Tuesday, May 3, 2011

'Keep it in Your Pants' and Other Tips for Safe, Inexpensive, and Fun American Student Travel

The idea of blogging about an entire month in two different countries doing a million different things is legitimately making me nervous. There are too many things to write about and I want to do the experience justice. So give me a few days to calm down and reflect. Before I share about my April break, I thought I'd share this.

I can't yet author a Backpacker's Guide to the Galaxy since my adventures have only extended as far as Spain and Italy, but I've learned what I think to be important lessons about travel in the past month. Here are some tips and tricks to stay safe, pinch pennies, and enjoy travel abroad.
  1. Keep it in your pants -- or hanging around your neck -- in a passport holder. Don't let excessive amounts of money, your passport, your IDs, find their way into the hands of a pickpocket. It happens, and more frequently than you think, even to people who aren't screaming "I'm an American tourist; come rob me!"...People like me. You're traveling, not entering a beauty pageant, so who cares if that money belt makes you look fat?
  2. Find American soil. Know where the closest Embassy is and have its contact info. It makes it a lot easier if something goes awry. Luckily, when we made our trip there for my emergency passport, we had my Spanish-speaking friend whose host mom gave us good directions. If you're without resources in a city like Madrid, and you're in an emergency, asking -- in broken Spanish -- for directions to an Embassy most Spaniards don't frequent, isn't ideal.
  3. Help a brother out. I've noticed that Americans tend to gravitate toward each other. That, or there are a lot of us abroad. Or maybe there are just a lot of us in general. Regardless, it's nice to do good while abroad. Helping an older couple off a train may lead to a new friendship...or even to a free dinner. That said, be aware of who you're talking to -- it's a tactic of pickpockets to act like needy tourists. Don't leave your stuff with new-found friends, but don't limit your conversations with others out of fear. Most people, I still believe, are good people.
  4. Ditch the oversized suitcase. With more and more airlines charging crazy fees for luggage, it's expensive to fly, even domestically. Don't bother checking a bag. Be aware of airlines' cabin baggage weight and dimension restrictions and follow them. If a pack-rat like me can travel Southern Europe for a month with a single North Face backpack, nearly anyone can do it. Pack and repack 'til it all fits in one, easy-to-carry container. Remember to leave a little bit of room for souvenirs. Our rule was that if you can wear it, you can buy it (which made for a lot of jewelry and a bunch of shirts) since there's no restriction on how clothed a person can be when entering an aircraft. It gets more than a little hot with 5 layers on in a toasty Spanish airport in April, but it's worth not having to pay the Ryan Air 35 Euro checked baggage fee.
  5. Picnic. In places like Spain, where food is far cheaper than it is at home or in Ireland, you can eat lunch and dinner for a week for under 5 Euro. I'm serious. Your menu will be the same every day (ours was generally salami sandwiches, apples, and cheap chocolate) but it's worth it. We bought loaves of bread and meat, and 'refrigerated' the meat on the cool, tile floors of our B & Bs. Breakfast, in some places, was provided. We grabbed extra snacks for later when we could. Splurge once in a while and go out to eat or grab a treat like gelato. Just don't make a habit of it, and you'll have plenty of money to spend on other things. Oh, at the same time, be aware that you can't legally picnic in certain Italian cities. Don't go to jail for eating outside, that's just silly.
  6. Take a hike. If you can walk there, walk there. Don't pay for transportation unless it's raining, your feet have blisters, and you're lugging all of your stuff -- actually, don't even pay for transportation then. You can save a lot of dough this way. Plus, walking is good for you, and you see places differently when you're not whizzing by them.
  7. Prioritize and make reservations. Rome wasn't built in a day so don't expect to see it all within 24 hours. List out must-see sites and plan ahead with approximate times spent at each place. Entry into many museums and sites in Europe is much easier with a reservation since the number of people allowed into certain places is limited. If you're short on time, it's best to guarantee admission. It'll cost you a few Euro extra, but you won't have to stand in line for 3 hours outside of the Accademia. Sometimes you can luck out and walk right in (we only waited for 45 minutes to get into the Vatican Museums), but that requires strategy too -- do some research to know when a museum is at its busiest.
  8. Learn the lingo. Not only is it fun to pick up on the country's language or regional dialects, but it's helpful. Yes, almost everything is also in English, and yes, cognates abound, but making an effort to speak the local tongue shows natives that Americans don't expect to be catered to.
  9. Make your mother (country) proud. There are loud, annoying, globally-unaware Americans everywhere. Don't be one of them. Be a good guest so those who follow you aren't misjudged. Check your ego at the door: be open to trying new things, and expect to be pushed out of your comfort zone frequently. You'll (hopefully) return home a more cultured, tolerant individual with a new appreciation for the U.S. of A.
  10. Live it up. Soak it all in. Mark Twain knew what he was talking about when he said, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do." Do everything you want to do and can do. Adventures like this, I've heard, make impressions that last a lifetime. Make the most of exploring this world.

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