Blake X is an award-winning writer and production manager for a news publication, an aspiring novelist, and an amateur comic book style artist. He enjoys traveling, music, good drinks, nature, and literature. Follow him on Instagram.

Travel tips & tricks from a novice traveler (Part 1)

August 11, 2018

I don’t claim to be an expert in traveling; far from it, in fact. I’ve certainly traveled more than my peers, but my friends are, like me, American, and as the stereotype goes, Americans don’t get around much. Most of the people I know here in the states are no exception. I, on the other hand, felt the urge to travel years ago, and once I had the means, I promptly did so. After venturing outside my humble state of New Jersey and moving to Chicago, I proceeded to visit places like LA, New Orleans, Seattle, Madison, St. Louis, and Memphis, to name a few places.

I’ve also been to Paris, Berlin, Prague, and Košice (Slovakia). The advice that follows is thus directed at those who wish to travel internationally, and it’s based on the modicum of experience I’ve had doing so myself – no more, no less. Personally, I feel that it’s more beneficial to get travel info based upon the rudimentary (yet down-to-earth) understandings of average people, rather than from some travel guide or tourist pamphlet. The tips and suggestions that follow are provided because they’ve either worked for me, or they’re based upon things I’ve learned and picked up during my wanderings abroad. I hope it’s helpful and that, if you do decide to travel outside the U.S. (I hope you do!), you take some of the following into consideration.

This will be the first of a multi-part series on travel. What I’d like to start with is what I call “the three Ps.” So, without further ado...

The planning

Okay, so you want to visit another country. Now it’s time to get all your bookings in order – flights, trains, hotels, etc. For flying and accommodations, specifically, I recommend using a travel agent. Sure, there are sites like Expedia or Booking.com, and if you’ve had a positive (and inexpensive) experience with them, then go with what works for you! Using a travel agent is simply what has worked for me, and that’s why I’m putting it forward to readers. It may seem old school – you may have wondered whether travel agencies still existed! – but trust me, it’s an efficient and affordable way to do things. Also, if you’re like me and don’t have a credit card, booking a hotel room through a travel agency means that there’s no hassle when it’s time to check in; the room is already paid for, so all they’ll really ask you for is a debit card to put on file for incidentals. (Don’t worry about this – at check-out, you can almost always pay for any incidentals in cash if you don’t want to charge your card.)

So, travel agent. Book your flights way ahead of time. Most people recommend doing so 2-3 months in advance. I actually suggest doing it 4-5 months in advance. The one huge expense, when it comes to going from the U.S. to Europe, is the cost of your flight. You’ll want to get those plane tickets as cheaply as possible. You’ll be happy to hear, meanwhile, that in most EU countries, hotels are much cheaper than they are over here. I stayed at the Grand Hotel Bohemia, a really nice place in Prague’s Old Town, for a fraction of what that kind of room would have cost me in the states. But hang on. It’s also perfectly reasonable to not book a hotel at all.

I’m talking about Airbnb and Couchsurfing, two very good alternative options to a hotel. There’s also the option of staying in a hostel, and if you like sharing a room with a large crowd of other backpackers, that’s cool and all. Personally? The way I see it, hotels are almost as affordable as European hostels, so you might as well spend just a bit more and have your own place of comfort. Or, if you really want to save money, I think you’re better off with Airbnb than a hostel. I have not personally used it (yet), nor have I used Couchsurfing, but a lot of Millennial travelers recommend them, so I’m passing that on to you.

Finally, I use GoEuro.com for booking train tickets. I’ve done this with trains from Berlin to Prague (and vice-versa), and from Prague to Košice. Pleasant experience, highly affordable tickets. GoEuro even has an app that makes everything that much easier and more convenient. If you’re traveling across numerous EU countries during your journey, there’s also the option to get a Eurail pass; it’s the way to go if you’re checking out like five countries that share borders with one another, but if you’re only headed to one or two countries, don’t bother. It’s cheaper just to purchase tickets through GoEuro.

The packing

So you’re all set. You’ve got your flight info, your hotel reservations (or your Airbnb/Couchsurfing accommodations), and your train and/or bus tickets. Now it’s time to pack. First, let’s talk about the red-white-and-blue elephant in the room. Americans are notorious overpackers. Like a lion glimpsing a zebra, Europeans can usually spot one a mile away; they’re loaded with duffel bags and backpacks, dragging huge pieces of luggage behind them; red-faced, panting, doubled over in pain, likely tripping over their own feet. People, you’re on vacation, not practicing Super Saiyan weight training. There’s an easier way.

