7 Travel Mistakes I Made–And How You Can Avoid Them

I skipped my university graduation to spend a week in Colombia, and then went on to spend a few months in Barcelona. None of that was anywhere near the disaster that I (and my mother) thought it would be. However, I did mess up a little, and I’m going to tell you all about it so you don’t do the same things.

1. Make sure you know the visa requirements for wherever you’re going way before you go.

As romantic and adventurous as it sounds to semi-spontaneously book a one-way ticket to another country without any concrete idea of when you’re going back home, the friendly people over at Customs At Any Airport In Any Country Ever don’t like that very much. This is why I almost couldn’t board my Madrid-bound plane in Panama.

People travel without return tickets and/or a visa all the time, and not everyone gets in trouble, but you never know. It’s just a good idea to look up each country’s rules regarding visa and length of stay before you go. (That rhymes, by the way.)

A lot of countries require that you apply for a visa several months before you go, and that you do so in your home country. If, for example, you’re a non-European citizen planning a longer trip to Europe, read up on the Schengen Zone and its various rules about where in Europe you can go and how long you can stay there.

2. If you know for sure you are going to be gone for a long period of time, you don’t have a guaranteed place to live when you’re back, and you have a lot of stuff, sell it.

Since May 21, I have been paying for a storage unit in San Francisco every month to store my bed, dresser, desk and miscellaneous other items. It’s taking a toll on my bank account. I wish I had sold my stuff instead. Don’t get a storage unit! You’ll have more money for traveling!

3. Keep track of everything you spend. Little things add up, big time.

I had been working almost every day for four months, so when I went to Vitoria-Gasteiz in early October, I was able to bring a sizable wad of cash with me. I stayed with friends in Vitoria and my friend and I were mostly splitting 80 cent bags of pasta to cook for dinner so I didn’t think I had spent much. After staying there for six days, I booked a €7 bus to San Sebastian, three €13 nights in a San Sebastian hostel and a €44 bus back to Barcelona, which by my calculations shouldn’t have made a dent in my cash wad.

However, about a week after returning to Barcelona and resuming my normal practice of purchasing €1 beers from the dudes selling them in the streets, I realized I was in financial trouble.

I sat down, counted up everything I had spent in the 10 days I had been gone, and realized I had spent way more than I thought I had. (Beer, snacks, a spontaneous surfing lesson in San Sebastián…)

Write down everything you spend as you go along instead of doing it after the fact so you can keep yourself in check. I’ve done this before and it worked–I should take my own advice, geez.

Speaking of money:

4. If you’re planning on doing Workaway or another work exchange program, make sure you have another source of income or enough money saved up to get by.

Workaway and similar programs are a great way to stay in a new city for free. Basically, Workawayers agree to work for a certain amount of hours each week in exchange for a bed to sleep in and, usually, a meal or three every day. Workaway situations range from reception at a hostel to “come help me with my organic arugula farm in the South of France while I endlessly complain to you about my midlife crisis and my ex-husband just because I want someone to talk to.”

However, many people (read: me) may underestimate the amount of money in the bank (shawty what chu drank) it actually takes to be able to live comfortably (read: afford to eat more than once a day when the hostel you’re working at has free dinners) without another source of income. If you have enough money saved and/or you have another way of making that skrilla, Workaway away. Maybe avoid the arugula farm, though.

5. Before your trip, thoroughly read each airline’s carry-on luggage requirements and follow them as well as you can.

The setting is Berlin Schönefeld Airport at 5:30 a.m. on a weekday in mid-June, 2015. Our protagonist, Jessica, had been on a bar crawl until an hour and a half previously, had made the mistake of napping for half an hour, and now felt like absolute hell.

As she squinted in the sunlight starting to filter in through the windows, a lovely (Easy Jet) airline worker announced to the line of passengers that they would only be allowed to carry one item onto the flight with them-which means not a small backpack and a small suitcase, which were the items Jessica had with her, since most of the flights she was taking on her eight-week European jaunt were with Ryanair, and Ryanair was OK with two carry-on items if they both met the height and width requirements.

