An interesting thing happened to me yesterday that got me really thinking, and pondering times and trips gone by. A wonderful young woman, a very good friend of my daughter’s, is finishing up university and heading off travelling to Europe, backpacking with a friend. Talk about an exciting adventure! Oh, to re-live our year long backpack trip way back in 1989! She wrote this to me:
“Hi Sheri, in about 21 days, I’ll be heading off to Europe for two and a half months. Emily told me that you’ve been quite a few times. I also love reading your blog, so I was wondering if you had any tips, tricks, and suggestions about backpacking in Europe. “
Other than your wits, sense of humour, a friendly demeanour & a good dose of common sense, that is! Make sure it is always with you and always secure.
Don’t use a neck pouch. I know they’re more comfortable. Just don’t. They’re too easy to cut and rip off… plus, if you’re wearing a t-shirt, the cord is visible and advertises that you have valuables on you and that you are a tourist. A money belt worn on your waist and under your clothes is best. And definitely DON’T put it in a day pack, even if it’s tucked away and out of site!
Do the same with your travelling partner’s. And put it in your money belts, folded & put in a ziplock bag to guard against sweat smudging. No grumbling about the added bulk allowed. This will ensure that if you are pick pocketed, or if things are stolen, you still have a copy of everything on hand so they’re much quicker to replace at an embassy or a bank.
A photo on your phone won’t do it, as a phone is most likely going to be targeted for theft, too. Uploading to the cloud might not work either, as you might not have a device to quickly access the info, if it disappears too or if it runs out of battery. Good ‘ol fashioned ink & paper is best.
Write on this sheet of paper any contact phone numbers, so you can cancel cards quickly and efficiently. Most banks have out-of-country toll-free long distance numbers for you to call to make this simple.
(…and a cutting board and knife, if you’re not going through a museum security check point. For real. See tip #8). Leave most things behind on your day trips. Even if you are checking out of a hotel or hostel, they will usually store big packs at the desk or in a special room until you move on to catch a train or a plane later in the day.
Buying food in grocery stores versus eating out at restaurants and fast food places will have you feeling better (you eat healthier with far less sugar, salt & fat, so you feel better, and you sleep better and have more energy to explore and carry your pack). This will save you a TON of money.
When we travel, even when we don’t have access to a fridge, we carry a cutting board, ziplock bags and a sheathed paring knife in our backpacks, along with a knife sharpener (I like my knives sharp, what can I say), a small bottle of dish soap, a cork screw and a wine stopper (I like my little indulgences). Making a cheese & pickle sandwich, cutting cheese for a baguette, popping open a bottle of cheaply bought vin de table, cutting & sharing an apple or veggies on the go, or packing up a lunch for a long hike is easy this way.
We also carry with us reusable shopping bags that fold down to next to nothing. They clip easily onto a daypack or camera case. They make grocery shopping on the go…. and then packing a “personal item” on the plane that holds souvenirs on the way home… far easier.
If you fall asleep, even if you’re in your own cabin, make sure your partner is awake. I woke up on a ferry, on the crossing from Sweden to Finland once, with someone feeling around my waist for my money belt. I’d found a dark corner to sleep in, by myself. Not a good idea.
It happens. This makes it not an “end of the world” moment of anxiety. There are higher banking fees to eat doing this, but it’s safer… so you need to weigh the added cost (about $5/transaction here in Canada) against the risk of money getting stolen.
It’s also a good idea to put your debit card and a credit card inside a RFID-read-proof case, just in case of identity theft. They carry them in travel stores and can be as simple as a foil-lined paper slip cover envelope. You really don’t need (or want the bulk of) anything fancy.
And watch your online banking regularly to make sure that no unauthorized or duplicate transactions go through. If they do, contact your bank, using their toll-free overseas number, right away.
Over the years, we’ve generally found that spending 5-7 days is about the right amount of time to stay in a place, find its neat features, get to know its shops and people, before we are restless and ready to move on. It is far more comfortable, not having to worry about moving on every day or two… and you waste a lot of time packing, unpacking, getting to and settling into a new place.
So pick a place, stay 5 days, and venture out from there… even if it means taking a train an hour away and then coming back in the evening. When you’re on the road, there’s something comforting about putting your head down on the same pillow each night.
