July 07, 2014

Pack your bags and travel!

If there is one thing I can suggest to improve your political (and civic) health, it's to take every chance you can get to travel! Especially when you are in your twenties and do not have as many obligations to attend to! Not only does it allow you to see new places, learn new languages, or try new things; it's a good way to meet new people and learn from their experiences. Personally, I recently returned from my first ever trip to Europe for two weeks.

During this time, I ended up visiting Portugal (Lisbon and Estoril), England (London) the Netherlands (Amsterdam and Delft), and France (Paris and Bordeaux). To describe the entire experience, I wrote five separate blog posts, the links for which can be found below.

Portugal – Under-appreciated Gems
London - Chaos Theory
Netherlands – Cycling and Vices
Paris - Culture and Cuisine
Bordeaux – Well-timed Surprises

Before reading about these places, here are the top ten things I learned on travel aside from the usual about having a valid passport, getting the right foreign currency, and reviewing what you can bring back home.

10. Travel doesn’t have to be expensive! There are websites such as SkyScanner which can help you find the lowest airfare, though I recommend booking directly with the airline. For train travel in Europe, voyages-sncf.com is a good way to book all your train tickets on one site. For lodging, hostels are the way to go (especially when solo) and there are youth hostels for those in their twenties. They usually provide breakfast, offer kitchen facilities to cook your own food if you wish, and occasionally offer activities for mingling with fellow backpackers. I usually allow for $80 – 100 CDN per day for other expenses (meals, local transit, attractions, and souvenirs), but it depends on your budget and tracking it closely is key.

NOTE: There are also services such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing, which may be even cheaper than hostels. However, they are not regulated and may not be suited for some backpackers.

9. Certain airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair offer very low priced flights in Europe. However, their reduced service (check in is only done online, checked luggage costs extra, no complimentary snacks, etc.) makes WestJet – which started as Canada’s low cost airline – feel like a Mercedes in comparison.
8. Unless you have a significant other, do not be afraid to travel alone! You can never know who you can end up meeting. In my case, there was a fellow cycling advocate I met on a train.
7. Before booking anything, ask your networks for travel advice. They can suggest some places you never thought of. This led me to visit Lisbon and Bordeaux, both of which I genuinely enjoyed.
6. Except maybe for intercity travel and lodging, don’t plan everything in advance! There could be bad weather or even an unexpected encounter that may lead to a change in plans.
5. Make an honest effort to learn the local language(s) ahead of time, even if it's not good. While many places do speak some English, the local residents will respect you a lot more for speaking their language, and you can never know when they do not speak your mother tongue.
4. Except for contacting local friends or waiting for a train or plane in a WiFi zone, turn off your smartphone! There’s a whole world to explore, and work matters can wait until your return!
3. Related to #4, it’s always a good idea to try to visit local friends during your travels for a coffee or a drink. They can also give you some travel advice on the spot, and you could be surprised who among your networks live where you travel.
2. Don’t think only of key tourist sites when you travel! An interesting site may catch your attention simply by walking around various neighbourhoods, which also offers you the opportunity to learn more about local culture and try new things.
1. Don’t hesitate to share your experiences with the locals and your existing networks! Not just by bringing souvenirs home, but also by sharing pictures and stories. By learning and teaching at the same time, this free flow of information can help improve our respective corners of the world.
Happy travels!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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