World Traveler Training Wheels

O Internets! We need your advice!

So Kevin and I have this goal in life. We want to travel! We want to not be insular Americans! We want to have our minds broadened in terrifying new ways!

We have never done this before. (Ok, I was a world traveler before I was three, but my only memory of the whole escapade is a few fragments from what was apparently Barcelona.) I have been to Canada and Tijuana. Kevin has been to Tijuana, at the age of fifteen. He reports this as an eye-opening experience.

Next year, we want to get our feet wet. We were thinking of doing something in the British Isles for a week, since, y’know, baby steps, no new language required, but that’s just an initial thought.

Does anybody have any advice? Not necessarily specific places to go, (although if there’s a place you can recommend for World Traveler Training Wheels, I’d love to hear it!) but…err…do we use a travel agent? Do we book it all on Travelocity, show up, and hope not to die? Good resources for suggestions on where to go? We’re more interested in wandering around and eating (we do love the eating) than in getting on tour buses, but we’d also hate to miss the amazing landmarks, and we find so much delightful in even American cities that we could probably kill a week just about anywhere…

Advice greatly appreciated!

  • reply kati ,

    you’ll be fine, trust me I’ve been travelling all by myself around Europe since I was 15 and nothing horrible ever happened to me 😉 whatever you choose a travel agent or something else you won’t die, promise 🙂 I started booking stuff abroad through the Internet in the late 90ies and it has never failed me. the most important thing to remember about foreign countries is that they have everything you have in the homeland. it may be named differently, it will most certainly be arranged differently but it is there, so never panic or get frustrated just ask. things to remember:

    1. don’t assume stuff works the same way it does at home, give it a few seconds to read the instructions on a ATM for example; ask the salespeople, whether there is something else you need to do/know (arrive earlier than you intuitively would etc)
    2. the locals probably have a different perception of time and space than you do
    3. if you need something ask for the product and service and not for brands and company names, that you normally would associate with the said product or service
    4. be old school and get a map, the GPS is not really as reliable as it pretends to be. providers often go cheap on less popular locations and you can get lost easily
    5. the indigenous population is generally friendly, even if they are pickpockets

    as to the British Isles in particular my biggest culture shock were the streets, they are narrow and winding and in the beginning they were tricky to navigate even for my usually highly reliable sense of direction
    oh and if you go to London and decide to stray from the tube/train system and venture the buses get a AZ Bus stop guide – even some of the locals use these 🙂

    • reply Heather R ,

      If you are looking for some inspiration to watch/read I recommend the following:

      Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” television series (Travel Channel, or instant view on Netflix) Especially good for getting an idea of what the locals eat and a good look at day-to–day living.

      The blog at htt://www.almostfearless.com: this woman and her family (including small child) travel constantly, and have some great stories and advice.

      • reply Cate van Alphen ,

        1. Accept that in a week you are not going to see everything.

        2. GET OUT OF LONDON <<- this is in flashing lights with bells (unless you are ok with being a cash crop).

        3. If you do go to London, don't buy the tourist travel card before you arrive, just buy a daily travel card when you are there (one ticket for all bus/underground travel).

        4. Trains & London travel is much cheaper after 10am i.e. not rush hour (rush hour in London is vile anyway – see number 2.)

        5. If you are doing long journeys by train it is much cheaper to buy the ticket in advance (+2 weeks). You will probably be restricted to a particular train, but you should also have a seat reservation. I believe you can buy tickets to collect at the station: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/

        6. As for particular place recommendations it depends on what you are after: art galleries, castles, cathedrals, Beatrix Potter countryside, mountains?

        My favourite city is Edinburgh – one half is medieval, the other "new" town is Georgian. It has a stunning castle (includes Scottish crown jewels which you get a better look at than the ones in London – or at least this was the case 10 years ago). It has galleries, shops, pubs… everything really.

        7. "Walking tours" or "ghost tours" of cities are usually worth the money – the guides point out things you probably never would have noticed, and usually give some interesting (gruesome if it's a ghost tour) history too.

        ENJOY!

        • reply Cate van Alphen ,

          But wait there is more…

          Most cities/tourist areas will have a Tourist Information Centre (TIC) who will have loads of local info and they will also book accommodation for you locally or for your next destination.

          • reply Christina ,

            Glastonbury. I loved it there. Its part history, part crystal sucking weenies, wonderful food, and the chalice garden is not to be missed. I could also spend a week in York. Wonderful place.

