Lessons from an Expert International Traveler: Sharing the Early Mistakes I Made (So You Don’t Make Them Too)

Five years ago, fresh off a layoff with a severance package and a dream, I booked a one-way flight into Madrid. It was the first time I was going to Europe wholly alone — in college, I had studied abroad in Poland with classmates, and in my mid-20s, joined a Contiki tour group to Greece and Turkey, and I had done many other trips as part of a friend group or couple — but this effort was different.

It was ALL up to me: where I’d go, where I’d stay, how and when I’d get there, and what I’d do — no class or group itinerary, no pre-planned excursions, no groupthink or chaperones or guidance.

It was ALL up to me, which was exciting — and also meant I made a lot of mistakes, as a fairly-new-to-backpacking solo international traveler. And I’m sharing these with you now so that you can have the benefit of my knowledge and experience.

5 year flashback — and what I’m doing now in Europe

I’m currently in Europe for the next few months, and I’m doing more of what I did right and less of what I did wrong, with a few small exceptions based on my lifestyle choices (not based on a lack of knowing, like before). Read on!

THEN: What I did wrong

  1. I overplanned and overbooked.

Guys, I could spend the entire blog talking about this in great detail. In short, I was terrified of getting to Europe and not knowing my route, not having tickets, not having a place to stay, you name it — as if all my possible options would run out once I landed.

Spoiler alert: I would’ve been fine if I showed up with no reservations and no plans. But, of course, I didn’t. Back then, I had a scarcity mindset. (I know a lot better now.)

I booked trains in advance that I missed and had to rebook (and re-pay). A guy who had promised to host me and show me around backed out last minute. Stuff went wrong, I was lost in translation, or I just… got lost. Or, on a number of occasions, I changed my mind about what I wanted to do, but I was past the free cancellation period. Imagine: you oversleep (don’t underestimate jet lag) and miss one train. You either rebook at a last-minute price, costing you money, or you stay and forfeit the stay at your destination, also costing you money — and all your other cascading bookings are now irreversibly off. It’s a vicious cycle. True story, Madrid-Barcelona (ouch, that was an expensive rebooking).

WHAT I’M DOING NOW: Now, like how I traveled in Mexico, I am planning one week ahead, as in, I know generally where I’ll be within the next week (the week following is kind of a vague blob in my mind). As far as where I’ll stay, and how I’ll get there — I tend to sort that out a few days prior, in terms of securing lodging and transportation. And if, for some reason, accommodations in a small town “run out”? It’s ok if I push back my intentions a day or so, because I don’t have anything “cascading” to worry about!

And by the way… the cheapest trains of the day are often the earliest. It’s a trick!!

  1. There was so much I didn’t know and had to learn on the fly. 

I wasn’t quite optimized with all the hacks back then, but through trial and error, I learned a LOT! Including:

  • Save your data as much as possible. When on wifi, download Google Maps offline, which you can use to navigate without cell service.
  • Underground metros, trams, and buses, oh my! In Monaco, I was surprised to realize there are bus stops on BOTH sides of the street depending on the direction you’re heading (it seems so obvious now, but this American girl was only used to driving)! Now, I’m a pro at figuring out the metro system, and I take it everywhere that’s too far to walk: I rely heavily on Google Maps for this; I’ve found timetables are extremely accurate in many cities.
  • For city-to-city transportation, I know to check the train system by country instead of using a Eurorail package (each train operator has a convenient app) and purchase mobile tickets on my phone (no printers needed). FlixBus is great too (for coach bus city-to-city routes across Europe), and BlaBlaCar (peer-to-peer rideshare).
  • I know the best way to exchange money: an international bank ATM, with an ATM fee-free debit card! On my first trip overseas in 2005, I brought now-defunct travelers’ checks — I recall waiting in line at the bank while my peers were retrieving easy cash from the ATMs. In 2017, I exchanged a lot of cash for euros at my home back. But now, I know that my fee-free ATM card gets me a better currency exchange rate than exchanging in my home country, time and time again (also, ALWAYS decline the suggested conversion on the pin pad)! Pair that with my travel credit card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and I am foreign exchange fee-free and collecting and redeeming TONS of travel points.
  • I will question something if it seems unreasonable (politely). Before I order, I ask to see the price on the menu so there are no surprises when the bill comes (recall the exchange rate)! In 2017, I was definitely overcharged in a Prague beer garden due to my confusion with the currency exchange, so now I keep a menu with me or take special care to ask how much something is before accepting it (and I use a currency calculator cell phone app).

