I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of traveler. I almost always have been, possibly because my early experiences with traveling were in the casual and spontaneous Latin American region. In Guatemala I learned that the best research for travel is the information provided by the other backpackers, students, and travelers around you. By the time I got to Chile for my official study abroad experience, I went one better: my language abilities were good enough that I could ask the locals.
Not everyone likes the same things when they travel. Some people travel for beaches. Others for parties. Others (although it’s hard for me to believe) actually travel for shopping. Some, who I admire but can’t quite work up the chutzpah to emulate, travel for extreme outdoor adventures and wild feats of cliff diving/mountaineering/rafting/caving, etc.
An important first step to any travel experience is to find out what you like while traveling. There is little that will make me more miserable than being trapped in a partiers’ holiday. That’s not a bad or wrong way to travel, it’s just not my way to travel. I also don’t get along particularly well with groups, as I am an opinionated and somewhat impatient traveler, and don’t want to be tied to anyone’s schedule or desires but my own.
Generally, my ideal travel is by myself. It is with little or no itinerary, high contact with locals, and lots of time to wander streets and take in the sights. If I make it to two or three of the high-ticket items in a new place, that makes me happy. If I end up in several obscure and bizarre local attractions that most people miss, all the better.
I want to travel cheaply and comfortably. I want to have time to process the stories. I want to be on the go most of the time, unless I’m eating or reading. I want to have an absolute bare-minimum of luggage. And I want to spend very little money on accommodations.
Also, I like to travel by train.
Regardless of your personal quirks and preferences, I’ve learned a few things about traveling as a student that I think are generally applicable. If you haven’t traveled before, especially if you don’t speak the local language, then perhaps you should consider this advice with a grain of salt. But here are some quick tips I live by while on the road:
Start by going to tourist information
This is the first thing I do when I land in an airport. I get a map (or take a photo of a map, depending on the level of detail I need), and I ask for recommendations for things to do. I say how much time I have (what should I do if I only have two hours in the city?” or “I’ll be here two weeks, what do you recommend?”). Take note of what they tell you—it’s their job to be knowledgeable about this stuff—and then compare notes with the people you meet as you go. I rely on tourist information folks for transportation advice (which is why I’m currently writing a draft of this blog post from a train, rather than a airport-to-city bus), sometimes for hostels (I always ask for the cheapest one with a good “vibe” or “atmosphere”) and for the priority places to visit.
This method has taken me to incredible places, and has shaped my travel beautifully. In Peru it took me to the Sacred Valley instead of straight to Machu Picchu; in Turkey it sent me to an underground cave for a swim; and today in Italy it sent me wandering through the cobbled streets of Bergamo before I head to the bustling (but hopefully still cobbled) Milan. I would have missed it all together, were it not for the helpful woman at the information kiosk in the airport.
Stay in hostels. Hotels are lonely and expensive. I highly recommend staying in a place where you’re guaranteed to meet interesting people from all over the world, and have stories from your stay and not just from the travel.
Also, if you can sleep on public transportation, try to schedule some travel for nighttime. I’m a big believer in overnight trains and buses, and once did four overnights in a row, which meant checking my backpack in the train station each morning and then picking it up to get on a new train that evening. It was awesome, and exhausting, and exhilarating. I didn’t see as much of any of those cities as I would have liked, but I sure covered a lot of ground.
I highly recommend traveling light. During most of my travels, I have carried only a small carry-on backpack and a purse. That includes my two months of (mostly) solo travel in Europe two summers ago, as well as many shorter adventures in Central and South America.
Someday I’ll do a longer post on packing. The quickest rule of thumb is to only bring what you actually need, and to have all of it be functional and convenient. Here’s the basics:
- A small snack
- Change and small bills
- Something to do if you’re bored
- Plastic bags. Always carry plastic bags.
Try not to carry
- A phone
- A computer
- More than one pair of shoes (unless hiking)
- Clothes you can’t (or won’t) wear multiple times
- Anything you can’t afford to lose
Obviously this advice doesn’t always pan out perfectly. I’m traveling at the moment, and typing away on my computer and kicking myself for not buying water before getting on the train. I don’t always follow my own advice, but when I do I’m happier. Usually.
Try to learn something of the local language. Even if you’re just passing through for a couple of days. The goodwill you purchase for a minimal commitment is enormous. My go-to, must-know phrases are
- Excuse me
- Thank you
The last one has been the most important in my experience. If you, an obvious foreigner, can offer a local at least one compliment on their home or culture, then you are already well on your way to a successful interaction. Indicate the city around you and mutter something that sounds like “how beautiful” in the local language, and you’ll be amazed at how happy most people will be to offer help.
The others are merely functional. As a tourist, you will inevitably need to ask for help, and probably forgiveness as well. Learn to offer a polite greeting and a basic apology.
Put your camera down once in a while
This is one of the great challenges of our generation. But seriously—get one or two photos for your facebook wall, and then put the camera away for a while. Don’t watch concerts through a viewfinder and don’t experience a wonder of the world while choosing an Instagram filter. I’m not going to try to persuade you that these things aren’t important, because in our strange little oversharing social moment this is part of how we experience our lives—through how they will translate to media. But try to put the camera down now and again, and just be where you are. My least favorite memory of this kind was on a dolphin-watching boat in Costa Rica, where a tour guide kept grabbing my arm and yelling at me to take a photo of the dolphins. After saying, “no thanks” several times (all the while thinking “does he think I don’t know I have a camera? If I wanted a blurry picture of ocean with something vaguely dolphin-shaped off in one corner, I would take the picture myself”), I eventually held my camera toward the water and made clicking motions, all the while with eyes on the horizon just drinking in the glory of the moment. No dolphin pictures were captured, but I was exquisitely happy.
Interacting with home
I’ll write a whole blog post on this topic at some point in the future. Because it’s complicated. You want to share the excitement of your journey but also communicate the parts that are boring or difficult. You might be homesick. Your friends might be jealous or otherwise not able to interact much with your stories.
The short version of this advice is to put up regular short updates. Try not to do more than a couple every day. With your close friends and family, share some stories of the trials as well as the fun. Give details they can look up—specific locations or cultural quirks are great—and help them ask informed questions. And then remind people that you are still interested in the details from home. You do still care about a friend’s relationship or a family member’s nasty bout of flu. Share what you can to help people understand.
But mostly live the moment. Travel with every part of your being and every ounce of concentration you can muster.
And always, always write things down.
Share your student travel advice, experiences, tips, and preferences below. Why do you travel? How do you travel? And if a snoring fellow traveler keeps you up all night in a hostel, what's your coping mechanism? Please share stories in the comments section.