            Advice – B&Bs are great, but they don’t always take credit cards. Make your reservations in advance, but have enough cash to cover your bill just in case.

            A lot of the countryside closes down at 5pm-ish. Be prepared to eat early, or have your large fun meal of the day at lunch time or tea time.

            • reply omega7788 ,

              Don’t travel to England in 2012. The Olympics are being held there, travel and accommodations (if you can find them) will be insanely overpriced, and the crowds will be outrageous. If you must go in 2012, wait until the games are well over.

              Don’t carry large amounts of cash. However, DO carry SOME cash. Credit cards aren’t always as widely-accepted abroad as they are here. Also, call your credit card companies before you leave to notify them that you are leaving the country, and when you will be back. Some companies will automatically reject any unexpected foreign transactions because they look like fraud.

              Avoid carrying a purse. If you DO carry a purse, don’t put anything valuable in it. Carry valuable items in your front pocket, not in your back pocket. It’s not guaranteed, but the more intimate a pickpocket has to get with you to get at your stuff, the more likely you are to notice.

              I highly recommend purchasing a membership for the two of you to the National Trust (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/). They maintain and operate an insane number of the historical and natural sites, and once you have a membership you can head on in at no charge. If you visit many of these sites, it will pay for itself. I haven’t used it personally, but I believe the Great British Heritage Pass (http://www.heritagepassbritain.com/en/home.html) is similar.

              A recommendation: York is a gorgeous town in the north of England. It’s one of the remaining old, walled towns, and those are always worth checking out. It’s also got a rich Roman history, right down to a number of ghosts!

              • reply Frances K R ,

                I haven’t found that you need a travel agent, although if the ticket prices from NA to the UK are painful, it might be worth asking for?

                • reply Boutet ,

                  Take a shot of Pepto Bismol every morning. It coats your stomach and helps keep nasty things from sticking around in there.

                  Of course it may turn your poop black, so don’t freak out if that does happen.

                  • reply Heather ,

                    I’ve never attached myself to a tour, but I *did* go to Greece for a couple of weeks as part of an Archaeology class at the University, which was actually *wonderful* since the instructor lived and worked in the area frequently and had led the trip several times before. We booked our tickets through the travel agency near campus, and that was probably the cheapest way to go (at least at the time– this was back in spring 2001). Yes, there were plenty of coeds along just looking for an exotic place to do the same drinking they’d normally do at home, but there were also plenty of really awesome people including the a few older non-traditional students who went along as well because it was GREECE, dammit. That kept us out of the McDonalds and sketchy areas, allowed us to visit some of the really nice tavernas with absolutely gorgeous views, and we learned a lot more that way, including the *really* strange little details (like the bunch of pagan women that would come to Mochlos yearly to worship the Purple Pubic Triangle of the Great Mother Goddess that had been laid into the cobblestones). If you don’t have an aversion to academia, this is actually not a bad way to go.
                    Speaking specifically about England, though– the train system in England is *great*, so I probably wouldn’t even bother renting a car unless you wanted to get out to the remoter spots to go birding. I stayed in Brighton and took day trips out to Salisbury (Stonehenge), Arundel (Castle), and Winchester (Cathedral). We did this all on our own and while it was enjoyable, didn’t totally blow my socks off the way Greece did– but I am guessing that part of that was because we just hopped a plane without doing a ton of research first. Most places offer local tours, as well, so that would help with the knowledge gap.

                    • reply Dottie ,

                      My friend and I went to Dublin and it was amazing! It is a nice big city but it doesn’t feel like a big foreign city. The people are ultra friendly, there are buses everywhere, but walking around is pretty easy and you see a lot more of the city that way. It is especially fun to hunt down all of the neat statues scattered all over the city (my favorite was Ocar Wilde, he had nice shoes). The one thing I would look out for is that in Ireland and the UK in general, they kind of get offended if you don’t finish every bit of food you order and they give you big portions. Also don’t go in December, like we did. You will freeze to death wondering why everything is still so very green.
                      And there are lots of places to visit right outside Dublin and the buses are very regular. We booked everything, like the hostels, online and the ladies at the tourist desk were so sweet and helpful. I am longing to go back and see it when it is warmer because it just felt like nice place to be.

