Hope. Fear. Excitement. Traveling for the first time provided me with wave of conflicting emotions. When I left to travel the world, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t well traveled and was as green as they come. No one I knew had ever done this before. To compensate for my lack of preparedness, I followed my guidebooks and wet my feet with tours. I was young and inexperienced, and I made a lot of rookie travel mistakes.
A big sign hung over my head that said “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.”
Now, with 10 years of travel under my belt, I know better. If I could sit my younger self down before he left for his world trip, I would give him this advice:
Don’t be scared.
Fear is a powerful deterrent. Taking the leap into the unknown is scary, but you aren’t the first person to travel the world. You aren’t discovering new continents or exploring uncharted territories.
There is a well-worn travel trail out there and people to help guide you along the way. If millions of people can make their way around the world each year, so can you.
You may feel scared and nervous but you’re just as capable as anyone else.
Don’t live by your guidebook.
Guidebooks are useful for a general overview of a destination, but you’ll never find the latest off-the-beaten-path attractions, bars, or restaurants in them. For the best stuff, connect with locals to find out what is hot right now. Ask other travelers or the hostel staff for recommendations.
People are your best resource for up-to-the-minute travel information. Unless a guidebook is digital and updated often, it’s probably out of date, so don’t live and breathe by it.
It can be tempting to try to see it all. With limited vacation time, we are always trying to squeeze everything in — rushing through 20 cities in 20 days, or 100 countries on our round-the-world trip. In the end, all we have to show for it are photos, stress, and a whirlwind of experiences but no real knowledge of the places we went.
(After you try to rush through Australia, you’ll be burnt out and realize you saw everything but nothing at all. You’ll wish you did it slower.)
Don’t rush your trip. Make time to spend a relaxing day in the park or just sitting in a café people watching. Slow down. It gives you time to drink deep from a culture and take it all in.
Get people’s contact information.
You will make a lot of 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 (you’ll still wonder what happened to that amazing couple you met in Panama!). Facebook and e-mail make it easy to stay in touch with people for years after your trip, so get people’s contact information! Don’t let your new friends fade into memory.
You don’t need a lot of gear.
When you went to Costa Rica in 2003, you brought a bag filled with tons of stuff — hiking boots and pants, a fleece jacket, too many clothes, and more toiletries than a CVS. It all sat in your bag, taking up space, as you lugged them across the country.
The lesson: Pack light. You’ll have less to carry. Buy a small bag so you aren’t tempted to pack everything under the sun. If you truly need something, you can pick it up as you go.
Trust me, you won’t need as much gear as you think!
Get a phone.
You’ll meet a lot of people on the road who you will want to see again. While Facebook can be handy for staying in touch, it isn’t ideal for planning meet-ups when people are constantly on the move. Did your friends get the message? Will they be there?! Who knows!
Cheap phones and SIM cards are available worldwide. Invest in one so you can stay in touch with your new friends. That way you won’t wonder if you were stood up or if your friends just changed their plans and went to Rome.
Go with the flow.
When every day is planned out and there are timetables to follow, you get stressed. Very stressed. You rush. And when you plan too much, there’s no room to experience the happy accidents of travel.
Put some flexibility into your schedule and go with the flow. Plan one or two activities and let the rest of the day happen. It’ll be a more enjoyable and less stressful experience. You’ll be surprised by what happens (like when your friend invites you to an island in Thailand and you stay a whole month).
Let life unfold.
Take extra money.
Travel isn’t as expensive as you think — you’ll travel through Asia on $15 a day or Europe on $40 — but you’ll learn there are always unexpected expenses.
Have a cushion! No matter how well you budget, you can never plan for all the disasters or itinerary changes (like how you’ll suddenly fly to Fiji and learn to scuba dive). No matter how well you plan, something can always come up and throw your budget out of whack.
Take more money than you think you’ll need. You’ll be happy you did.
Don’t be so shy.
I know you are an introvert. I know you worry about what people think. It takes courage to talk to strangers but everyone is in the same boat. All around you are other solo travelers looking for friends. They want to meet new people too.
Just say “hello” and everything else will fall into place. Ask to join people’s drinking games and conversations in hostels. No one ever says no. Take the first step. Take off your headphones, turn to the person next to you, and say hello.
You have nothing to lose and, in the process, this is how you’ll get over your shyness, make new friends (and end up at a few weddings), and get better at conversation.
I know you don’t like heights. I know you don’t like sports. And while you’ll hurt your tailbone, you won’t regret jumping off the boat in the Galápagos. You may have screamed like a girl, but you loved that canyon swing. And, in the end, didn’t those maggots taste good?
Challenge yourself. Take risks. Try new things. You may hate some, but you won’t regret any of it. You’ll walk away more self-confident.
You aren’t stuck.
If you hate traveling and aren’t having fun, stop and rest. Spend a few extra days in Amsterdam or Sydney. Relax. If you still hate travel when you get back on the road, go home. There’s no shame in that.
It’s better to try and fail than never try at all. Always remember you can go home if you aren’t having fun. You aren’t stuck with your decision to travel.
You are not alone.
Wherever you go, there is a network of travelers who will be your friends, give you advice or tips, and help you out. They will guide you, point you in the right direction, and be your mentors. You aren’t out there on your own. You will make friends. You will be OK. Though you are traveling alone, you will never be alone.
I know you’re nervous about heading out into the unknown. That’s normal. It’s human nature to worry, but you make it on your trip and become a better person because of your travels.
So take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy!