At 22, my life took a difficult turn.
I was depressed most of the time, feeling like I was stuck in a life I did not really choose and certainly did not like.
I did not see how I could change this situation and it got worse every day.
My mom, seeing my predicament, told me : go to Europe!
In retrospect, these 3 simple words probably saved my life.
I ended up leaving my job, canceling the lease on my apartment and storing my belongings. This allowed me to spend 9 months over there, traveling in 16 countries, covering over 30 000 km and mostly, turning into a much better and smarter human being.
It is now what I recommend to those who feel what I felt back then, but to be honest, it very seldom works. Dropping everything requires quite a bit of guts and/or pure desperation.
I was scared shitless by the idea, so I went because of the latter.
A lot of questions went through my head back then : How? When? Where? Leave my job? With what? With who?
I traveled before, but never for long periods and always with others who planned the whole trip for me. So I needed help! If you are thinking of leaving for your first trip, you might be interested in the following information. It contains part of my story and the answers I would have liked to know back then.
Checklist prior to leaving :
I learned the hard way that leaving for multiple months (years?!) has nothing to do with leaving for a short period.
I had a full time job, quite a few belongings, an unpaid car and I owned a lease on an apartment I was sharing with someone else.
It could have been worse though.. I was single, money was not a huge issue and I could speak fluent French and English.
So here was my checklist prior to leaving :
– Gather as much cash as possible.
– Find guidance to get me started (books, tips, etc)
– Setup a travel budget.
– Get a new passport and potentially useful visas.
– Plan the first week abroad.
– Get a plane ticket
– Get a traveling bag and other equipment
– Find a place to store my possessions.
– Find a free parking spot somewhere my car will not get stolen.
– Get rid of the room mate.
– Find a new tenant to take over my lease.
– Move with someone until I leave.
– Get travel / medical insurance.
– Quit my job.
– Go to the airport and say goodbye!
Now the question is Solo or not?
As you already know, finding someone willing to accompany you on your journey is no easy task.So the question is : should you go alone?
I have traveled solo in about 25 countries and I absolutely loved it. Then, I traveled with my best friend in one country, and I found it to be a very different experience.
Being on your own is great for many reasons :
- You never have to argue about what to do.
- Unless you are satisfied with not talking to anyone (you would miss the best part of traveling) you WILL have to talk to strangers. I have noticed many who travel with friends and end up only interacting with them. These people ultimately missed out on a lot.
- Those days you will not want to talk to anyone? You wont have to!
- In countries where you stick out a lot (say, a 6’1 white guy in rural China), some people might be inclined to come to you to have a very interesting chat.
However, having said that, there are a few reasons to bring someone with you :
- Traveling solo can sometimes be a very lonely experience. You will eventually end up in a shitty, empty hostel with unfriendly staff, in a town that could not care less about you (besides your $$$) and the loneliness will strike. Good news however, this situation is the exception, not the rule.
- Cheaper. With a buddy, you can buy groceries, cook and waste less. Also, some double rooms have lower individual rate than single rooms.
- It gets annoying sometimes to feel like the absolute minority in places where locals do not expect you at all.
- Much cheaper to rent a car if you have the guts for it. A car will take you to many great places buses and trains will not, or not as quickly.
- I guess you could say it’s safer, but Europe is extremely safe for both single male or female. As long as you are careful to avoid the usual tourist traps (pickpockets, etc.), you’ll be perfectly fine. Every traveling book has a very detailed section on safety and will tell you what you need to know.
Just remember this :
The one thing I learned about traveling alone is that you are mostly never alone. You’ll find travel buddies at every destination and this will allow you to make awesome friends all over the world.
So do not panic if you cannot find someone to accompany you.
Stress and anxiety
You might not see this one coming, but stress is going to be a major issue if this is your first long trip abroad.
Remember the first time you invited someone on a date? That, times a hundred, is what I felt like on the bad days. I kept going from “It’s a great idea!” to “It’s the worst idea EVER!”.
There is not much you can do about that. Just keep in mind that it will be the most memorably time of your life.
Good news though, it goes away a few days after you arrive.
