Coming to Sciences Po is full of exciting changes. For most, it is a change in city, and for others, even a change in language. Personally, moving to a new continent meant a newfound freedom as well. For those of you who, like me, didn’t do much traveling before coming to Reims — and certainly didn’t do it without your parents — here are the lessons I’ve learned over the past year that have made me a smarter (and safer) traveler.
- Remember the reason you are traveling
Is it work? Adventure? Relaxation? The reason behind your trip will influence most of the aspects about it — from planning and budgeting all the way down to where you go for lunch. For example, if you are planning on traveling for something work or school related, you’ll probably want to spend extra money on plane/train tickets that won’t leave you tired and groggy after a long journey. You might also want to make a checklist of things you want to see in a new city during your limited free time.
If adventure is your goal, I would recommend you do the exact opposite — don’t make a checklist. While it is always helpful to have an idea of the things you would like to do during your stay, in my experience, you miss out on a great number of spontaneous things that traveling has to offer if you stick to a strict schedule. So what if you don’t see the Eiffel Tower when you go to Paris? Does that mean the trip was a failure? The opposite, in fact — there are many different ways to experience a new place, and most of them you probably don’t know about.
Traveling for fun also should not be about ticking activities off of your checklist, in the sense that the aim of your trip should never be to “check” another destination off the list of cities or countries you’ve visited. I realized this the hard way during spring break last year, after spending a whopping twelve hours in Bucharest. It’s tempting to try and squeeze a million and one stops into our ten-day break, but, in all honesty, adding multiple destinations to a trip usually triples the amount of time you are spending in train stations and airports, and ends up limiting your ability to fully experience each stop. In the end, it’s silly: we’re traveling to experience new places, not just to glance them over.
This point brings me to my last recommendation: sometimes, spending extra money is worth it. If that 16-hour overnight bus is going to leave you exhausted and irritable for the first few days of your trip, splurge on a train! If you are going to miss class because the cheapest flight available has a 13 hour layover in Amsterdam, spend some extra cash on a direct flight! While this rule obviously depends on the amount of money involved, it should still be taken into account. Take it from someone who took fourteen trains from Reims to east Germany, just because flights were expensive. In the end, I was way too tired to learn anything about where I was the next day, even though I had planned that trip specifically for that reason. While I may have saved money, I ended up paying a price in a different way.
- Find good travel companions
Are you laid-back? Do you like to party? How much money is in your travel budget? All of these are factors you should consider when planning a trip with someone else.
You can be best friends for life but terrible traveling partners, and that’s no big deal! In the end, traveling usually comes down to preferences, and everyone has their own. I would advise you to discuss these considerations with your friends before you make travel bookings together. Most people don’t grasp that they’re a bad match until after they’ve arrived at their destination, and by then it’s too late. Ask questions and be adults about it. Just because you don’t travel well together doesn’t mean that you don’t like each other or aren’t friends. In fact, taking these preliminary steps can sometimes save your friendship.
In the end, if you spend most of your trip being annoyed with the friend you are traveling with, it will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Being on the same page as your friends will make your journey go much smoother. Sometimes, your best partner is yourself — and if that makes you happy, there’s nothing wrong with solo travel!
- Do your research — even if it’s just for fifteen minutes
Research is essential when travelling. I’m not saying that you should google restaurant menus and plan out your meals down to the course – far from it. If you prefer to discover what there is to do once you arrive (or, more likely, you just don’t have time to look into it), no worries. But you should research basic things: how do I get from the airport to my hostel? What is the exchange rate for the local currency? What are some common street scams? What are the dangerous parts of town?
And lastly, the biggest suggestion I can give you in terms of research: do they tip at the destination? If you figure out on the last day of your trip that you’ve been stiffing most workers in town on tips that they rely on to make a living, you will probably feel pretty guilty. Also, while this may just be an American thing, I know that I have been pressured into tipping way more than necessary by locals who bank on the fact that at home I find it customary to give an extra 20%.
The greatest piece of advice I can give you while traveling, is to remember how lucky you are to see the world — most people do not have that opportunity! No matter how lucky you are, however, just keep in mind that traveling should be both enjoyable and safe… do not make the same mistakes I did: follow my advice!