                      • reply Andrew Ragland ,

                        Go native. Stay in a bed and breakfast or cheap hotel, or a hostel, someplace where you have access to a stove and fridge if you can. Avoid the big chain stores and buy your food at the local market. Ride public transit. Poke into the out of the way places. Avoid tour groups. Go see the local museums, the ones that survive on donations and don’t have big crowds. I spent six weeks in Singapore, bought my groceries at Tekka Market and from the veg sellers on the back streets of Little India, bought my hygiene supplies at Mustafa Centre, ate at the hawker centers. I rode the bus, walked, and found amazing stuff on the side streets and away from the major tourist attractions. My wife and I had a similar experience in Denmark, where we stayed in a friend’s apartment for two weeks. Bought our bread at the village bakery, rode the trains to get around, and saw a lot of daily life. Brilliant experience.

                        • reply Kiri ,

                          Totally seconding Cate’s recommendation that you visit Edinburgh, I adore the city. It’s probably my favourite urban place in the country. One word of warning though August in Edinburgh means the Festival and more importantly the Fringe. The former is a festival of theatre mainly ballet and opera and large scale stuff. The latter is a festival of theatre and comedy and music and general chaos in the theatres and on the streets. I reckon it’s about the most fun you have sober and clothed. However it does mean that Edinburgh gets very, very busy and everything is more expensive.

                          Bristol and Bath are nice, there’s generally something going on in Bristol, and Bath is just pretty and there’s a costume museum and Roman Baths and whatnot.

                          Personally I have a bit of a vendetta against Wales, but I think that might just be growing up here and being forced to learn Welsh until I was sixteen. The countryside is lovely though, and there’s some good walking, especially in the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia. Although if you want to walk the Lake District, Peak District or Scotland are probably a lot more fun.

                          Also Ireland, Eire that is, not Northern Ireland, although I suspect the latter is very nice too. I’ve only been to Cork and Galway, but I’ve never met nicer, friendlier people, excepting maybe in New Zealand, which is totally beside the point.

                          • reply Charlotte ,

                            well I’m English so I thought I should at least try to give some advice about the UK!

                            starting with – bring a coat. or an umbrella. you will get rained on at some point!

                            I’d also 2nd not staying in London but then I’ve only been there twice and found it to be overrated. The Natural History Museum was pretty amazing though.

                            Look at local whats-on websites for things to do – there will more than likely be some quant native folklorish (so says Twoflower) event happening somewhere nearby and they are usually brilliant fun.

                            Another specific place to visit would be the Eden Project – they have a rainforest in a giant greenhouse and a hell of a lot of other interesting plants and exhibits. I agree with the peak district for walking – just went adventuring there myself.

                            In Ireland I recommend Waterford as its stunning and the people were really friendly.

                            Um I think thats me done so apart from saying enjoy yourself if you do go Exploring!

                            PS Did i mention bring an umbrella?

                            • reply Kim ,

                              People make noises about pick pockets/ thieves in foreign countries, but stay smart and you should be okay. In addition to the front pocket suggestion above, I would like to point out that you have a very lovely very “intimate” set of pockets that no one is likely to go digging into without you noticing. Great place to keep credit cards, passports, hotel keycards, and larger bills. Keep small bills/change in a more socially acceptable pocket for small expenses. Also makes you think twice about buying that $500 leather jacket of awesomeness because you have to go to the bathroom or changing room to pull out the dough for it. I can hide a cellphone, wallet, keys, chapstick, and spare tissues in without eliciting notice.

                              • reply tom ,

                                • reply tom ,

                                  Sorry for the second post but I forgot to mention, have you considered Gibraltar? Everyone speaks perfect English, it’s beautiful, has beautiful weather and theres loads of monkeys to meet at the top of the mountain.

                                  • reply Erin ,

                                    Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Edinburgh.

                                    My best advice for traveling abroad is know someone who lives there or is from there–you can’t beat a local’s knowledge. I don’t think I would have enjoyed Manchester nearly as much without our friend Paul’s guidance. Corollary to that is going places a bit off the beaten track, like Manchester. Of course Edinburgh is not one of these, but I still can’t recommend it highly enough, if you like stony dark wynds, everyday kilts, and a stunning (if a bit pricey to tour) city-central castle. I also really love the west of Ireland–Galway, Killarney (ride a pony through the Gap of Dunloe!), Connemara.

                                    As for using a travel agent, we’ve never done it for the three trips to the isles

                                    • reply Brigid Keely ,

                                      http://ryanestradadotcom.tumblr.com/

                                      Ryan Estrada is a world traveler who has gone to a lot of different places for very little money. He’s written several pieces on how to travel for very cheap, how to find cheap accommodations far from home, how to be safe in foreign countries, etc. Even if none of it is applicable to you/your travel plans, they’re still fun to read!