How long? If your situation allows it, I suggest not to plan the length of the trip. Buy a one way ticket to a big city (Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid) to keep it cheap, and go from there.
I never thought that I would work for 4 months in the French Alps before leaving and yet I did.
Do not set yourself limits unless you absolutely have to.
Note : sometimes the price of a one-way ticket is the same as a round-trip. Grab the latter making sure you have some flexibility on the return date.
Traveling does not require a lot of skills.
It’s actually the perfect place to discover what you are made of.
A cousin of mine told me, before I left, that backpacking was awesome for many reasons, but mostly because you could be whoever you wanted to be at any given time.
Got a few people angry because you tried to be a little too cool? So be it.
Got the entire town angry because you did something really stupid? Jump on the first train and leave.
It sounds a little dramatic, and I’m pretty sure I’m not wanted anywhere in the world right now, but there is a lot of truth in this.
Use whatever skills you have to your advantage (being able to cook gave me a few freebies for instance), but I say : focus on the skills you do not have, instead of the ones you already know you have.
In a few years, no one will remember you tried to be someone else, except for yourself.
Quit your job damn it!
You will find something else, probably even better, when you get back.
The experience traveling teaches you will be worth more than anything else.
Your perspective on life will be different and what you expect from your work as well.
Store your personal belongings and sublet your apartment, that will make things easier. Renting a cheap apartment? Sublet it for more and make some money while you are gone.
Everyone has a different situation that will require a different solution.
The most important lesson here is this :
It is possible, maybe hard, but always possible and absolutely worth it.
Ok, that is obviously the big question here. How much money do you really need?
Europe is expensive, that is something you will come to hate. Asia (except Japan) is much cheaper, but might require a bit more guts for a first trip.
I had a log book in which I wrote down all my expenses to help with my budget. I suggest you do that as well. There are now some cools apps that do that for you. (Edit : I used Tripcoin while traveling in Japan and I think it’s awesome!)
In 2004, it costed me about 30 Euros per day (40 USD) to eat, sleep and move around.
I went back to Italy in 2013 and I have no clue how I managed to survive on so little back then. I guess all was much cheaper. For instance, a 4 bed dorm in Rome went from 20-25 Euros (with breakfast) to 30-40 Euros (no breakfast) in barely 10 years!
Some days will be more expensive (train ticket days…) and others will be super cheap (walking around a city while couch surfing).
Take your budget, remove around 2000$ of it for the plane ticket and preparation costs, then divide it by 60 (for Europe) or 30 (For Asia). This should be an approximation of how many days you can travel without income. Also, aim to travel off the beaten path, this will be a much cheaper option since a lot of big cities charge a premium for everything.
Make sure you have emergency funds as well or at least, access to someone else’s.
Travelers cheques used to be cool, but I think they are old fashioned now.
Bring 1 or 2 credit cards (Avoid AMEX), make sure you have a NIP on each and you will be able to take money out from most ATMs. The exchange rate will be tolerable and as long as you repay the withdrawn amount via your bank’s website quickly, this will be an affordable solution to get money abroad.
You’ll find a lot of tricks to save money while traveling if you search for them, but here is a small list for Europe :
- Hostels are really cool (www.hostelworld.com), but couch surfing is fantastic (www.couchsurfing.com).
- Hostels sometimes have kitchens so buy groceries and cook!
- Kebabs are delicious, filling and cheap, even for breakfast.
- Hitchhiking is not crazy at all. Some countries have website for drive sharing that you can book in advance, look for them.
Trains are fast, but expensive. Make sure you learn about all the possible discounts available in the country you are visiting. Also, you can check out rail-pass but do some research before buying one, because there are a lot of hidden fees and surprises. (I bought one in Germany and it costed me nearly the same thing as if I did not have one).
- A great way to travel is with night trains. It saves you the cost of an hostel and sleeper cars are usually affordable. Plus, you will appreciate the time saved by traveling while sleeping! The same concept is applicable to buses, but it’s usually harder to get a good night sleep in those.
- Buses are slower (sometimes a hell of a lot slower!), but much cheaper. Going to the UK? Look up Megabus to travel around.
- Do not forget RyanAir and EasyJet, flights are surprisingly cheap inside Europe.
