There are definitely some things I wish I had been better prepared for before traveling Europe. To help upcoming Harlaxton students, or just inspiring travelers, I’ve compiled a few tips from my own travel mistakes.
1. Don’t travel in large groups.
Traveling in a group of more than five gets tricky for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s difficult to get everyone to agree on travel plans. Secondly, huge groups of Americans carrying maps and cameras definitely stand out in a foreign country, and the local people will know you’re tourists (which is bad for pick-pocketing). Thirdly, trying to keep track of everyone is hard to do in a busy train station or city street— and since not everyone is navigating, you certainly don’t want to leave anyone behind. I’ve traveled in large groups and small groups, and small groups (2 to 5 people) are undoubtedly what I’d recommend.
2. Wherever you’re going, always check hours of operation.
When my friends and I went to Sweden for the weekend, we flew back to London late Sunday night (opposed to the morning or afternoon) because the flight was over $100 less expensive. The problem was, King’s Cross doesn’t have any trains back to Grantham between midnight and 6 a.m. We figured that was no problem— we would catch a 6 a.m. train on Monday morning, and just sleep at the train station. Imagine our surprise when, at almost 2 a.m., we arrived on the dark street of King’s Cross to find ourselves locked out. Because we were the first train of the morning, we were essentially homeless for four hours, and almost everywhere in London was closed.
Thankfully, we had stayed at a nearby hotel a few weeks prior, and were able to keep warm and safe in the hotel’s lobby. Though everything ended up fine, it was honestly one of the scariest experiences I’ve had, and definitely taught me a lesson: don’t assume things, especially when you’re traveling. If you’re not sure, always check.
3. Plan some, but not too much.
On my trip to Switzerland, we visited the Swiss Alps, which was a two hour drive from our hostel. We were all excited at the prospects of skiing, sledding, and paragliding. We discovered it would be cheaper to drive there instead of taking a train, but we waited until the morning of to try to rent a car. By the time we reached the airport to pick-up our rental and complete all the necessary paperwork, we were behind schedule— just to get lost on our way to the Alps. We didn’t arrive at the mountains after 2 p.m., and when we went to sign up for our activities, we were disappointed to find out that the ski slopes closed at 4 p.m. With the cost of skiing in Switzerland around $80, we couldn’t justify the price for only two hours of time on the slopes. Though it was still a great day just seeing the Swiss Alps and exploring, I’m definitely regretful that we didn’t plan more thoroughly.
Alternatively, though, avoiding planning too much as well. The first trip I took into London, I was intent on seeing everything in the city— and though I practically did, I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much because I tried to do too many things, and was exhausted by the first day. Flexibility is a good trait of a traveler. It’s great to be well-researched and have some concrete plans, but don’t be upset if they fall through. Some of the best experiences I’ve had— like going to a nice pub in Ireland, or taking a drive into Germany— weren’t planned at all.
4. When you pack, remember you’ll spend time carrying it around.
If you expect to be walking around the city a lot with your luggage, take a backpack, not a suitcase. I had this problem in Sweden— we checked out of our hostel at 11 a.m., but our flight didn’t leave until 10 p.m., so I had to wheel my suitcase through the city all day (which gets inconvenient quickly). And speaking of backpacks, after some soreness and a few backaches, you learn not to over pack. You can go one weekend with just the bare minimum (and afterwards, you’ll start to appreciate all the things you have that much more).
5. Sometimes it is better to pay more.
Here are the things that, within reason, you should pay more for: a safe or clean hostel/hotel, better flights, authentic food or drinks, and good quality souvenirs.
Authentic Bangers 'n mash (sausage and potatoes) from Ireland!
Swiss chocolate from Switzerland (I wonder how much will
make it home?)
Remember, though, that no matter how well you plan for a trip there will be a few snags along the way. But don’t fret! These make you a better and smarter traveler, and despite all the mistakes I’ve made, I’m glad I experienced them. They’ve only made me a more responsible adult, and I can go home next month knowing that I’ve not only had extraordinary experiences and seen beautiful things, but I’ve grown as person as well. And really, what more could you ask for?