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July 7, 2010 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Traveling, as an 18 year old, alone and without a car. Possible? Plausible? Safe? Help me do this responsibly and mindfully.

I was deeply inspired by a presentation my biology teacher gave. He showed our class a slideshow of pictures from a sailing voyage - he traveled north through the Caribbean islands, hitting all of them but one of them. He infiltrated Club Meds and ate with the indigenous people. He was 22.

Anyway, let's assume money is only somewhat of a factor. I am lucky enough to have enough money to travel comfortably.

I'm going to college in the fall, and I want to travel beforehand. I live in Southern California, but I have no car or even a drivers license. That said, many of my friends who do have a car do not have the time or the resources to travel. I've always loved Kerouac, but I am not really willing to hitchhike.

I haven't really formulated a list of places I'd like to visit simply because I am only now realizing it's possible to travel as a young adult. I want to go to the Mile High Festival in Denver, CO. But let's also postulate that I want to go to France. Or Iceland. Or Toronto. Or Bruges.

Would I couch surf? Stay in a hotel? How would I get around? Would I be safe?

I would love to hear answers to these sorts of questions as well as any anecdotes, stories, and advice you may have for me. I want to have fun, be safe, and learn.
posted by makethemost to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Hostels are the usual travel lodging for the youthful set - not as cheap as couch-surfing, but a little more professional. As an added bonus, you meet a lot of other travelers, and are likely to be able to hook up with their travel plans if you're flexible.

Traveling almost anywhere in Europe by public transportation is easier than traveling in the US, but you'd likely be safe no buses, trains, or planes on both continents. Which you decide to take largely depends on money and the distance involved.
posted by ldthomps at 11:20 AM on July 7, 2010

The stereotypical thing to do is fly to Europe, buy a rail pass, and go from city to city staying in youth hostels and couch surfing while living off of brie and baguettes and beer (the three B's). In cities you get around on foot and you get between cities by train, or by cheap flights. Rail is a good way to get around in Europe; the cities are much closer together and the rail networks are reliable. Totally safe as zillions of kids do this every year, though sooner or later you'll get something stolen or you'll get scammed out of some money or something.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:22 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Or, even better -- buy a touring bike and some camping gear, and go pedal across that big country you live in. Or go biking in Europe, or some other faraway place. This would give you an experience more like what your biology teacher described. See bikeforums for more.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:26 AM on July 7, 2010

Many colleges have a "rider board." People with cars put up where they are going. People with conversation or gas money contact said drivers.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:32 AM on July 7, 2010

I was you. No one I knew wanted to travel. I decided I was tired of waiting and cashed out a savings account to buy a ticket to Europe. My parents were furious (even though it was money I had personally earned) but it was the best decision I had ever made. My mother was so upset when she drove me to the airport, going on and on about how I was acting like I was just going to Jersey for the weekend.

I was fine. I learned. i figured stuff out. I made mistakes. I got ripped off. I learned. I got better. I am one kick-ass traveler now. But if I had waited for someone to travel with, I would have waited until I was 40.

Traveling in Europe is so much easier than traveling in the US it's not even funny. It's also miles more affordable. A reasonable pensione in Italy would get you a shady hot sheets motel in most major cities (if that). Plus, public transportation is plentiful, easy to figure out, goes almost everywhere.

A good 'baby' first trip would be the UK & the Netherlands. I picked those because there's very little language barrier & the people of the Netherlands are perfectly happy to speak English with you. *** It's an easy hop from London to Amsterdam, the overnight boat will be an adventure for you. I didn't suggest France since I have always run into nasty people in France, and on your first trip, alone, it could be a bit much. But if you have a passion to travel there, you should go, because sheer force of will will make it work.

Solo travel is the best because it forces you to look outside yourself. You will HAVE to talk to people because you will get lonely. And people will talk to you because you will be by yourself and relatively unthreatening.

You would take trains, you would sleep in youth hostels. Hostels are better than hotels because they will have common areas where you can connect with other travelers. And you will. Every trip I ever took I would meet people and we would be going in the same direction, or decide to go in the same direction. You share hotel rooms, you pool resources, you share ideas. You meet other travelers, rinse, repeat.

Things that suck about traveling alone: there is no one to watch your bags when you want to go to the bathroom. You are not always going to trust innocent looking person X sitting in the waiting room (nor should you). Sometimes it gets lonely. Sometimes you will want to give up and go home. But the good thing is, it's in your power to turn it around, go to the next city, change hostels, grab the next train.

