Postcards and lessons learned

When you get back from a trip — especially if it was over two weeks long — your friends and family will ask you how it was and the inevitable answer of good — the standard answer to questions of this nature — is truly inadequate to describe the experience of travel. Perhaps awesome or interesting or some kind of inarticulate hand gesturing would do a better job. Traveling is many things some of which are good, bad, bored, hot, lost, wandering and exhausted. It is also a learning experience. One learns how to pack, how to catch trains, how to read a map — this has never been my forte but I am exponentially better at it — and find your way in foreign places, how to live on little to no sleep, how to eat badly — crepes, waffles and bread are a perfectly acceptable diet — and for little money among other things.

I am employed this summer, which means that I will not be traveling. This is both a blessing and a curse. Travel is expensive and it is nice to sleep in your own bed and see your friends. There is also another part of me that wants to hop a plane somewhere and sort everything out later.

I have several friends who will be traveling this summer and I feel compelled to tell them my stories and give them advice, “Don’t pack too much, this one time…” but I know that my advice may seem tired and their trips will be entirely their own regardless of what advice I have to give. A large part of it is that in any trip mistakes are made and planning could’ve been better. I want them to learn from my mistakes so they have fewer of their own.

This list is mostly about Europe but that’s where I’ve been the most.

Don’t pack too much

Really, don’t. However little you have packed you still have too much. Pack as though you are going on a two day trip, if you have more than that you are going to regret it and your back or shoulder will hurt because of it — trust me one time after carrying my bag up five flights of stairs I had a strap shaped bruise on my shoulder for two days.

Pack your bag early and try to make it as organized as possible. You only really need two or three t-shirts and two pairs of shorts. That’s it. You will get sick of them and you won’t do laundry often but that’s not the point.

Your bag should weigh no more than you can comfortably lift into an overhead luggage rack. If you are traveling on your own this is of particular importance because you won’t have anyone there to help you lift your bag up and down on trains.

Go to places with stuff you want to see

Don’t go to places just because they have cool names or because they were in movies — Bruges and Dusseldorf are exceptions to this rule. Get a bunch of travel books out of the library and find places that have things you want to see. Every city in Europe has a few old churches and a fine arts museum. They get old fast, especially after you’ve been to the Louvre and the British Museum. If you love Picasso go to Madrid to see the Picasso museum. I went to the Hague to go to the MC Esher museum and my time there was awesome. I went to Bourdeau and was bored out of my mind because I don’t like wine and there is little else to do in the region.

Take the time to plan and you will really enjoy yourself. If you like to wing it that’s fun too but in small cities being a tourist can get old fast if there’s nothing you want to see. The world is big. See what you really want to see and the rest will fall into place. In big cities you will never be bored and there are so many choices. Do what matters to you, not what’s on the bucket list — I’m terrified of heights so I didn’t do the Eiffel Tower.

Take time to relax

Getting up everyday and being a tourist is draining — especially when you stay up until one or two every night and miraculously roll out of bed in time to catch the tail end of free breakfast — and sometimes you will find yourself somewhere beautiful and will want nothing more than to sit, read and drink coffee for a couple of hours. Don’t feel like you’re missing out on museums and landmarks, this is half the fun.

Trains aren’t as simple as they might appear

Taking trains isn’t an easy task. I was lucky that I spoke the native language in the country where I took my first few trains and was able to ask confused French train station employees how this whole crazy system worked, while they stared back and said what do you mean how do I take a train?

Be careful when choosing a rail pass. Do your research and make sure that the pass is a better option than booking each section separately or taking the bus. Some countries won’t be a partner in your pass so do your research before ordering. Passes are more forgiving with missing trains — learned this the hard way — than tickets. You often have to book seats/tickets ahead of time for passes. Do this as early as you can once you arrive.

Follow the instructions of your pass, bring all the parts of it and make sure they are filled out properly — you don’t want to get in a yelling match with a mean spirited conductor at 7 a.m. Some people try to scam Eurail and don’t fill their dates out unless they get checked, if you’re not trying to do this get in the habit of filling out the date before you get on the train and into a yelling match with a mean spirited conductor.

Sometimes there are multiple trains leaving from the same platform ten or fifteen minutes apart. Don’t get on too early at busy stations and don’t always trust the advice of employees wearing orange vests. Trains only list the last station they are stopping at as their destination.

You don’t have to bring a backpack

Just because it’s called backpacking doesn’t mean that you have to bring a backpack. Some people like them but if you are somewhere that has lots of paved roads and sidewalks rolling bags can be just as good of an option. If you do bring a backpack bring the bare minimum of stuff and walk around a bit with it before you leave. I did neither and bailed on mine the day I arrived.

Spend time in English bookstores

I find that no matter where I go in the world English bookstores always feel like home.
You have a lot of time to read while taking trains and doing all that stuff so go for it. Don’t be afraid to leave books behind you. They’re heavy and once you’re done a lot of hostels have leave a book take a book shelves.


The best way to see a place is to just wander around and see what’s there.

Have fun out there this summer, wherever the world may take you.

Photos: First – Edinburgh Castle. Second – murals in Belfast.


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