You might be young and new to traveling. Maybe you’ve taken some tours, but want to get more control over your trips. Or perhaps you just really want to travel independently and don’t really know where to start.
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I can’t think of a better way to travel than with just my backpack, virtually no reservations and only a vague itinerary: just a wide open adventure ahead of me. Here’s some advice on how you can plan and execute your first independent trip.
#1: Gather Information
Figure out your destination in the broadest terms, and start collecting relevant information. Use a good travel guide book, resources online and web forums where you can ask other travelers for tips from their own experiences in your destination.
Make some decisions about how long you can travel for, and the ideal lengths of time to stay in various parts of your destinations, whether you’re thinking of visiting several countries, a couple of cities or just one place on a shorter trip. Learn about how to get between places — is it cheaper and quicker to take a budget flight, or to buy a rail pass, or to use a long-distance bus?
#2: Draw Up a Rough Itinerary
Draft a plan for how long you’ll stay somewhere, ideas on what you might want to do there, and how you’ll move from place to place. The most important aspect of your itinerary is that it must be flexible. Schedule days just for traveling, and extra days for contingencies. There are so many factors which might change your plans: you love or hate a place, someone you meet recommends somewhere unmissable that you hadn’t heard about, you get sick, the weather’s good or the weather’s bad.
If you’re traveling for more than a week or so, make sure you also schedule in a rest day about once a week. You’ll need this not only to catch up on the mundane sides of life — washing your clothes, for instance — but also to avoid travel burnout. Although it’s a heap of fun, traveling is also hard work at times, and you need to have a break from it now and again to be able to make the most of it.
#3: Make Some Bookings
Some obsessive-compulsive planners like to book every ticket, hotel and even gallery visit before they leave home, but I don’t recommend it. Of course, you’re going to need your main transport booked — flights from home to your destination, for example — and I also like to book some accommodation for the first night if I’m going to be arriving in the evening. If you’re traveling during a peak season or a festival or special event will be in town, it also might be wise to book some accommodation in advance.
Just don’t overbook. It’s usually much easier than you might imagine to find accommodation simply by turning up, or booking it over the internet a day or two in advance when you know for sure when you’ll end up somewhere. And all of that is much easier than trying to rearrange or cancel a booking, or busting a gut to get somewhere simply because you have a reservation already.
#4: Get Traveling
When it comes time to hit the road, try to be mentally prepared for your independent trip, especially if it’s the first time you’ve traveled this way. Sometimes you’ll encounter difficulties, but solving challenges like trying to understand a bus timetable written in Korean is much more satisfying than just following a flag being waved by a tour guide.
Make sure you carry useful and relevant information with you about the possibilities that lie before you, and spend some time each day thinking about your plans for the next day or two. Use internet cafes to keep in touch with what’s happening at your next destination.
#5: Stay Positive, Flexible and Open-Minded
Remember this: your trip is not about collecting photos of yourself, posing in front of famous monuments. The cliché is right — it’s all about the journey. I’d go further and say that traveling is all about creating stories you can retell later, and you’ll get a heck of a lot more stories (and more interesting ones, too) from an independent trip than a restrictive guided tour.
You will make some mistakes. You might even end up at the end of a suburban bus line in Vladivostok without a clue about how to return to your homestay (been there, done that). Or you’ll spend half of the night sleeping — or trying to — in a train station in Tunis after messing up the ticket buying (me again). But keep an open mind, enjoy every new experience, and think about the stories you can tell you friends and family when you return home. I guarantee that once you’ve traveled independently, you’ll never look back.