Jess and her five travel companions had read Easy Jet’s baggage requirements online previously, and four of her companions had decided before they got to the airport that they would check their bags, so they just threw them onto the conveyer belt when they went through security. Jess and her friend Elena, however, had been determined not to pay to check a bag, so they decided they would just “figure it out at the airport.”

So, here they were in the airport very shortly before their early-morning flight suddenly having to open their suitcases and see if they could also squeeze their backpacks in there and still meet the weight requirements for carry-on luggage.

(Spoiler alert: they could not.)

After a solid ten minutes of squishing and cramming, Jess and Elena were told they had to check their suitcases, which would cost them €70 and, from the looks of the line of others waiting to do so last-minute, would absolutely ensure that they missed their flight.

As Jess and Elena’s companions began to line up for boarding (hidden bulletpoint 4.5: don’t be this late for a flight), in a burst of panicky genius, our protagonist asked the airline worker if she and her friend could take out all of the clothes they had in their suitcases and wear them on the flight on top of the clothes they were already wearing, so their suitcases would be lighter and they could bring them on the plane.

The worker chuckled and said “sure, if you really want to.” So Jess and Elena began to pile on jacket after shirt after dress after shorts after skirt while both lines of passengers watched in amusement. Jess and Elena were each wearing four layers and sweating profusely when the attendant, who hadn’t quite stopped chuckling, said the suitcases were fine now and they could board their flight.

So wearing almost all of the clothing they had packed with them, and Jess holding her toiletries in a straw hat she’d picked up in Ireland, the two arrived safely in Amsterdam with their friends, without having to pay an extra cent for luggage.

That’s dedication right there.

A less dramatic verson of the same story happened, at the time of writing, roughly 20 hours ago, in which Jess straight-up did not try to find out WOW Airlines’ carry-on requirements until she was at the airport and had to pay to check her suitcase, which was eight kilos over the maximum. (Although that one was going to be hard to get around, as she had crammed the past six months of her life in there and it’s hard to make six months fit into five kilos, especially if a large part of those six months was a fluffy cow onesie).

Moral of the story: know each airline’s requirements and be prepared.

6. Don’t carry all of your cash AND your debit card AND your ID on you!

Seems obvious, right? Yeah, you’d think. I went through the wonderful experience of being mugged by three dudes in a park in Barcelona at 3 a.m. three weeks ago, and they took my purse, which contained 60 euros, my ID, my debit card, my iPhone, all my makeup, my headphones, and three colors of UV paint. Why did I have all those things with me, you ask? Because after traveling through 15 countries (16 if I include my own) without anything like that ever happening, it’s easy to get a little cocky. Don’t.

Carry a copy of your ID and not your actual one, carry your card OR cash, and absolutely do NOT carry all the cash you have in your life. As for the iPhone, I know I knocked Hank from Massachusetts before, but this might be where the tourist pouch comes in handy.

Or, don’t walk through parks late at night. Take your pick.

7. Bring airplane snacks-always!

No matter how late you think you might be to your flight, if it’s more than four hours, stop at a store and buy snacks! Airport food is expensive and there’s something about traveling that makes everyone hungry.

All of the those things being said, I am in one piece, and I have been having an amazing time. Traveling alone is awesome because you can do whatever the hell you want and not have to worry about what anyone else wants to do. Just use common sense and you’ll be good.

Got any solo travel shitshow stories? Hit me with ’em in the comments, I wanna hear!






Tourlina: The Tinder for Travel in Twos

In 2011, when I was fresh out of high school and not prepared to start college yet, I took a gap year in which I spent four months working in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California and then three months volunteering with a non profit organization in Antigua, Guatemala.

