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First Time Travel

Five Misconceptions about Female Solo Travel (and Solo Travel In General)

Traveling through Costa Rica over the past week has brought back so many emotions from my 12 week backpacking trip this past summer- the feelings of self-reliance and freedom, and the excitement of discovery and uncertainty. This time around, I strangely feel more at home “on the road,” but also further away from home than I ever have felt before. I find myself thinking less about how exciting the adventure is and more about how my traveling fits into my personal long and short-term goals. For me, I think I’m working on defining what home means, and I think there’s no better way to do this than traveling solo. Particularly, women traveling alone may face a unique set of questions, coming both from others and from their own self-doubt. I address a few below. 

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1- “It’s bold of you to be traveling alone as a girl.” I got this exact comment from a very nice Floridian gentleman I met at Manuel Antonio a few days ago, who had just finished telling me his own son had traveled through Africa alone when he was my age. I couldn’t help but smile and wonder if the fact I was traveling solo would have elicited the same response if I were male. To be fair, this gentleman was with his college-aged daughter, and he encouraged the two of us to talk some more so she could “learn from me,” which I found humbling (he thinks I have something to teach!?) and inspiring (he wants his daughter to feel empowered to see the world on her own volition). 
Traveling solo while female isn’t necessarily bold or out-of-the-ordinary (at least it shouldn’t be). I have girl friends from Europe who do this type of thing regularly. And let’s not forget American pop culture icons Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild).
I found this encounter illustrative of something I view as a uniquely American perspective– the world’s not safe enough for women to travel alone. I have to disagree. To be fair, my own parents were reasonably concerned when I traveled to Africa last year on my own. But the truth is, practicing a certain level of care and attention will keep women just as safe as men in most places in the world. I’ll admit there are some places even I wouldn’t travel alone right now, but they’re few and far between. You have to accept 1 thing (America is just as dangerous or, in some ways, more dangerous than some places in the world) and believe 2 things: 1-despite what the media shows, most people generally have goodness in their hearts, and 2-practicing heightened care by paying attention to surroundings and instincts goes a long way. 

A *solo* coconut lunch in Costa Rica. Muy rico!

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2- “You’re staying in a hostel!? / Aren’t those sketchy and gross?” They’re awesome, if you pick the right one! I’m actually a huge fan of hostels, yet I feel they get a bad wrap in the USA because they’re just not as common there. Despite the sound of the name, I’ve found “hostels” to be quite hospitable places. Many of them are just as nice or nicer than hotels, with the added bonus of meeting fellow travelers and making friends more easily. The average age is somewhere between 23 to 35, if you pick the right one. And they are generally far less expensive to boot, with special deals on stuff to see and do around town. In addition, many hostels have a private room option which provides the privacy benefit of hotels at a far cheaper cost. 


I use Hostelworld to research and book in advance. The reviews are very helpful here in terms of choosing a hostel that’s clean and safe, with the right blend of social-ness and solitude. The flexible deposit option also allows you to receive a refund if you cancel far enough in advance that’s then credited toward booking your next hostel (they also have hotels on here too!) 
Ironically, I feel hostels are a much safer option for female solo travelers than single Airbnbs or hotels. As much as I love Airbnb, I think it’s better to be around a group of fellow travelers if you’re traveling alone. Also, it’s just an easier and more convenient way to make friends! 

My hostel in La Fortuna, complete with a pool, river, and waterfall. At $15/night.

I think my favorite hostel I’ve ever stayed in was St. Christopher’s Inn in Berlin. I stayed in a huge room with 3 other girls, one who became one of my closest friends from the summer. We also had 2 full baths, a living room and kitchen, and a full bar and restaurant downstairs. It was also next to 2 major train stations. And it was ridiculously cheap– if you’re going to Berlin, book in advance because it fills up fast. 

