I’m really bad at fulfilling New Year resolutions.
Year after year, I always think of something that I’d like to accomplish in the next 12 months. But I’ve never thought that these resolutions are the best way to motivate ourselves – here’s an excerpt from my old blog post, which I’ve written around 2012, summarising my stance on the topic:
Why should the New Year’s Day be the best day to start something new? I mean, today is always a good day for changes if you find a motivation to do something new for yourself. And they say that if you didn’t start today, in a year’s time you’d regret you did nothing. (…) When it comes to my hopeless case, at midnight between old and new year I always feel too melancholic to make a resolution. Personally, I believe that most of these are forgotten by society because of high amounts of champagne and alcoholic beverages that people consume.
That year, I thought I could write a novel and do something serious blog-wise: I never found the time in the fever of my final exams. Normally, I’d think of something that’s not creative at all, something that others also could think up – but I’ll tell you more just before December comes to an end. This year, a nice idea for a resolution popped into my head, but it wasn’t exactly New Year’s Eve.
I went to Paris in October; I’d always wanted to go, but I was a little scared of travelling on my own, and my student money was always tight. But when I finally could, I fought my own fear, booked the Eurostar ticket and went for a weekend. A month later, I flew to Amsterdam with my friend – even if it was just two days, we roamed around quite a lot. I used to be impressed with my friend’s courage to travel on her own: she was always out somewhere, and she told me that she tries to go to a new place, in the UK or in Europe, at least once a month. I fell in love with the idea. And then there’s another friend of mine, a seasoned explorer, who drops questions like “wanna go to Cuba in a month’s time?” She’s fantastic at planning long-haul trips, and she’s truly my inspiration when it comes to travelling. Another friend of mine is a great photographer; I love his pictures and vlogs which he mastered, as he shows the beauty of the places he visited with great skill. And of course, the others who treat themselves to the places they visited: be it at work or while hanging out with my friends, there’s always somebody with great recommendations.
When I came back from Amsterdam, I made a decision: I’ll try and visit 12 countries in 12 months over 2017. It was much easier money-wise than having a road trip around Europe, as I could look for cheap deals and go wherever the airlines take me. Overall, I’ve exceeded my expectations and ended up with 14 countries on my list even if for a couple of hours. I’ve travelled around 14429 miles between the cities. I’ve spent 20 days roaming and discovering the hidden miracles. I’ve visited the filming locations of Roman Holiday, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, In Bruges, Thelma, Sense8 and The Danish Girl. Nine out of fourteen cities I’ve visited were capital cities, but I passed two more on my way back (Brussels, Paris for the take two). One of them was a city-state, the smallest country in the world. But enough with the facts. Let’s jump to some practical things I’ve learned along the way.
Don’t be afraid of travelling on your own.
Sure, it might seem like a scary prospect. When you’re in a place you don’t know, it’s good to have support from someone else, and every experience is even better when it’s shared. However, I realised that if I waited for others to adjust their schedules for me, I’d never be able to do everything I wanted to do simply because people have their own lives and you need to respect that. Some people might not be as spontaneous as you, and some people might not be in the right place to travel at that particular point in time. You’ll also figure out that you know yourself best, so you can simply pick the stuff that you enjoy doing without sacrificing anything. Planning your itinerary is much easier when you do things for yourself. And let’s be honest: sometimes you just need some me time.
You don’t have to spend much to travel around Europe.
Thanks to open borders, cheap flight providers, hundreds of coach lines, convenient train connections and budget hostels, you don’t have to spend that much to have a great time when you go away. As a rule of thumb, flights are normally more expensive on the weekends, so it’s good to fly on Mondays and Tuesdays. I’d normally book the flights on sales, or simply by looking for the cheapest month on Skyscanner. If you book six weeks up to two months in advance, it’ll often get you an awesome deal. You can also do it the other way round and fly wherever the deals are: that took me to Basel, Copenhagen and Stockholm for less than £15 one way. You can also combine the transport modes: you can buy a flight from and to your hometown and plan a coach/train journey between two or three cities of your choice when you get to your first destination. That’s what I did with Rome and Venice, Berlin and Prague, Oslo and Stockholm, as well as with Vienna and Budapest. If the cities are two hours away, or if you can take a night bus booked in advance, it reduces the prices substantially. It’s not difficult to find a good cheap hostel or hotel for a night if you book early enough and take ratings and comments into consideration. When it comes to commuting in the cities, it’s often best to buy a 24h/48h ticket – it’ll most likely pay itself off even if you tend to walk a lot.
Have a plan…
Research, research, and research once again. When you’re going to a “popular” city, you’ll likely have some landmarks in your mind already, but go ahead and look up some places that might interest you in advance. Days in a City was one of my favourite resources, but there’s a handful of blogs I found on Google – people stumble into small things and share them eagerly, so make use of their suggestions. Ask your friends, too; they’ll likely recommend a good place to stay or a nice food market. Don’t forget to research free and cheap things to do. In a Museum Quarter in Vienna, I saw an incredible exhibition for as much as €3! If you’re a student, make sure you’ve always got your ID on you and ask for discounts. If you’re not, worry not and look out for the various concessions (i.e. for under 26-year-olds, etc.)
…but don’t be afraid to get lost or follow locals’ advice.
So you’ve got the plan, but there’s that phenomenal street art trail you’ve just spotted? Follow your heart. And don’t forget to ask for recommendations at your accommodation. They know their city like the back of their hand, so they’ll be able to share a couple of hidden places you wouldn’t normally think about. In Berlin, that led me to Berlinburger International, and a lovely elderly man in Rome pointed me to a small cafe with fantastic ice cream and Roman Holiday-inspired decor.
