Travelling overseas is a great way to learn about the world, but for whatever reason, I waited until I was in my 30s to take my first trip. But I'm glad I did: it promptly proved wrong most of the assumptions I'd made about the world.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Tourist Attractions Are Still Tourist Attractions, No Matter Where You Are
When I think of tourist attractions at home, I usually think of long lines, overpriced food, crazy ticket prices and an abundance of people. Somehow, I thought things would be different in Europe. I was wrong.
The lines for Anne Frank's house, the Van Gogh Museum and the Pergamon Museum are intense, even if you go during "off peak" hours. If I wanted to visit all the most famous spots, I'd have spend 50 per cent of my time in lines.
It didn't take long to realise just how much time I'd waste if I decided to see these places. Yes, they're legendary and cool to visit, but was it worth the time? In most cases, no. So I sought out other attractions. The Bauhaus Museum in Berlin rarely has a wait and is incredibly fascinating. The KattenKabinet is an absurd, wonderful little cat museum in Amsterdam.
But more importantly, just walking around cities proved far more interesting than waiting in a line. All told, it was about 100 miles of walking over the course of two weeks. Walking led to amazing bars, abandoned amusement parks, and all sorts of things I'd never find on a tourist map.
I'm not suggesting anyone skip out on museums they want to go to. Just prepare yourself for those lines and give yourself the freedom to roam around a city blindly for a bit. The things you'll find on an aimless walk are often just as interesting.
The World's Not as Scary as You Might Think
With youth comes a bit of recklessness, and if you're lucky enough to travel when you're young, the idea of not speaking a language and repeatedly getting lost is exhilarating. As an adult, it's terrifying. But it's not nearly as scary as I made it out to be in my head beforehand.
Everything about international travel is a little scary the first time. If you think too much about going through customs or figuring out a transit system ahead of time, you'll work yourself into a panic. However, once you're actually in those situations, they aren't that terrifying. At least in Europe, you'll find signs that tell you exactly where to go, how to hail a taxi, how to unload you bag for security screening, and everything else.
In fact, I was less confused in airports and public transit in Europe than I was in most of America. Signs are specifically made as a sort of "international language" and it's easy to understand them at a glance. It's all easy to figure out in the moment, so don't stress about it ahead of time.
Likewise, most international travel tips have all kinds of fear-mongering rubbish. Rick Steves pushes the money belt like he's got stock in them and it's easy to find posts talking up the dangers of people taking advantage of you.
Of course, robberies happen and plenty of people will try to take advantage of you, but it doesn't seem to happen any more than it does at home. Do you wear a money belt when you visit Times Square? If not, you probably don't need one in Amsterdam either. Pay attention to your surroundings and operate with a bit of common sense. If I felt like I was in a high traffic tourist spot where pickpockets might be around, I put my wallet in my front pocket.
If I worried someone was overcharging me for something because I was a tourist, I didn't buy it. If I felt like I'd wandered into a bad part of town, I'd either get out quickly or duck in somewhere with a lot of people and call a taxi.
But that's all besides the point. In most cases, people aren't all out to get you. In fact, unless you're wearing a safari hat, khaki shorts, knee high socks and sandals while taking selfies at every national monument, people won't even realise you're a tourist until you open your mouth. Pay attention to the world around you, but don't let it keep you from enjoying yourself when you're travelling.
You Get Used to Asking for Help
Nobody likes to look stupid, but that's basically impossible when you're in a country you've never been to. The good news is, as long as you deliver your stupidity with a smile, looking dumb isn't as bad as you think.
I spent a lot of my time on my holidays lost and confused. I'd get turned around on streets because I couldn't understand the grid system and I'd furrow my brow at restaurant menus. I quickly learned that in order to have a good time, I needed to suck up my pride and ask questions.
The benefit here is twofold. For one, when you ask questions, you get answers and can move along to finding what you want. But you also meet people. I was struggling through a beer menu at a bar in Amsterdam one afternoon and asked for help. The bartender ended up being super helpful and chatty. He also volunteered places to grab dinner, offbeat museums to check out, and a few lesser-known attractions to visit.
This type of information is so much easier to come across in conversation than it is when you ask point blank for suggestions. People like being experts, and when you make them feel like that, it's easy to talk with them about anything.
It's a lesson I've brought home with me too. We like to think we're the centre of the universe, but nobody's paying that much attention to you. I'm a lot more comfortable looking stupid these days. I just don't feel stupid while I'm doing it.
You Don't Need to Be Multilingual
Before mobile phones and computers, travelling the world meant carrying around phrasebooks, learning the basics of a language and struggling through regional dialects just to order food. While that's still useful and necessary in some parts of the world, you can't be expected to learn the language for every country you ever visit. You can get by with less these days, as long as you're respectful.
As we've talked about before, getting by in a foreign country when you don't speak the language isn't that hard. When you're at a restaurant, pointing to a menu item you can't pronounce makes you feel a little stupid, but it works. Language translator apps can fill in a lot of gaps too, but don't rely on them too heavily because you'll end up just staring at your phone the whole time.
For everything else, a little basic courtesy, awareness and humbleness go a long way. Apologising for not speaking the language and politely asking for help is all you need.
It's not just language barriers, either. It's also worth just paying attention to basic customs. In Berlin, I found that most restaurants didn't have hosts and you just seat yourself. I also found that they usually wanted me to pay at a desk up front as opposed to paying my server. In Copenhagen they had a special credit card and often didn't take Visa, so I quickly learned I needed cash, or (perhaps obnoxiously) ask if they took Visa before I ordered to avoid any hang-ups. These little differences take some getting used to just as much as the language barriers do, but if you pay attention to what the locals are doing, you'll learn a lot.
Budgeting for a Trip Is a Lot Easier than It Seems
The main reason I never travelled when I was younger was because the price seemed insurmountable. Plane tickets combined with lodging and food for a couple weeks seemed like they would take half my year's pay. But while it's certainly a luxury, it's not as outrageously priced as I expected.
We've covered all kinds of ways to save money when you travel, from the best airline booking sites to accommodation. In my case, I went off season (but still in the not-too-frigid month of May) to keep flights cheap and booked through Airbnb for places to stay, which I split with my travel mate.
I also found most travel cost estimates useless, because they factored in all types of expenses I didn't care about. In the end, I only cared about flights, accommodations, and food. I was travelling with a small backpack, so I wasn't buying souvenirs and the aforementioned long lines kept me away from the most expensive tourist attracts. All told, my total budget was $US2500, which I put on a debit card and used exclusively for the trip. That's still a good chunk of money, but it's not an unreasonable amount to save up for an international two-week holiday.
It's also possible to do that even cheaper by staying in hostels as opposed to Airbnb, taking public transportation instead of taxis and not splurging on food at every turn like I did. But this was a holiday after all, so I didn't want to think too much about money as I went. If you can get a debit card exclusively for travel like this, I recommend it, because it made it so I knew exactly how much I was spending and how much I had left in my budget without thinking too hard about it.
Of course, travel has all sorts of more obvious benefits. You learn about other cultures, experience new things and see buildings older than those at home. At times I wish I hadn't put it off as long as I did, but going into it as more of an adult made me appreciate it more than I would have when I was younger. Even if all my expectations were way off the mark.