Not all those who wander are lost ― J.R.R. Tolkien
After my trip to Scotland, I had spent my first year as a full-time professional trying to plan my next trip. Ever since high school, my mom and I had always talked about going to Italy together. Unfortunately, we never made it past the exciting agreement that we wanted to drink wine in Florence, ride a gondola in Venice, and explore the ancient Colosseum in Rome. Life tends to get in the way, and we all know how easy it is to find reasons to put off our dreams.
Flashback to November: I have always known I was going to get a tattoo. I knew exactly where I wanted my tattoo, the font I wanted the letters in, and how large I wanted it to be. The only problem was that I did not know what I wanted. What was I willing to commit to having inked onto my body for the rest of my life? Then it hit me. Like many others, I have a tendency to find reasons to put off the things I have wanted to do with my life: traveling is hard to coordinate with others and is too expensive, I am too old to learn a new language, I do not have enough time to teach myself piano…the list went on. Enough was enough. I finally decided that I wanted something that would inspire me to be brave, and remind me to stop finding excuses to put off the things I wanted to do with my life. The thing I had been putting off for the longest was my desire to travel. I would not consider myself an outgoing person, so the thought of traveling to a new place paralyzed me, and kept me close to home. With the help of a friend, I designed a compass tattoo that would represent my wanderlust, and serve as my reminder to stop finding excuses, and (in the words of Shia LaBeouf) “Just Do It.”
Back to Italy. Like I said, my mom and I kept talking about our trip to Italy. First, we were going to go after I graduated high school, but I needed to work that summer to save up for school. Then we were going to go after I graduate undergrad, but I decided to go to grad school, so I was preparing for my move to Syracuse. Next, we were going to go after I graduated from grad school, but I ended up going to a friend’s wedding in Scotland. Now, like I said, I had just finished my first year in my first full-time job and had saved up money for our trip to Italy. My mom and I spent a few months talking about where we wanted to go, creating our Pinterest boards, and talking to friends about their experiences. Things were finally being planned, and we were committed to our trip, BUT… My mom was experiencing some health issues, and decided that it would be better if we waited until the next summer to take our trip. She reassured me that this would be better because my younger sister would have graduated from undergrad and would be able to join us on our trip. I found myself getting excited about the possibility of this new trip. Adding my younger sister to our trip would create an even better experience. This would be an incredible opportunity for the three of us to create a new mother/daughter relationship now that my sister and I were older. I was ready to keep my money in my savings, and tell my supervisor that I no longer needed time off in the summer, but then I looked down. I looked at my tattoo and realized that I NEEDED to go on a trip, even if it meant going alone. I had a permanent reminder on my wrist that I could not ignore. I decided right then and there that I was going to solo backpack for three weeks.
I spent the next week coming up with alternative itineraries and lists of countries that I wanted to see. Once I decided that I was going to do a solo trip, I became overwhelmed with the freedom it gave me. I could decide where I wanted to go, and how long I wanted to spend in each place without worrying about anyone else. After spending a few hours plugging in the different itineraries into Student Universe (seriously the best site if you are a student, faculty, or 25 & under. SUCH CHEAP FLIGHTS), I finally found my winners: Ireland, England, and Italy. I started telling some friends and family about my plan to travel solo, and their responses were filled with concern. The overwhelming response was that, as a single, female, traveling alone, my life would be a reenactment of Taken (some even pointed out that I do not have a Liam Neeson who would come and save me).
Although I was not done fully planning out my trip, I did not want their fear to lead me to doubt myself or cancel my trip. I immediately booked all of my plane tickets (Seriously, Student Universe is AMAZING…$850 total for ALL my tickets: Baltimore->Dublin, Dublin->London, London->Rome, Milan->Baltimore). Once I bought my tickets, my trip was finally a reality. As I mentioned, I had a lot of people telling me that my trip was a bad idea, and that I should not travel alone. I needed to make sure that I did a lot of research to prepare for my trip, so that I could reassure my family and friends that I would be safe.
The first thing I did was plan out my itinerary in each country, and book my hostels for each place. I booked all my hostels on Hostelworld. I love this website because it allows you to see the hostel rating, look at pictures, and read reviews about each place. The best part about Hostelworld is that they also have an app, which contains all of your trip information (Booking Reference Number, Hostel Contact Information, Booking Summary, Directions, and more).
After planning where I would be each day, I enrolled in STEP, which is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program run by the U.S. Department of State. STEP allows you to enroll your trip with the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate, which allows them to contact you if there is an emergency. They will also send you safety information about your destination country.
As part of my preparation, I was reading a ton of travel blogs, and talking with a lot of friends who had been abroad. First I reached out to a Facebook friend who had traveled solo for two months to over 12 different countries. She suggested that I read other travel blogs to get some background and tips. Her two recommended bloggers were The Blonde Abroad, and The Savvy Backpacker. She also gave me some tips based on her experience:
- Only pack what you can carry
- Bring multiple locks and a retractable lock in case you are sleeping on the train and can lock your bag in place
- Use packing cubes- they are a huge space saver
- Quick drying towels
- Make copies of your passport, license, and credit cards in case something is lost or stolen so you have proof of identification
- I don’t suggest getting a phone plan, because there is WiFi everywhere (If you have an iPhone and Verizon then all messaging is free between those phones)
- Definitely look into backpacks with waist belts because you’d be surprised how much pressure it puts on your back (Sometimes I’d hop off the train and immediately go sightseeing before being able to get into my hostel room so you want to make sure you’re super comfortable with your pack)
Through her tips and reading many different blogs, I have come up with my own “how to” to help anyone who is planning to solo travel. Check back in to read my Beginners Guide to Solo Travel.
Finally, I put together a detailed itinerary for my family and close friends, so they knew exactly where I would be each day, and how they could get a hold of me in case of an emergency. I also decided that I was not going to buy a data plan for my trip abroad. I would rely on WiFi throughout my trip. I told friends and family that at the end of each day I would post my favorite picture from the day on Instagram. This way they could be sure that I was still alive (not taken) and safe. As part of my sharing my adventures, I wanted a hashtag that represented the trip I was about to take. And with that, #LostButFound was born (thanks Aisha <3). No matter what happened on my trip, I knew that when I returned home, I would be very different from the person who left. That hashtag described my experience perfectly, no matter how lost or lonely I may have felt at times, my trip was a life-changing experience, that helped make me the person I am today. Needless to say, I will never regret my compass tattoo. It will continue to serve as a reminder for me to be brave, and to live my life to the fullest.
Special thanks to the person who supported me throughout the whole process and continued to support me when I returned home. Love you Aisha <3