The gate in Terminal B was suspiciously empty when I arrived at 11:31pm, having run breathlessly across the freshly scrubbed linoleum floors of O’Hare International for boarding. Sweat slicked my skin from the panicked effort, and I immediately questioned if I’d be able to support the 30lb. Osprey bag strapped to my torso for the rest of summer.
“You missed it.” The sole remaining flight attendant interrupted my thoughts, and I glanced to the departure board in disbelief. After three long delays, my flight to London had taken off 20 minutes early.
I was left alone in the fluorescent glow of the Chicago airport while my $700 seat hurdled across the Atlantic without me, fearing this might be a terrible omen to begin my overseas adventure. Fortunately, the rest of my travel would go quite smoothly, thanks to some thoughtful planning.
For as free-spirited as I am, I have always been a meticulous planner (it’s a strange contradiction). When I decided that I would spend two months solo-traveling Europe, I knew I couldn’t approach my journey as spontaneously as many long-term travelers do. Instead, I assembled a plan that to visit 15 cities in eight different countries — all within seven weeks! For the most part, this allowed me to maximize my experiences, while minimizing any time wasted (with the exception of, ya know, my untimely arrival). Here’s how I did it:
If you’re embarking on a lengthy excursion, planning finances is one of the most unpleasant, yet crucial aspects. For me, this process looked something like an amateur Google spreadsheet, several fearful bank account logins, and many “cheapest __” searches online.
I began by researching and narrowing down the destinations I most wanted to see. From there, I searched for affordable flights where no other transportation was viable. The best prices were often found with European airlines, which offer pleasantly low fares for “commuter” distances between countries!
As for the stay, it’s important to know what you can and cannot compromise on. For example, I planned to stay in hostels for the majority of my trip, which only cost roughly $30-40 USD per night. Yet I also knew I’d want to budget for private rooms every once in a while when I needed a break. (Totally worth it after several weeks of sleeping on freakin’ top bunks, I might add.) So I was sure to allot a certain amount of my budget to this luxury!
Fortunately, many of my accommodations offered free breakfast, so I only needed to cover the cost of two meals and one million baguettes per day. When planning a food budget, it’s important to factor in your regular eating habits, but also consider how busy you’ll be most days. Quick lunches were the norm as I was often headed to a walking tour or day activity, therefore, I could anticipate spending far less on lunch than dinner. Another great way to save money is to cook. Try to book accommodations with a kitchen so you can save yourself money by grabbing some of your own groceries. Bonus: you’ll love how fresh the food is!
And while shopping wasn’t a major priority of mine, it’s still smart to factor in a budget for incidentals. Just be sure to avoid high tourist areas if you do plan to grab souvenirs. Additionally, having a set amount of cash reserved for emergency situations is super important. You’ll want to feel certain you can afford an emergency cab ride if necessary, or an absurdly overpriced meal if no other food options are available (I’m talking to you, $20 burrito in Switzerland).
Planning My Route
Along with my budgeting strategy, I planned the order of my route based on distance and efficiency. I wound up traveling Western Europe in a clockwise motion — beginning in England, and ending in Italy. This way, I was often able to travel by train or by bus (usually the cheaper, simpler options), and not only rely on flying. For short distances, skipping the hassle of airport security can be a great time-saver. Just be aware that during peak seasons, bus and train tickets sell out quickly, so booking online in advance can be helpful.
I tried my best to allot a minimum of three days in most locations, both to curb my own exhaustion and to ensure I had adequate time to explore. It turns out the route I decided upon is fairly common, and I ended up rejoining travelers I’d met in different countries, weeks later.
Prioritizing What To See And Do
One simple piece of wisdom I finally learned to accept: you can’t do it all. Let me be honest, my initial reaction to that sentiment is, “Challenge accepted!” (Remember that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind quote? “I’m always anxious thinking I’m not living my life to the fullest.” Well you may as well slap it on my face and make me a gif, because c’est moi.)
Yet it turns out that, when it comes to travel, this is undeniably true. I was far happier — and saner — for prioritizing what to see and do in each place. Trying to visit every “must-see” location is not only expensive and impossible, it’s simply not fun.
To afford doing as much as I wanted, I researched any major attractions I wanted to see ahead of time, and chose which were top priority. Often, these spots are the most expensive, so being discretionary with your choices is important! Do you really want to spend $50 to visit both of these major museums, or can you settle on just one? Plus, getting creative and exploring outside of the traditional “bucket list” agenda is often most rewarding, and is free! Skipping a tourist site in favor of experiencing a local hangout spot, or taking a scenic bike ride instead of visiting a major monument proved far more enjoyable and memorable on my trip.
As for getting around, I used public transportation whenever safe and possible. (This is very convenient in places like London, Paris, or Rome.) Purchasing unlimited ride passes in lieu of cabs or Ubers saves a great deal of money. And if you’re staying in less-populated areas, simply try to find a hotel that is located within walking distance of most attractions.
While travel may most obviously be about exploring new places, it is equally (if not more so) about the connections you make along the way. If you’re traveling solo, or for an extended period of time, you’re even more likely to connect with people. The best part? Travel friendships develop at 10x the speed (my personal estimation) of regular acquaintances, thanks to the elimination of small talk much of the time. No one cares what you do for work! We’re about to zip line across this waterfall!
Plus, in addition to the bonding, I gained an immense amount of insight from my new friends! I was able to adjust my plans to include newly-recommended destinations, avoid spots that weren’t worth the hype, and join others for unexpected day trips (Why not take a boat trip to Capri with two Moulin Rouge dancers?). The community of explorers right around you can be some of your greatest travel resources!
Leaving Room For Spontaneity
All this being said, despite my diligent planning, the absolute best element to my travel plan was leaving some of it open to spontaneity. While the majority of my trip may have been strategic, it was refreshing keeping my daily itinerary fairly open so that I could enjoy each day as I wanted to — right there, in the moment.