When you’re scrolling through Instagram and every other photo is of someone lounging in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, or drinking a tiny cappuccino at a picturesque cafe in Italy, it seems like everyone you know is out having the time of their lives exploring the world. If this is you, you’re certainly feeling like you’re ready to get out there and have your own adventure. There’s only one problem: you have no idea where to start.
The task of planning a trip to a foreign place, whether it be for a long weekend, two weeks, or an entire year, can seem daunting. As with everything in life, it’s always best to take things step by step. The most important part of planning any trip is to identify what that first step is and then get started! As a seasoned traveler who has also worked extensively as a travel agent and concierge, I have plenty of experience working to make travel accessible to anyone who is inspired to get out there and see the world.
Here is a quick, step-by-step guide to helping you plan and then go on your dream trip!
Step 1: Decide What Type of Trip You Want And Where You Want To Go
The most important part of planning your trip (and the best place to start) is deciding where you want to go. The world is a big place, and for those who are eager to see the whole thing, it can be hard to narrow down your options. First, figure out how much time you have for your trip. This will determine what’s reasonable as far as how many different places you can visit and how far away your destination can be. Next, decide what type of trip you’re looking for. How active do you want to be? Do you want to move locations every day or do you just want to chill? Think about what types of things you’re hoping to see and experience on your trip; whether it be mind-blowing natural landscapes, world-famous bustling cities, or beautiful beaches.
Step 2: Do Some Research On The Place You’ve Picked And The “Can’t-Miss” Things To Do There
This part, for me at least, can be the most intimidating. It’s hard to know where to start; there’s so much to learn and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking for! Remember that you’ve picked this particular destination for a reason, so focus on why you want to go there and start from there.
Step 3: Decide Where You’re Going To Stay
At this point you’ve already done a bit of research into the destination, learned about what neighborhood or area is best for you to stay in, and what you want to be close to based on your interests. You’ll need to decide what type of accommodation you want, whether it be a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb. Personally I prefer to stay in hostels, especially when I’m traveling alone, because they’re cheap, social, and are always located in great, central locations. I almost always use Hostelworld.com, which gives a quick and comprehensive description of what the hostel is like (more quiet and relaxed, more for partying and going out, great for solo travelers, yoga or theme-based, etc...), where it’s located, how to get there from the major airports and train or bus stations, and what’s included in your stay (towels, breakfast, free WiFi, etc...).
Step 4: Make Your Purchase
By far the most essential part of planning your trip is to actually buy it! This takes your adventure from an idea to a reality and will likely be the quickest part of your entire process. For me, once I’ve mapped out my route I’ll lock in my flights first, as flight pricing is always unpredictable. Then I’ll move onto buying my accommodations, trains, busses, or flights in-destination, and any tours or excursions I feel like I need to buy ahead of time. If your itinerary is flexible and you want to give yourself the opportunity to be more spontaneous, I would recommend at least buying your flight to the destination and booking your first (and maybe second) night accommodations, so you’re secure that your trip is 100% happening and you have somewhere to go right when you get there.
Step 5: Figure Out Your Packing List And Prepare Any Pre-Travel Requirements For Your Specific Destination
Before you travel, you’ll need to make sure to that your passport, visa, and vaccination requirements are taken care of. Find out what the weather will be like during your travel dates and what the cultural norms and expectations are in your destination to put together your packing list. Finally, make sure to print out or have your travel documents with you and easily accessible to take on your journey.
Step 6: Get Freaking Excited And GO ON YOUR TRIP!
Congratulations, you did it! You’ve successfully planned the trip of your dreams, and now it’s time to revisit those envy-inducing Instagram posts from earlier and start getting excited that your own trip is now a reality! Take a deep breath, realize that if anything goes wrong it’s all part of the experience, and get ready to have the time of your life. Be open minded, flexible, and enjoy the adventure you created, you’ve earned it!
Both in my experience and from what I’ve heard from others, the two most common reasons preventing people from traveling are time and money, and not having enough of them. As far as time goes, I don’t have too much more to offer other than saying that there is never a perfect time to plan or book a trip. You can always find a reason not to go or to put it off, but truly, there is no time like the present, where there’s a will there’s a way, and all the other cheesy cliches that encourage you to make time for the things you love, and figure out a way to get out there and see the world.