                                      • reply Poppy ,

                                        Given your penchant for birds and plants and wildlife and things, I would recommend going to Cambridge and spending a couple of days exploring the fens, I think you’d love it there. Also, Cambridge itself is a wonderful city with some great old University buildings.

                                        (Plus you have a raft of fans here who would be happy to point out the sights and show you the true local colour)

                                        • reply Inu ,

                                          I don’t really have any specific places in mind. my traveling has been limited to a school-arranged study abroad to China and an upcoming trip to stay with friends in Europe.

                                          I do have a how-to-travel suggestion, and I know this will sound crazy but give me a sec.

                                          After my study abroad semester was over. my family flew over so we could do some actual traveling. One of my mom’s good friends is a travel agent, and she suggested basically a personalized tour. Mom choked, thinking how much that has to cost, but it was no more than the big group bus trips we’d looked at. So, we spent three weeks traveling China, just us, a guide and a driver. We got to set the itinerary, had plenty of time to wander the cities on our own, and were hand delivered to airports on the way to the next stop. There are companies that offer that sort of service all over the world, and I would HIGHLY recommend at least looking at it. You’re not as limited as with a big group, but there’s a bit more security and less risk of getting horribly lost. This way felt like the best of both worlds to us. We hit all the big landmarks, but also got most of afternoons and all evenings to ourselves to just roam around.

                                          • reply Tom W ,

                                            1) With regard to the accomodation-and-credit-cards thing… Any place should be able to tell whether or not it does before you check in. If it doesn’t, ATMs are everywhere, and you can get cash. If they do, they will always accept everything except American Express.

                                            2) Not-London is much cheaper to stay in than London.

                                            3) All the big museums in London are free. Also, most of them are very big – you cannot do it all in a day without a lot of running, nor would you want to. That shouldn’t put you off spending a day seeing part of it, though.

                                            4) I think you are the sort of person who will find more or less any village, town or city in the UK to be interesting. Pick some places at random and tour through those.

                                            5) Even if you are going to dart about the country randomly, have your first night booked at a hotel near the airport, and remember you won’t want to anything too strenuous the first day.

                                            6) Driveing time in the UK is waaaaaaay long than the USA. Do not think you can drive 100 miles in two hours. (Unless EVERY mile of it is on the motorway [=freeway]).

                                            • reply William the Coroner ,

                                              Edinburgh. Definitely Edinburgh. Also Glasgow, but the Museum of Scotland, witches, weird history, and plenty of art should be enough for all a youse. The Zoo for the kids, throw in the Transportation Museum in Glasgow, and you got it. There IS Americansky food, if you wish it, or eat like the scots eat, and there’s plenty of good beer.

                                              • reply Chelsea ,

                                                Fifthing the Edinburgh suggestion. If you’d care for a quick and creepish tour, try Mary King’s Close. The cemeteries are also fun. I haven’t been myself, but my partner went to university there (and apparently was seriously considering becoming someone’s sex slave in order to be able to stay in the city, so that’s a high recommendation) and I once ran a GURPS campaign that went through Mary King’s Close, so picked up an affection for the place.

                                                Also, the British Isles are fullll of stone circles. Visit a little one. It’ll be just as cool as Stonehenge and a lot less full of people types.

                                                • reply woollythinker ,

                                                  Is surprisingly hard to think of good advice without knowing what kind of trip you’re looking for… (countryside/scenic? city break? art? food? birding? slow and lazy? packed with activity?) But here goes.

