If three months on the road has taught me anything, it is that there is no blueprint to walking it. Guidebooks or youtube videos or blogs (hah!) can give you some direction. Your friends and family and fellow backpackers can help set you on the right path. But where the road leads is ultimately up to you, and only you, the traveler.
We are all different people with different desires and tendencies. We all seek meaning in different ways. Thus, traveling cannot simply be devolved into a vanilla “Top 10” list. It’s much more complex than buzzwords and motivational quotes.
All that said I now offer you my own meandering advice for rewarding travel, overlaid by some of the final moments of my three months venturing through Europe. I encourage you to consider my words but also keep in mind your own unique preferences. Ultimately we all must ask ourselves, how do I as an individual best discover the world? Read on to learn about how I answered this question for myself.
Pack wisely and efficiently
This was perhaps my biggest apprehension leading up to my departure date back in April. I remember thinking to myself how difficult it was going to be to fit three months worth of life into a single bag. How the f*** am I supposed to pack for a trip that includes Iceland, Greece, and every climate in between?
I started with a Osprey Porter 46L in black. I needed something compact yet spacious, comfortable, and durable. This proved to be the perfect pack for my needs.
There are a smattering of useful pockets for storing things. The panel-load access allows it to be packed and unpacked like a duffel bag. There are compression cables along the back for compaction and a hip belt which makes lugging the thing through cities a bit easier. It’s also just deceptively deep and has plenty of space for all my clothes, camera gear, books, and toiletries. There’s even a slip in the back which perfectly fits my 13 inch Macbook Pro. This conceals it from would-be thieves but is easily accessible during security checks at airports.
Speaking of airports, I carried the Porter on over a dozen flights in the past three months with no trouble; not once was I asked to check it. This includes flights with discount airlines like Ryanair, Wizzair, and Pegasus.
Along with the Porter I carried a drawstring tote bag, which was serviceable for day activities.
As for the contents of your packing, I recommend as little as possible. I realize this is easier for some than it is for others. For my part, I was generally okay with wearing the same shirt or pair of pants several days in a row. I could live with that if it meant more space in my bag for souvenirs, plus less wasted time and money doing frequent laundry. Also, this way I could keep my nicer shirts clean for nights out on the town, while my lesser shirts took the brunt of the sweat and grime from daytime activities.
But occasionally looking and/or smelling like a creature while traveling may not appeal to you, I get it.
No matter how many clothes you bring on your travels, I highly recommend rolling your shirts and pants, then wrapping them in rubber bands. This allows you to piece through your bag and put items of clothing aside without them unrolling. Trust me, it makes the veritable Tetris game of packing a whole lot easier.
Spontaneity is key
Sometimes you’ll reach a point in your travels where you have no idea what you’re doing next. This can be both exciting and daunting. Above all, it is an opportunity to be spontaneous.
When I boarded a train from Austria to Slovenia, I knew very little about my destination. Admittedly I still struggle to spell Ljubljana (can I buy a vowel?).
Still reeling from the World Bodypainting Festival that weekend, I heeded the advice of my new Spanish friend, Fran, and decided on a whim to check out Slovenia’s capital. Fran had given the city a ringing endorsement, it proved to be every bit as charming as he described.
Even a week prior to this, I was not considering a trip to the Slovenian capital. Though I had just one full day to explore the city, I found it to be quaint, cheap, and full of interesting places to explore. I only wish I had more time there.
I thank spontaneity for spurring my trip to Ljubljana, among many other decisions during this trip. Tapping in to the collective knowledge pool of your fellow travelers can often lead to unexpected and exciting discoveries.
However, sometimes it’s good to know exactly what you’re doing and how you’re going to get there, which leads to my next point.
Travel smart and know your best transit options
In Europe there are vast networks of trains, planes, and buses. When putting together an itinerary, I recommend reviewing all your options prior to booking each leg and, as such, I advise against the famous Eurail pass. There was a time when this was the most cost-effective way to travel Europe, but this is no longer the case. A bevy of low-cost airlines and buses like Ryanair and Megabus have saturated the market. No matter how I ran the numbers on my itinerary, it was simply cheaper to use a multitude of transportation methods as opposed to just trains.
True, with the Eurail pass you do get the benefit of simplicity and flexibility, leaving a given area whenever you want, unconfined to a certain departure. To each their own I suppose. Run your own numbers relative to your travel duration and number of stops to get the best travel options, you may find the Eurail pass to be right for you.
Now, once you’ve arrived at your destination, you need to figure out how to get around day-to-day. If you’re in a big city, chances are you’ll have some public transportation options at your disposal. Trams and buses were my bread-and-butter for cities like Rome, Geneva, Istanbul, and Milan. Some transit maps are daunting, certainly, but they can be deciphered with a bit of investigation and confidence.
