As a student, in 2010, I was lucky enough to be have the opportunity to study abroad – specifically, I did a Master’s degree in Australia for roughly 11 months before coming home to complete the last third of the degree on Canadian soil. In this time I had the good fortune (and sense) to make the most of my time overseas by doing as much traveling and sight-seeing as I could so that, in the event that I never get back to that side of the world, I will have seen as much as possible.
Leaving Australia in late 2010 (November 23rd, to be exact), I had a gameplan for my next two and a half months of travel, but how did it all come to fruition, and what are the biggest tips that I can pass along to any would-be circumnavigators of the globe? Below are the five biggest reasons my trip was a success – from the planning stage, to execution, to arriving home safely.
1. Develop a plan with a skeleton.
Two months before I left Australia I had the ambitious notion of an “around-the-world” trip. After bandying this idea around with friends and testing their interest in being a travel companion, I began to realize that a) my idea was a popular one, but b) it was a “great idea” for me to do, but not something the average friend would be interested in signing up for. It felt good to share this plan with them, and positive feedback was a boon to my spirits and ego, however, it lulled me into putting off actually booking that first flight for some time because I had already received some pre-trip praise and experienced the brief thrill of the thought of traversing the globe on my own. Once I realized the erroneous nature of these feelings I snapped out of it and gone down to business.
I started looking into websites with Around-the-World tickets and found, very quickly, that not only were my destinations quite limited with this option, but the price for so few stops was also quite egregious. Instead, I opted (over the course of two back-to-back days) to decide on the basic route that I would take home to Canada, and then book all the flights individually. This meant, in some cases, that I was booking into a country in one location, then out of the same country in another (eg. in to New Zealand’s Christchurch on the South Island, and out of the North Island’s Auckland). Figuring out the middle bit was the true adventure anyway, and the bigger details (rental cars, specifically) I worked out before my flight into the country, as a general rule.
From here I went on to book 20 flights over 16 countries, and then let the possibilities stir in my mind. I knew only the general route I’d be taking and, most importantly, when I needed to be in certain places for departure and, ultimately, how much time that gave me to experience whichever country was at hand.
The route, for those interested, was as follows:
Gold Coast, Australia –> Christchurch, NZ (rental car to Auckland, NZ, with a ferry trip in the middle), Auckland –> Cairns, Australia –> Bali –> Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia –> Phuket, Thailand –> Chiang Mai, Thailand –> Bangkok, Thailand –> Cairo, Egypt –> Athens, Greece –> Rome, Italy (trains, busses, etc. to Florence, then Venice), Venice, Italy –> London, England –> Amsterdam, Netherlands –> Berlin, Germany –> Brussels, Belgium –> Madrid, Spain –> Marrakech, Morocco –> Paris, France –> Nice, France (bus to Monaco and back) –> London, England –> Toronto, Canada.
It was a whirlwind journey for sure, and I was criticized at times for the speedy nature of the trip (66 days), however, while I didn’t learn everything there is to know about each of my destinations, I got a taste for each place – and that’s all I was after in some cases. Developing this basic skeleton gave me the knowledge ahead of time that would help me plan all the finer, in-between details, like what to see first and, moreover, what things I refused to leave the country before seeing. This, then, gave me general structure to follow once I landed in each airport – that is to say, I’d hit the ground running.
2. Ask Questions, Ask for Recommendations, Ask for Advice
One of the greatest assets you have, as a traveller, is also the single most abundant resource on your travels – the people indigenous to each country you visit. Nine times out of ten they will have useful information to share with you, and I am literally unable to count the number of times I was pointed in the direction of something totally awesome by someone just because I had the courage to ask, simply “if there are any stops nearby that I should make,” even of people whose jobs were totally unrelated to tourism. When in a country that doesn’t use English as a first language, this can be slightly more difficult, however, there is a Plan B: your fellow travellers.
No big deal, right?
Showing up to a hostel after self-navigating an entire metropolis on foot or via confusing bus/tram routes (I’m looking at you, Hiroshima), only to find your 12-bed sleeping quarters populated solely with the bags of fellow adventurers can feel a tinge lonely and leave you scratching your head. It’s tempting to sit, relax, and try and catch your bearings in this new and strange environment, but the first thing you should do is grab a book or your travel journal, and find the lounge / eating area in the hostel. Anyone that is currently recouping from a long day of sight-seeing or just planning their evening is typically hanging out here and, perhaps not surprisingly, most speak some semblance of English. Finding out what they’ve done so far with their time in the area can be invaluable, and they may even alert you to tourist-traps to watch out for. If they aren’t able to contribute any of that, they may, like you, have only recently arrived and might (fingers crossed) be up for a mutual adventure in the near future. “Fast friends” must, truly, be a term created by travellers because it has no truer basis.
Ultimately, every connection you make – whether it’s with locals or backpackers alike – means a higher chance of enjoying your trip to the fullest. While one tip might lead you to the most extraordinary view, another might point you to the best, cheapest food in town, and yet another to a worthwhile excursion. These, as every traveller knows, are the essential building blocks to one massively successful adventure.