                                                  1. You don’t have to restrict yourself to the British Isles on account of language; it’s possible to get on in most places with just English these days (though obviously, some attempt at local language will be appreciated). And of course there are other places where English is an official language. Gibraltar was mentioned, also Malta, or the antipodes. On which subject…
                                                  2. Let me suggest my home town, Cape Town. Amazingly beautiful, and affordable. Incredibly good food and wine. City life, but a short drive in any direction will take you to stunning countryside and wildlife. A slightly longer drive could take you to a national park, for a trip-within-a-trip, and even more amazing wildlife/scenery. Did I mention the good eating? Seriously. Consider it. (Also, very friendly.)
                                                  3. Assuming you’re sticking to the developed world (baby steps!), you surely don’t need a travel agent. It’s more fun to plan your own trip and everything’s really easy (and potentially cheaper) to arrange yourself, online. Skyscanner.net is I think the most thorough flight checking website. Guardian.co.uk/travel is good for browsing holiday ideas, reader tips etc.
                                                  4. I haven’t yet used it myself, but I like the idea of airbnb for accommodation. It would be fantastic to have a local host to help you find your feet, and suggest favourite places to go/things to do.
                                                  5. Give in to your inner tourist. I’m also more a wanderer than a tour person, but I do like taking one of the hop-on/off bus tours in any city I go to: it gives you a really good overview of the city and how it all fits together, the commentary can be fun, and hey, it gets you around. (Be sure to start early in the day so you can really take advantage of that and explore different parts.)
                                                  6. Read before you go. There’s a wonderful shop in London, Daunt Books for Travellers, that arranges books by country: not just the usual travel guides, but also fiction, poetry, cookbooks… try to find books that will give you a fun flavour of the place, inspire you to seek out particular corners that you will have a literary association with, or just give you a different perspective. I do love Bill Bryson, too.

                                                  • reply Cailte ,

                                                    Try Rick Steves, he does guidebooks for various parts of Europe. He’ll tell you about good, cheap places to eat and out-of-the-way museums and tiny little hotels run by nuns. He’s like the opposite of a tourbus. http://www.ricksteves.com/

                                                    Pick a base and take day trips from there– when everything around you is strange and new it’s comforting to go back to the same place each night.

                                                    If you buy a guidebook for the country, don’t be afraid to cut it up. Carry just the chapter that covers the city you’re in to consult during the day, it’s a lot lighter. And the book will get outdated soon anyway, there’s no point saving it.

                                                    Also, chill. Everything you’ll read or hear tells you that there are pickpockets and diseases and germs and strange money and scary people and all manner of things, but don’t let them get you all worked up. Just don’t put anything in your mouth that you wouldn’t at home, keep an eye on who and what’s around you (just like any big city), common sense stuff, and you’ll be okay. Remember that wherever you are, there’s people who live there all the time, and they do alright.

                                                    And don’t feel you have to do and see everything. Leave some time to just hang out and watch stuff happen.

                                                    • reply helen ,

                                                      All I can say is try Chester http://www.visitchester.com/discover/city-of-chester
                                                      You can walk on the roman walls that go around the whole cirty, its a lovely small city and is well placed for day trips to most places in the uk including london, and stratford (the usual american toursit places). The area it is in has stacks of country houses, market towns and different walks. Plus as its a more northern city all the locals are very friendly
                                                      Alot of tourist things are shut from mid october to start of march accross the uk and yes it is cold then.
                                                      If you want standard accomodation then there are companies like premier inn and travel lodge who have motels? usually just out of town but affordable basic and clean accross most of the uk.

                                                      • reply Becky ,

                                                        here’s a website with amazing places to stay:

                                                        http://landmarktrust.org.uk/

                                                        I’ve always wanted to stay in a castle.

                                                        As for Edinburgh… well, it’s OK, but it doesn’t have the vibrancy of London. Yes, London is expensive, but there’s a ton of stuff to see and do. I could spend all day in the British Museum, for example. This website might be helpful: http://www.urbanpath.com/london/

                                                        Wherever you go in the UK, it’s worth exploring the pubs. British beer underwent a renaissance in the 70’s after being almost destroyed in WWII, and now there are increasing numbers of pubs that serve “real ale” — similar to brewpubs here, but less micro. Check out http://www.camra.org.uk/. Pubs have a quite different role in the life of the British than bars do in the US — your “local” is often an extension of your living room. Of course some pubs have turned into glitzy tourist traps, or have fallen on hard times now that supermarket beer is so cheap.

                                                        • reply Becky ,

                                                          Oh, and — omega7788’s advice about telling your credit card company that you’re traveling is VERY IMPORTANT. Also, be aware that Europe has standardized on chip-and-pin cards (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/chase-rolls-out-credit-card-with-chip-technology-for-travelers/2011/11/21/gIQADwtQhN_story.html) which are more secure. Your cards ought to work, but it’s increasingly common that in out-of-the-way places (and occasionally urban areas as well), you find yourself unable to use US cards. Also automated machines such as European toll collecting machines or ticket machines sometimes have trouble. Bottom line — try not to run out of cash. I’ve never had a problem with European ATMs.

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