It was the summer of 2008. I had just landed in Kiev, Ukraine with my passport, $20.00 US, and not much else. The customs inspector didn’t speak a word English, and I didn’t have a Ukrainian point of contact, nor an address of residency. Was I worried? Certainly not, and the trip proved a complete success. I had experimented with minimalist travel on a previous trip to Europe, and extending it further was a great experience. This time I hopped on the airplane with no concrete plans, no train tickets, and no room or board scheduled. Over the course of a month I got to see seven spectacular countries, and not once had a serious logistics problem. Although planning may be a compulsion, or even a joy for you, I recommend planning at least one trip by not planning at all.
No cash? You’ll end up saving money
In the past, my parents went to AAA and brought hundreds of dollars in traveler’s checks before a trip. Others go to the bank and get large amounts in foreign currency. Besides being a hassle, the exchange rates are usually bad, and you have the burden of having a lot of cash that could be potentially stolen (pickpockets are a fact of travel). As I have found in both Western and Eastern Europe, credit cards are nearly as ubiquitous as they are in the US. And given the right credit card, the exchange rates are always within 1% of market value, far better than any currency exchange service will give.
But sometimes cash is necessary, and ATM’s are easy to find. Again these provide excellent exchange rates, offsetting any fees you incur. A currency exchange center often charges 5%. If your bank applies a $1.50 fee, you will recoup that cost with a withdrawal of $30.00, less money than is commonly withdrawn, abroad or not. Moreover, several online banks and credit unions that don’t maintain their own ATMs, such as Charles Schwab, offer reimbursement on all fees incurred at ATMs, even foreign transaction fees. Rather than trying to plan how much money you need in each country, simply take out whatever you need once you get there.
English is rarely a problem
When deciding if to travel internationally, some people are apprehensive about getting stuck in a remote location where no one speakings English. I have been to 17 different countries, and 95% of the time I’ve found persons who can speak English. I don’t mean to sound ethnoocentric, but the English language is spoken well throughout the world, and in an emergency chances are you could find someone who would be willing and able to help you. That having been said, when abroad, make an attempt to at least learn some basic phrases, as the effort will be thoroughly appreciated by locals. I find communicating with local people to be some of the most fascinating experiences one can have abroad. From purchasing train tickets to finding something to do that day, communicating with a non or poor English speaker forces you to see things from a different perspective. You have to be accepting of their efforts, and try to fill in the subtleties lost in translation. Once back in the U.S., ordering food is no longer a novel experience. You’ll miss the challenge of interacting with a foreign culture, working together to make the transaction a pleasant experience for both parties.
Where to stay? Comparison shop, and decide that day
Last time I was in Europe I stayed at the best hostel in each city, the choice of air-conditioning, and the option of with how many people I wanted to share a room. And I did this most often making my reservation a day before I arrived in a city. If I wanted to stay somewhere for an extra few days, it was never a problem.
This is all possible using the Internet and online hostel reservation services. I have primarily used hostelworld.com and I have been impressed every time I use them, whether in Ljubljana, or just taking a weekend trip to Montreal for a tennis tournament. These services show the attributes of each hostel, and the recommendations of people who have stayed there. Using these services can almost ensure a positive stay. It is reassuring when you get off an overnight train to Belgrade after having to sleep in the hallway, and your hostel invites you in with a smile, air-conditioning, and a fresh cup of Turkish coffee.
Not sure what to do? Ask someone!
Numerous times I’ve found myself in a city without a good thing to do; tour books can only go so far. Whether at the hostel or a local market, most people are more than happy to offer great things to do in a city. Wouldn’t you love the opportunity to show someone the highlights of your city? Inhabitants often know overlooked gems, and the personal story behind each choice is far more intriguing than what you’d find in a visitor center’s pamphlet.
If all else fails, find an Internet café
Unlike in the U.S., Internet cafés are still a staple of European cities. If you’re feeling lost, need to pay a bill, or want a cheap way to contact someone, an Internet cafe is the way to go. Inexpensive and reliable, these cafes can provide you with the world, or at least everything you could access from your home computer.
From these locations you can use sites like Wikitravel or Lonely Planet to help pick your next destination, then book train tickets, hostel reservations, and find things to do once you get there. Internet cafes also are usually run by or employ younger people. They may be better at speaking English than average and depending on your situation may be able to help you avoid the pitfalls of a city, or find a local nighttime hot spot.
There is less you have to worry about than you might think
When I completed my first trip to Europe, I asked my bus tour guide what he thought my next trip should be. He recommended somewhere more exotic than Europe, such as Africa or India. The point is, Western Europe is not a big change in culture from the U.S. And with the tools available to the modern traveler, going there is easier than ever.
The dangers from pick-pocketers and other hazards still exist, but many fears about foreign vacations are simply unfounded. To further test this system, later this summer I will be attempting a trip using these same principles for Vietnam and Cambodia, and I’m excited to be pushing my comfort level ever further!