As for the money, though, that’s something that can be dealt with with a bit of planning and expert-level budgeting tips. As a someone who has worked extensively in the travel industry, the mantra I never tire of hearing is that, “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”! While that is yet another wonderful cliche it really is true. There is no amount of money that could buy up the experience of traveling. That said, for most of us, being strapped for cash is a reality and we have to take that into account when deciding whether to pay rent this month or buy a flight to some across-the-world destination! Though my heart sometimes pulls at me to get out there and travel, my bank account doesn’t always agree. As a result, I’ve developed some tricks and tips for how to travel on a budget, making seeing the world manageable regardless of how much you think you can’t afford it!
Here are six great tips for wanderlusters facing the same dilemma:
1. Stay In Hostels
My number one tip for travelers trying to keep costs down is to stay in a youth hostel instead of a hotel or Airbnb. If your parents ever made you watch the movie Hostel like mine did, you might be a bit turned off to the idea of staying in one, imagining hostels to be sketchy or unsafe. However, in reality that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most hostels these days are centrally located, clean, well-kept, social hubs for young people traveling on a budget. Some hostels are truly unique and can have you staying in a treehouse in the Amazon or in a pod in Amsterdam. Depending on where in the world you’re traveling to, hostels range from just a few dollars a night (in places like Southeast Asia or South America) to around $20-40 per night in more expensive regions, like Europe or the United States. Typically breakfast, and sometimes another meal too, are included with your stay as well. If you’re freaked out by bunking with 4-24 other strangers, there are typically all-female or all-male dorm options or you can pay a little more to get your own private room, which is nice if you’re looking for some privacy but still want to travel cheaply and use the social advantages of staying in a hostel. There are always security measures in place to keep travelers safe and there are almost always lockers for you to stow your valuables during your stay (though you typically have to bring your own lock). Your hostel will also likely have free WiFi, a cheap restaurant or bar, free or cheap laundry, 24-hour front desk, and can provide you with a map and directions to local supermarkets and attractions.
Aside from being cheap, hostels are one of the best ways to meet people while traveling. Hostels usually offer bar crawls, free or cheap walking tours, and off-the-beaten-path excursions to nearby attractions. Typically they have a bar which is a great, casual way to meet other travelers or chill out after a busy day of exploring. Personally, I’ve used hostels to see the best of the place I’m in, especially if I haven’t done too much research as far as figuring out what to do in a particular city or place. For example, when I was in Patagonia, in the very south of Chile, the night I arrived I booked a 10-hour hiking excursion through Torres del Paine National Park for the next morning. I knew I wanted to go hiking in Patagonia but I was alone and didn’t know how to go about doing it myself or where to even start. The tour was recommended to me by the person working at the front desk (a local Chilean, close to my own age), and took care of everything, from picking me up and dropping me back off at the hostel to dealing with my entry permit into the park, selecting the hiking route, and providing me with friendly faces of other hikers staying at my or neighboring hostels to hike the trail with. This was a cheap and comprehensive way to see Patagonia, which I planned and booked literally upon arrival. I recommend taking advantage of everything your hostel has to offer, as they are made specifically to cater to backpackers like you!
2. Eat Like A Local
One of my favorite ways to experience the true culture of the place I’m in is to eat like a local and try the regional foods. Ask the locals you meet or the people working at your hostel for their favorite hole-in-the-wall spots, or recommendations of where to go and what to order there. Usually this will be the cheapest and most authentic food you’ll have your whole trip. However, when seeking out these places it’s important to be mindful of the sanitary conditions that may not be up to the standards you’re used to in your home country. For example, in places like India and South America, always take extreme care not to drink the water, eat lukewarm soup, or have drinks that come with ice cubes, which are usually made from the local tap water...I have personally been burned by not taking my own advice on this one several times!
However, if you’re careful of the sanitation differences, you shouldn’t have a problem in most places. A great example of cheap and delicious (and huge) local meal options is ordering the “menu del día” in Ecuador. This is a two or three-course meal which usually includes a soup, a main dish of meat or fish, some rice and vegetables, a small dessert, typically some type of freshly-squeezed juice, and ranges from $2-4 USD. Similarly, in Bali, a popular local concept is to go to a buffet-style restaurant called Nasi Campur, where you can pile on as many traditional Balinese delicacies as you want and pay based on its weight. These types of restaurants are popular amongst locals and savvy travelers alike, and definitely won’t break your bank.
