“Just go with the flow” is the quote that I had in my mind every time something didn’t go as expected during the 52 days I lived in the Iberian Peninsula. The summer before, I went on a trip to the United States to explore the world of universities, including New York, Washington DC and Boston with my 18-year old brother for 31 days. Based on that experience, I thought that I was independent and capable enough to travel alone. Traveling wasn’t just about going to popular tourism sights and eating cultural food, but rather was about feeling the unique atmosphere of each city and making friends with people that I’ve never met before.
Traveling alone was different than traveling with someone two years older than me. I had to plan everything by myself. My dad told me that I would travel only under one condition: with a specific and detailed plan, as specific as he could just take it and go on a trip without any research. I started planning my trip immediately after last summer’s trip to the United States. It was a long and complicated process, but during my travel, I felt that the hard work was definitely worth it.
Before, reading my article, I’m pretty sure you are worried as much as I was before. Even before making plans, I was stressed by useless concerns, such as “What if I get kidnapped in a cab or in a metro?” “What if I lose my money?” “What if I get lost in the middle of the street at night?” “What if I would not get through the passport control?” “What if I miss a train to another city?” “What if the hostels kick me out because I am under 18?” When you are traveling, there are thousands and millions of possible unfortunate situations and problems that can happen. In fact, I couldn’t sleep days before my flight because I had nightmares about them.
Imagine a 16 year-old teenager travelling through an unfamiliar country with thousands euros cash stuffed inside or beneath his belongings – pockets, shoes, cap, bag, phone. I was a walking bank, a pretty easy one to rob. 5 days before the D-day, I told my parents that I couldn’t do it. It was overwhelming and stressful. Then, my dad told me that if I don’t go, I should quit school and go out to work for the money spent for the reservations of transportation tickets and hostels. I had no choice but to go with the YOLO (You Only Live Once) mindset that I would live only until I reach Santiago Bernabeu, the Real Madrid Stadium that I’ve always dreamt of.
For beginner travellers like me, I would like to give you some tips before you decide to go alone on a trip, to a place that you always wished to go.
- Do not procrastinate in planning for your trip.
Planning for a trip is not an easy thing to do. It is like forming a puzzle with tiny pieces. You have to think yourself as a professional travel agency. There are reasons why they receive money for planning a travel.
At first, I thought of planning my trip as homework, an extra workload. Honestly, it is. You have to search for hostels, reviews and ratings of the customers, food, restaurants, transportations, sites that you must visit, and so on.
When I was planning for my trip, I spent at least one month for each city. For example, although I was staying in Madrid for a week, I had to plan how much money it will cost for transportation, how much are the museum entrance tickets, their opening hours, discount tips, restaurants nearby, fastest way to get there and etc. Plans should be flexible, with free days between. However, it doesn’t mean that you should travel without any information in your mind. You have to always travel with a purpose, spend each day wisely as time is limited but flies in an blink of an eye.
- Pay close attention to comments and feedbacks of the users and former tourists.
When you search for places to stay, whether they are hotels or hostels, don’t just choose them based on their services: free wifi, relatively cheap price, close to tourism sites, free laundry, or cheap breakfast.
One of the travellers I met in Barcelona in Montserrat told me that she booked a hostel through a travelling agency only because of the cheap price, and found several traces of bedbugs under her pillow on her first night. She canceled her reservation immediately, and had to look for another place to stay for higher prices as she had to book the rooms on spot. Fortunately, I didn’t have any of these problems because when I booked my hostels, I looked at the ratings and reviews of previous customers.
In fact, the place that I was very close to making a reservation in Porto was famous for having dirty bathrooms and beds whereas the information on the hostel’s site said that there’s cleaning service 24/7. Also, the comments of previous tourists are very helpful in terms of discounts in museums and restaurants. Most of the museums gave 50% discount or free entrance to students who have International Student ID (high school to undergraduate university students).Thanks to my pre-investigation, I made one beforehand and received discounts in a lot of occasions.