»If you want to sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, use my referral link to make my day — I get bonus points!

THEN: 3 things I did right

  1. I packed light with a carry on.

I lived out of a carry-on size 40L backpack when I took my 4-week Euro trip in 2017, and I was perfectly fine. I did laundry in the sink in my hotels, I wore each item in my wardrobe approximately once or twice per week, and bought anything else I needed (like two shirts at H&M when I was positively SICK of the same clothing). It’s a foreign country, not a foreign planet!

WHAT I’M DOING NOW: Well, I’m traveling a bit bigger this time around, but I tell myself it’s because my stay is longer: I have a medium sized roller suitcase (checked size), a backpack, and a messenger bag, which will suit me for 2-3 months. Is that a lot, or a little? Other carryon evangelists might say a lot (and formerly, me) but infrequent or inexperienced travelers might not. (For example, when I went to Greece in my 20s, I brought TWO suitcases.) I didn’t pack as light as I typically do this time, but given that I plan to be overseas for 2-3 months, I wanted to have more options as far as apparel. If I were only coming a few weeks… absolutely I’d do a carry on again. (My $30 Apple AirTag, which tracks my suitcase’s position, has been GREAT peace of mind!!)

  1. I managed my food budget and consumption.

Because I overspent in my train/transportation category (ahem) in 2017, food was the logical place for me to be conscious of. I’d typically eat at the hostel or hotel (which usually had a complimentary breakfast), I’d treat myself to gelato or a cold beer in the afternoon, and then buy myself dinner. And no matter my lodging (and no matter the country), I tend to dine in a similar fashion: a late breakfast, a snack in the afternoon and dinner, or a late lunch and a snack in the evening. By eating fewer standard meals per day, I’m not driven by mealtimes, I remain satiated, I save money, when I eat I enjoy it, and I’ve even managed to lose a few pounds (8 lbs. in Mexico, to be exact)! 

WHAT I’M DOING NOW: The same. I believe travel has helped me conquer the eating disorders I struggled with in my adolescence and adulthood — intuitive eating is my way. Learn more about my journey here.

  1. I opened up and trusted people.

Because every good friend starts as a stranger, it’s vaguely offensive to me when someone says, “Eww, I would never do couchsurfing.” I mean, we use Airbnb, and we go on Tinder dates after solely reading a description and exchanging a few messages… why wouldn’t we meet other travelers or hosts the same way? But I get it. I once was afraid to use couchsurfing and stay with a stranger too, but in August 2017, my first two hosts cured me of that ignorance by giving me the most sincere welcomes (thank you, Elise and Manfred!). I’ve since seen Elise again in the Netherlands, and Manfred in the USA and Salzburg — and I’ve continued to have overall good experiences with couchsurfing and sharing accomodations with new friends. Just like Airbnb and dating apps, it requires using your personal filter and intuition.

WHAT I’M DOING NOW: I’ve been in Europe now for over two weeks, and I’ve only stayed in one hotel — otherwise, I’ve been couchsurfing! (Which ironically does not necessarily mean I’ve been sleeping on couches, it’s often been guest rooms or offices.) And I feel like, by spending time with a local, I get more of an authentic experience, I learn more, I am exposed to more people, and I build friendships around the world. This makes for a really rewarding experience.

Questions/comments about traveling to Europe? Leave a comment!

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One thought on “Lessons from an Expert International Traveler: Sharing the Early Mistakes I Made (So You Don’t Make Them Too)

  1. Well done Julie. Germany is a surprising place. Two places I found particularly beautiful- Fussen – for Neuschwanstein Castle of Disney fame and Dillingen an der Donau.
    Enjoy your trip wherever you end up next.

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