Ever since Rich and I announced our intention of traveling for four to five months without a fixed itinerary or end date, people have been asking us, 1) “Why?” and 2) “How?” and 3) “Are ya nuts?”
The why part is easy. Years ago, Rich and I decided that we didn’t want to spend this phase of our lives sitting around waiting to crumble. Instead, we decided to go places and have interesting adventures; crumbling is very much on the back burner, at least for now. Internet memes constantly exhort young people to live their travel dreams, but it’s people over the age of 50, 60, or 70 who should be listening. Because really, if not now, when?
Knowing why helps us figure out how to go. Rich and I are clear that we’re seeking adventure but intend to maintain a reasonable degree of comfort. We want to cover a lot of ground without feeling hurried. And we hope to encounter people and places that make us sit up and say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” — if possible, in a good way. For us, our upcoming Balkans-to-Baltics rail journey seems like a good bet for meeting most of those goals, most of the time.
So, are we nuts? Maybe. But not because we’re about to embark on a long-term, spontaneous, open-ended rail journey. Done right, this kind of travel is tremendous fun. The first step is getting free of popular myths and misconceptions.
Myth 1. If I don’t make hotel reservations weeks ahead of time, I won’t have a place to sleep and will wind up spending the night on a park bench. Not going to happen. While our definition of "spontaneous" rules out long-range reservations, it allows booking lodgings a week or so in advance. Since we received our residency cards on Monday (YAY!) we’ve booked a hotel room in Barcelona and berths on the two overnight ferries needed to reach Sicily en route to Albania. On trips we organize ourselves, we rarely arrive anywhere without a place to sleep; when it has happened, we’ve quickly found someplace decent to stay. Seriously, you are not going to sleep on a park bench.
Myth 2. If a restaurant isn’t in my guidebook, the food will be terrible and probably make me ill. Rich’s nose for good eats (nicknamed “the Sniffer”) takes us into obscure cafés everywhere. We’ve enjoyed countless delightful culinary surprises; the occasional ghastly misstep such as tripe soup or pig’s ears gives us a good laugh before we order something else. Yes, we have occasionally gotten ill, but usually in a fancy tourist place where we were assured everything was safe.
Myth 3. Going abroad is dangerous. Bad things can happen anywhere, of course, and you’ll want to be sensible. But long-term travelers often comment on the astonishing amount of honesty and goodwill they encounter. For more, see my post Can You Still Rely on the Kindness of Strangers?
Myth 4. I'm overwhelmed by foreign environments. The thing to remember is that what’s terrifyingly unfamiliar to you is the most comfortable, homey place on the planet to others. For more, see my post DON’T PANIC! It’s Only an Unknown Country.
Myth 5. I’ll never meet anyone; I’ll be lonely. Not if you reach out! For instance, sign up for a group tour, a night at a hostel, the expat social network InterNations, a cooking class, a congenial Airbnb location, or a group dining experience.
Myth 6. There’s no way I can pack enough clothes for a long trip. Sure you can! I’m heading off for months with a single roll-aboard measuring just 21 x 13 x 7.5 inches. The secret? Buy practical travel clothes and do laundry constantly. For more, see my Packing page.
Myth 7. I don’t know the local language; communication will be difficult, embarrassing, and futile. Write key phrases in a notebook (with pronunciation notes) and add some pantomime; you’ll be surprised how well that works. I find online translators cumbersome, but others love them.
Myth 8. If I get sick or injured, I won’t be able to find competent, professional help. Health care quality varies tremendously, as you've no doubt observed in your own community. I’ve had good medical care in Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Georgia. But of course, it pays to do research and advance planning. Like what? See my post The SOS File: Be Prepared for Medical Emergencies on the Road.
Myth 9. Something will go wrong and the trip will be ruined. If the benchmark is perfection, every trip is going to fall short occasionally; a simple delay at check-in can leave you feeling cheated and disappointed at the “failure” of the trip. But these moments make for the best stories; our infamous departure imbroglio is all anyone remembers about my Cuba trip. And every encounter with the unexpected is a gentle reminder from the universe that we are not, in fact, in control of everything, or even a small portion of it. Which is frankly a relief for people like me, who have a hard enough time managing our email accounts, let alone the course of human events.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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