3. Take Advantage of Your Hostel: Cook Instead of Eating Out
While eating at local dives is a great way to keep meal costs low, another cost-effective option for feeding yourself is to take advantage of your hostel amenities and cook instead of eating out. Usually your hostel will include either a free or very cheap breakfast option, but for lunch and dinner cooking is a great way to eat on the cheap. Going to pick up ingredients at the local supermarket then cooking in the hostel kitchen can save you time and money and be a great way to have some healthier options which can be hard to come by when eating out for every meal. Pack a sandwich to eat for lunch and bring it with you while you’re out and about and buy a box of protein bars to keep in your backpack and eat for a snack when you’re hangry and there are no shops nearby. You might also consider cooking a meal together and splitting the cost with other travelers you’ve met at your hostel, which is a great way to get the most bang for your buck and share a meal with new friends from all over the world.
For drinking and going out, the hostel bar is typically where you’ll find the cheapest drinks, as hostels know most backpackers are balling on a budget. Take advantage of the hostel happy hours and pub crawls too, which usually come with free drinks and are a great way to meet people and see some cool spots in the city as well!
4. Take Public Transportation Instead of Taxis, Ubers, or Flights
This one may seem obvious, but taking public transportation is an economical way to see a country, get a feel for the real people living there and have an adventure along the way. Opting for public transit can at times be stressful, but will certainly turn you into a well-seasoned traveler. Taking the local bus or metro, walking, or renting a city bike are all ways that allow you to see a lot of a city and cost a fraction of the price of taking a taxi or Uber around.
If you’re “directionally challenged” like me, make sure to download a map of the city when you have WiFi (I prefer using the Google Maps app on my phone) so that you can continue to track your location offline; this is very helpful when exploring a city on foot. If you’re still worried that you’ll get lost using public transportation, remember that sometimes the best way to experience a place is to get lost in it! Some of my favorite memories are of the kind and interesting strangers I’ve met who’ve helped me through my public transit mishaps (a shy boy on the metro in Berlin, an aggressive Italian bus driver in the Amalfi Coast, a kind and patient woman at the train station ticket counter somewhere in the middle of Poland). These situations work to remind us that goodness and kindness transcend all cultures, no matter how stressed out, overwhelmed, or lost we may feel, and offer us the most authentic (and cheap) ways to experience the places we’re in.
5. Bring a Reusable Water Bottle or Invest in a Portable Water Filter
In countries where the water is safe to drink from the tap, such as in Israel or Spain, it pays to not have to buy bottled water. Especially if you’re traveling during the summer or to a particularly hot destination it’s important to stay hydrated, and bringing along a good-sized reusable water bottle will help you do just that. As someone who drinks a ton of water, bottled water is something I hate to spend a lot of money on when I travel so I love to take advantage of destinations where the tap water is drinkable (and free!) by bringing my own water bottle.
If you plan to travel extensively through a region where the tap water is not drinkable or if you’re doing a lot of hiking or camping, it may also be beneficial to you to invest in a portable water filter. These are small, portable devices that purify any source of fresh water, making it safe for you to drink. Portable water purifiers are usually very easy to use and work quickly, saving you both time and money when your best alternative is buying bottled water.
6. Take Advantage of Free and Public Activities
One of the best and cheapest ways to experience a place as well as immerse yourself in the local culture is to take advantage of the offered free and public activities, many of which offer student discounts with a student ID card, or offer discounts for people under a certain age. Examples of these types of activities could be public beaches, free museums, public events, parades, and fairs, or temples which you can enter for free, or pay a small donation. In each of these instances, it’s important to be respectful of the cultural customs by dressing and acting accordingly, especially when it comes to temples or religious sites. Going on a hike, destination permitting, or checking out free concerts or street performers are great ways to relax and be entertained as well as get a feel for the local culture. Buenos Aires, for example, is one of those great cities that always has tons of free things going on. One of my favorite things to do when I was living there was to walk through the famous Sunday market in the San Telmo neighborhood, which was filled with incredible Argentinian food, art, music, and handicrafts being sold by local vendors. Popular with Porteños and tourists alike, the San Telmo Market is always lively with tango street shows and music. It is completely free and is an ideal way to soak in some traditional Argentinian culture.
