The author took a trip around the world on a whim. Here is what he learned.
Tips for Traveling Alone
In the autumn of 2004, I had the crazy idea that I should quit my life and travel around the world. This notion hit me in late September, and by the first week in November, I was in Europe for the beginning of what would become a nine-month-long journey. I didn't give myself a lot of time to prepare, so I learned a lot of lessons the hard way!
Prior to this trip, I had never been outside the U.S. (I didn't even have a passport), and I'd never done much traveling by myself. I'd traveled alone a bit around the eastern U.S. and went to Hawaii ten years earlier for business, but that was about it. I didn't let that stop me, though. Instead, I bought myself an "around the world ticket" and a backpack, and after minimal preparation, I took off to see the world.
Based on what I learned, here are the best international travel tips I can give to anyone else who has this itch and decides it's time to scratch it!
1. Don't Overpack
This tip is especially useful if you'll be backpacking—because you have to carry all that stuff on your back! Naturally, you need to dress for the weather conditions in the region(s) where you'll be traveling. You really need a lot less than you probably think—two pairs of pants, a mix of long- and short-sleeved shirts (five or six, max), one pair of shoes/boots (in addition to the ones you'll be wearing), and if you'll be traveling in warm weather, two pairs of shorts and a swimsuit. This doesn't sound like much for a long trip, but keep in mind that you'll be able to do laundry along the way, and it's easier to buy more than to get rid of extras.
2. Plan Ahead, but Be Spontaneous
It's a good idea, at the very least, to know where you'll be staying in each city you stop in before you arrive. I rarely booked reservations for accommodations more than a week in advance, and rarely for more than one or two nights. That way, if I didn't like the place I was staying I wasn't locked in for a longer stay, and if I enjoyed the place I could usually extend my stay.
I read travel guides as I was traveling—both online and in books—and usually knew a handful of things I wanted to see or do once I arrived in a new city. But I never planned out any sort of itinerary in advance—it was much more fun, and much more rewarding, to feel my way around. Just about any place you stay—from a cheap hostel to a fancy hotel—will have some folks who can give you great tips about the area that no travel guide can match.
3. Organized Tours Can Be Good—If You Choose the Right Ones
If you had told me before I left that some of my favorite side-trips on my journey would be group bus trips, I would have laughed! But it turns out that there are group bus trips that aren't at all like the "organized fun" that I had expected. In particular, I really enjoyed several "jump-on, jump-off" bus trips in Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Since I didn't have my own transportation in any of these places, and since they don't have the proliferation of train and bus transportation you'd find in Europe, the most affordable way to see these countries was by bus. But these were not your typical tourist buses filled with senior citizens and families with small children. These were fun buses full of backpackers and other like-minded independent travelers!
Each day the bus would leave in the morning, usually stop for a side trip (a hiking trip, a visit to a museum, a place to go bungee jumping, etc.), and then finish up in the evening at a hostel. The following morning you had the option of getting back on the bus for the next leg or staying behind for a few days until another bus came along with a whole new group of travelers. I met more people and saw more of those countries than I ever could have traveling any other way!
4. Use Public Transportation
If you're in a large city, the best way to get around is often by public transportation. You should make a point of learning how to read bus and train schedules and how to navigate a subway system. Luckily, once you do this in a city or two those skills are easily transferred to other cities!
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, and I had often taken the train into Manhattan, so I was familiar enough with traveling by train, but I had only ever used the subway once or twice. But while I was in London on the very first leg of my trip, I quickly figured out the "underground" and it became my primary means of transport the whole time I was there. I had never ridden a public bus before my trip, but after doing so in France for the first time, I was hooked!
5. Should You Bring a Computer?
I would say you certainly should consider it, especially if you have a small notebook-style computer. When I traveled back in 2004, I brought along a laptop computer that at the time was considered lightweight. But lugging that thing around the world changed my definition of a "lightweight" computer! I wish that the small and light notebook computers available today had been around back then.
While having your own computer is not mandatory (in fact, I was one of the few travelers I ran across who had one), it is handy if, like me, you plan on keeping an online journal of your travels. Sure, there are Internet cafes everywhere (and I mean everywhere—there was even one in a little beach-side town I stayed at in India). But these places often charge by the minute, and there can frequently be queues of people waiting to sign on. Since I had my own laptop, I could write my journal entries anytime and then upload them when I found a place with free wireless Internet access (something that becomes more abundant every day). I also had the luxury of downloading the pictures from my digital camera to my hard drive, instead of having to wait until I had access to an Internet cafe computer or a photoshop that could transfer them to a CD.
6. Get a Branded Debit Card Tied to Separate Bank Account
Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, and they take all the hassle out of currency conversion. If you don't have one or don't want to go into debt on your trip, I would recommend a Visa or MasterCard branded debit card from your bank. These are accepted wherever those credit cards are, and they have the added advantage of letting you withdraw cash from ATMs anywhere in the world.
