Hope. Fear. Excitement. Traveling for the first time provides us with a wave of conflicting emotions. We are excited about new possibilities but afraid of the unknown at the same time.
When I left for the road, I knew nothing. I read some bulletin boards, but I was green as they come. There were no travel blogs then, no Twitter, Facebook fan pages, or vast amounts of information on the Internet. You went on your own. It was good and bad at the same time. To compensate for the lack of preparedness, I followed my guidebook and wet my foot with tours. You could spot me a mile away with my guidebook and my backpack. A big sign hung over my head that said “SCAM ME.” I was young; I was inexperienced; and I made a lot of rookie travel mistakes.
With close to five years travel experience now, if I could sit myself down on the day he left for his world trip, I would give him this advice:
Don’t be scared. Fear is a powerful deterrent. Despite what they say on CNN and Fox News, the whole world is not out to get you because you are American. It’s not scary out there. People everywhere are just like you – they have hopes, fears, want the best for their children, hate their jobs, and are just trying to make it through the day. 99.99% of people don’t care where you are from. They aren’t out to get you, so don’t shy away from the locals. If you’re semi-street smart, you’ll avoid the .01% who do care where you’re from.
You don’t need a lot of stuff. When I went on my first trip, I brought a big bag filled with tons of stuff – hiking boots, hiking pants, a fleece, and more toiletries than CVS. But I didn’t even use half of it. They just sat in my bag and I had to carry it around. When I went away again, I took even less and still didn’t use it all. The lesson: Pack light. It’s less to carry and less to hold you down. You can pick up stuff on the way if you really need it.
Get a Phone. You meet a lot of people on the road who are all going different ways and you may find your paths will cross again. However, it’s hard to plan events around e-mail. Did they get it? Will they be there? I don’t know! Invest in a cheap phone so you can stay in touch with people better. Plus it comes in handy in an emergency.
The more you plan, the worse it is. Want to stay longer? Leave sooner? Change hotels? If you pre-planned your trip, that’s something you can’t easily do. When every day is planned out, when there are timetables to follow, you get stressed. Any kink in your plan, and you don’t know what to do. When you plan too much, there’s no room to experience the happy accidents of travel. Travel brings a lot of unexpected events that can cause you to change your mind about a lot of things. Put some flexibility into your schedule, and go with the flow. It’ll make for a more enjoyable and less stressful experience. You just might be surprised by what unexpectedly happens and the people you meet. Let life unfold the way it should be.
Take More Money. I could do Asia on 15 dollars a day or Europe on 70, but I take a lot more money than that because you never know. There are a lot of unexpected costs on the road and, no matter how well you budget, you can never plan for them all. For example, I never expected to buy a new camera in Italy. I never expected to change my plans and live in Amsterdam. Maybe you decide that you are going to learn to scuba dive after all. Or you’ll want to fly to Fiji suddenly. No matter what happens, something will always come up and eat into your budget. Take more than you think you need so you have more flexibility.
Throw away the guidebook. Guidebooks are good for an overview and maps, but you’ll never find the best stuff in there. And, even if it is there, it’s dated information. The locals aren’t hanging out at that bar and, if they were, once the tourists come in, they leave. How many locals do you see at the tourist traps in your hometown? For the best stuff, hook up with the locals and ask them. Talk to them. People are your best resource for information. Ask your fellow travelers. You’ll never find that underground hot spot in a Lonely Planet.
Go Slow!! I know it can be tempting to try to see it all. Who knows when you’ll get another chance? But DON’T! With limited vacation time, we are always trying to squeeze in everything – rushing through twenty cities in twenty days, 100 countries on our RTW, etc. In the end, all we have to show for it are photos, stress, and a whirlwind of experiences but no real deep knowledge of the places we went to. When you travel, less is more. It allows you time to drink deep from each culture and soak it all up. Get to know the place – where the locals go, where they eat, what they do. Make time to spend a relaxing day in the park. Go slow, and you’ll experience more.
Get Contact Information. You will make a lot of great friends on the road. Some of them will become lifelong friends. But sometimes you don’t get their contact information and you regret it forever. With Facebook, it is easy to stay in touch with people for years after your trip. You may grow apart, you may never see them again but what will haunt you the most is that you never got that person’s email just in case you are able to see them again. They become lost to you forever and you wonder longingly what happened to them.
Don’t Be Shy. It takes a lot of courage to talk to strangers. There you are alone in a hostel and everyone is sitting around talking. Speaking up takes courage. But everyone traveling is friendly. They are traveling because they want to meet new people. Just let the word “hello” come out of your mouth and everything else will fall into place. No one ever said no when they were asked “Can I join you?” It will be O.K.
Be Adventurous. I know you don’t like heights. I know you don’t like a lot of sports. But while your tailbone may hurt from hitting the water wrong, you’ll never regret taking that leap off the boat in the Galapagos. You may have screamed like a girl, but you did love that canyon swing. And didn’t those maggots taste good in the end? Challenge yourself. Take risks. Try new adventures. You may only ever do it once but at least you did it.