Why share the biggest mistakes I made?
With travel, much like life, we learn lessons along the way. Making mistakes and learning from them is part of life, but as the saying goes, ‘you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself’.
When you travel and are responsible for yourself, you truly come to understand what being ‘self-sufficient’ means. Your bags may get lost, you may miss a flight, or your Airbnb may look nothing like the pictures. But, if you expect there to be bumps in the road and have confidence in your ability to overcome them, you’ll not only learn from your mistakes, but come out stronger.
What were the biggest mistakes I made this year? I don’t mean to disappoint, but nothing as major as in 2017 (see: putting my health at risk and making mistakes that amounted to some hefty charges).
A few instances that caused problems of some significance while traveling:
- Not signing my new passport: When I renewed my passport in the UK, it only took 2 weeks, but then a few delivery muck-ups resulted in +3 more weeks of delays, which meant I cut receiving it close with an upcoming trip. When I did get it, I opened it to check details were right, but didn’t give it another thought. Cut to arriving in Germany for aforementioned trip. Because I hadn’t signed the Declaration in my passport (missed it, whoops?), I was detained for questioning. All was fine in the end, but the German border officers definitely thought I was an idiot
- Forgetting to validate a ticket on a ‘honour code’ transit system: Honour code transit systems are common in Central and Eastern Europe. All of Germany and Austria, for example, require you buy a ticket ahead of your journey, stamp it in a machine and then keep it on you in case an agent asks to see it at some point. The buses in Riga, Latvia operate on a similar system, only- I didn’t realise it. When I purchased a single ride airport to city centre journey from a machine, I saw it had a time/date on it, which I incorrectly assumed was how they kept track of journeys. Sure enough, 15 minutes into our bus ride, three officers hopped on to check for tickets. Because I hadn’t validated mine (in the miniature box literally hidden behind the driver), they started actually screaming at me and demanded I get off the bus to go to the station with them. It was pretty evident I was a tourist (backpack, English speaking), but it’s worth noting I was also travelling by myself. So, picture a 30 year old American woman being yelled at in Latvian by three tall Latvian police officers who didn’t speak any English. I refused to get off the bus, because I’d bought the right ticket and didn’t understand why it couldn’t be validated in that moment. Going to the police station seemed like a gross over-reaction. Thankfully, two Latvian citizens jumped in and tried to help sort the situation. At first, their intervening only angered the police more, but after almost 20 minutes of arguing, the police got off the bus and the two citizens told me not to worry about it and tried to assure me it wasn’t my fault. As always, grateful for the kindness of strangers
- Failing to pack properly for a few trips: There’s no excuse for how I packed for a week in Ireland and a weekend in Cinque Terre. Weather apps exist for a reason. And, these instances are most definitely that reason. Instead of checking weather while packing, I assumed it’d be seasonal norms and ended up feeling pretty miserable for the better part of both trips when the weather turned out to be much, much hotter than I planned for. See: In Ireland, I’d only brought long pants and t-shirts/long-sleeve shirts, but the weather really called for skirts/shorts/lightweight summer dresses. By no means a trip ruiner, but also something easy enough to anticipate with proper planning
- Heading to one of the world’s expensive countries without planning activities ahead of time: Hey, Norway. We’d planned on spending a few days in Bergen and Stavanger in spring, but didn’t make plans (book tours, etc.) ahead of time because we knew the weather in late March could be volatile and wanted a better sense of what it’d be before booking things that may be non-refundable. In an unexpected twist, we had stunning weather- sunshine for five days. This meant two things: 1) We wanted to hike outside, but didn’t have the right clothes/shoes and 2) We paid more for a tour than we needed to because it was a last minute booking (think £100 more, each). Again, not catastrophic, but also easily preventable to some degree, and in an expensive country like Norway, the more money you’re able to save, the better
Much like 2017, despite the challenges of the year, I feel like I learned and grew so much. I still can’t believe how easy it is for me to fly to places in Europe for a weekend trip I used to think it’d take me years to get to (from the States) or that I may never see.
So, what were my favourite destinations?