Oftentimes the distinguishing landmarks of a city are free or inexpensive to enjoy, such as the Taj Mahal or the Golden Gate Bridge, so make the most of your time in those places. One of my best memories is of being in Paris with a friend of mine who I’d met traveling, sitting out on the Champ de Mars with a cheap bottle of wine, a baguette, a brick of French cheese and a plastic knife, listening to La Vie en Rose playing on her iPhone, gazing up at the Eiffel Tower. Touristy, yes, but also an unforgettable experience that I will cherish for my whole life. For me, that moment really felt like “Paris” and though I’ve been back now several times, it’s that memory that will always stick in my mind as what that city feels like, sounds like, and tastes like to me. Hey, sometimes the best things in life are free!
So there you have it. You now have six tips that can make your travel dreams a little bit more attainable. You don’t need an excess of money to enjoy the world; sometimes it’s the simple moments that can be the most defining. I hope this list helps to optimize your travel funds and encourages you to get out there an explore the world, regardless of what’s in your wallet!
As someone who, historically, has never particularly enjoyed being alone and has always preferred the company of others, the thought of traveling the world completely by myself was intimidating, to say the least. I doubted my competence to navigate the world on my own (how would I book my own flights? Choose my own hostel? Figure out what to do once I got there?) and honestly, I was quite afraid to be alone with myself. I was worried I would be lonely and sad, that I’d want to quit and go home to the familiar world of my friends and family.
However, solo travel isn’t always something that we choose...sometimes it chooses us. For example, my first experience in solo travel was on a two-and-a-half-month trip through Europe after I finished my semester studying abroad in Madrid. I had made plans, mapped out a route, and had already started to plan my Euro-chic travel outfits with a girlfriend of mine from my program, let’s call her Cara.
About two weeks before we were set to leave on our several month trip backpacking through the whole of Europe, Cara texted me that she wanted to meet for lunch. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when I went to meet her at our usual restaurant in Madrid, The Little Big Cafe (amazing sandwiches, would definitely recommend!). But as soon as I walked in, I knew something was off. Cara would barely meet my eye and we made awkward small talk until she finally brought up the topic of our trip. She said that she had just received word that her mom was very sick and she would have to go home within the next couple of weeks instead of staying on to travel with me after our program ended. Of course I was shocked; I’d had no idea that her mom was sick and going back home was the obvious decision.
I felt awful for Cara, but now had to face my own predicament: I was alone. Frantically I tried sending WhatsApp and Facebook messages to everyone on my program to see if I could get anyone to take Cara’s place and come with me, but the trip was only two weeks out and everyone had already made plans for the end of the semester. So I had to decide: would I give up and go home, or would I put on a brave face, figure it out, and embark on the wildest adventure of my life. I’m guessing you already know the answer.
Finally, it was the night before my trip. My backpack was packed, my first night hostel booked, and my Google Maps directions downloaded onto my phone. My plan was to leave Madrid and fly to Marseille in the South of France for a few days, head north to Paris, and figure the rest out from there. I had a loose idea of my route based on what made sense looking at a map, but I hadn’t booked a thing beyond my first destination, and let me tell you, I was absolutely terrified.
Starting with my stay in Marseilles, I quickly realized that when you’re “solo traveling” you are never truly alone, unless you want to be. The moment I walked into my hostel I was met with friendly young faces from all over the globe, everyone eager to meet fellow travelers, have a drink, explore the city, and have someone to hang out with in their downtime. I realized that traveling solo was actually not so uncommon, and in fact it was about equally as normal as traveling with a partner or in a group. There’s something about travel that creates a sort of camaraderie amongst travelers, perhaps the excitement of being in a new place or the fear of not knowing where to go or how to get there, that bonds you to the people you meet and makes it exceedingly easy to meet them.
However, once I became a bit more acclimated and developed my own rhythm for how I like to travel, I learned how to be comfortable alone and I even grew to cherish those moments (and sometimes entire cities) where I was completely solo. I learned to love the freedom that came with being on my own. I was responsible only for myself, and could leave town on a whim and go anywhere I wanted without consulting anyone else. The second I decided I wanted to stop doing something or being somewhere, I just stopped. I was totally and completely free to live at my own discretion, which gave me an incomparable high that I’ve only ever experienced from traveling alone.