3- “Doesn’t it get lonely sometimes?” Yes and no. I am a firm believer that everyone would benefit from taking a solo trip at some point in his or her life. Solo travel teaches you how to rely on yourself in a completely unique way, as you are often the only person you know when you first arrive in a completely new part of the world. Solo travel is a healthy exercise in self-reliance, and I’m convinced it teaches you more about yourself than you thought you could know. It also forces you to step outside your comfort zone to make new connections, causing you to realize your comfort zone is in fact larger than you ever realized.
That being said, I think it takes a special blend of introversion and extroversion to truly relish the experience, as I tend to do. I am admittedly an introverted extrovert, which means I tend to gravitate towards social settings and being around other people, but I not only crave, but need, time alone to recharge and reflect. I love traveling solo because I can direct when I want to be social and when I want to be alone, which is a luxury for someone who lives in one of the most crowded cities in the world! 
Does it get lonely sometimes? Sure, sometimes. And I have to admit I also love traveling with other people, too. It’s just a different experience, and there is a lot of value to be recognized in both methods. I don’t think I’ll travel solo forever, but at this point in my life I’m relishing the freedom.

It’s easier than you think to meet new friends while traveling solo!

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4- “Why travel so much now? Don’t you want to wait and do it someday with a husband and kids?” My response is why not travel now and then! The (morbid) truth is, none of us know how many hours we have left on this earth. Or, you may wake up one day at 80 years old and realize you never pursued your dream of seeing the world because you kept waiting on other people. So if seeing as much of the world as possible is a priority to you, do it now. Not only is it safe and practical for women to solo travel (for reasons discussed above), but it makes so much sense to do so during the free, uncommitted days of early adulthood. You can stay in hostels! You can take an overnight bus with your backpack! You can wander through a jungle by yourself! 

Flying in a tiny plane, aka an opportunity to be brave on my own!

Traveling has allowed me to make sense of both the world and myself on a deeper level, even as what I see and learn often uncovers even more questions. I feel richer because of the opportunities I’ve had over the last couple of years to travel solo, and these experiences will enrich my future, whatever it holds. 

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5- “Isn’t it expensive though?” To be fair, this applies to guys and girls. My answer is twofold- 1) it’s not as expensive as you may think and 2) it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think. Budgeting and using a savings plan, being flexible with flight dates, replacing some eating out with groceries, and using hostels can combine to make (almost) any trip a reality. Everyone has a right to choose what they value most, and for me, in the last few years I’ve begun to value experiences more than things. (That doesn’t mean wanting to spend money on nice things is a less worthy goal at all! It’s all personal preference). Life is all about choices anyway. If you want, feel free to message me to chat privately about travel finances. I promise I’ve paid less for this trip than you’d believe, and I’d love to share my secrets with you!

My friend Gustavo has been traveling for 2 years now, and finances his travels by impersonating Captain Jack Sparrow and collecting tips along the way!
Also, each time I travel, I’m blown away by how many Americans I do not meet. For people from other countries (Australia and the U.K. come to mind), traveling abroad is a priority that manifests in the way people save and spend their money. Most people I meet traveling are not extremely wealthy, yet they just prioritize traveling in their finances. And, so many countries are cheaper to live in and travel in than the USA- with a bit of financial planning, I’m convinced more Americans can see the world.
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If you take the chance to travel alone, you’ll discover you’re stronger than you ever realized, meet some of the most interesting people, and learn just how small the world really is. The world is yours to explore, so I encourage all women (and men) out there to not make any more excuses and do it. To combine two of my favorite cliches- fortune favors the bold, and travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. 

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What I Know Now

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!

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The busy streets of Hanoi…I can’t wait to return to Asia, hopefully sometime soon!

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.

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Provence was one of the highlights of my summer…and it was never in the original plan. I was only able to go because I stayed flexible and didn’t overplan in the beginning.

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.

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FlixBus has Wifi on-board, which allowed me to send crucial Snapchats (haha)

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.

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The accommodation in the Mekong Delta (Vietnam) provided great memories..even with mosquitoes, a tarantula, and rats!

 

5- Don’t go to Bolivia during their winter (our summer). It’s absolutely freezing.

 

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Having dinner in 16 degree Fahrenheit weather in Bolivia near the Chilean border…no heat! Perhaps the coldest night of my life.

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.

 

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Embracing “all things tourist” in Amsterdam

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. 

 

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McFlurry fix in Arequipa (Peru)

 

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.

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Celebrating my birthday with the locals near Vinicunca Mountain in Peru was one of the most special memories from this summer!

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.

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The oldest farming couple in Hoi An, Vietnam. They regularly welcome visitors to their farm.