As a solo traveler I almost always avoid taxis due to the cost and lack of transparency (if you really can’t be bothered to take public transit, at least try Uber first. It is cheaper and available in many big European cities like Budapest and Amsterdam). Public transportation is very often the best option for getting around.
However, if you are traveling in a group, I highly recommend renting a car. This allows you to come and go as you please, store things while adventuring an area, and get to places that are off the beaten path.
In Reykjavik I rented a car with two guys I met in the hostel and explored Iceland’s countryside. It was an idyllic experience that I wrote about here and here. When I met my family in the Netherlands, we also rented a car and explored a bunch of neat places within our home base, The Hague, and elsewhere.
Canal in Delft plus views from the Delft Cathedral.
The five us made full use of the car in our week in the Netherlands. We made day trips to Amsterdam (twice!), Delft, Zuiderzee, and Leiden. Plus we thoroughly explored the Hague, a special place to us, where we called home 17 years ago when Dad was working at the US Embassy. The car gave us free reign to explore, enjoy places unrestricted by timing, and most importantly, drive to nice restaurants (such as an incredible Indonesian meal for my 25th birthday – highly recommend this cuisine if you’re in the Netherlands).
We had a wonderful week in the Netherlands, filled with constant adventure and fun. The flexibility of having a car definitely added tremendous value to our travels. Again, as a solo traveler in big cities, I would recommend sticking to public transportation. But if you’re traveling with friends or family and can split the burden of driving/gas, nabbing a rental car really does open up a new world of opportunities.
Seek out ways to socialize
The road of a solo traveler can be exhausting. Constant sights, sounds, and smells can lead to a sensory overload that locks down even the most resilient socialites. Conversely, it can also be very lonely. When you’re thousands of miles away from the people you care about, in a different time zone, in a strange place, sometimes you just need someone friendly to talk to. Rest assured there are other travelers wandering around in the same predicament, waiting to meet you and share their story.
My tried-and-true method for meeting people while traveling is staying in hostels where ever possible. I wrote extensively about my love-hate relationship with hostels in this post. Basically, they are worth the trouble.
On my first night at the Hostel Tabor in Ljubljana, I ended up bunking with a young man named Max. Not only is he American (I never expected to meet an American in Slovenia, much less bunk with one), he had just graduated from George Washington University in DC, where my Dad teaches law. The happenstance of our meeting baffled me.
After we attended a walking tour the following morning, we continue exploring the city together. Max had just finished his birthright trip to Israel. This being his first time in Eastern Europe, he was jarred by the amount of swastikas graffitied on random alleyways and walls around Ljubljana. I tell him he is perfectly safe, that those markings are the result of a few malicious souls and are not representative of the Slovenian people. He seems to take solace in this, but I can’t truly know what he felt in that moment.
Sharing the road with someone can open your eyes to a new perspective. For a moment you can see the path they have walked, which has shaped who they are, then gaze out at the path they will walk in the days and weeks to come.
Fast forward to after Slovenia and the Netherlands, I set out on my final journey to Copenhagen. There I stayed at one of the best hostels of my trip: Copenhagen Downtown Hostel.
Many hostels have a common area or bar where backpackers gather. The Downtown hostel had both, each perpetually teeming with globetrotters. What’s more, at 6:30 PM every night they served free dinner. This made meeting people a breeze; when “free” and “food” are mentioned in the same sentence, you can be sure to find eager budget travelers.
In Copenhagen I met Erica, an Italian who was working at a festival later that week in a different Danish city, Hundested. We decided to go on a walking tour of the city (which, I should mention, is another great way to meet people and gives you an introduction to the city you’re in). The next day, we check out Tivoli Gardens, the 2nd oldest active amusement park in the world.
That night we link up with Nicole, an American from New York, and Tim, a convivial 6’7″ Aussie. The four of us share drinks and conversation in the bar before heading out in search of a good time.
A testament to how liberal Copenhagen is, we find the most fun spot to be a lesbian bar. We played foosball, drank beer, and ended up hanging out with a gregarious group of 8 girls, mostly Danish and Icelandic. They all seemingly have histories with each other, having dated in the past, been friendly, or currently are together. Their banter is hilarious and intoxicating. We end up going out to a club later in the night and continued to booze and dance the night away.
Ultimately a great night with fun people began, as many do, in the messiness of the hostel lifestyle.
The next day Erica left, so Nicole and I explored the free city of Christiania, which brings me to my final piece of advice.
