By Stephanie Cairns
What do you see when you picture your dream trip? Turquoise waves over pearl-bright sand? Soaring peaks against polar skies? Florida? Whatever it is, chances are the image is slightly distorted, made rosier by a mental Instagram filter or else cropped in so tightly as to block out every surrounding detail. The practice of traveling is highly romanticized, both by the corporations that seek to promote it and by those who partake in it. Travel is meant to be world-altering, earth-shattering, but also relaxing, rejuvenating, and just so darn fun. And, while it certainly can be some or all of those things, a stress-free picture-perfect holiday often comes at the high cost of well… a high cost. A typical student trip, which even in its most basic form is still likely inaccessible to the typical student, might involve midnight buses, creaky hostel bunkbeds, and afternoons spent scouring travel fare sites in order to save $20.
As such, student travel is first and foremost a skill, a fact that I quickly absorbed on my first ever solo trip. In the course of a week, I lost a sweater, a pair of shorts, a hat I had bought the previous day, and a single shoe. I also got lost on more than one occasion, including in the dead of night with an equally dead phone, a seemingly useless set of printed directions, and barely a word of Croatian (don’t tell my mom about that one). Luckily, travel is a skill that can be acquired and developed, and I’m happy to report that not one shoe was left behind on my most recent expedition.
If you’re planning a holiday with friends, a solo adventure, or even a post-Maymester trip like I took this summer, then this might be just the right time to work on sharpening your travel skills. So, to help you avoid the rather unpleasant experience of sobbing on a bus until a kindly old Croatian woman offers to walk you to your Airbnb, here are my favourite travel tips, courtesy of a travel-obsessed, allergy-ridden, and perennially forgetful millennial.
1: Make a budget!
It’s a tedious task (unless you’re one of us nerds who just really likes spreadsheets), but a budget outlining every predicted expense from groceries to flamenco tickets will prevent you from overspending and will give you a much more precise understanding of the cost of your trip than if you simply summed up your average flight and accommodation costs. As you travel, continue updating your budget, comparing expected costs to real expenses, a practice that will not only keep you accountable on this trip but will leave you with integral information for the planning stage of the next one. For my most recent trip, I created a Google Sheets with tabs for each destination, a document that has now grown to monstrous size and contains such gems as “Lion King ticket and two glasses of wine: $23”. Doing this allowed me to surpass my expected budget by only $73, despite spending almost six weeks overseas, an accomplishment that I wish I could include on my resume.
2: Pack lightly!
Overpacking will lead to tired shoulders, extra fees on budget airlines, and a truly ridiculous amount of time spent trying to squeeze that fourth pair of shoes into your already bulging suitcase whenever you depart for a new location. Despite the whole backpack part of “backpacking”, unless you’re headed to somewhere with rougher roads (think South-East Asia), a carry-on suitcase is an equally optimal choice, especially for the vertically-challenged among us, leaving your shoulder free to carry a more manageable, less ache-inducing bag.
3: Pack smartly!
According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “a towel… is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”. The same is true for the non-interstellar traveler. More specifically, a quick-drying easily-packable microfiber towel is a godsend while on the road, as is a light scarf, which can be used as a blanket, bunched up into a pillow, or worn as a cover up on sunny days or when entering buildings with traditional dress codes. Other key items to bring are a lock for your backpack, suitcase, or hostel locker; a battery bank (to avoid the aforementioned crying on the bus); a set of packing cubes or cloth bags to separate your clothing in your luggage, and an eye mask and ear plugs, as it is statistically impossible to spend more than 4.3 days in a hostel without being woken up either by a jackhammer-like sound emanating from the bed above you or else by a sudden blinding light as your dorm-mates stagger into the room at 3:52 am.
4: Do not let dietary restrictions or allergies frighten you from traveling.