 

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!

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Words to live by in Chiang Mai, Thailand–“You can’t get lost if you don’t care where you are!”

Stuff: Pack it all and stack it all up

Sometimes, even the most mundane details in life become important. Over the past month, I have reflected a lot on my stuff, mostly as a function of planning for my upcoming travels. I will be living for 3.5 months solely out of a backpack, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. Many travelers sell all of their possessions before embarking on such a journey, but it is not my intention to go “full nomad.” After all, I will be returning to the U.S. to start law school in August (location TBD!) so I neither want nor need to get rid of every single thing. However, it is safe to say I have started a systematic downsizing process with my possessions. Such a seemingly mundane task, I’ve found, is actually quite cathartic and leads to a good deal of self-reflection.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo writes that one should ask whether an item sparks joy. If it does not, one should thank it for its service and then discard the item. This single piece of advice has been tremendously liberating. Whether it’s something as small as an extra pair of socks I never wear, or as significant as an old card from an ex I for some reason have kept around forgotten in a drawer, I have been discarding a good amount of my possessions.  Do I really need this huge TV, or did I purchase it to please someone else in my life? Do I really need ALL of these sorority t-shirts from 5+ years ago? I have found Craigslist, the Salvation Army, or even the recycling bins in my apartment’s basement to all be worthy destinations for these items. This process is ongoing. I estimate I am about 75% packed for my move on April 28. However, I now count this chore of packing as an important step forward in my traveling this summer and the new direction I am taking in my career and life.

I’ve loved my studio apartment in NYC, but it’s time to downsize.

Logistically, how does it work to pack up everything you own and live from a backpack? Fortunately for me, I realized my lease in NYC was up at the end of April around the same time I had a life-changing realization that now was the time to take my career in a different direction and finally attend law school (which, for those of you who know me, I’ve been talking about for years. I’m finally getting around to doing it!) I decided the months between the end of my lease and starting law school would be ideal to take the big trip around the world I’ve dreamed about for so long. I would be saving money on rent, but what would I do with my stuff? After some phone calls and Google research, I decided on Manhattan Mini-Storage. They cover the cost of the move into the facility, and offer a discounted rate after a 3 month period (I will be using it for 4). When I come back in August, I will hire movers to transport my whittled-down possessions to one of two fantastic cities (yet to be finalized). In the meantime, I will live out of my trusty backpack. More on how to pack specifically for that later!

I also cut down on costs by making friends with the employees at my neighborhood grocery store. The last two times I’ve moved, I’ve purchased boxes from the moving company or U-Haul. Now that I am looking at a traveler/grad student budget, I just wanted to avoid spending money on cardboard boxes if at all possible. Fortunately, all it took was introducing myself to the team at my local grocery store, being friendly, and explaining my situation. I have been stopping by regularly every few mornings for the past few weeks to get some amazing paper towel and cereal boxes. They’ve even started saving these boxes for me specifically because they know I like them them most! If you’re looking to do this too, be sure to get there before 11am or they may go ahead and crush the cardboard.

The big lesson I’ve learned is not to let my stuff own me. Have you experienced the life-changing magic of tidying up? It truly is life-changing.

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Still working on the clothes…obviously!

Parlez-vous Français? Learning Languages, Calculating Currencies, and Other Tips

One of the most exciting parts about traveling abroad is the unknown and the unfamiliar—being surrounded by people who don’t speak your language, using money you don’t know the value of, and finding your way around a brand new place where your recognize nothing. To make the unknown more exciting and less distressing, it helps to do a little homework ahead of time. Although it’s impossible to prepare for every “unknown” you will encounter along the way, doing some preparation beforehand will build confidence for the solo or first-time traveler, more than anything. Below are some of my basic tips for preparing to encounter the unfamiliar during a trip abroad.IMG_6667 (2)

Learn a few basics of the local language. Several readers have already asked me how I travel solo to countries where English is not spoken. The truth is, most people know some amount of English in most places you may be traveling. However, it helps to learn some language basics of the country you’re traveling to in advance, keeping in mind you will also learn a good bit once you actually arrive (thank you, Joslin, for teaching me “how to flirt” in Afrikaans!)

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Apparently, Duolingo thinks this phrase will be useful to me during my travels!