Someone once gave me a helpful piece of advice that has always made sense to me. When you’re done packing, open your bag(s) back up and take out half of everything that’s in there. Then open your wallet and double what’s in there. Look, what I suggest is that you bring a single backpack or piece of luggage with you. Nothing more. “But what if I’m staying somewhere for three weeks?!” you may ask. “What about clean clothes?” Well, predictably enough, European cities have these innovative places called laundromats. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can also have your laundry done there (for a fee – hence why you should double up that money). I usually pack 3 or 4 shirts and one extra pair of pants. I just wash what I wear and I rotate these sets of clothing as needed.

Here’s something important to consider: if you really can’t leave certain things behind, you may find that your backpack is quickly getting overstuffed. After all, you probably have a laptop, your clothes, other accoutrements like combs and a toothbrush, perhaps even a book to read on your flight. You’ll be surprised at how rapidly it all adds up. There’s a good space-saving technique I learned a long time ago, and now I’m passing it on to you. Take your clothing and roll it. That’s right, roll it up so that it’s in a narrow, Italian-bread shape. Now, take the thicker and/or puffier items that you rolled, and place them horizontally at the bottom of your backpack compartment. Case in point: if you have a heavy pair of jeans, roll it up and put it in first, sideways. Take one or two more thick clothing items and do the same thing; press them down a bit, as well. Now, take your shirts, boxers, and other lighter, airy items, roll them, and stack them vertically on top of the other clothes, and alongside one another. I’ve found that in an average backpack compartment, I can fit about four shirts and two or three pairs of boxers side-by-side in this way. Now push everything back to flatten it somewhat (I hope you don’t mind some wrinkles, it’s a sacrifice you’ll have to make), and presto! You’ve managed to fit your clothing into one of the 3 or 4 compartments your backpack probably has. Socks, by the way, can be rolled and squeezed into side compartments, but if that doesn’t work, it’s better to put them in flat.

You’ll want your laptop to be slipped into a compartment that is not encumbered with many other things. That’s because, unless you have a plane ticket that says “Pre”, you’ll have to take your laptop out before putting it on the belt, during the airport security check. You’re not going to want to have to excavate it from a cluttered pile of underwear and bathroom essentials when you’re on line and being rushed along by the TSA. If possible, keep your laptop in an area all by itself, with nothing else for company except for your wires, USB hubs, etc.

The preparation

Here’s something else to do before you go to another country for the first time. Realize that you won’t be in America anymore. That might seem like kind of a dumb thing to say, but while many U.S. travelers grasp this on a basic level, it doesn’t really sink in that they’ll be experiencing a different culture with different laws, customs, ethics, and etiquette. If you’re someone who is easily offended by something that does not fit in with your idea of “values” or “the way things should be,” you’ll be in for a rude awakening.
Say goodbye to free refills and ice at restaurants, 24-hour fast food drive-ins, and air conditioning everywhere; and say hello to paying to use public restrooms, having to translate menus and street signs, and paying for bags at grocery stores. But also, say goodbye to not being allowed to drink until you’re 21, not being allowed to smoke almost everywhere, being lectured or looked down upon if you eat meat, and having to pay thousands of dollars for medical or dental care; and say hello to seeing beer literally everywhere (and getting a pint for one Euro!), fast and comfortable trains, overall higher quality of life, and, uh, sex and nudity not being a big deal at all (to put it lightly).

What I’m trying to say is that you must be okay with making some adjustments. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Reserve your judgments and remember that you’re not in America anymore. If you’re in Norway or Ireland, there’s a certain way that things are done, and you really don’t have the right to impose your own value system upon another nation. Instead, be respectful and appreciative, and you just might learn something! At the very least, you’re more likely to make new friends.
Finally, and although this should go without saying, you should learn some of the language of whatever country you’re visiting. At the very least, try and memorize some basic words and phrases. I strongly suggest using the DuoLingo app. I think it’s awesome, and I’ve been able to pick up a lot of Czech with it. Ideally, you’ll want to be able to say things like hello, goodbye, please, thank you, good morning, good evening. You’ll want to be able to order food at a restaurant or a drink at the bar, and you may also want to practice a few interesting words or sentences that could be conversation-starters. Not only are you educating yourself, you’ll also make a better impression when you’re abroad. Even if you butcher a few words, at least you’re trying! When people see that you’re making an effort, it shows them that you value and respect their country and their language. I think that’s important, and as yet another saying goes, “The only knowledge that can hurt you is the knowledge that you don’t have.”

I hope this first part of “Travel tips & tricks” has been, or will be, helpful and useful. Make of it what you will, but if you do take my advice, let me know how it goes, and how it works for you (or doesn’t)! I also encourage other forms of feedback – have your own tips to share? Let me know. Feel free to leave a comment here, to message me on Instagram, or to email me at blakedeppe@gmail.com. Thanks for reading. More to come!

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your adventurous spirit! Some people are too timid to travel overseas. This is a nice planning guide to assist new travelers as well as those who haven't traveled so much to venture abroad. Wondering if you'll say more about learning languages at little or no cost? Looking forward to reading the "More to come!"

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