As long as I can remember, I dreamt of traveling. Some fantasies were vast – safaris in Africa, galavanting through Europe, pen in hand. Others were very specific. I distinctly remember being in 6th grade and telling my friends my goal was to go to Italy and meet a hobo on a bus. This strange fantasy probably spouted from a random mixture of watching the Cheetah Girls meeting a boy in Spain on a bus and my general desire to open my little world to all things quirky and a little bit scary.
Nevertheless, after year one of university, I finally went on my first international trip without my parents. It wasn’t big or extreme (I had to get back home and make some money before the next semester, after all), but it was still knee-shakingly exciting. Two weeks in Italy with one of my best friends.
Every trip leads to countless learning experiences, no matter how seasoned you are. But there’s something about the first time when you pop your international travel cherry.
1. You’ll see some weird shit
On our first full day, we arrived in Venice and were waiting for a water bus when we realized the man in the corner of the bus stop was jerking it. Jet-lagged and currently alone in the bus stop, we were both shocked and disturbed. Having each other made it easier to laugh it off when we escaped the awkward situation but it was a wake-up call that there are indeed weirdos and creeps everywhere (duh).
2. Use as small of a backpack as possible that actually fits your body
Obvious? Maybe. But while saving money is critical for young travelers, my life would have been a lot easier if I wasn’t using my dad’s blue 60+ liter sack literally from the 80’s. The nostalgia was real knowing it was the same bag he carried through Australia and South East Asia but…My 18-year-old girl frame was aching after each trek and it was far too tempting to fill it to the brim with unnecessary clothes.
3. Take advantage of technology
Way back in 2014, this was hardly a habit – if you were a newbie. Even if you don’t have data, you can easily download necessary maps from Google Maps or Map.Me to conveniently find your way around a city. For someone with a terrible natural sense of direction, it would have given me more confidence. Yes, we had paper maps but they’re awkward to walk around with and just take your tourist level to a whole other visual level. So why not utilize the technology we desperately cling to every day anyway? #FirstWorldProblems
4. Go to markets whenever possible
A staple of my more recent trips has been to utilize the local street markets whenever possible when you want a cheap and consistently delicious meal or snack. Not only is it where you’ll find the most amazing ready-to-eat food and groceries, but it’s the perfect way to get a real glimpse into local life. I LIVE to watch locals barter over a piece of meat or bouquet of veggies. BONUS: Markets are a great place to stock up some delicious and healthy snacks to carry around in your day pack so you are stranded and starving gasping for a restaurant after walking around all day. I don’t think we went to one food market in the streets in Italy… Live and learn!
5. Put in some effort to find the best spots to eat
Adding on to that…Finding the real gems to eat at takes some research. Not a lot, but some to ensure you don’t consistently wind up at a mediocre tourist trap. You know what I’m talking about – the cookie cutter, over-priced, underwhelming restaurants plopped right in the middle of all the main sites.
Okay – most things tasted pretty amazing when we first got there – it was our first pizza and pasta in Italy for crying out loud. And many were good. But we realized after a while that we had a hard time finding any variety beyond pizza and pasta and, eventually, anything that left a real impression. Stuff didn’t seem that local – where did the locals eat?! Well, it’s because we really didn’t try that hard.
Ask a local at your hostel, read some travel blogs, look up where Anthony Bourdain ate in town. It doesn’t take a lot to get off the main worn-down tourist trail of doom, but it takes a little something.
6. Double check hostel locations
When you’re booking accommodation in a foreign country, you’ve got to understand the neighborhood your hostel is in. I unknowingly booked a hostel way off in the countryside when we wanted to be in the center of Florence. Luckily, I somehow brought this up with the guy working at our hostel in Venice and he warned me and proceeded to yell at the owner on the phone when he didn’t want to give us a cancellation refund. Phew. Research your locations, people.
7. Force yourself to meet more people
One of the best parts of traveling is meeting new people. We did meet some in Italy and had a couple of fun nights out, but we didn’t fully take advantage of all the other young people crossing our path. Of course, don’t feel pressured to go out every night or make small talk with every person you see, but training yourself to be as open as possible and to start some conversations even if it’s nerve-racking can go a long way. I think it can be a little harder when you’re already traveling with a friend and only in each city a couple nights, but it’s worth putting in the effort. Other times, unavoidable opportunities just present themselves to you, which can be a blessing or a curse. 🙂
8. Bring sturdier sandals – or at least use some public transit
For some reason, we did not use a single bus, taxi, or train once we reached each city (beside the train that connects the villages in Cinque Terre). No wonder my sandals eventually burst at the seams while walking around Rome, leaving me to tip-toe barefoot through the streets to our hostel. I then proceeded to replace them with some very cute but very uncomfortable €60+ leather sandals.
9. Take your sweet time
Looking back on it, I don’t remember feeling rushed or too stressed about hitting a list of sights. My travel buddy (hey, Mar!) was laid back about it and we did a pretty good job of rolling with the punches for the most part. That said, I did put together little to-dos of things we wanted to see and the big spots will almost always include mile-long lineups in the heat. But as long as you don’t pack your schedule with things you think you need to see and leave some room for just wandering the streets or basking in a view, you’ll enjoy your trip much more. Soon, you’ll be skipping the main sights all together.
10. I could get used to this
Probably the most important lesson I learned on the trip – I wanted more. Two weeks was just a tiny taste. I proved to my 18-year old small town self that 10-hour plane rides, a foreign language, and getting lost weren’t so scary after all. Plus, there was (and still is) a whole lot to more to learn.