Step out of your comfort zone
This is perhaps the most universally relevant rule for travel. Across age groups, genders, demographics, and walks of life, challenging oneself is, in many ways, the most important thing you can do while abroad. To step out of your comfort zone is to forget what is normal and embrace the unknown.
Christiania certainly required a suspension of comfort and normality; Nicole and I were up for the task. As I learned on my walking tour, it is a free city of 84 acres and 850 residents functioning autonomously within Copenhagen’s borders. Its history is fascinating, beginning with its creation as a squatted military area in 1971. Today it has a sometimes tense but overall peaceful relationship with the Danish government. Known on the streets as the epitome of a “hippie commune”, it proved to be exactly that.
As we walk in through a colorful archway indicating the entrance, there are murals and street art lining abandoned buildings and colorful shops on the sides of the walkway. Deeper into the heart of the city we come across the cannabis trade, known as the “Green Light District” or “Pusher Street”. Here there are booths and stores displaying baskets of aromatic cannabis strains. The associates wear masks to hide their identities, only showing their eyes.
Leaving behind the lingering smell of weed, Nicole and I begin to explore the rest of the city. There are an array of gardens, nature areas, restaurants, bars, hidden pathways, unique residences covered in art, and overgrown abandoned buildings. People are smoking, drinking, lounging in hammocks, playing with their dogs, meditating, yoga-ing (?), and playing music. The city seems to attract an eclectic group of hippies, free-thinkers, intellectuals, musicians, artists, and vagabonds alike.
I take pictures selectively, knowing full well that waving my smartphone around doesn’t exactly align with the good vibes that the city promotes.
Outside the main area is a lake, bisected by a bridge that takes you to the more residential part of Christiania. Nicole and I cross and walk all over, then take time to sit and enjoy the peacefulness of the community.
They have their own local government, hospital, and schools. Their economy is mostly self-sustaining, but there are exchanges of goods with the city of Copenhagen. They also have their own set of rules. Some practical and righteous, such as no violence, no hard drugs, and no guns. Others are odd and a bit comical, such as no wearing of biker’s colors, and no running (this just makes me laugh! Apparently running incites panic. There are designated jogging trails, however).
Tourism has been a strong source of economic growth as of late. When Nicole and I get back to the city center, we chat up a local who is more than willing to entertain our curiosity.
I ask the local (never got his name, let’s call him “Chris”) if there was anyone who might welcome us into their home. I was encouraged to do this by my tour guide two days prior. Chris tells us to follow him. As he leads us through the streets, I ask him what it’s like living here.
“Once it was more free. It is too institutionalized now.”
This surprised me, at that point I thought Christiania was the coolest, most peaceful and magical place I had ever been, but what do I know? Despite lamenting the tourism, Chris says he still loves living there.
After some walking we arrive at the “Starship”, where our benevolent guide tells us that many Greenlanders have made their home. The doors are open, so we simply walk inside. Though it is clearly someones house, you’d think it was a coffee shop in Amsterdam. A dozen or more Greenlanders are lying around, smoking and drinking. Most are men with their shirts off, due to the heat. There are overflowing bags of weed and joints sitting on a table, presumably for purchase. Colorful art and tapestries cover the walls. Chris introduces us to the owner, who smiles and shakes my hand but clearly does not speak English. I wonder silently how many people actually live there.
Satisfied with seeing a Christianian residence up close, we took our leave of the city, having been mostly in the beating sun for several hours.
In my mind the free city of Christiania is a success in social experiments. Heck, Lukas Forchhammer (You know, “One I was Seven Years old…”, that guy), grew up in Christiania and he’s a worldwide success. It is a prosperous community that fosters creativity, free-thinking, and peace.
And I never would have experienced it without stepping outside my comfort zone, as I have many times this trip. I have a firm belief that comfort kills creativity. Leading up to my decision to travel, I felt the need to kill my comfort before this happened. My time in Christiania, and many other experiences, have done this for me. Though opening up your worldview is a lifelong process.
I find myself having written entirely too much. What waywardly travel advice did I miss?? Ahh…keep calm, stay hydrated, wear sunscreen, let your mom know you’re okay…meh…as I said before, much of what I advise is moot and must be discovered for yourself.
I guess my best piece of travel advice is simply to travel. Whether it is to a city you haven’t been to an hour away, or an untouched community on the other side of the world. Money comes and goes but time is finite. Just do it. Walk as I have, walk where I and others haven’t, share your story, listen to others, and read the world as if it were a book.
Thank you for reading and for following me on this journey! If you’re starting or considering a journey of your own, especially to Europe, feel free to comment with any questions about my experience traveling solo.