Utilize your local grocery store and hostel kitchen as much as you can and make note of the best times to frequent each one (hint: it’s not around suppertime when every person in your hostel suddenly realizes they have nothing to eat). If you don’t speak the local language, write down the translations of your particular no-go foods to search for on labels, or to be extra safe, simply stick to whole foods. Figure out your go-to snacks (for me on my last trip it was almonds, apples, and dried chick peas), and keep yourself well-stocked. Pack Tupperware, a Thermos for day-trips, and your own cutlery, as hostels typically frown on you stealing their fork to eat your vegan stir-fry on the bus to your next destination. Always carry extra epi-pens, puffers, antihistamine, Tylenol, or anything you might need, and look up the emergency number for each country you visit. Most importantly, relax and try not to overthink it all. If I, the prototypical “one with the allergies” (gluten, and dairy, and eggs, oh my! But also peanuts, and sesame, and hazel nuts, and…) could travel nine weeks this summer and encounter nothing worse than an occasional stomach ache, I promise you can do it too (hopefully minus the stomach aches). And, if you’re one of those lucky eat-everything types, then the previous advice is still a failsafe way to save money (except maybe the part about stuffing your bag with a plethora of expensive drugs).
5: There are a lot of Annoying Things™ waiting to ruin your trip – don’t let them.
Get travel insurance (seriously, just do it). Don’t book tight connections with layovers under an hour. Pre-book tickets to attractions online and smile smugly as you saunter past the winding ticket lines. Unlock your phone – Canadian phone companies are now legally required to do this for free – and upon arrival, buy a SIM card. Proceed to complain loudly to everyone you meet that Canadian phone plans are ludicrously overpriced (I paid $15 for 45 GB of data in Australia. I wish that was a joke). Get a VPN on your phone – it will enhance your security while also allowing you to rant loudly as you watch the abysmal Game of Thrones finale through your Canadian Crave account, despite being in London. Save copies of your travel documents to Google Drive. Send your itinerary to your parents or a trusted friend, so if you get kidnapped on a beach in Mallorca, at least someone will know where to start looking. Be very careful with your possessions in certain large cities. Pack two payment cards and leave one in your hostel, Google common scams in your destination, and think strategically about where to store your cash, ID, or credit card when out and about. Pockets can be picked, purse straps snipped, and entire bags can be snatched from the backs of chairs outside cafes. In Barcelona, I kept my card in the buttoned breast pocket of my jean jacket and luckily avoided any nefariousness, but I met many a fellow traveler who had had their wallets stolen in a night club, on the metro, or simply on a busy street. And finally, always always double check under your bus seat, behind your bed, or in your locker, because losing one shoe is just really embarrassing.
6: Lastly, ensure that your trip meets your emotional needs.
Every feeling is heightened when you travel, especially if it’s your first time abroad, and doubly so if it’s your first time abroad alone. Highs and lows become mountain peaks and canyon trenches (sometimes even literally). Small things like broken flip flops can instigate emotional turmoil (true story: I once heard a guy rant for ten minutes about the tragedy of his broken flip flop while his girlfriend attempted to soothe him). Sometimes loneliness washes everything into gray, while at other times you feel so smothered by the constant flow of humans that you snap at the next friendly traveler that you “just want to be left alone, is that too much to ask?”. It’s critical that you are able to identify your emotions and take the necessary steps to address them. Do you need to slow down and spend a day lounging around, speaking to no one, blocking each well-meaning face through the power of headphones? Or conversely, do you need to distract yourself by jumping into a social activity and meeting new people? Free hostel tours are unparalleled for this, and I have never had an easier time making friends than when I was traveling.
Despite the occasional tear or shoe shed, travel has provided me with some of the most singular experiences of my life. Skydiving in Australia. Snorkeling in Iceland. Living for four months in France at 19. I am immensely grateful to have had these opportunities, because in tandem to growing into a more confident and capable traveler, I have grown into a more confident and capable person. Therefore, if you are in a position to do so, I encourage you to take advantage of UPEI’s superb study abroad opportunities. Get out there, stumble around a little, make a funny mistake or two, and then come home and plan to do it all again.