1. Confidence is key…
…And being confident means being informed. Traveling is stressful and scary, and when you’re only visiting a city for a few days you have to be prepared so those things don’t get ahead of you. Before leaving, make sure to do some research on the city you’re visiting. Know what language(s) they speak, how the streets are laid out, what the most popular things to do are and all that fun stuff. Sometimes big attractions require reservations, which means if you don’t plan ahead you might miss out. It doesn’t take much effort to plan a short trip, so make sure to know the first thing— or the first few things— you’re going to do when you get there. You don’t have to plan every minute, but if you don’t have a few things mapped out, you’re going to waste time. If you don’t know where to start, most European cities offer “free” (tips are expected) walking tours. SANDEMANs is one company across Europe that does an amazing job, and it’s a great way to get the lay of the land, cross a few things off your list and learn a bit of history. Finally, being confident means knowing what’s going on in the world. Keep up with the news surrounding the city you’re traveling in, and while you’re there, keep your wits about you. You can’t be overly worried or scared about everything (even though it’s not hard to be with all that’s happening in the world), but a little awareness can make all the difference to keep yourself safe.
2. Google Maps is king
I swear they’re going to have to start paying me for all the promotion I’m going to give them. Another way to be prepared for a trip is to know how to read a map and actually get around the city. Google Maps is making that easier for everyone with their offline map feature. You can pre-download a map of a city/region when you have internet access, and that map will give you directions and track your location without Wi-Fi. I don’t have an international data plan, so offline Google Maps has brought me everywhere this semester. Even if you think you’re good at directions or map reading, there is nothing more disorienting than getting off a plane in another country and having to work their public transportation system for the first time, especially when you’ve been up since 1:30 a.m. and everything is in German. Do yourself a favor and just download the offline map; it really does make everything easier.
3. Always pack a sandwich
This is more of a life motto for me, but I think it’s an important one to share. “Ballin’ on a budget” is the theme of my semester abroad, and I have found lots of little ways to save a few dollars along the way. The easiest is to pack snacks and a sandwich before a trip. Sometimes you don’t know when you’re going to eat, sometimes planes and trains are delayed and sometimes you just really don’t want to drop another €5 to€10 on a meal. Enter packed sandwich. Regardless if it is a day trip or a weekend-long adventure, just pack a sandwich. It won’t take up much space in your bag, and it’s just practical. You’ll thank me later. Additional pro tip: Continental breakfasts are a great place to stock up on food for the day and make extra sandwiches.
4. Dress appropriately
Yes, Europeans tend to dress a little better than Americans. O.K., a lot better. But there’s no reason that function and style can’t work together when you pack. I know I am an over packer, but every trip I get better at knowing what I’ll actually need and use while I’m gone. It’s a process, but there are a few things that will help along the way. First of all, instead of just counting articles of clothing for the days you’re gone, plan out actual outfits. Secondly, you can re-wear things. It’s not a faux-pas. Wear your jeans twice, bring light layers that work with multiple outfits and try to only bring one pair of shoes. Thirdly, check the weather. Don’t bring shorts when it’s going to be 50 degrees, and don’t get caught in the rain with your nice suede jacket. Be prepared! Know what the weather is going to look like while you’re gone and bring clothes that will work. Finally, limit yourself with bag size. If you’re only going to be gone two days, then try fitting everything in a big purse. You can’t overpack if it doesn’t fit in your bag, so help yourself cut back on the “maybe” items by determining a strict bag size before you start packing. Like I said, it’s a process that comes with lots of practice. I guess you’ll just have to plan a bunch of trips.
5. Sleep when you’re dead…
…Or on public transportation. There is never enough time to see everything, so odds are you’re going to try and shove a lot of things into each day. Which means you’re going to do a lot of walking, viewing, and standing, and not a lot of sleeping. Such is the life of a world traveler. It may not be very glamorous, but one way to save a few dollars and a lot of time is to book overnight trains/planes/busses and try to get as much sleep on those as possible. (For future reference this plan tends to work better when you don’t have to make two middle-of-the-night transfers on a German train where everything is in German). You may be a zombie by the time you get home, but at least you saw a few more things and didn’t have to pay for a hostel!
6. Less is less
I know you want me to say less is more, but it’s not. In the context of packing, the more you pack the more you have to carry. Lugging a 20+ pound bag around isn’t fun, and it just makes everything harder. Sometimes it isn’t practical to go straight to your lodging and you have to carry your bag around for the first few hours, and sometimes you book a flight at an airport on the opposite side of the city from the bus station you arrived at and you have to walk across with all of your belongings (side note it’s super inconvenient to walk to an airport). The less you have, the lighter your load. In the context of travel, the less you plan the less you see. Time has a funny way of getting away from us, and before you know it all your weekends are booked. Obviously you can’t see all of Europe in four months and go to school full time, but with a little strategic planning and a whole lot of grit you can make a decent-sized dent. Accept that you won’t make it everywhere, and take your time enjoying the experiences you do get. It’s easy to rush through a to-do list and realize you don’t remember anything you saw, so take a breath, snap a picture and relish in the privilege of travel.