For my travels this summer, I have decided to focus most of my preparation on learning French, since I will be spending a relatively large amount of time in and around Paris. From what I’ve heard, the people there are less likely to choose to speak English and expect you to get on their level and speak French primarily! I recommend the Duolingo app for your smartphone (free in the App store). Duolingo will quiz you simultaneously on vocabulary, verb conjugation, and common phrases by using matching exercises, bi-directional translation exercises, and microphone recording. The app will also send you push notifications and emails to remind you to stay regular on your practice. (If you fail to practice regularly, the app will even send a very sad message that says, “We see these notifications aren’t working, so we’re going to stop sending them…” 😦 )

As for the other countries I am visiting, I plan to rely on the very basic skills I still have left from Spanish courses in college, as well as an Eastern European language phrasebook and Southeast Asia dictionary. As a last resort, I also plan to carry this picture dictionary, although I plan to avoid using it at all costs! (I feel like this screams “tourist,” but let’s be real…I am a tourist. And it is best to be prepared!). My goal is to come away from each country with at least a few solid phrases and expressions I can use the rest of my life!

Practice your mental math to calculate currencies. When planning a trip abroad, it’s important to keep an eye on exchange rates. During my time working in foreign exchange, I paid attention to exchange rates down to the pip/half-pip. However, it’s important to only know general “ballpark” rates to be able to calculate exchange rates in your head. Depending on where you are traveling, one of the most important rates you need to learn is the EUR/USD rate. For the last year, EUR/USD has been in the +/- 1.10 range, meaning 1 euro has been worth about 1.10 US dollars. This means Europe is a slightly “more expensive” place to spend money than the US. Despite this value difference, now is a great time for Americans to travel to Europe, as the US dollar is the strongest it has been since being at parity with the Euro in the early 2000s!

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EUR vs. USD exchange rate since the inception of the Euro in 1999. Source: ECB

To calculate prices, I know that the cost of something in euros is really that plus around 10% in US dollars (just move the decimal place over once to get 10%), or the price in euros x 1.10. (For example, something that costs me 2 euros really costs me roughly $2.20, something that costs 45 euros really costs me roughly 45 + 4.5, or $49.50, etc.)

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It’s not as bad as it seems!

It is important to realize that the Euro is the “base” currency against USD, and the same is true for the British pound, Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar. However, for most currency crosses, the US dollar will be the base currency. This means that when my hostel reservation in Budapest costs me 4,800 Hungarian forints per night, I only owe $17 per night (1 USD is worth approximately 280 HUF, so I divide 4,800 by 280 to get ~$17/night. Very reasonable!)

(Note to my former math students who may be reading this–see how useful math can be!?)

For those of you without an FX background or who would like to simply double-check your currency conversions, I recommend the free Oanda Currency Converter smartphone app. I will be keeping this on my phone, and referencing as needed!

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The NYCMate app. Check the app store for similar free apps for any cities you plan to visit!

 Use maps on apps! Living in NYC has instilled me with a deep love of and appreciation for public transportation. I have had the NYCMate app on my iPhone since day #1 of living in the city, and I am now seeking out similar apps for cities where I plan to use public transportation a good bit. So far, I’ve been able to find similar apps for the metro systems in Paris, Berlin, London, and Munich. Of course, it’s always good to have old-fashioned paper maps on hand for when/if your smartphone runs out of battery (gasp!). Most hostels provide maps of the city for free.

 

 

 

What do you mean it is 45 degrees?! After riding for 4 hours under the scorching African summer sun and drinking ~2 liters of water to stay hydrated, imagine my surprise when my safari guide told me it was 45 degrees! I knew he was, of course, giving the temperature in Celsius. However, measuring temperature on the Fahrenheit scale my entire life means I need to do an extra calculation in my head when discussing temperatures in every other part of the world (just 5 countries measure temperature in Fahrenheit!)

The equation for the conversion is F= C*1.8 + 32 (Former math students who are still reading–this is your standard y=mx+b equation!)

However, the shortcut is just to multiply the Celsius temperature by 2 to approximate the Fahrenheit temperature.

Until my next post, totsiens! Or goodbye (in Afrikaans)!

Beauty Tips for the Female Backpacker

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Because we don’t all “wake up like this,” Beyonce!