There are also ways to make money during your trip : How can I earn money while travelling the world?
How much do you have to plan?
That’s an easy one….
Do as little planning as humanly possible.
Plan your next destination by booking the hostel and by understanding how to get there, but no more.
You never know who you will meet and where you’ll end up going.
The absolute freedom of backpacking is what got me hooked.
So forget all you big plans and just wing it most of the way.
Note 1 : sometimes it is nice to plan a little bit ahead, especially when time is short or when it’s high season. You should still try to avoid it.
Note 2 : If you are not traveling solo, planning may be essential. Booking for 2 is not as easy as booking for 1. But again, all depends of where and when.
What should you bring?
- Lonely Planet, Europe on a shoestring travel guide. Back in the days, everyone was carrying that monster and I’m sure they still do.
- Lots of the new super techie backpackers insist on not bringing books and only using the web. It’s not a bad idea, since it saves a lot of weight and space. Having said that, I like having at least one book for emergencies and extra background information.. Call me old-school!
- A camera, of course. I like the Canon G series because of its robustness, but it is pricey. Most cheaper point and shoots will do the job fine.
- A netbook/tablet/smart phone can be useful as you’ll find WiFi virtually everywhere. It might be an investment both in money and weight, but you’ll save it in internet cafes. They are everywhere in Europe and can end up taking a considerable amount of your budget. Be warned though, it is extremely easy to lose belongings while jumping from hostels to hostels. Keep this in consideration.
- A small ipod is great for those long train rides or to cover up noises of a busy hostel. Get a used one, they are easy to find and no biggie to lose.
- Start a blog to keep in touch if you like to write. Check out TravelPod. I find it easier than to write emails and trust me, you will cherish your blogs years after when all those memories will fade away.
- Make sure you have a passport valid for a few more years, just in case you might find the love of your life (not kidding!).
- Some countries have special Work-Holiday Visas that allow you to work there up to a year, with some limitations. Even though you might not think of working there, it can be nice to have.
- Get a really good backpack and do not be shy on investing. Your backpack will be your best and closest friend during the trip. Also, get a day bag (smaller backpack that you will carry everywhere with you, while your big pack will stay at wherever you are sleeping).
- If you insist on carrying that enormous rolling suitcase… I have nothing else to say than “Good luck with that!”.
- Clothing selection is a pain. It’s hard to know what to bring, especially if you leave for a long time. Multi layers is the way to go. Bring a small coat that will keep you very warm if you have 2 or 3 layers underneath. Bring one heavy sweater and that will do. Jeans are great, but heavy, so no more than 2 pairs. Technical sport pants are perfect, since they are light and sturdy. Oh and bring lots of socks and underwear. Finding a good spot to clean your clothes should not be difficult (most hostels offer the service). Just remember this: if you are not sure you will wear it, do not bring it! You’ll soon understand how precious the space in your backpack is, do not waste it.
- Shoes : water proof comfortable trek shoes is what you are looking for. I have done all my traveling using ECCO Tracks. They are expensive, but absolutely worth it. Bring a pair of sandals as well.
- 2 big pillow cases. One for your dirty laundry that you can wash at the same time (that is the most practical tip I ever got!) and one for covering a pillow or something else you are not keen on putting your head on (mostly for Asia).
- A small flashlight.
- A multitool.
- A water bottle.
- A medkit can be useful, you can find specialty ones made for travelers.
How did it end?
To me, that first trip ended up being a rebirth. I did things I would have never imagined and came back a different person entirely. I finally felt like I knew who I was and where I belonged.
I let go most of my friends and replaced them with new ones with values closer to mine. And even though it took a little while after I came back, I finally started feeling good about myself.
So what are you waiting for?
Constantly living out of your comfort zone is what you need to learn about your capacities and limitations. It also enlarge that same comfort zone exponentially, enabling you to deal with a lot more difficult situations at any given time.
You will also come back with a more open mind about different cultures. It does not mean you will like them all, or like their habits, but you will at least understand them better.
I only wish everyone could do the same.
So go on, save up some cash and get ready, because the longer you wait, the more this quote from Tyler Durden becomes undeniably true :
“The things you own end up owning you.”