There’s no more fun way to explore the roads of Greek islands and coastal settings, with their deliciously twisty roads, than on a moped.
They’re a really unique view and insight into a culture. Not to mention a source of good, cheap food.
I’ll never forget seeing a hay wagon, heaping with an 8 foot tall pile of hot peppers in a local market in Urgup, Turkey. What a sight! Or those pigs’ heads sitting on a tarp on the ground beside a towering pile of ginger roots at an impromptu hill tribe market in Chiang Dao, Thailand.
I’m not sure what your budget and finances are like, but hiring a guide to do something fun and to better your knowledge is well, well, worth the investment…. be it a walking tour of the streets of Rome where a guide tells you bits of history and makes the place come alive through his or her stories, or a guide who keeps you safe and teaches you the technique of rappelling to go canyoning in a river gorge somewhere. Being told something by a local is so much better than listening to a recording or reading about it in a guide book. You’ll learn things you’ll never know you missed!
Always, always ask questions.
Then, if worse comes to worse, and you feel it stretches your budget too much to do it, stay in an inexpensive small town somewhere, off the beaten track, to save up money to be spent on a guide somewhere else. You’ll see a slice of life off the beaten track that you wouldn’t otherwise experience, staying in that small town…. and sometimes you need to do this and build up stop-time places, simply to rest up and relax (see tip #29).And if a kind family member or friend wants to give you a going away present… ask for a guided tour of some place you plan to go. Just be sure to cross reference and check up on the experience of other travellers with the organization or guide before you commit, on a place like TripAdvisor.
Take a bar of hard laundry soap (you can find it in the supermarket… ours is a Sunlight one, I think… we’ve had it for years and used it on countless trips), a large universal sink plug and a nail scrubbing brush with you. We do sink laundry wherever we go. Your clothes look better, socks don’t get lost in a laundromat (that happens a lot), and you save yourself money and, believe it or not, time. It takes 5 minutes at night to wash, wring out & hang the day’s clothes.
This may seem really silly and counter intuitive… for the best photos, make sure your clothes are not too wildly patterned. Solid bright tops and neutral bottoms work and look best over time as styles and tastes change.
(There’s this awesome pic of me and Bill on top of Mount Sinai in Egypt…. we’d just come back from a few weeks of learning to scuba dive on the Red Sea, but Bill is wearing this “Red Sea Divers Do It Deeper” on…. it just CAN’T go on our family wall, if you know what I mean! heh heh).
If you plan to share your photos or stories in any way that’s more meaningful than Instagram, take a very small notebook with you. There are these tiny ones you can get at Chapters/Indigo that are hard cover and have an elastic to keep them shut as they get bigger with humidity & use. And take a fine lined sharpie pen (they never smudge and can write on paper even when it’s super damp from rainforest humidity).
I’ve always travelled with a notebook like this and made notes and written impressions, sometimes I’ve even jotted down overheard conversations! It’s a way to create, a way to take things in, a way to force me to slow down and really think about the experience, so it doesn’t all go by in a blur. Sometimes I write in a cafe, sometimes on a train or plane, sometimes at night as I wind down at the end of the day. It is these notes that I use, later, to write my blog.
I also pack a glue stick and a small pair of scissors and glue in ticket stubs, leaves, pics from brochures, etc. Believe me, years later, it is SO much fun to go through these!
You may not like this piece of advice… like it or not, you are an absolutely beautiful young woman.
This will be an advantage (smile brightly, and people will bend over backwards to help you out and do things for you), so work it. It will open doors and give you quick access to some fun experiences.
It will also be a disadvantage (you will get whistled at, cat-called, and most likely, get pinched or touched)… this comes with the territory, especially, as a young woman travelling, and especially when travelling in male dominated societies (like Italy, Greece, Turkey & Egypt…. I’m saying this from my own experiences… I was once young & beautiful). You do not want to get taken advantage of and you do not want to get yourself in a bad situation and come to harm. Most of the comments and gestures are meant in good fun, but it can bring on uncomfortable attention.
So…. practice confident body language and street smarts… head up, lots of eye contact, pockets zipped or buttoned up, no revealing shirts, purposeful stride (even when you don’t know where you are going), and ask elderly people/shopkeepers for directions. Don’t walk down unlit streets at night (take a cab or have someone walk you if it can’t be avoided). Don’t venture into alleyways, unaccompanied. Use your street smarts.
