Getting started

I was talking with a friend the other day.  She hasn’t been out of the country but still daydreams about taking that big solo trip on her own.  Like I was, there are a lot of “buts” that came up in the conversation that kept getting in the way: Expense.  Time.  Age.  Many of us go through the majority of our lives daydreaming about that trip we are going to take. But there never seems to be enough time, money, or as we wind down we might put those kinds of dreams off for “maybe in another life.”  There is no other life. This is the one we get and it is up to us to live it!

First off, that age thing is a weak excuse.  I have met people in their eighties who are traveling happily, continuing to test their traveling skills.  The others are challenging, but not impossible obstacles.  In future posts, I will work on creative ways to work around those, but here I want to just flat out say it.  The only obstacle age throws in your path is when you are too young to do all the things.  If you are in your late 30s, 40s, 50s, etc., this is the time in your life you get to start appreciating the things you might have been too young to notice otherwise.  

Making that trip might seem like a daunting experience. Here are the first things you need if you are thinking about taking that first big trip.

Get your passport

This is the document that will let you cross into other countries.  Unfortunately, the majority of Americans don’t even have one!  I didn’t until about five years ago.  We live in a big country and unlike Europe or other continents, we don’t have many neighbors we visit that require the use of one.  

Excuses people use for not getting a passport

  • It will take several months for them to process your application and send you your passport.  Even pre-COVID-19 mine took about three months to get back.  The sooner you start, the sooner it will arrive!
  • You will need to mail in an official copy of your birth certificate.  I have yet to meet anyone whose birth certificate was lost in this process.  It’s not that scary.  Seriously. The cool thing about your passport is this can be used in lieu of your birth certificate for most purposes from here on out.  
  • It requires an investment.  I think mine was around $120 with fees and everything else to get started.  Renewal fees are much less once you actually get your passport.  Check the website for information.  https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports.html
  • $120 is not a lot of money, considering people will drop that much money on a day pass to an amusement park per person.  Think of this as your eTicket to see the world!
  • The pictures are terrible.  Yes.  Yes they are.  But you aren’t going to be gazing at your own picture for hours anyway, and Customs probably won’t look at it longer than about ten seconds to make sure it is you.  What you will hopefully be looking at is all the stamps you are about to start getting in the back of the book.

Start off small

You can just jump in with both feet, but you might just scare the hell out of yourself and have a rough time.  Then you’ll be throwing your passport across the room, cursing me for telling you to get out and have this awful experience.  Even a trick motorcycle rider learned how to ride on a two-wheeler first.  

Pick a country where you speak the same language.  This is actually trickier than you might think.  Though I have some experience with a few other languages, my accent sucks and my knowledge extends about as far in Japanese to order a bowl of noodles, and in Spanish, I can ask a variety of questions that inevitably end up with the person I’m speaking to switching to broken English, which is usually much better than my broken Spanish.

For my first International solo adventure, I picked the United Kingdom.  Not just because I had a lot of interest in the UK historically, ancestrally, and culturally, but also because I knew I could communicate with people once I got there.  Well, funny thing about that, American English is getting difficult to understand.  My somewhat pronounced Western drawl (which is especially obvious when conversing with people in the Queen’s English) meant that sometimes I had to repeat myself.  So eventually, I wound up sounding Canadian.  They talk like us, only they enunciate each word.  This is important.  American English is almost like speaking cursive.

Start saving

Travel is expensive.  But only because it is extraordinary to your daily life.  It really isn’t any more expensive than setting aside a Christmas fund or money for birthdays and graduations.  Some destinations are more expensive than others too.  I was warned about how expensive London was, but really I didn’t find it any worse than tourist traps in the US that aren’t far from my front door.  Lunch in Estes Park, CO is about as spendy as a meal in London.  

There are other expenses you might not be accustomed to, however.  Train fares, mass transport, and even pay toilets can be eye-opening.  Set aside some money for tourist crap to drag home, but use the brunt of it for experiences.  You don’t need to dust them and nobody can take them away.

A decent start on the first day of your adventure.

Getting Prepared

Once you have decided you want to travel, here are some more things you can do before you actually decide to purchase those plane tickets or book your stay. It’s a gradual process and doesn’t have to happen all at once. Pace yourself and have fun with the experience. The learning curve gets steeper from here, but like the best travel guide in the galaxy will tell you: Don’t Panic!

Do your research

Picking a destination can be like that game you played as a kid in school, where you spin the globe and wherever your fingers stops it is where you will go.  My suggestion for starting small is to pick somewhere you are interested in seeing.  This will give you some destination goals, an idea of an itinerary, and you can start doing some research on it to learn about things such as good places to eat, stay, nightlife, places of interest.  Free shit!