Just a quick thing to add, most of the hostels in Europe offer co-ed dormitories. I was surprised at first, but got used to them later on. But if you are someone that feels uncomfortable or unsafe, I recommend looking for hostels that offer separate dormitories (usually they are more expensive).
- You have to be very witty and flexible during the passport controls.
When I arrived in Madrid Barajas airport on June 30th, the very first thing I was worried about was the passport control.
Last summer, when my brother and I travelled to New York, we were stuck in the police department for 5 hours because they were interrogating us and tracing our background information. Two Korean teenagers, studying and flying from a Middle East country, don’t have specific home address, don’t know their aunt’s phone number (we lied to them that we are staying in our aunt’s house because staying in shared apartments for teenagers are illegal).
How worse could it be? During that time, we were both very anxious and scared. When they asked for our guardian’s contact information, we should have just made things up. But because we were surrounded by a bunch of muscular police officers staring down at us, we hesitated when writing them, which caught their attention.
This time, I was a professional. I spoke in Spanish, told them I was visiting my Spanish friend in Madrid named Alejandro, told them a fake phone number, and a house address near to the hostel that I will be staying. Maybe the fact that I spoke Spanish convinced them enough, I passed through the passport control quite easily.
- Always be attentive when you are eating street food.
Honestly, I am not a picky eater. I eat anything, and especially when I am travelling, I just like to eat anything sold on the streets. Also, searching for famous restaurants is not my favorite because I would see a bunch of tourists there. Instead, I normally ask people walking by, or sometimes people in the hostel for good restaurants.
One day, after surfing in Porto, and taking a shower at 8 pm, I went out with the people in the dormitory to grab something to eat and enjoy the night view of the city (it was a 8-person dormitory, they were mostly university students). That was one of the nights I returned to the hostel really late at night. I don’t exactly remember what I ate and drank that night but they were mostly food sold on the streets because they are much more cheaper than the ones in restaurants.
I was nearly dead the next morning, couldn’t even rise up from the bed, had to use the bathroom every 10 seconds. When I went to the pharmacy the next day (I was just lying on the bed 24 hours the day before), the pharmacist said my symptoms were similar to a viral enteritis. I took a medicine, was sick for 4 days, couldn’t eat anything, lost 8 kilograms, and spent the worst days in Madrid on the bed.
5.Do not hesitate to talk to strangers.
One of the highlights of my trip was meeting the locals from the region as well as getting to know travellers from all over the world. By talking to the locals, you can get some helpful tips like restaurants and historical places that most tourists aren’t aware of. By talking to the travellers, you can get some useful information and make new friends. Another useful tip is that any activities that you do as a group is much cheaper than doing it individually.
In Porto, I went on a surfing class with 3 other people in the hostel, and we got 10% discount for each person. After surfing, we went to a fish restaurant. One of the guys in the group (long hair tied with a rubber band, wears eyeglasses, from Belgium) was very social and made friends with the restaurant owner and we each got 1 glass of Porto wine for free.
Honestly, one of the biggest concerns I had before beginning my journey was eating alone in restaurants. However, I realized that it was a stupid concern because I met different people in the hostels and barely ate alone.
The hardest part of travelling is the first time you do it. Of course it’s going to be hard because it’s your first time. It’s probably your first time going to that country, first time talking to strangers with a different language, first time eating the traditional food, first time sleeping in a co-ed 8-people dormitory hostel, first time riding an overnight bus, first time being invited by a local’s house for a meal, first time getting pickpocketed, first time getting slapped by a drunk stranger, first time being offered to buy a pack of cocaine, and more.
However, a travel only makes you “take memories and leave only footprints.” There’s nothing to worry about if you only have the courage to start. According to my German friend that I met on a night bus, the best part of traveling alone is that no matter what happens, you are the only one that can save yourself from it. Not your parents, not your friends, not your teachers, but only you.