If the attention gets really annoying, go into a market and buy a cheap ring that looks like a wedding band and wear it on the ring finger of your left hand.
Even though, technically speaking, introducing yourself to germs that you haven’t encountered before strengthens your immune system, no one really wants to get sick on a holiday. And we’re more likely to get sick, encountering a foreign germ. So we travel with Wet Ones Antibacterial Wipes and the second we get on a plane we wipe down the seatbelt buckle, the tray table (front, back & latch), the tv screen (if it’s a touch screen), the arm rests, and the window wall (if we’re in a window seat).
I’ll never forget the time our daughter was in her, let’s call it, “more difficult early teenage years,” and she refused to do it, or to let me do it. She was the one who started the holiday, a day later, with a cold. Everyone else was good. I do this to hotel door knobs and light switches too, as they pretty much never get wiped down.
(This one might bother you and sort of goes hand in hand with tip #26). Travelling opens up a wide, and wonderful world and there is no place that it is more evident, than as travelling as a woman in a foreign culture (honestly, guys, I’m sorry you don’t get to experience the nuances of this).
Rather than fight it, embrace it. Wear a head covering where it is appropriate to do so, cover up bare shoulders and legs in religious places, don’t take photographs inside churches and temples, leave your tight running tights at home, etc. Park your judgement. Quell any sense of outrage. In this way, you’ll open yourself up to more facets of the experience.
This cultural sensitivity will go a along way to helping you to learn, and to understand differing world views.
Believe it or not, when you travel for a while, you really do need to build in little holidays from your holiday.
If you don’t, that sense of novelty, and the sense of inquisitiveness and wonder that comes with it, will fade into monotony. You are travelling to learn and to experience things. You are travelling to grow and develop. You are travelling to come to terms with who you are and who you want to be. You can’t do this if you are overtired, bored, stressed or restless. Build in breaks that feel like breaks to you (a day on the beach, a day spent reading at a cafe, a day spent snorkelling), and you will stay alive and truly experience things in your travels.
Some of our best adventures have come from seizing the moment and running with it, in a true, carpe diem kind of way. Rather than go to Italy, we decided to follow Australian friends we’d made in Austria and head up to find them at their relatives’ place in Denmark, a place that we had already been. It was well worth the trip, gave us an opportunity to stay with locals, deepen our friendships, and see a wonderful country that we long to return to… and we’ve since found ways to get to Italy.
Or there was the time when we did a long, 17km day hike down the Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete, and rather than head left, taking the ferry back to our original destination, we took a different ferry right and spent a few days hopping along with only our daypacks, trusting that our larger packs would be ok at our old hotel (this was pre-cell phone, pre-internet, and the places we were going to were very small villages with no phone lines). Without toiletry bags or changes of clothes, this marked a time in his life when Bill grew his first beard.
One of the things that makes travelling spontaneously easy is a Eurail Pass, though looking it up online it sure seems expensive now! But it gives you the flexibility to travel wherever and whenever you want. And riding the rails eliminates the cost of a night’s accommodation, if you plan it wisely.
Don’t stick to a set itinerary… or be tempted to check things off a list (in a 17 countries in 15 days approach). Be comfortable, seizing the moment and staying in a place that has a hold on you. And conversely, move along if it just doesn’t do it for you.
Travel by planes, trains, automobiles, busses, ferries, shared taxis (in Asia try song-tows and tuk tuks), cable cars, dug out canoes, and by foot. In Europe, try lift-assisted hiking, taking ski lifts up to the mountain tops in summer to get into the alpine views quickly with a fraction of the effort. Nowhere can you try so many different modes of transportation than when you’re backpack travelling. You have time to take on the logistics of travelling in obscure ways, so go with it. Widen your experience this way, and your world view will open up in surprising ways.
When travelling that year, we wrote letters and postcards home… something that not many people do anymore. People love to get “real” mail! Not only are the stamps and postmarks super cool, but seeing these old letters and reading the memories contained in them, makes for an awesome keepsake later on. It’s a snapshot in time of who I was as well… so it’s fascinating all these decades later. My grandmother and my great, great aunt are long gone from this world, but I still have the letters and postcards I sent to them.