Over the course of that first trip, I met other travelers who I ran into again and again throughout my journey, as they were often following a similar route, and even made plans to meet up with them in other cities throughout the summer. One girl from Australia who I met in Stockholm, I ended up running into again in Berlin, and from there making plans to meet her again in Budapest, and even buying tickets to a music festival together in Croatia where we met up two months later. Through her I met tons of interesting people and had one of the craziest experiences of my life at our week-long Croatian music festival at the end of the summer. I have since seen and traveled with this friend and our subsequent mutual friends several times over the years in various destinations throughout the world.
That was one of the wildest, most liberating, most romantic, fun-filled summers of my life. It was the experience that brought me out of my shell, helped me to realize my own capability, and made me absolutely fall in love with travel.
Fast forward to a few years later, I had graduated from college and was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, supporting myself as an adult ESL teacher, trying to improve my Spanish and figure out what to do with my life. I had been there for about six months and was already sick of being stagnant, my appetite for travel gnawing at me with an insatiable hunger. I saved up all the money I could and made plans for a huge, three-month trip throughout all of South America with one of my roommates and dear friends, let’s call him Mateo. Mateo was a bit more laissez-faire about planning than I was; I needed a decently well-defined route put down on paper, where as he was happier to let the wind take him where it may. In the end I think my need for organization on top of our mounting personal issues pushed Mateo over the edge, causing him to back out at the last minute, this time leaving me about three weeks before we had planned to leave. Though I had traveled alone once before, that was Europe. This was South America- a totally different story. I had heard horror stories of solo female travelers getting kidnapped or worse; I was completely terrified and had absolutely no desire to go alone. But in the end, what could I do? I was swayed by my curiosity and thirst for the world, and once again, decided to go it alone.
This trip was quite different from my time spent in Europe, as I faced new and different challenges, including food and water poisoning, altitude sickness, vastly greater travel distances, and more. However, at its core, as an adventure that I took alone, both of my experiences were largely the same. The people I met throughout my journey in South America, both locals and travelers alike, were some of the friendliest, warmest, most interesting people I have ever met. I learned about myself, and was reminded both how physically and mentally strong I am when put to the test. I experienced some of the most impressive natural landscapes known to man and was reminded of my small place in this vast and magnificent world. Though initially my hesitation to travel alone almost caused me not to travel, I’m so glad I decided to go, as looking back I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.
Finally on my third across-the-world trip, I decided I wasn’t even going to ask anyone to come with me, I would just accept my fate as a solo traveler and take my talents to Thailand and Bali completely alone (this time on purpose!). Ironically, this was the only time in my travel career that I actually met someone who decided to drop all of his own travel plans and travel with me along my route, go figure!
Since then, I have traveled in all sorts of different ways; with a friend, with a group of friends or my family, and on organized tours. But to be honest, after having had all these different experiences, my true favorite way to see the world is through the lens of a solo traveler. You see things you had no idea even existed, meet people with stories beyond your wildest comprehension, and experience people living lifestyles you didn’t even realize were possible.
From what I’ve seen while traveling, I’ve learned that “things” aren’t the things that make people truly happy, and that “my way” isn’t the only way...there isn’t one correct way to live, not a single “right” path that everyone should take. Driving through a tiny mountain town in Ecuador, watching generations of families enjoying a life so simple and so pure that you can’t help but be awestruck by the fact that they are just as happy as you are, maybe even happier, and they have no desire or need for the modern distractions of technology to make them feel complete.
You learn not only about the world, but about yourself through traveling alone. It’s not a vacation, it’s an adventure. You get tested to your absolute limits, physically, mentally and emotionally. You learn how you play the social game, how to shake off your inclination towards shyness in favor of making friends. You learn how brave, how capable, and how strong you are. When you’re having a beer at local bar in Bangkok with friends you made that morning, or when you’re standing at the top of a mountain in Edinburgh overlooking the city you just explored all on your own, you feel like you’ve earned it. You earned it because it was hard. You had to be brave, be bold, be smart, and you did it. You learned what it means to be truly free, uninhibited, and unbounded. You reflected on yourself and learned about who you are; about the world and your place in it. Through my experiences I’ve let the world inspire me, and now I want to share some of that inspiration with you. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there as a solo traveler, the world will amaze you, and you might just amaze yourself.
My name is Sophie Mendel, and I’m an American wanderluster currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. I have traveled to 42 countries and lived in 5, am fluent in English and Spanish (and always in the process of learning more languages), and love lugging my guitar around the world with me! Follow my travels on Instagram @theunboundedtraveler!