Explore outside of the usual day plan.
I know that holidays are all about sleeping in, but sometimes it’s really worth it to wake up earlier in the morning to visit the sights that are normally very crowded – Charles Bridge in Prague is one of my favourite examples. One of my top tricks is also heading to a popular landmark an hour before its closing time, with tickets booked in advance whenever possible. You get to skip the queues, and very often you get a bonus sunset or splendid facade illumination in the package. Moreover, you often travel outside the rush hour, which makes commuting so much easier.
I’d like to think that I mastered the art of going through the airport security without any problems, and I usually pack only into my hand luggage. That’s more than enough for 2-4 days, and you’re normally allowed to take one bag with you on board (check the sizes though!). Just remember to put any liquids and pastes (i.e. cosmetics) in a transparent bag, and make sure that individual bottles are no bigger than 100ml – you’ll have to separate those before the X-ray scan. Buying a travel bottle set might help you to manage that, and you can even get tiny atomisers for your perfume. Then, take out your electronic devices and place them separately. If possible, try not to wear anything that has any metal (i.e. get rid of belts/jewellery, you can always put them on later). Get yourself a comfortable backpack or a light bag, too. It’s a no-brainer stuff that a frequent flyer should know, but as I often observed at the airports, some people tend to forget about preparing this in advance. It goes without saying, but check the weather before you go and pack accordingly. Make sure to always have a lightweight raincoat and a jumper/cardigan, and comfy shoes.
Pick up a bit of the local language.
Nobody says that you need to become fluent in the language of the country you’re going to. Just try to pick up small expressions – greetings, salutations, ways to order things in shops and restaurants. These days, everyone speaks good English almost everywhere, particularly at tourist locations, but it’s a nice gesture if you thank a shopkeeper in their language. It also helps with small things: for example, you’ll be able to find the station exit without pulling out your phone and running around in circles. That also makes it easier in extreme cases, when the other person doesn’t speak much English – you’re helping them to understand and showing the will to communicate, and that’s plainly good manners.
It’s just a small thing, but it always bugs me to see fellow Poles asking for something that they’ve got easily available at home. In one particularly severe case, I’ve heard someone ordering a typically Polish dish, leaving a waiter confused – PLEASE DON’T DO THIS (and don’t clap when the plane lands, do you clap for a bus driver when they reach the final stop?!). To make it easier to understand for non-Polish people: why would you go to Spain or Portugal to ask for a full English breakfast? Explore the local food, try new things, and leave the money with small businesses that are at the heart of the city you’re visiting. That also applies to the local ways of life – don’t expect things to be like you know them, but don’t be afraid to explore them.
Know how to pay.
There’s a series of travel pre-paid cards you can load your travel money on to dodge the exchange rates. It’s safer to carry them around and easier to stay on budget with them, and they normally have also convenient exchange rates. Make sure you read the T&C’s though, as it’s common for them to impose a charge for overdraft, use of a different currency or even for the lack of use. Also, separate the travel card from some cash and your regular card, which you should hide away and keep as a back-up. If you’re using your usual debit/credit card, if you get to pick a preferred currency to be billed in, always choose a local one. Acquirers/banks often charge varied rates that can make the purchase or cash withdrawal a little more expensive – here’s an explanation of how it works if you want to plunge into serious stuff.
Get a battery pack.
You want your phone to be available 24/7, so the battery life is particularly crucial. Besides switching off the apps that run in the background (no, you won’t be checking your work emails…), it’s good to have an extra power source. I bought mine (26800mAh) on Amazon for £35, and it’s able to restore my phone’s battery a couple of times before it needs to be recharged. You leave it to charge overnight, and you’ve got several extra hours of battery life guaranteed the next day.
Get a (cheap) camera, then learn to operate it.
Another thing that helped me to use less of the battery time and storage is having a separate camera. Not everyone is into photography, but everyone likes to take lots of pictures to keep the fluttering memories alive, and that can drain your battery in no time. Smartphones serve you great picture quality, but sometimes even a cheaper compact does the job. As I’ve mentioned, if you’re on a budget look for a compact/bridge camera with at least 20MP and as much optical zoom as possible (really useful when taking pictures of landscapes; digital zoom is less relevant since when you use it, the picture quality drops), wide ISO rate and aperture, 1-inch sensor or bigger. You should definitely check YouTube reviews and comparisons before you buy anything to get something to start with. And it’s good to get a grasp of how to operate your camera: there are some basic techniques like the use of composition (i.e. the rule of thirds) that’ll make your pictures better. And the manual mode allows you to do more with the photos, too, i.e. take better pics of backlit/overexposed objects without losing the detail. I’m still learning, so maybe I’ll link some of my favourite resources sometime?
Get yourself some apps.
When you’ve saved all that phone battery, you can use it for apps that make your travel easier. Google Maps go without saying, as they show you quick and convenient ways of getting from point A to point B. You can easily make the sights with a “want to go” label that makes it easy to navigate between them. Some cities have their public transportation broken down on Citymapper, which shows detailed information about buses, metro and trains in the area, sometimes even with real-time updates. Make sure you’ve got the Passbook or the app of your airline so that you don’t have to print your boarding pass. Skyscanner is also worth installing, as it allows you to find the best deals on the go and set up the alerts for the dates you’re interested in. And finally, for some travel entertainment (especially if you’ve got a socket for your disposal, for instance on an overnight coach) install Kindle App and Netflix so that you don’t have to carry extra devices with you.