People do travel the US by Greyhound and Amtrak, but it's just not the same thing. The depot/stations are nasty, the schedules inconvenient, the other people traveling with you can be dodgy. The long distance trains/buses are a little different, but it's not Dharma Bums or Simon & Garfunkle's "America" and you have to just *watch yourself* so much more. To me it's less fun.

My passion was Southeast Asia. I traveled India, Thailand and Cambodia as a solo female. That was an adventure.

I recommend Lonely Planet guides & Rough Guides; Rick Steves is a cliche but you should read it too. The LP message boards *can* be good resources for real-time updates in City X but they can also be vipers' nests.

Just don't wait. Things can happen to prevent you from traveling. I am lucky that I have done most of what I wanted to do. i still have to get to Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (didn't do Vietnam b/c it's a tough, tough place for a woman alone - it's not dangerous so much as wearying) and Mr. M. is not as interested in that part of the world as I am. I will still probably go when I am older, but at this point I don't *like* traveling without him.

***THIS IS JUST MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE*** I am not an American who thinks "everybody speaks English". Yes, Europeans are more multilingual than Americans on a bad day, but I always try to use as much of the local language as I can, and not just blithely assume everyone around me will understand me. I couldn't help an Italian in her native tongue if she stopped me on 8th avenue.
posted by micawber at 11:41 AM on July 7, 2010 [11 favorites]

If you're thinking about the bike touring method, I'd recommend Crazy Guy on a Bike. This is the journal for one guy's solo trip--also inspired by On the Road--but there are many other journals as well.

The Pacific Coast route would keep you closer to home. Or you could fly you and your gear to Denver, work your way down to the Western Express route, and then head south on the Pacific Coast route to home. You'd really have to get organized quickly, though, since you don't seem to have much time to implement any sort plan before you have to be back for school.
posted by BlooPen at 11:46 AM on July 7, 2010

I travelled extensively in Thailand on my own at 18. I thought it was safe enough - normally because the backpacker trail was a very well worn path. I also went to the Philippines where it was less the case.

In short - you can nearly always find someone at a hostel going the same way as you if you pick a country or place with pretty set trail. The east coast of Oz is another one. Interailing is another.

How to have fun? Brush up on your people skills. If you can master the art of being fun enough to be the kind of person other people want to be around while not being loud enough that you're the kind of tedious dick everyone wants to avoid then you'll be in good stead.

Don't say no to things just because it's not your cup of tea: expand your horizons.

Don't get blind drunk for the first time while travelling with people you don't know. It's not pretty. There's no guarantee they will look after you. If you're earning your drinking spurs while travelling alone take it a little easy.

You'll probably need to entrust your bag to someone at some point, either for convenience or practicality. But don't trust your passport or your cash with anyone.

Beware of people who are significantly older than you but who desperately want to take you under their wing. As it turned out, a formative part of one week in the Philippines was joining Reg (a 38 year old Aussie grandfather*) on a mission to find the island's coldest beer. It was fun. But I was conscious of what the novelty was for him.

Learn to budget. You'll never have as much money as you want. But at the same time you'll find occasionally there are things worth splashing out on. Basically do everything non-necessary as cheaply as possible.

Have a plan and a route. You may choose not to stick to it, but have one.

Trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, walk away.

The island had only got electricity the year before. Reg proudly took me to a place where the beers had ice on it. He then revealed that, having ascertained that the locals went nuts for donuts (which was true) he planned to set up a donut store on the island called Dinkum Donuts. On my return to Thailand the one favor I did was pop by a fairly seedy bar and give Reg's best wishes to the barman.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:49 AM on July 7, 2010

1. Rail passes. You can get them in the U.S., too. When my younger brother graduated from college in December 2008, he bought an unlimited month long Amtrak pass and did the full U.S. circuit. Word is that Amtrak was extremely safe, slightly inconvenient, and full of elderly European tourists.
2. If you're looking at Belgium, don't go to Bruges, go to Ghent. Just as beautiful, less expensive, more people your age, fewer tourists.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:49 AM on July 7, 2010

Oh, and if you end up going through Europe alone (or anywhere else, for that matter), pack as lightly as possible and get a comfortable backpack. You want to be mobile and flexible, and having less stuff lets you do that more easily.
posted by BlooPen at 11:50 AM on July 7, 2010

My husband and I did successfully couch surf for about half of our month-long trip through the UK and France. We weren't married then and were both 22, fresh out of college. It put us in touch with a lot of great people and offered a different way of traveling through a country. I highly recommend it, but be sure to only stay with people with lots of good reviews from other travelers. The other half of the trip was staying at hostels, which was also fun.