Economize

Start looking at airfares now, even if you aren’t planning on flying for a year or so.  If you can get a good gauge on what it will cost to fly, you’ll have a better idea what to budget for.  Peak seasons affect ticket prices, but so do all sorts of other factors.  You can get some sweet deals if you check out websites with ticket prices.  Beware of multiple layovers and other complicated exchanges.  Spending an extra $40 might be worth every penny to have a direct flight.  Unless you have a layover of a day or so, it might not be worth the wait going through customs, and nearly every airport is alike, so taking six hours on a layover so you can sit in a food court is pointless, especially if an hour of that is waiting in line to have your passport stamped.

Get some folding money

Even if it’s just pocket money for one day, order up some foreign currency from your bank.  You can’t blow it here, and it will give you some incentive for your trip.  Don’t get too much.  Come to find out, your bank will screw you over with fees and commercial vs. Personal exchange rates (I learned that the hard way).  You are probably better off getting just enough money for a day and then pulling the rest out of an ATM when you get there.  An ATM will give you an fair exchange rate. Don’t use the money changers at the airport!

Be prepared

All the stuff I packed for a week in the UK. It fit into one carry-on bag.

Depending on where you are going, start building your travel equipment now.  Here are some essentials I wholeheartedly recommend for international travel:

  • Smartphone: Just make sure you have some kind of international plan activated, and turn off all your cellular use unless you want to pay a fortune every time your phone decides to use data to update your apps.  
    • Take pics of your passport to use as a copy in case you lose it.  
    • Take pics of things you see, but also street addresses, business cards, phone numbers, etc.  You can refer to these later if you need to ask for directions or show them to a cab driver if you suck at the language. 
    • Access maps if you can connect to wifi or via cellular in a pinch.
    • Text traveling companions, or family to keep them posted of your proof of life.
  • A multi-country power adapter: Mine has several ports for USB, power, and a cord too for my phone
  • A good quality day/backpack: My carry-on is an Osprey Ozone 46.  My walking around bag is an Osprey Daylite; it holds maps, rain jacket, and snacks.
  • A water bottle:  I use a hydro flask.  Just fill it up at a filtered drinking fountain and you can stay hydrated for almost free.  In tourist cities, fizzy drinks and booze are not only expensive, but they dehydrate you too.
  • Good shoes: Americans don’t walk around much.  You should get used to walking wherever you go. Old, uneven pavements beat the hell out of your feet.  Standing in museums is exhausting. Good shoes mean the difference between a good trip and a miserable day.
It all fits! Complete with waterbottle.

Getting out more

The old cliche says the longest journey begins with the first step. Last year I took my first international solo trip and though I did plenty of research on what I needed to do once I got there, only experience could really prepare me for any of it. The path to get to that point was not easy, with the one exception, I made the conscious decision to do it.

Without much prior experience, the learning curve was steep. Other than a few family vacations while growing up, which consisted of driving past some of America’s most iconic landmarks in a hot car with no air conditioning, my experience was fairly limited.  When I was seventeen, I embarked on an adventure that got me hooked on travel, new experiences, and making new friends along the way.

Then for the next twenty years, I did none of those things.  I was in an unhappy marriage, I became a dad of three amazing kids, and then one day my life changed.  I was divorced and starting a new path of rediscovery.  Like the caterpillar, I had been in a cocoon and everything that I had been before was liquefied.  I had the choice to become something else.  The person I had been on track to becoming but sometimes you get sidetracked.  

I kept running into situations that in my early 40’s were completely alien to me.  It seemed like more often than not, someone was telling me that I needed to get out more.  What do you mean you haven’t done X? Had I been living under a rock? Yes, in a way I had been. While I had spent nearly the entirety of my adulthood wiping butts and noses, my friends had traveled to Europe or Asia, sometimes Africa.  They had mortgages and investment portfolios.  I had a folding table and was gradually putting my life back together.  I had never even bought plane tickets. It wasn’t a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, but more catching up to what I always wanted to do.

It took nearly five years to get to the point where I wedged myself between two strangers on an international flight and stepped off in a completely different place.  My expectations quickly flew out the window.  I had to think quickly on my feet and at other times, just let the moment sweep me along with it.

In this travelblog, I’m going to share with you my experiences, my victories and failures.  I am also going to try to reach out a hand and help anyone else who found themselves in a situation like this.  Taking that trip wasn’t just for me, but it was for my kids as well.  We teach our children through example and we should genuinely be living life to the fullest, rather than showing them a simulation.  Not only have I worked to catch up with my own expectations in travel, but it’s my job to show my kiddo (the only one left at home now) how to get out of your comfort zone and truly live.

Sometimes my trips are solo.  Sometimes he’s right there with me.  People come and go into our lives with the passage of time.  We celebrate the moments and enjoy the experiences.

My son and I at Arthur’s Rock, Colorado having a snack.