Living out of a backpack for an extended period of time presents a special challenge for the beauty-conscious traveler. Below, I’ve listed a few tips to keep yourself looking great so you can focus on the beauty around you while exploring!

 

  1. Just mascara, lipstick, and a bronzer/blush go a long way. Depending on your destination, you may find it is easier to wear no makeup at all (I often have!). However, it is always nice to have a few staples on hand for those nights you want to doll up. When you have to pack everything you need for a few months in a backpack, space is very limited. Pick out the 2-3 essentials you truly depend on from your makeup kit, and leave the rest at home. For me, this is mascara, lipstick, and bronzer.
  2. If you straighten your hair regularly, consider getting a Brazilian keratin treatment. If you have hard to manage hair that reacts unpredictably to humidity (like me!), a Brazilian keratin treatment from a salon will do wonders. For me, the treatment completely eliminates the need for a blowdryer and straightener. Post-treatment, my hair air-dries in half the time and maintains a manageable texture, eliminating the need for a straightener! This is extremely helpful, considering space in my backpack is limited and a blowdryer and straightener would take up a good amount of room. Also, being able to shower and go without worrying about my hair saves so much time on the road, leaving more time for visiting with fellow adventurers and sightseeing! The treatment can be a bit on the pricey end (ranging from $80 to $300), but lasts for 3-6 months. Make sure you only use sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner to make it last longer. I like the Organix and Aveeno brands, often available in travel sizes at drugstores.
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    Wet hair, don’t care! Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

     

  3. If you must pack a straightener, purchase a mini-straightener. This will save a good bit of space! While I am not packing this for my summer travels, I love my trusty Mini Flat Iron from Sephora. If you absolutely cannot live without it, this tool will save a lot of room while packing.
  4. Dry shampoo and baby powder work miracles. In case you don’t have time to wash your hair between exploring all day and going out in the evening, a dry shampoo will add volume to your hair and give it a fresh look. I recommend Not Your Mother’s Clean Freak Dry Shampoo in an airline-approved travel size (pack a few cans!). This is available at most drugstores. Old-fashioned Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder applied at your roots provides the same benefits at a cheaper price.
  5. Use sunscreen with a minimum SPF 50. Even if you “don’t burn” (which is usually my case…until it isn’t!), you will when you’re exploring non-stop in the sun from dawn to dusk. I recommend Coppertone Sport in a travel size, which is waterproof (pack a few!). I prefer a lotion to a spray, as a spray can leave unsightly streaks if you are not extra careful when applying.

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    The “bushman’s soap” (found in the bush of southern Africa) will provide instant soothing and healing to a severe sunburn. All you have to do is find the Devil’s Thorn plant in the bush and apply water!
  6. Pack a hat or two, as well as a Buff. Hats are great for keeping the sun off of your face and your hair in place in all weather conditions. I always pack a trusty baseball cap, a straw brimmed hat, and a Buff. A Buff is a convertible headband/bandana piece, and it’s great because you can wear it so many different ways! They also come in a variety of colors and patterns. I always keep one tied to my backpack just in case I need to get my hair under control at any given moment.
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I also highly recommend purchasing matching hats with your friends you make while traveling when possible!

7. Just let go and embrace the natural! I am someone who enjoys consistently wearing makeup in my regular everyday life. It makes me feel ladylike and put-together. As my grandmother says, if the barn needs painting, paint it! However, part of the beauty of traveling is just going with the flow. While in Africa, I did not wear makeup at all until the very end of the trip (and only because it was Christmas night, and we celebrated by dressing up and having a braai!) Not wearing makeup was truly a liberating experience, and I feel like I grew more comfortable in my own skin as a result. Stay focused on the experience, and your inner glow will provide all the beautification you need!

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Embracing the makeup-free life while hiking in the beautiful Matopos, Zimbabwe!

 

How Affordable is Traveling Abroad?

 

10338680_10206454388371024_8528537077188326176_o“Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer.”

I could not agree more with this statement. Travel (along with education) is the most important investment you can make in your personal development.

But, let’s be real. Traveling is expensive. Once you decide to travel abroad, it helps to have a game plan in place to make the trip a reality. You do not have to have a trust fund or win the lottery to see the world! With some research, extra attention to spending habits, and patience, the world will be yours to see. Below are some of the tips and advice I’ve found to be helpful in the process.

