As I get older the more appreciative I am of just how big an idiot I was growing up. That’s probably not an uncommon feeling, most of us look back at our lives and cringe at the stupid decisions made and hard lessons learned. That’s just part of life. Still, there are a few things I wish I knew about travel before embarking on my first great international trip.
1. Not going – The thing I regret most is that it took me so long to travel the world. I was born with a fierce desire to learn as much about other cultures as I could and desperately yearned to see more of the planet. It wasn’t until I was 17 though when I got my first taste of international travel as an exchange student in Paris. A few years passed and after college I backpacked around England and Scotland, but that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I really started making travel a priority and got out there to experience the best the world has to offer. When I was younger I stupidly thought that it was too expensive to travel and instead of making it a priority in my life, I went down a few wrong paths that ended up just wasting my time and money. Once I realized that my true love is exploring the world though, I’ve never been happier.
2. Take candy from strangers – One of the great things about travel is meeting new people, both local residents and travelers alike. It can be intimidating at first though, especially as stories about pickpockets and ne’er do-wells creep into the back of our overactive brains. If you’re traveling with someone else, it’s very easy to become insular and tune out new people. I realized the error of anti-social tourism gradually, but once I started meeting great people I understood how important social interaction is in the travel experience. People also seem to be very open and frank with me when I travel, they almost always want to learn from me and vice versa. Still other times the experiences weren’t necessarily educational, just a lot of fun. A certain all-night pub crawl in Prague comes to mind… No matter how you decide to travel, make sure to reach out to new people; you’ll learn more from them that at any museum or tourist site.
3. Can’t do it all – I’m a planner, no doubt. There are few things I enjoy more in life than planning a new trip, exploring the potential new adventures that lie ahead. I used to be really bad, to the extent of creating color-coded binders; not exactly the seat-of-your-pants travel experience most people enjoy. It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to travel without clear direction, trusting in my instincts that we’ll maximize our time and see everything of interest. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t (Amsterdam, How I Mucked it Up) but on the whole it’s made for a more enjoyable, and more relaxed, travel experience. Do I miss some sights? Sure, without a doubt, but slowing down has made me appreciate the travel experience more than I ever have.
4. Don’t be cheap – While I believe it’s smart to save money in certain areas, I am a big proponent of not skimping when it comes to unique experiences. We travel to see and enjoy new places, and sometimes you have to pay a little more to do this. In some cases this may mean hiring a tour guide or joining a day tour to learn more about the destination, in other cases it means the experience itself costs a little more. It doesn’t make any sense to travel far away from home at considerable expense only to skip the activities and experiences that made you want to travel there in the first place. Just make sure you budget for these activities when you’re planning the trip so there aren’t any unexpected surprises.
5. Travel can be messy – Travel is not a sterile, antiseptic experience. Travel is messy, sometimes difficult and often times really frustrating. I usually highlight the great benefits of travel, of which there are many, but there are pitfalls as well. Don’t be shocked, but things don’t always go as planned. Flights are missed, hotels lose reservations and theft does occur. This doesn’t mean though you should just stay home and be content watching reruns of House Hunters International. But it does mean that you have to be smart when you travel and plan for the worst, although not expecting it. There are a million articles about how to protect yourself while on the road, but a little common sense goes a long way. And should the worst happen, deal with it but don’t let it define you. I’ve been robbed, nearly arrested and accosted more times than I’d like to admit, but I still pack up my suitcase and travel as often as I can. I realize that travel is one of the most ‘real’ life experiences anyone can have, and with that comes the bad and the good.
What are some of your travel life lessons?