Travelling is an incredible experience, however you choose to do it. You’ll learn a lot; about the world and about yourself, and also about how to travel better. However, if you are heading off for the first time, there are some things you can do to make sure you have the best trip possible.
In this podcast we also talk about our travels in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia plus share sounds from the fortress of Berat and Macedonia Square in Skopje. To listen, hit play below or find episode 289 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:
The single most important thing that you can do when preparing for your first big trip is to pack light. Seriously. You don’t need as much stuff as you think you do, and the less you have with you, the less you have to carry, and the less you have to worry about.
Aim for a 35-litre backpack or wheelie suitcase, with suitable dimensions to make it carry-on size. This means that you don’t need to check in your bag for flights, which means that the airline can’t lose it and that you have access to your stuff when you need it. Invest in a good bag that’s comfortable to carry, and make sure that you can padlock it shut.
Don’t plan too much
If your trip is only a week or two long, it’s worth planning a fair bit to get the most out of your time — you can think about where you want to go and what you want to do there, and book hotels in advance to get the best deals. But if you’re travelling long-term, it’s not a good idea to have every minute planned out in advance.
You’ll need to have an idea of where you want to go during your trip, and you might need to commit to flights several months before it’s time to take them. But it’s important to leave some space in your itinerary to allow yourself to be spontaneous, or to take opportunities that come up unexpectedly. You might find it helpful to plan the first couple of weeks carefully and then ease up a little, or to plan way stages — you commit to being in a certain place on a certain date, but you have plenty of time to get from one to the other.
Do plan to sleep!
Remember that you don’t have to do everything, even if your trip is shorter than you’d like it to be. I once met a father and daughter who were travelling around Europe on a rail pass, and to get the most out of it, they were going to zigzag across the continent, sleeping on the trains every night. When I met them, they were only a few days into their itinerary, and they already looked exhausted, because they hadn’t planned enough rest periods into their journey — sleeping in a train seat doesn’t guarantee the best night’s rest.
By all means, travel fast and see a lot, but stop as well. Plan a rest period every few days, where you stay in one place for a couple of nights. If you’re travelling longer-term, your rest periods should be a couple of weeks or months in one place — you’ll have time to recuperate and perhaps actually organise the photos you’ve taken.
Be safe but don’t worry
Travel is safe. Many places you’ll travel to will be safer than your own home town, and if you take the same precautions you take there, you’ll probably have no problems at all. Of course, some destinations are less safe, and since you’ll be in unfamiliar territory you’ll need to be on your guard a little more, but it’s really not worth stressing about. Do some research into what you need to be aware of before you go — but don’t study up too much, because the safety sites always make things sound worse than they actually are. At least get the emergency numbers for the place you’re going to and if something does go wrong, you can sort it out on the road.
If you want a good travel safety toolkit, Travel Safety is a great resource for both the preparation stage and also for while you’re travelling.
Apart from packing light, having an open mind is the best way you can prepare to travel. You’ll have the opportunity to try all sorts of things while you’re on the road, and the more you say yes, the more interesting your trip will be. Of course, there will be some things you just can’t bring yourself to do (I’ll never eat monkey, for example), and some things are unwise (e.g. don’t agree to play cards for money), but if the locals are chowing down on tasty-looking street food, give it a go yourself! You might find your new favourite meal.