How to Travel in 7 Steps

Everyone talks about how much they’d love to travel. Ignoring the 90 percent of people who lie when they say it, the remaining 10 percent who want to probably won’t leave the country. So I want to help that 1 or 2 percent of the 10 who might commit to the cliché and see the world. This post isn’t meant to explain how to travel for three months on $30 (who wants to be an international vagrant, anyway?).* This post is meant to get you thinking so that you’ll be able to buy a plane ticket and not regret it. How to buy the ticket, where to go, and how to get a good deal will be a future post.

Prioritize travel

Leaving the United States isn’t difficult, but it won’t happen if you don’t make it happen. If you want to travel, start a travel fund. Don’t sell drugs on the side if you’re that poor, but I save for a year before I have enough to gallivant around.† Life is about trade-offs. If you don’t value travel, admit it and move on.

Learn to save

Evaluate your expenses and figure out what you want to cut. Think like an economist and understand opportunity cost: the cost of one thing is what you give up to get it. Prioritizing travel might have you making coffee at home instead of buying it in the morning. If you know what you value, it’s not much of a sacrifice. Small things like eating out less, watching Netflix instead of going out, and choosing the library over Amazon add up. Save that tax return, don’t upgrade your phone. I don’t know, make it work.

Know what sort of traveler you are

Sleeping in hostels and eating street food with an overloaded backpack makes for a different trip than staying in nice hotels, dining by candlelight, and renting a car. I like hostels and “free” walking tours, but you might want a private shower. Aim for value, not cheapness. I loved Lithuania when I was there and didn’t spend much, but I loved Iceland too, even though I spent twice or thrice the amount. Your trip, your rules.

Know where you want to go

Answering “where do I want to go?” has two benefits: It gives you a goal that spurs action, and you avoid going somewhere you’ll dislike. Again, it’s about prioritizing travel; if you want to see “Europe” or “Africa,” that’s too vague. “I want to climb a glacier and see waterfalls in Iceland” or “I want to swim in Lake Victoria and shoot something” are goals that you can achieve and build an itinerary around (but maybe not that last one, Francis Macomber).

Plan a realistic trip

This is key. Visiting eight countries in a month is possible. It’s also miserable. Just as you should disregard  bucket lists, take time to appreciate wherever you are. If it happens, 18 hours in Helsinki is nice, but if most of your trip is a few days in 12 countries, you probably haven’t thought enough about where you want to go. Don’t try to see everything; assume that you’ll return, and prioritize accordingly.

Make a budget and itinerary

I tend to over-budget, as I deviate from my itinerary. Having that cushion helps me avoid begging my parents for money they won’t give me. Some sites publish lists of the best cities for low-budget backpackers, and others simplify the housing search. However, the best way to estimate expenses isn’t online. It’s also the best companion for traveling (aside from my sterling advice). And, horror of horrors, it’s not free.

Buy a guidebook

I love guidebooks. The best one for a trip depends upon how you want to travel, but I enjoy ones by Rick Steves. I like his perspective on travel, I like the puns he uses, and I like that he serves on the board of directors for NORML. I haven’t used Lonely Planet as much, but they’ve been useful to me as well. Everyone wants to see what’s “off the beaten path,” meet a (romantically available) local, and drown in a platitude. So they disparage guidebooks because they’re “a traveler, not a tourist.” Also, that Jack Kerouac book they didn’t understand takes up the book space in their backpack. But uh, grab a guidebook. Don’t be a hipster about it. It’s a nice memento to keep after the trip, and gives more reliable information than that weirdo on reddit who sold all his possessions so he could live on a goat farm in Moldova.

Traveling expands my perspective and heightens my appreciation for home. It’s a challenge. It’s also not necessary for a fulfilling life. But it’s fun if you’re of a certain type. If so, embrace it. If my suggestions help, send me a postcard when you make it, be it to India, Italy, or Indiana.

* “The International Vagrants” would be a great band name.
† Just kidding; sell drugs on the side if you want (#smashthestate).