My Shoestring Broke: How To Prepare for an International Trip

I don’t how I feel about travel guides. I just don’t know how “lonely” this planet would be or not be without an essential how-to about traveling on a shoestring for college students who have no money or plan or travel partner for that matter.

But travel on a shoestring I did. No money. No plan. No guidebook to speak of. I wasn’t lonely though- because you see, I had a partner. I had planned accordingly. There would a shoulder to nap on when you missed the connecting flight, a bag-watcher when you ran to look for the loo, a picture-taker when your arm grew weary of holding the camera.

And so I asked Kale to accompany me.

Our plan: to foray through England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain in a month. We would lug our backpacks and play crossword puzzles on long bus rides. I pictured us squeezing coins for hostel-complimentary coffee, gnawing the rustic fiber of rolls in German bakeries. We would not fear the bag-snatchers or the stares of Italian men- I would have a protector alongside, you see. Together, we would wipe the snot of the French off our sleeves and lounge for hours on the sand in the heat of the Spaniard sun.

This is what I had saved up for…months behind a desk answering phones and eating noodles.

And so I packed what I could. Threw away what I could not. Every zipper held a trinket. Every side-pocket hid a discreet travel toy. Zip-lock bags were indispensable and two- and three-in-one(s) were mandatory. (Who knew you could find a shampoo/condition/body wash/detergent/multi-surface cleaner in one travel-bag friendly bottle?) I packed like a pro, with sealed, air-tight bags and powdered formulas, paper-thin cleaners, and whole-body sunscreen-mosquito repellant encased in miniature tubes. No size was too large, no shirt too trendy. I planned to use my belt as a tool and my earrings as a camera-case picking device, doubling as a toothpick after uncooked meals.

I was ready.

And yet the trip served as one of the hardest lessons of my life. I failed to plan, instead relying solely on the planning prowess of my partner, to whom about eh…beginning-way-through failed to assert any of such and together, we flopped, flailed, and fought our way through …wait-was-that-our-train and what-to-do-you-mean-you-lost-the-map to well-of-course-Venice-has-no-taxis and er-let’s-just-sleep-here?

What I had furthermore not planned for in advance of my foray included common courtesy in eating, speaking, and minding one’s manners in each country- (namely France)- all to which left me with a hole in my pocket (I could have sworn I had more euros…) and remaining hungry for days (so this is why the French stay skinny…).

I want to tell you that I managed to learn early on the faux pas of the French, every website to locate a worthy hostel worth your euro, baht, ringette, pound, etc. I want to convince you that mid-way through my trip I learned to carry cash and card, keep on hand passport copies and emergency bank numbers when your credit card declines again.

Truth is- I learned the hard way how planning is essential to a trip, namely because travel is bound to hold surprises of its own with or without your travel guide and folding map.

7 Tips to Prevent the Preventable and Surmount the Inevitable:

1. Find it.

Take to heart- and inscribe with ink (no- memory will not suffice for your flight number. Find a pen.) Carry one with you- always. Note a change of address, a phone number (woop woop!), a festival to frequent, or a name to remember.

2. Book it.

You don’t want to fork out for a single room when the budget-friend dormitories are full? Should have checked out the hostel reservations earlier. Sure- you can show up with a hope and a scribble of directions but unless you’re traveling through the efficient train system of Singapore or past the blinking lights of Osaka, Japan you’re going to get a lot of – “eh…go straight.”

Some hostels require a minimum amount of days for booking- figure out a tentative plan of stay and locate a hostel or two that fits your time, budget, and bang for your buck. You’ll be happy you took the whole five minutes to do so.

Want a sleeper so you don’t wake up with a crick in your neck after an overnight trip? Grab your ticket a few days prior. Will it be holiday for students during the weekend of your travel? Show up a week prior.

Flights? Early bird gets the deal- the one that sleeps weeps…and pays more money in transit time and cost.

3. Bring it.

Necessary documents include the following:

  • Copies of your passport when you leave yours behind.
  • Ditto for the credit card when you fly out of Singapore before remembering that you opened a tab without closing it (or picking up the plastic)
  • Several forms money- Visa Check Card, Credit Card, Debit Card (note- must have international pin…call the bank and let them know you’ll be very far away from the Exxon station in Raleigh, NC for a month), cash (in different hiding spots)…
  • Resume. You may just find out that the island/city/region fits your style.
  • Emergency numbers- you know the drill….family, bank, AAA, etc.

4. Back it.

You’ll need an option B. No, really- you do. Because when you show up to a hostel that is full or you realize that Friday is a holiday for visitors at the Taj Mahal in Agra, you’ll need Plan B. Hide cash. Whip out the next “to-do” and “must-see.” Pop in an internet café for directions to the next guesthouse or train take-off.

5. Pack it.

The parents are already hesitant with your haphazard packing skills and I-just-want-to-experience-it itinerary. Invest in a pair of walking shoes (with an arch) that amount to more than a posh pair of kicks. If you can’t load it in your carry-on due to weight or other limitation, consider buying them in your next locale or carrying a small duffle bag to check-in (you can donate later). A permanent address can be an iffy situation so pack it, buy it, or consider it a loss.

6. Print it.

No I get it- we’re in the technological age of showcasing discounts via Apple iPhones and using the heat of our hand to turn the page of The Beach on the train ride to Thailand.

On the other hand, Bandung, Indonesia may or may not have internet though the hostel advertises free wi-fi. Your proof of payment via internet may not count as a receipt to the hostel management, so go ahead and invest in Maxis Broadband Internet- but invest in a pen, paper, pad, and printed receipt too.

7. Insure it.

You realize halfway through your trip you forgot to get your typhoid shot and this month you are required to receive the second round of hepatitis B. Sure- stop by the clinic, but not unless you have checked your international health policy or looked into some recommended travel protection plans so you can be safely insured to receive reimbursement for the flight you missed due to dengue or diahhrea.

8. Roll with it.

Not every bus will show. Not every train will be on time. Hostels will be booked upon an early arrival and the possibility of the air-conditioning breaking down on an overnight train is all in a day (and night) of a backpacker’s travel plans.

Grab a book. A magazine- preferably a long National Geographic in the home airport to pine through for a few hours. Buy a few packs of nuts, a bottle of water, too. Bring your journal. Pack a pen. Meet your neighbor. Learn the language. Laugh because you’re forced to stand between the outside of two coach trains in order to get a breath of not-so-fresh air. This is why you travel- to learn to love the unexpected that leaves you with a few more foreign words than you though.

If you plan the major points of destination, namely the transit, accommodation, and payment options- flexibility is possible in the itinerary for hopping from the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan to the hawker stalls in Penang. Plan ahead so you can enjoy the journey and all the mishaps, acquaintances, and stories along the way!

Picture are courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission

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