This week I packed up my “home” and set off travelling for the third time in just over two years. By now the process is familiar and made much easier by the fact I’ve done it all before.
I should be an old hand at this by now, and in a lot of ways I am. I can say goodbye to people and possessions with alarming ease. But this trip is different to what I’ve done previously. After travelling so much in the last two years (my big trips have been interspersed with lots of little ones) I wanted to shake things up, get out of my comfort zone and try any other suitable clichés.
I don’t have an itinerary
Last week my mum asked for my itinerary and I had to tell her: “I don’t have one.”
This is new for me. I still have the piece of paper outlining my dates and destinations for the solo part of my trip in 2011. One of my notebooks has details of train times and costs for travelling from Prague to Belgium last year, which I wrote while sitting on my couch in Canada many months before. Every big trip I’ve done has been planned well in advance. Even if I didn’t book anything, I knew exactly where I would be and what time my train left.
This time around I know what countries I’m visiting and have a rough idea how long I’ll spend in each so I don’t run out of time. But I know so little about these places that it’s impossible for me to know exactly where I’ll end up, let alone when.
I’m not organised
As well has knowing where I’d be, when and what time my train left, more often than not, I had those train tickets booked before I left home. Even when I didn’t book my accommodation before I left, I always knew where I wanted to stay and probably printed off the directions to the hostel. Researching and organising my trip is usually something I love doing. I recently heard someone describe it as “holiday foreplay”, which is a perfect analogy.
Planning ahead isn’t just fun, it’s also been necessary when I’ve travelled in Europe. My previous two big trips in Europe have been in summer, which means it’s more expensive and there’s less availability. When I booked a hostel in New York as a back up in case my CouchSurfing requests didn’t come through, there were only a handful of (expensive) options. Leaving things to the last minute is difficult if you’re on a budget and booking ahead often saves money because you can take advantage of advance discounts and have more choice.
But the downside is I’ve never had any flexibility. I would have loved more time in Hue in Vietnam, but I had a tickets booked to Hanoi. I would have preferred less time in Barcelona, but the hostel was booked, as was the train to Paris. On this trip I wanted to have the freedom to change my plans and “go with the flow”. With that in mind, I didn’t book my first night’s accommodation until two days before I arrived. And when I got here on Wednesday, I had no idea where I’d be staying tonight. It’s so cheap in Eastern Europe that I can afford to travel like this. A last-minute train ticket here isn’t remotely as expensive as it might be in Italy and even an expensive hotel room, isn’t that expensive.
I’m on an even tighter budget
I am very much a budget traveller and adopt the philosophy that the cheaper I can travel, the longer I can travel. But this trip is testing my skills. It’s already a month since I finished work and I won’t be looking for work again until late December or early January. Working for minimum wage wasn’t the best springboard to a huge savings account and I still have a house to look after back in Australia. (And of course I woke up to an email earlier this week saying the oven in my house had died and the property manager could get me one for $700…just what I want to hear days before I leave on a trip.)
So my budget is a very cosy £24 or $40 a day. That’s for everything: accommodation, food, transport, activities. I could afford to spend more, but there are always unexpected costs along the way and it’s better to underspend than the alternative. At the moment I’m staying in one of the more pricey hostels in Belgrade and eating out for lunch and dinner and feel very comfortable with the budget I’ve set.
I know how I like to travel
After high school and then again after university, I dreamt of travelling for a year or so, but I just never had the money. THANK GOD! Travelling at 18 or 21 would have been so different to travelling now, and not for the better. Being older and with a bit of travel experience under my belt, I have a very good idea of what I like and how I like to do things. This means I get the best out of my trips, because I’m not wasting time with things I don’t like. I know I prefer to travel solo and if I’m around people a lot (other travellers, CouchSurfers etc) I need to take time alone to recharge. I know I like to walk everywhere I can and I always prefer the train to the bus. I know I’m happy to sit in a park or town square and just watch people and take photographs. All afternoon. I know I get bored with museums and would rather visit the studio or gallery of a local artist than walk through the National Gallery of Wherever. I know that every now and then I need a few hours where I just sit in a café, read and enjoy the moment.
I also know what sacrifices I’m happy to make. I’ll stay in a 45-bed dorm (I’m sure they exist somewhere) if it means I can afford to take some magnificent train trip. I’ll make my own peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast and lunch to enjoy a great dinner. I don’t mind waking up ridiculously early for an early flight, but I try to avoid arriving in a new city at night.
I also don’t feel pressured to see things that other people tell me I must. I’ve been to Paris four times and never seen the Louvre and countless people have felt the need to tell me what I’ve missed. But that’s not going to make me go there. Ten years ago, I probably would have been tempted to go because it was in Lonely Planet. Now I know better. I will do the things I want to do because I want to do them. Not because someone says I should.
Knowing all of this means I know how to have the best travel experience for me.
I’m slowing down
I have a Three Day Rule and it has nothing to do with guys and how long they take to text. Three days is the minimum I like to spend in a destination. Those three days usually go something like this – Day 1: See all the major landmarks I know about. Day 2: See all the things I’ve heard about since I arrived. Day 3: Not bother making an effort to see anything and simply walk and see what I find.
The third day is always my favourite.
In each place I visit I’m going to try to stay at least three days. In some places it may just not be practical and I may want more or less time.
I’m also taking my time in each country. I find “capital hopping” silly, but it happens all the time, particularly in Europe. People (usually Australians) fly all the way over here and hop around visiting usually only the capital city in each country. “What’s wrong with that?” I hear all you Eurail/Contiki fans wonder. Nothing…..but. Imagine visiting Australia and going only to Canberra, or Sydney or Melbourne. What impression would that give you of the country? Not a very insightful one. Those cities, as nice as they may be, are only a teeny fraction of a country that is largely rural and desert areas. So when you go to France and only visit Paris or the UK and don’t leave London, you will have a wonderful time, but you’re seeing those countries through a peep-hole. That satisfies a lot of travellers, but not me. I’m allowing about two weeks per country, which I still don’t think is a long time, and am making a big effort to get to a variety of places in each one.
I’ve learnt from my mistakes
Two nights ago I came back to my hostel to find a British university student organising his luggage. Alex had a 6am flight and was worried his bag was going to be too heavy. I should also point out this flight was to be his first time on a plane. Now, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to packing, but all my personal judgements aside this guy had A LOT of luggage. Alex had been away for a month and had one of the biggest suitcases I’ve ever seen. I think he had about three times as much stuff as I’ve packed for four months and I’m carrying a sleeping bag and a teacup. The virgin flyer had also packed about 3L of booze in his carry on, along with a stack of toiletries, many over 100ml. We had a quick chat about carry on restrictions and the things he could leave behind to make his weight limit (such as the full-size bottle of shower gel and perhaps three of the four spray deodorants he was carrying).
As he sat on the ground, exhausted and overwhelmed (his words), I tried to reassure him by saying: “You’ll learn from this.” The next time Alex travels he will remember that moment. He will remember lugging that ridiculously huge suitcase up stairs. He will remember wondering why he packed so much stuff. He will remember how long it took him to try to fit in all in and how much he had to throw away. He will pack less.
Whether it’s booking too much in advance and not having any wriggle room, doing a pub crawl I hated in Barcelona because everyone told me I had to check out the nightlife, or packing a pair of heels I never wore, I have lived, travelled and learnt.
I know buying stuff I can get at home is a waste of money. I know that I shouldn’t pack anything “just in case”. I know that if I don’t set myself a budget, I will overspend. A lot. To be fair, I knew most of that two years ago, but sometimes it takes a while to really sink in.