Since I had only ever been out of the country on two family trips to Mexico, my mother and I (mostly my mother) were a little scared for my safety and general well-being. My mother suggested I email the program director to get the names of other young women also working at the organization and then send them emails introducing myself, which is basically the ultimate Concerned Parent suggestion and didn’t end up panning out.

New friends in Semuc Champey, Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Angela Leuch.
New friends in Semuc Champey, Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Angela Leuch.

I made friends on my own when I got there, but the initial transition was rough. Both my mother and I probably would have felt a lot better if Tourlina had been around.

Founded by Michael Klumpp and Sandra Preuss, Tourlina is currently the only app specifically created for solo female travelers to find other women to travel with.

“Both [Klumpp and Preuss] have traveled alone, so we got the idea that something [like this] should be available in the market,” Klumpp said on the inspiration for the app. “There’s no women-specific travel app in the market…so we decided we should create it.”

Although it’s not relevant to dating at all, Tourlina is “like Tinder, except you create a trip and decide on a destination, country and a time period,” Klumpp said. “We thought [modeling the app off of Tinder] was the most up-to-date and safest way.”

Like Tinder, users can only create a profile by logging in through Facebook, so that the app admins can “check if [each user is] really a woman and not a fake account,” Klumpp explained.

Every user must be approved–i.e. deemed to be both a) female identifying and b) not a robot–in order to use the app. Once your profile is approved, you then “create a new trip” by selecting one of the 110 countries that Tourlina currently has in its database.

The app then has you select your preferred travel dates. Once you’ve done this, it lets you decide what kind of trip you’d like (spontaneous, planned, heavy on the night-life, nature-y, etc.) in order to find compatible travel companions.

When you come across someone you think you might want to travel with, swipe “right” on her, just like with Tinder, and if she thinks you look cool too, she’ll swipe right and you can start planning your trip together.

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Gondola rides in Venice are always better with a friend.

Tourlina has roughly 10,000 users from all over the world, mainly from the US and the UK but also a notable amount from Italy, the Philippines and Dubai, says Klumpp. The app is currently available in English and German, but a new version will be released in the beginning of 2017, which will also offer Spanish as a third language option.

Additionally, the new version will have a chat request feature (much like the one on Instagram), in which users can request to chat with another user even if they haven’t swiped right on each other. The app will also begin allowing users to see all other users within 50 kilometers from you and not just the ones with similar travel plans.

The app is currently only available for iOS, but will be available for Android as well starting in April 2017.

If you’re worried about traveling alone, give Tourlina a try. No awkward mother-prompted emails necessary.


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10 Things I Wish I Knew About Barcelona as a Tourist

After four days of visiting Barcelona in 2015, I was completely in awe of the city and knew I wanted to come back and live here. So, a year later, I did. While I’m obviously still technically a tourist in Barcelona, since I’m not from here and have only been here for four and a half months, four and a half months is a lot different than four days. So, knowing what I know now, here is everything I wish I knew before I went.

1. Spanish is not the main language spoken in Barcelona.

While 98 percent of Barcelona residents speak Spanish, 50 to 60 percent also speak Catalan. Therefore, most of the signs posted around the city/in restaurants (open, closed, no parking, please wait to be seated, etc. etc.) are in Catalan.

Both Catalan and Spanish (known here as Castilian Spanish) are the “main” languages spoken in Barcelona, but Catalan is the primary language taught in schools. Of course, knowing some Spanish doesn’t hurt, because locals are way more likely to speak Spanish than English.

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2. Barceloneta isn’t the only beach in Barcelona.

You know the beach in Barcelona you see all the photos of, with the big half-circle shaped silver building on it? (See above if you have no clue what I’m talking about.)

That’s called Barceloneta Beach, and it’s essentially inevitable that you will end up here when you’re in Barcelona as a tourist.

Although it’s the one in all the pictures, there are many more beaches in Barcelona than Barceloneta, which is frequently so jam-packed during the summer that you can’t even move. However, between the vast amount of tourists from all over the world and people who walk the beach selling blankets and various beverages, Barceloneta is some of the best people-watching you’ll get in the city.