Save, save, save! Once you decide upon a trip abroad as a goal, pay yourself to go. What do I mean? Take a close look at your budget (fixed costs v. discretionary spending). What can you live without? It is really as simple as deciding you can live without certain things, and setting the money you would otherwise spend aside. For example, as soon as I got back from Africa, I was so inspired to save money to travel more that I cut off my cable!

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There was no cable available in my tent in Africa, and I found out I was very happy to live without it!

Websites like Mint can even help you set savings goals for vacations, and track your contributions on a regular basis. Also, most tour companies like EF Tours and G Adventures will let you make payments on the cost of your trip starting several months in advance, instead of paying the amount in full. Once you decide to travel, treat the saving process like paying bills (except this is a fun bill that actually gives back to you!). Remember, tours are all-inclusive (sometimes even including flights to and from), so this can be helpful if you want to work with a hard figure for your savings plan.

If you’re in college, study abroad! Often, financial aid packages will cover the costs of tuition and room and board expenses for study abroad, and living in a foreign country can be equal to (if you’re careful) or less than living in the US. My one regret from college was not pursuing a study abroad opportunity. All my friends who did it says it was a life-changing experience. At least visit the travel abroad office to investigate your options. It never hurts to ask!

Be on the lookout for flight deals. Flying is not as expensive as you’d think it might be! The growth of low-cost airlines has been a boon for budget-minded travelers, especially in Europe where they’ve been around a while.

I use Kayak to search for flight deals. It is a “metasearch” engine that searches for good deals across multiple search engines, so it’s better than just using Expedia or Priceline. It also includes a lot of deals from low cost airline providers.  You are more likely to find a good deal on a flight if you can be flexible with your schedule (I recommend using the “flexible dates” function to compare prices across a range of workable departure and return dates). I also really like using Skypicker. Often, their results will show up in a Kayak search, but sometimes I like cross-checking against their website just in case (just be careful, because all Skypicker sales are final!)

For my upcoming long-term summer travel, I’ve managed to lock in my intercontinental flights (US to Asia to South America to Europe to US) for a much cheaper rate using Kayak/Skypicker than I found when searching for an around the world (“RTW”) flight ticket. However, this type of ticket may be sensible for you if you have a firm schedule for long-term travel. I highly recommend doing your research on Kayak and comparing it to RTW ticket prices you find on Airtreks.

Tip: I have no idea if it is true or if it is just me being superstitious, but I always search Kayak in “incognito mode” on Google Chrome, so as not to inflate prices on multiple searches. Maybe it is me being silly…but passing along, just in case!

Be as flexible as possible. As mentioned above, be flexible with your dates as much as you can be when searching flights by departure and return date (for example, it is often cheaper to leave on a Wednesday than a Friday). Also, be flexible with your airport of departure if you can. For example, searching a round trip ticket from Atlanta to London yields a price $910, while searching a round trip ticket from Birmingham, AL to London shows a price of $1,625…big difference!

Track “small” expenses. Something as basic as your passport will cost you $30, which is important to keep in mind as these small but critical expenses add up. Some countries will charge you for a visa to enter (anywhere from 35 USD for Zimbabwe to 80 USD for Vietnam to 135 USD for Bolivia), but many if not all European countries and some South American countries will grant US citizens a free visa for a period of time, usually less than 90 days.

Try to avoid foreign transaction fees and currency exchange rates. Keep an eye on foreign transaction fees as you book transportation and accommodation overseas in advance, as well as when you use your credit card abroad. It is best to try to open a checking account with Charles Schwab (reimburses ATM fees) or obtain a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, such as a Chase Sapphire or Capital One card. Bank of America charges a 3% foreign transaction fee for each purchase made outside of the U.S. or Mexico…ouch! Try to use ATMs instead of currency exchange kiosks once abroad, as they will charge you exorbitant rates. You can usually order currencies from your bank ahead of your departure for a much lower rate.

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Beware of foreign transaction fees and currency exchange kiosks!

