 dong to see the water puppets in Ha Noi (I unexpectedly loved this so much!) Pay the 3 sols to take a picture with the baby llamas in Peru. Pay the 18 euro for the “Heineken experience” in Amsterdam… Cheesy but amazingly fun! There is something to be said for having authentic and “local” experiences too, and I highly encourage this. But, at the end of the day, don’t be ashamed or afraid to play tourist.
7- There’s no shame in embracing a Starbucks or McDonald’s along the way. Many travelers aim for the fully “authentic” experience and refuse to patronize places like Starbucks and McDonald’s that “you can find at home” and are run by big corporations. I agree with this view to an extent–I really enjoyed discovering and frequenting local spots along the way on all 3 continents. However, I do take exception to the self-righteousness of the “authentic only” perspective. There is something to be said about finding familiarity along the way on a long-term journey. McDonald’s are actually very clean and posh (ironically) everywhere but in the USA, and Starbucks had the most consistently reliable Wifi I found. You are the captain of your own experience–don’t cave to pressure to be “authentic” because you decide what is authentic for you.
8- Have cushion in your budget. See #1. You need to plan for some things to go wrong and for some things to cost more than you’ve planned. Build some extra funds into your budget to cover these unexpected costs. For me, this was replacing my entire bag and wardrobe in Provence. Although my insurance will reimburse me, I still had to front this cost plus 3 additional weeks of travel. I’m glad I planned ahead for the unforeseen!
9- If you have a chance to travel, take it. If you don’t, make a plan. You will never have enough time, money, or friends to travel with. So do it now. Don’t make any more excuses. Plan and arrange your finances and vacation time/transition time between jobs to allow for your trip. It’s now or never! Also, don’t be afraid to go it alone. See #11.
10- A smile is understood in every language. A simple smile goes a long way in terms of making friends.
11- Keep an open mind when it comes to the people you will meet. You may feel like your life is already so full of friends and family before you leave, but there is always room for more. The thought of traveling alone and meeting strangers may sound extremely intimidating, and that’s normal. But the truth is you’re never alone when you travel solo. You will meet so many like-minded adventurers and kindred spirits. You may fall in love. You will meet people with different backgrounds from different cultures, but discover you have so much in common. Embrace the uncertainty, wear a smile, and see where the journey takes you.
This summer changed my perspective in ways I could not have predicted. Most of all, I realized how interconnected we all are on this planet, which inevitably has further influenced how I think in terms of everything from my personal relationships to my career goals to my political views. Travel will change you, so my advice is to make sure you take chances or create your own opportunities to do it!