Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why I'm okay with booking a one-way ticket to Who Knows Where by myself

These past few years I have traveled to a lot of new places. Usually, I don't speak the language. And more often than not, I'm by myself. People tend to assume that these circumstances automatically create a stressful, scary situation. In reality, however, everything usually turns out just fine.

To make sure things go smoothly when I'm arriving in a foreign land, I usually follow a few basic guidelines:

1. Pack light

Nothing is more stressful than navigating a foreign city and its public transportation system with a 50 pound rolling suitcase. In fact, after lugging around an overstuffed backpacking backpack in 90 degree heat you'll swear to yourself that next time you travel it will be with a daypack only, even if you are planning to do six months through South America... Packing as light as possible will help you in a multitude of ways -

  • if you're taking local budget airlines you can avoid paying the enormous checked-baggage fees
  • on long bus rides you can keep a better eye on your stuff if it fits above the seat, instead of under the bus
  • you won't feel ridiculous riding the metro/bus with locals while trying to find a seat for your suitcase
  • it will be physically easier when you realize that what you thought would be a short walk from the bus stop to your hostel is actually a 2 mile trek up a steep hill, with lots of stairs
  • there's less to be responsible for/ worry about getting stolen

The famous Louis Vuittons in Paris - don't take these backpacking

2. Wear shoes you can run in

My mom always used to tell me to wear shoes I could run in, if the situation ever arose. Good shoes go hand in hand with packing light. Whether you're running from bad guys, cops, or because you're about to miss the train, having good shoes will make life a lot easier.

...and you can use them on your trip to go on runs!

3. Choose a hostel with simple directions

Sometimes I think I've picked the best hostel on hostelworld.com, then I flip to the 'Map & Directions' page and realize that getting there involves two metro transfers, a bus, and a hike up a mile-long staircase. Next. I always try pick the hostel with the easiest directions because I'm usually too tired after a long journey to navigate a foreign city, and I know I can just switch hostels the next day after I've rested and explored the best locations in the city.

They're really not kidding...

4. Better yet, find a hostel with free airport pickups

This feature varies by location, but seems to be common in Africa... probably because they don't usually recommend public transportation in general. It's worth asking the hostel, and it may save you a $40 taxi ride.

5. Take a screen shot of a map or two

Including a very detailed, zoomed-in shot if the city has winding alleyways like in Spain. Also screen shot the hostel's directions and phone number/address. Don't rely on wifi to look up the directions later, unless your in Europe in which case there will definitely be a McDonald's close by.

This place took my ages to find. And it was on a hill!

6. Write down the hostel's name/address in a notebook

And maybe the directions and a quick map sketch... After a long trip you may find that your phone battery has died and there's no where convenient to charge it, so it's smart to have a hard copy (at least of the name and address, so you an ask a shop keeper or taxi driver for directions). I keep a mini-notebook full of other important numbers, too, such as the 800 number for my credit/debit cards if my wallet is stolen. After meeting about 75 people this summer who had their iPhone stolen in Europe, I would never rely on my phone as my only record of important numbers.

7. Arrive during the day

This one is probably the most important. There's just something comforting about daylight... I never seem to mind being hopelessly lost if it's 10 am and sunny outside. I know I can just stop at a cafe, relax for a couple hours with some tea and a book, find internet, and take my time figuring out where on Earth I am. If taking the overnight bus/train/flight means you can arrive in the morning, do it. Especially if you're alone, don't speak the language, and new to that part of the world. It will save you a lot of stress!