3. Invest Appropriately
While this may come as common sense, as a traveller you must understand which areas you’re willing to sacrifice, and which must be up to a certain standard. I think, importantly, a safe “home base” to arrive at each day or night or sight-seeing is as important to me as most people, however, what different aspects constitute the definition of “safe,” and what else should we be looking for in this particular area?
While I didn’t particularly mind coming “home” to a room full of 12 or 15 strangers, snoring and talking in their sleep at different volumes, everyone has a different standard of privacy they are willing to accept. What I think, however, is a mostly static desire of most travellers, is the desire to feel safe in this environment, not only in the physical sense, but in the monetary sense as well. Travellers (and outright tourists especially) are some of the easiest targets for expert thieves, and you would be smart to be wary of some of your fellow travellers, and of hostel staff, on top of the general populous. For this reason, finding accommodation with lockers or some other means of storing your valuables is downright essential in my opinion. Being able to leave some of your most precious valuables (ie. passport, spare cash, etc.) in a “safe zone” while you’re out exploring is one of the ultimate traveller’s luxuries as it frees up the entirety of your mind for enjoying the day at hand and the sights in front of you.
Similarly, consider your tolerance for food and travel in your budget and spend accordingly in these areas too. While I was almost always fine to grab a “take out” rice and sushi meal from one of Japan’s many 7/11’s, it may not be for everyone, and finding a cheap restaurant may be the best alternative.
In any case, figure out what is most important to you in terms of comfort, and invest accordingly. This can be assisted by virtual trips to websites such as Hostel World.com. I, for one, set my personal hostelworld “comfort zone” at an 80% overall user rating or higher – and that worked out just fine for me.
Furthermore, one of the greatest pieces of information that I can share is the affordability of flights around Europe. My eight flights in Europe / Morocco between leaving and arriving back in the UK were a combined $280 CDN dollars; this, importantly, is because I travelled with only a carry-on bag and flew with carriers RyanAir and EasyJet. Flights with these guys can start at less than 10 Euros (yes, I said 10), and while not the most comfortable experience you’ll ever have in your life, you’re riding a goddamn plane for the monetary equivalent of a couple of pints of beer. Be advised, however, that this carry-on-only policy restricts any excess beyond your one bag: no purses, camera or laptop bags etc. – I was even made to remove my Canon T2i from hanging around my neck and cram it into my already overpacked bag just to avoid a 30 Euro surcharge!
4. Common Sense and Intuition are Your Best Friends (That Don’t Visit Often Enough)
Too often do people get themselves into terrible situations because they are too trusting, naive, or just generally lacking so-called ‘common’ sense. We are all guilty of getting ourselves into a situation that could have gone south at any moment, then somehow escaped unscathed, but in getting into these situations we all do a form of risk-assessment that is important to making the decision to go through with something or not.
When I landed in Marrakech, Morocco, my biggest concern was finding the riad I would be staying in before the sun went down. The streets, even in daylight, were chaotic, heavily populated, and confusing at best, and finding the one obscure doorway I needed to find in a maze of beige/brown corridors would become a near insurmountable task as twilight fell upon the city. Once we made it to the central market we became targets for any locals looking to make a few extra bucks by guiding us to the riad – we were, for all intents and purposes, completely lost and our only option, it seemed, was to trust a complete stranger to guide us deeper and deeper into dark, twisting alleyways on our search. When our impromptu guide got us lost and phoned his friend to help us out, thereby putting us in a two v. two situation should anything bad happen (not to mention the prospect of the two men leading us into any sort of ambush which could have lay around any of the corridor’s numerous blind turns), a feeling of unease washed over me. We were, after all, two white dudes that were (very obviously) carrying a lot of stuff – most of which could likely be inferred to have some significant value. We followed the men, though at a distance of three to four paces so we might have the time to react to any potential attacks, and eventually found the riad. Luckily, our fears weren’t realized and, ultimately, seemed a bit silly in retrospect – however, people are robbed or hurt and perhaps killed in situations like this every day, and while we were lucky in how our situation turned out, not everyone may be.
Hey mister, can I pet your dog?
The bottom line? Use your head. If something doesn’t feel right, there’s a good chance that it isn’t, or at the very least that it could be. If you’ve already committed to something, however, take any precautions to can to minimize your risk from that point onward; it could just save your life (or your wallet). We avoided any kind of harm or personal loss in this story, but there were other times where I was literally scammed out of hundreds of dollars, almost had my wallet stolen from right in front of me, and was tricked into paying far more than appropriately value for something, so always be on guard!
5. You Hesitate, You Die!
One of the philosophies that I developed while traveling through Europe was the notion of “you hesitate, you die!” This mantra had applications that ranged from something as simple to crossing the street, to more significant actions like deciding on excursions (eg. overnight camel-treks into the Sahara dessert, or using a 10 hour layover in Cairo to get to the Pyramids and Sphinx). While this does seem to potentially contradict the previous tip, hesitation should actually be considered your number one enemy as it is the biggest reason for not doing things, meeting people, or going places.
People hesitate for any number of reasons, but when traveling it is vital to seize the time that we have, wherever we may be, and to use it create the memories of our trip that will last us a lifetime.