I would also suggest, for safety's sake, having that card connected with an account that's separate from the accounts you use at home. That way, if the card is stolen, the thief only has access to the funds in that one account! Before my trip, I set up a new account at my current bank and got a card that was tied only to that new account. I put some money in the account before I left, and anytime I needed more cash in it I logged on to my bank's website and transferred money from my regular bank account into the new one.
Just make sure that your bank has reasonable fees (or no fees at all) on international purchases and ATM withdrawals. It's also a good idea to call your bank and credit card providers before you leave to let them know that you'll be traveling, and to which countries. That way they won't automatically cut off your card due to seemingly "suspicious" overseas transactions. Even though I took this step, I still found myself having to make international calls to my credit card company a couple of times to reactivate my card—but it went smoothly because I had already alerted them to the fact that I would be traveling overseas.
7. Talk to Other Travelers!
The single best travel resource I found was my fellow travelers. No one—not even the locals— will be able to educate you about where to go and where not to go than other like-minded people who share your tastes and have been to where you're going.
So if you're in Madrid and plan on going next to Paris, ask other travelers you meet where they stayed in Paris and how they liked it. This can help you find great accommodations, as well as avoid horrible ones! You can also get uncensored reviews on things to see and places to visit on side trips. My favorite part of my trip to Australia—a 10-day outback camping trip—would have never happened if I hadn't heard about it from a Dutch girl I met along the way who raved about her experience.
8. Follow Local Dress and Behavior Customs
If you'll be traveling all over the world, you obviously can't be expected to know the language and customs of every place you visit. As far as language goes, it helps to at least be able to read some phrases in the local language, and it's usually considered polite to at least greet people in their native language, so its' a good idea to learn at least that much.
Beyond language, there are local customs and taboos to be aware of, especially in non-Westernized countries. Knowing at least the bare minimum about what's acceptable and what's not will save you a good deal of embarrassment and can also save you from inadvertently offending people. And if you're traveling for the purpose of learning about other cultures, the worst thing you can do is offend the people you came to learn from!
Simple things can be hard to get used to if you've never considered them before, but they aren't always horribly offensive. So, for instance, eating with your left hand in India is considered uncouth—it's kind of like picking your nose in public—but it isn't likely to arouse anything more than a few stares.
Other things, like touching a Thai person on the head or going topless at a beach in Southeast Asia, can be considered the height of disrespectful behavior. If you're from a country where these behaviors are normal, it might not occur to you that you're offending anyone, especially when many other people are doing the same thing. So try no to take your behavioral cues from other tourists—they're just as ignorant of what they're doing wrong as you are, so instead do a little research and you can avoid accidentally offending the locals.
Just try to keep in my mind that you are a guest in someone else's country.
9. Stay in Hostels
Even if you don't consider yourself a "youth" anymore, you should still seek out hostels for your accommodations! I was 34 when I went on my trip, and I was frequently the oldest person at the hostels I stayed at. If you aren't keen on being surrounded by a bunch of twenty-year-olds, many hostels offer single rooms for a bit more money. Whether you choose single rooms or dorm-style rooms, hostels are far cheaper than hotels, and just about every one I stayed in was staffed by friendly and helpful folks—both locals and fellow travelers—who were endlessly helpful in giving recommendations on what to do and see in the area.
There are quite a few websites that offer user ratings and reservation services for hostels all over the world. This was an invaluable resource for me on my trip, and one of the best reasons for bringing your own computer! A few days before leaving a city, I would go online and find a highly-rated, affordable hostel in my next destination city. The website even gave directions on how to get to the hostel from the train station or airport!
10. Realize That You Probably Don't "Fit in" as Well as You Think You Do!
This one came as a real shock to me during my trip! I am of European descent, so I knew that when I was traveling in India and Southeast Asia I would stick out as a tourist just from my skin color. But I assumed that I would easily fit in with all the other white folks while I was in Europe. Wrong!
Despite being an American, I wouldn't consider myself the stereotypical loud, rude, pushy American tourist. I dressed plainly and didn't have a huge camera hanging around my neck, but still, they could somehow tell. One of the first times this happened was while I was in the south of France. I remember walking into a small shop to buy a memory card for my digital camera. I walked in the door and not a half-minute later the shopkeeper looked over at me and said, "Hello" in English. I hadn't opened my mouth yet, and she already knew that I wasn't French! This happened all over the world—even when I greeted people in the local language, they would greet me back in English.
So those are just a few of the countless things I learned while traveling the world on my own. Of course, there are the obvious safety considerations, but here I wanted to share some of the things I learned that hadn't been covered in all the travel guides I read before and during my trip.
If you're planning to travel on your own, just remember not to get too uptight! Stay safe and try to get as much from the places you travel to as you can. The more relaxed and open you are on your trip, the more benefits you'll gain from the experience.