Incredible greenery, rolling hillsides, tiny villages, sheep and cows everywhere, and pubs alive with traditional music where the pints never stop flowing. Ireland epitomises culture, beauty and history. Ireland’s small towns didn’t disappoint- colorful homes, thatched roofs, narrow winding streets, and pubs packed with friendly locals, it was all so perfect.
Helsinki is truly a hidden gem. I may not have had a ton of time in Helsinki on my first visit, but it was enough for me to fall in love. Stockholm is still my favourite Nordic city, but Helsinki has secured a spot as a close second. Trendy restaurants, excellent cold brew, beautiful architecture and design, relaxing Finnish customs , sauna!, and incredibly nice locals make Helsinki a great city break.
Albeit I wasn’t there long, Tallinn didn’t need more than a day to capture my heart. A charming Old Town, beautiful red roofs, picture-perfect cobbled streets- it’s like stepping back in time to the medieval age.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Tel Aviv blew me away. After only one day in the city, it immediately ranked as one of my favourite cities in the world- top five even. The coastal city is a place that’s hard to put into words- it’s ancient Middle Eastern history and culture, but mixed with a modern heartbeat- relaxed and fun-loving.
Everyone told me I’d love Lisbon, and they were right. Steep hills, colourful facades, delicious, creamy egg tarts, excellent wine, an endless array of beautiful doors and sunshine reflecting off the water. We loved Lisbon- in only a few days, it became one of my favourite cities in Europe. As if the city wasn’t great enough, we also took a day trip to Sintra to visit Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle. Visiting Pena Palace on a foggy day was incredible- it would have been great to see the views of the surrounding mountains, but there was also something so magical about the low visibility- it felt like we were floating in a cloud forest. As if that wasn’t great enough, walking along the medieval ruins of the Moorish castle felt like we were high above the clouds in a completely different world. An impossibly cool trip in a country that grabs a bit more of my heart each time I visit.
Gdańsk, a place I hadn’t heard of until moving to Europe, but one I can’t believe wasn’t on my travel radar sooner. A beautiful city on the Baltic Sea, Gdańsk is often overlooked by travellers going to Poland, heading to Krakow or Warsaw instead. Having visited Krakow earlier in the year and being astounded by its beauty, when I saw photos of Gdańsk, I knew I had to make my way there as well. Fortunately, with frequent and affordable flights from London, it’s easy to visit this charming Polish city on a weekend trip.
Budapest, a true European gem. Budapest is home to fairytale architecture, fun nightlife, delicious food, relaxing thermal baths and sparkling sights set against the Danube River. Things are old, almost retro, and so affordable. We couldn’t get enough of the city in our three days visiting. One of our favourite parts? The ruin bars. Ruin bars are built in the city’s old Jewish district in abandoned buildings. The premise for most ruin bars is simple: Rescue a bar, fill it with flea market or discount furniture, decorate with local art and serve cheap drinks. Mulled wine for £1.25 – need I say more?
One of the quirkiest towns in the Arctic Circle, I’d heard Tromsø was one of the best places to try and see the Northern Lights. I tried not to go into the trip with too many expectations, after all- there’s never a guarantee you’ll see the lights. But, we lucked out with a clear night and were treated to two breathtaking shows right outside Tromsø- it was magnificent. And, it’s not just the Northern Lights that make Tromsø an excellent choice for a winter getaway- we also went cross country skiing, spent a morning with reindeer and explored the city. We opted not to whale watch or cruise the fjords, but both would be excellent activity choices. Polar night isn’t so bad when a city sparkles like Tromsø.
Bergen is picture perfect. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. If you’ve never heard of Bergen, it’s because Norway is underrepresented as one of the world’s most beautiful countries (at least in comparison to other places in Europe, like Italy and Switzerland). We had a few days in Bergen at the end of March and seriously lucked out with blue skies and sunshine. The great weather made it simple to explore the city, and see the best of the surrounding area in the time we had.
Cinque Terre, idyllic, quaint, rustic, and perched on a rugged part of the Italian coast. Five UNESCO protected villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore overlooking the pristine Mediterranean Sea- they’re the kind of places you have to see to believe. As you’re exploring Cinque Terre, you’re likely to find yourself wondering, how photogenic can one place be?
Where did you venture to in 2018? Which part of your travels were the best, or what did you learn from them?