Oh, and one other tip: allow yourself more than one day to explore a city. It's tempting to see just how many places you can cover, but we missed out on exploring some great places (Lyon, Belfast, Manchester) by only allowing ourselves one day on our itinerary, and became exhausted in the process of rushing rushing rushing to the next point on the map. Also related: don't have an iron-clad itinerary! It's OK to say "you know, this city is pretty boring, I want to move on early," or "hey I want to stay longer!"
posted by castlebravo at 12:23 PM on July 7, 2010

Go to Europe. Do it, right away, before college. You've got time, energy, and (it sounds) enough money to make it work. You will have one of the best, most memorable times in your life.
posted by Nelson at 12:42 PM on July 7, 2010

Do you know of It has opened up the world to me. Seriously.
posted by ashtabula to opelika at 12:55 PM on July 7, 2010

People do travel the US by Greyhound and Amtrak, but it's just not the same thing. The depot/stations are nasty, the schedules inconvenient, the other people traveling with you can be dodgy.

This is wholly untrue for a certain group of discount bus lines in the Northeast US.

Amtrak / Acela is expensive, but along the Acela corridor you'll find lots of Chinatown buses and clones that cost $5-30 for a long bus ride. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and DC are well connected and not far apart. (LA enjoys a similar bus to get to SF, but there aren't so many interesting large cities along the way because the cities aren't as densely located out here.)

I don't necessarily recommend a specific company, but here are some example links:

Vamoose Bus
posted by tantivy at 1:07 PM on July 7, 2010

The east coast of Oz is another one
True, and if it's what you're worried about, Australia's very very safe for tourists, as long as they don't go for long desert drives without maps or water. But considerably more expensive in travel, food and accommodation than anywhere in SE Asia. The usual thing for backpackers here is to take working holidays.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:38 PM on July 7, 2010

Yes, it's totally Possible, Plausible and Safe. I am 25 and still have no drivers licence, but I've travelled on my own around Europe at 18 and spent some time in Japan. I've never used couchsurfing, but have stayed with and hosted friends of friends many times. Depending on your ratio of outgoing:worried about money, you might prefer a hostel sometimes, either way is fine.

You really sound like you're starting from a complete blank slate, so I'd recommend finding some reading material dip into
- Pick up a Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide to "Continent", or some equivalent. Try a library first, then buy one so you can scribble notes all over it. If you're going to rely on it for information, get one as new as possible - stuff changes fast.
- Check out the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forums for tons of travel stories, 'what should I do in x?' questions, etc.
posted by jacalata at 4:33 PM on July 7, 2010

Yes, Bolt Bus and Mega Bus ply the corridor between Boston and DC. That's ONE PART of the country.
posted by micawber at 9:08 PM on July 7, 2010

In the UK, many teenagers go on gap years - a year spent travelling, often involving flying to Asia. There are specialist student travel agencies that can arrange these, but they can be expensive (the reason I never went on one - that and I was desperate to get out of my small town, and my parents refused - wtf?). A lot of them, though, involve fairly priviledged teenagers flying out to Koh Samui to get pissed with their friends and haggle locals out of 20p, then come back and tell everyone how 'ammmaaaazing' it was. It sounds like you don;t want to do this, so yay for you.

Budget airlines run throughout Europe - main ones here are Ryanair and Easyjet, which allow you to fly between capitals for not much at all. Most people your age over here don't have a car - Europe is designed for public transport, really.
posted by mippy at 8:56 AM on July 8, 2010

Just worth noting, if you're thinking of coming to Europe, especially Eastern Europe, think carefully about whether a railpass is worth it - it can often be cheaper and more flexible just to buy tickets as you go. Your number one resource for that should be The Man in Seat 61 which will give you more information than you ever wanted to know about travelling by (non-air) public transport around the world. My personal goal is to go from London to Istanbul by train over a few days, the route of the Orient Express, but considerably cheaper.

Have an awesome time.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:20 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

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