Stay in hostels. This advice is especially true if you’re young and single (yeah!), but I’ve also found some family-friendly hostels in my search process. Hostels provide dorm-like conditions for the budget-minded traveler at costs as low as $8/night (this is what I am paying each night in Chiang Mai before I meet with my tour group in Bangkok). The trick is to make sure you reserve a hostel with a reputation for being clean and safe, as well as one that provides extra perks like free wifi, free breakfast, and a washing machine. I used Hostelword as well as word of mouth from friends when planning my hostel stays for this summer. Hostelworld features good, detailed reviews for each hostel. I also like their “flexible booking” system, meaning you can pay an extra $1 to receive a credit back on your deposit to use for another reservation should you cancel or change your reservation. This has proven very handy, as my plans have already fluctuated multiple times even a few months out!

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The Man in Seat 61…he’s awesome!

Research the train system. I’m actually very excited for this tip, as I have yet to master the rail system in Europe (I’ve heard it’s great though!). While I am using low-cost airlines for some travel within Europe, I will be using the train for much of my travels. I recommend crunching the numbers to see if it is more cost-effective for you to buy a Eurail pass, or just buy tickets as you go. For me, I will just be buying tickets as I go along. The point is…don’t assume a “pass” is the cheapest option! Visit The Man in Seat 61 for awesome advice regarding train travel.

Enjoy and appreciate destinations closer to home. In the meantime, enjoy your home and the surrounding area as a destination! I’ve met plenty of people on my travels who have never visited the US, so take time to appreciate what is unique about the place around you. When it comes down to it, we all live in and are from a great travel destination…so own it!

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I love being a tourist wherever I live! This shot is from Memphis, Tennessee when I lived there a few years ago.

I hope my tips have helped you realize traveling can become a reality with some planning ahead. Do you have any additional tips or questions about saving money to travel abroad?

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A riverboat on the Zambezi in Zambia, which reminded me of Memphis!

 

To Tour or Not to Tour: Planning the First Solo Trip

 

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“Sailing ’round the world in a dirty gondola…” – The Band

Going abroad for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially when you’re traveling solo. However, if you have no one else who can travel with you at that time, it may be the only option you have. I have traveled alone on both trips to Italy and Africa. When I left the comfort and familiarity of NYC to board the flight to Italy alone almost 2 years ago, I was practically shaking with anxiety. However, as soon as I arrived in Rome, it took almost no time to realize that living independently in NYC for nearly 1 year had more than prepared me for the streets of Italy’s most fantastic cities!

If you are traveling abroad for the first time solo, meeting with a tour group may help alleviate some nervousness. However, depending on your destination, you may be able to self-plan your trip to cut costs and fit in more of what you want to see and do without having to cooperate with a strict group schedule.

For my first trip abroad to Italy, I was scheduled to meet up with a good friend I had taught high school with in Memphis, as well as one of her friends from college. My friend had arranged for the 3 of us to travel with EF Tours, with the majority of our group being from the Memphis area. I would fly solo from NYC to Rome to meet my friend and the group there. Given my lack of experience in foreign travel, I willingly agreed to this plan…at that time, I did not know the first thing about planning a trip in Italy! However, my friend had to drop out of the trip just a few days before our departure due to family circumstances, and I found myself traveling across Italy with a group of relative strangers. I grew to enjoy the company of the group, but often found myself splitting off to see more sights at my own pace.

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Climbing the Duomo in Florence, a solo feat! Not for the claustrophobic…

There were both pros and cons to using an organized tour company for my first solo trip:

Pros:

  • I knew I had a group waiting on me in Rome and expecting my arrival. This was reassuring, just in case the unforeseen happened!
  • Pre-arranged transport and accommodations between all the major cities on our agenda (Rome, Florence, Venice) as well as some less-visited towns (Assisi, Spoleto, Bologna) proved extremely convenient.
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Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi…a beautiful and moving visit I may not have made if I were traveling completely solo, since it’s a little off the beaten path! This painting spells “peace” in every language.
  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, meaning I was able to see a different side of Italy that was less touristy. For example, dancing with these nuns we stayed with outside of Venice was definitely a highlight of the trip! They also served very good wine. You can visit their website here.

