Travel tips from my shoestring days
When I was in university, I didn't have a lot of money for traveling. Lucky for me, I had an adventurous friend who wasn't afraid of traveling on a budget. We had a lot of fun adventures together throughout Europe, buying the cheap train tickets and sleeping at CouchSurfing hosts to save money on accommodation. I found that the art of slow travel can give an extra dimension to traveling, which makes it a lot more enjoyable. This is what I learned during those trips.
Don't lug around too much stuff
Traveling light means you have more energy left to enjoy your travels. Also: checking in and out of airports becomes a matter of minutes.
Take your time
It's better to stay too long in one place than to run through all items on your "5000 things to see before you die" list.
When traveling in Rome, I met four girls from the US who where viewing Europe in four days. Europe. Four days. That meant hardly any sleep, long train trips with only distant views of a few very beautiful cities, and never sitting down for a proper meal. Another friend did "Paris in 24 hours", which included the bustrip to and from.
This all sounds very exhausting to me, and it's definitely not the way I want to travel. It leaves no room for the stuff that I like best: enjoying the food, getting lost, meeting new people, trying new things.
Embrace not being in control
When I travel, I find that not being in control gives me great sense of peace. Not knowing where I'll eat or sleep next, I have to focus on getting around and surviving in a strange new city. This means I don't have any time left to worry, over-think and over-analyze everything, which (ironically) means that I end up making better decisions.
The first thing to do when in a new city
This is the best travel tip I've ever read on a blog: when you arrive in a new city, take a break immediately upon arrival. Sit down for 30 minutes. Take some time to settle. Grab a cup of coffee and recharge from traveling by train or airplane. Observe the people that walk by. Find a free tourist map. Chat with the barista and get your first travel recommendation.
Do as the Romans do
In my experience, asking recommendations from locals is the key to comfortable, authentic travel. They can tell you about the best food in town, the tourist traps you need to avoid and the best way to get around.
When I was couchsurfing in Spain and Sweden, the couchsurfing hosts provided me with great tips: the best spots for a barbecue, a hidden zoo in the middle of town, a local battle-of-the-bands-event (which was the best activity we did for that particular town), a beautiful garden which was also accessible at night and the location of the best coffee bar in town.
Some ideas for obtaining this super secret information:
- Just ask someone! Talk to random people on the street or in shops. Ask them whether they live around here, and what they think is the best place for dinner, a drink, or some fun.
- I always check the local Wikitravel page before I travel. This has helped me in the past with avoiding tourist scams and other negative experiences. It has also saved me a lot of money on subway tickets in Paris and London. ;)
- Try to find local guides to the city. Google for blogposts describing the local hotspots and check out the local tourist office. In Brussels, I found this really cool map made for students, by students. Me and my travel companions ended up having dinner for less than 5 euros in a restaurant that catered to the local Chinese population.
Do the normal stuff
Don't forget to have a taste of daily life in the country you're visiting. Visit a supermarket. Celebrate a national holiday together with locals. Have a barbecue. Watch a sports game and root for the local team. Join your CouchSurfing host for a cup of coffee. View life through the eyes of the local population, and you'll really get to know a country.
When I was London, of the most fun things I did was go to a Waitrose supermarket and buy EVERYTHING I wanted to try. I ended up with a dragons hoard of chutney, Fentiman's soda, tea and chocolate. In Germany, I went crazy with buying all kinds of mate soda. And of course, the best place to buy Belgian beers and chocolate is in a Belgian supermarket.
Dare to wander
Dare to just go somewhere and see where you end up. Dare to be lost.
When I was in Rome, me and a friend rented an appartment in Monti. Every morning we would leave our appartment, choose a random direction and just start walking. We would have breakfast at the first inviting-looking coffee bar, find some sandwiches or pizza al taglia and continue walking. After a week, we knew the part of the city where we stayed by heart, and we didn't need a map anymore. It feels great to be in the largest cities of Europe and to know exactly where you are -- and where the nearest coffee bar is.
Don't hide behind your camera
I once took a camera with me on my trip and ended up with 5000 photo's of cows, buildings, views and bicycle lanes and absolutely NO MEMORY of the trip itself whatsoever. If a landmark or view is worth making a photo of with your smartphone, it's worth looking at it with your own eyes. I figured I can always buy a postcard that'll look more picturesque than I'll be ever able to take.
Write in your travel journal
Write about your experiences! My travel journals are a better keepsake than all the souvernirs I could have bought on my travels.
I used to tack five blank A4 sheets together, and toss them in my bag with 2 pens. My travel journal was not a fancy molekine, but it weighed almost nothing and hardly took up any space -- very important when you're traveling with only one small backpack. I used the journal to scribble down everything, from bus schedules and phone numbers of couchsurfing hosts to handdrawn maps to the places we wanted to visit. The sheets that remained, I filled with random drawings and observations.
Don't forget to take time off
It's really important to recharge your batteries every now and then. This is especially important to keep in mind when you're traveling for business or for a longer period of time. Business trips, with activities like long meetings, conferences or training sessions can be super-tiring. If you feel obligated to spend your evenings off racing around town to get all the tourist things, you can easily feel overwhelmed.
I heard from many people that they find it hard to slow down during travel and take some time to do nothing. Some people even feel really guilty when they decide stay in to relax.
If you feel like spending your evening in pyjama's watching a series while eating popcorn: go ahead and enjoy it! Stock up on tasty food in the local supermarket and do absolutely nothing for a while. Traveling should be fun, don't forget that.
I hope these tips help you. Happy traveling and enjoy the journey! :)