You’d think that after 50 years of solo travel, I’d always get it right.
But no, life isn’t like that.
I get it as wrong as the rankest of rookies.
And while I kick myself when that happens, deep inside I’m rather pleased that there’s an opportunity to learn and improve.
While I should be able to guarantee a seamless and perfectly planned trip for myself, the reality is that experience can breed over-confidence. If I know it all, I don’t really need to plan, do I? Things will just… work out.
I write this in the midst of a one-month Eastern European trip during which I’ve probably managed to make every beginner mistake in the book of travel. Why am I telling you this? Because a reminder is always a good thing, and sometimes we all need a refresher, myself included.
So DON’T follow my example and do any of the things I did below. Or go ahead and experiment – and prepare for some interesting consequences.
Don’t think you can always wing it.
I don’t plan out every step of every trip but I at least map out where I’m going and how long I’ll stay there. This time I didn’t. I knew where I was landing (Serbia) and leaving from (Ukraine) but the bits of travel in-between remained shrouded in mystery, mostly because my trip had been on and off several times so I never got around to doing any meaningful research. I’m not saying you have to plan, but I am saying don’t expect things to turn out perfectly when you’re not even sure which country you’re headed to next. On the other hand, flying by the seat of your pants when you’re a planner is incredibly empowering!
Don’t wear your smooth-soled well-worn shoes.
You know, those super-comfy ones you wear around your hometown, which are so broken in they feel like slippers and so old there’s no pattern on the soles anymore. Because if it rains or you need to walk through mud, you might – like I did – have to spend a fortune buying a pair of Eccos (the only shop open on a Sunday) simply to avoid sliding across the cobblestones around Sibiu Square like a skater at a hockey game.
Don’t assume it’s summer, because – climate change.
I’m traveling in June and July and in Central Europe, that means heat, the hot and hazy kind. Except when the seasons refuse to change. I thought I was quite clever packing my wool pashmina, in case the air conditioning was too strong in rooms or shops. The rest of the time I’d be shedding layers and mopping my brow. Instead, a winter chill set in, with average nighttime temperatures of 10ºC (or 50ºF). To go with my nice new Eccos, I am now the proud owner of a stylish grey and orange fleece I also won’t need when I get home (where another perfectly fine grey and orange fleece is waiting in my closet).
Don’t leave your umbrella at home.
Because there’s something nice about summer rain, isn’t there? In truth, my umbrella is sitting on my kitchen counter, waiting patiently for my return (not too far from my fleece and hiking shoes, in fact). I forgot it, plain and simple. I’ll add my new one to the growing collection.
Don’t get a non-refundable room.
Because the second you’ve confirmed your travel dates, they’ll change. I was planning on spending two nights in Budapest until train tickets for my preferred dates weren’t available and I had to curtail my stay by a night. But I still paid for two. Had I booked something slightly more expensive with a cancellation guarantee, I would have stayed in a more upmarket place, and paid less.
Don’t skip the supermarket just because you’re tired.
Because your plans to go shopping the next day might not materialize. Getting off an exhausting 11-hour train journey seemed justification enough to postpone shopping, and it might have been. Except it poured and thundered the next day, as I huddled in my room trying to remember the shop’s whereabouts (not that I was remotely tempted to test out my brand new umbrella).
Don’t take the train everywhere because you don’t like to fly.
Because “the train is soooo romantic”. It is, most times, and I love train journeys, but that love was sorely tested by a short 100km (62mi) journey that took six hours because “the train is broken”. The next day, an 11-hour journey presented itself but I was prepared: there was no restaurant car, no food or water for passengers. I came armed with sandwiches and drinks, which I shared out with a clutch of hungry Hungarians. But a short flight might have been worth it.
Don’t get any local currency before you arrive.
Because you can change a bit at destination, right? That’s fine when you don’t arrive on a Sunday morning when everything is shut. And there’s nothing wrong with a 40-minute walk down early morning deserted streets in a city you’ve never been to before.
Don’t end up with empty pockets on your last day in a country.
Because you’re leaving the country in a few hours, and you won’t be needing their money anymore so you might as well change it into the next country’s currency (see previous point). Except that you forgot you had to take the bus, buy breakfast and water… and there isn’t a change office around. At least this time you know the way to the train station (it still takes 40 minutes). At least the rain has stopped.
Don’t forget to print out your guesthouse’s address and number.
Because you can just grab it from your phone. Except that you decided not to buy local SIM cards and you’re in a country where it costs one dollar a minute to download data. Writing an address down in a notebook the old-fashioned way guarantees you’ll have access to it when you get into town late, without wifi and with no local money.
None of these mishaps or gaffes were major. Some were even fun, or at the very least challenging. But they shouldn’t have happened, not when I have this many years of travel under my belt, and especially not when I’m convinced I’ve got it all in hand.
As my dog trainer used to say, “This is a learning moment”.
So here I am, writing this from a café in Braşov, Romania – the heart of Transylvania.
I’m having a grand time, visiting castles and sampling outlandish desserts and talking to people about politics. I’ve been to the supermarket, I have money for the next country I’m visiting, and I even reserved the overnight train leg online. I’m armed with an umbrella, new shoes and a cozy fleece.
Things are clicking along nicely.