Cons:

  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, so I felt like I had less time than I desired in places like Rome and Florence.
  • The tour ran on a very strict schedule! There was little time for wandering on my own (although, I sometimes created this for myself by splitting off from the group when I knew there was something else I wanted to see or do).
  • Once I got the hang of being in a foreign country after the first few days, I realized I could have planned the entire trip on my own, cut down on costs by staying in hostels and traveling by train, and seen more of the sights I wanted to see!
  • Most of the meals were pre-arranged, which was a real bummer. Although it was included in the tour price (wine was always extra though), this did not allow me the opportunity or freedom to explore as many restaurants as I wanted. I feel like I need to go back to Italy to experience more authentic dining!

All things considered, I still booked my trip to Africa last winter through a tour company. This time, I used G Adventures, based on a friend’s recommendation (thanks DJ!). Even though I was much more comfortable with the idea of solo travel at this point, G Adventures (contracted through Indaba Explorations) provided the overland vehicle for transport, camping equipment, and meals cooked over the campfire each night, making it a sensible decision. This time around, I actually thoroughly enjoyed being in a tour group—everyone was in the 23-35 age range, we had amazing local guides (shout out to Joslin and Francois!), and there was plenty of free time (when we weren’t on an organized safari of course). More on how much I loved my Africa travel group later 🙂

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On safari with new friends in Zimbabwe

This summer, I will be using G Adventures again as I travel through Southeast Asia. However, I will be backpacking in South America with a good friend from NYC, and taking on Europe completely solo for 7 weeks (I will share more on my itinerary later)!!

Have you ever used a tour group for solo travel? If so, what was your experience like?

Why Travel? Better Late than Never!

Hello, blogosphere! Thanks for taking the time to visit my page. I thought I’d write my inaugural post about my background and why traveling is so important to me at this stage in my life.

I did not leave the United States until I was 24 years old. I used to be so embarrassed of this fact, but I am certainly not anymore. In fact, I hope my story can inspire those of you out there who may be looking to travel abroad for the first time, but are just not sure where to start.

Since I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. I know every little kid wants to be an astronaut, but I was so serious about it! I read every book I could find about space and space travel, and used my telescope in the backyard on a regular basis. I even begged my parents for family trips to visit the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and Cape Canaveral (thanks Mom and Dad)! In high school, I began to realize being an astronaut was not the most realistic of careers, and began to focus on other interests. However, I think the deep desire to explore and seek adventure stuck with me.

In my college years, I was surrounded by friends and classmates who were much more well-traveled than I was, and I began to feel ashamed of how little of the world I had seen. I definitely did not have the funds to start traveling then, and I certainly lacked the confidence as well. I thought I could only travel abroad if I had a companion, and the scheduling and funds never really lined up. So, I tabled my travel dreams for another few years.

I moved to NYC in 2013 to start a career in finance. The around-the-clock nature of my work did not leave me with much time to reflect and plan for a trip abroad. Also, I began dating someone soon after moving to the city, which took a lot of my time and focus (in a positive way!). Career, check! Boyfriend, check! Living in a fabulous city, check! Then, New Year’s Eve 2014 changed everything. My purse was stolen at a club in Soho. My driver’s license, along with my phone and credit cards, was gone. Panic ensued, as I was supposed to fly home to Alabama for a friend’s wedding the next week! My then-boyfriend pointed out, “Why don’t you just use your passport to get on the plane?” I broke down sobbing, and confessed, “I don’t own a passport!”

At that moment, my priorities shifted and my lifelong dream of adventure came into sharp relief. I knew it was time to travel abroad, even if it meant going alone and using a big chunk of savings. Within the next few weeks, I had applied for my passport and booked a trip to Italy. My then-boyfriend was in med school and could not go with me. However, I was finally confident enough to pursue my dream alone.

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My first morning abroad EVER! In Santa Marinella, Italy.

Since Italy, I have traveled in Africa and Mexico, and this summer I will be taking 3 months to travel through Southeast Asia, South America, and Europe. I hope to use this blog as a place to share my ups and downs, funny stories, and observations. I also hope to use it as a place to reflect. Lastly, I want to use this blog to encourage others to travel by sharing how I’ve overcome obstacles in my past to pursue this dream.

Before I leave in May, I’ll be sharing about past trips, both abroad and within the USA. I’ll also share about the planning and packing process. Please feel free to reach out via comments or email!

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