If you want a vaguely less touristy beach experience, walk down Barceloneta Beach towards the W Hotel–the aforementioned “big half-circle shaped silver building”–and you’ll find the nude area of the beach, which has less beach sellers and drunk English teenagers on vacation and is mostly full older locals letting it all hang out.

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If you walk down Barceloneta Beach in the opposite direction towards the gigantic golden fish statue (see above), and keep walking down the boardwalk, you’ll find Port Olímpic, a much quieter beach where the water is much clearer and there are less people trying to sell you stuff.

The gigantic golden fish statue is also where all the beach clubs are. There are five (Shoko, Opium, Pacha, Carpe Diem, Catwalk) and they’re all pretty pricey.

3. Don’t buy the mojitos from the dudes wandering the beach.

This is a common bulletpoint in almost every “What Not To Do In Barcelona” list I’ve seen. (There are a lot.)

Although the lime green beverages being peddled by dudes carrying trays of them and shouting “sangria mojitos!” are admittedly super refreshing, they’re wildly overpriced and I’m not entirely positive that there’s actually any alcohol in there at all.

As Pinterest-esque as this picture is, that cocktail cost me 8 euros and then I just fell asleep in the taxi on the way to Park Guell.
As Pinterest-esque as this picture is, that cocktail cost me 8 euros and didn’t even get me buzzed. I just fell asleep in the taxi on the way to Park Guell.

4. But also don’t buy the mojitos at the beach bars.

As someone who is guilty of having bought both the mojitos from the beach and the beach bars the first time I visited Barcelona, I can assure you that although they are on the whole more legit, the mojitos/other cocktails they sell at the beach bars are roughly three euros more expensive than the ones being sold right on the beach and have only a little more alcohol in them. (Read: one shot instead of none at all.)

If you’re on a budget and you want to get your drink on at la playa, you’re better off buying booze at one of the many supermarkets near the beach or from one of the dudes walking around selling beer.

5. It’s okay to buy the beers from the cerveza sellers.

Yeah, the mojitos are a scam, but it’s pretty hard to mess up a beer. Barceloneta aside, you can literally find a cerveza man everywhere you go throughout the city at any time of day or night, especially in the summer. Drinking in public is illegal in Barcelona, but you’re going to do it anyway, so you might as well do it cheaply. Just be warned that you might get fined if you’re caught with an open container in public, so avoid glass and don’t go waving your beer around in the air and screaming drunken nonsense.

6. Don’t eat on La Rambla.

Like Barceloneta Beach, La Rambla is full of people trying to sell you stuff. (Bulletpoint 6.5, don’t call it “Las Ramblas.” You’ll sound hyper-touristy.)

It’s basically a long street that starts near the harbor and ends at Plaça Catalunya, which is a big square with two fountains and is next to a Hard Rock Café, just as every good tourist hub is. La Rambla is also lined with restaurants that look super appealing because of their outdoor seating and big signs promising 2 tapas, a cerveza and paella for only 18 euros!!!

However, since La Rambla is possibly the most touristy street in all of Barcelona, most of the restaurants located directly on the street will charge you an arm and a leg for some mediocre food.

If you want food that tastes good and doesn’t break the bank, head to less touristy areas for your paella. As a general travel rule, restaurants next to massive tourist attractions in any city aren’t going to be great.

While we’re on the topic, paella is kind of an “omg we’re in Barcelona we should totally get paella” thing, so if you want a less touristy eating experience, try tapas (appetizers) or pinchos (appetizers attached to pieces of bread) instead.

Also, many restaurants offer “menú del dia” in the middle of the day, which is when you get a main course and a salad and usually bread and a drink for a set price, which is usually between 6 and 12 euros. It’s a cheap way to eat a lot of food. (But again, don’t try to do this at restaurants on La Rambla).

One more thing, most “Things to Do in Barcelona” lists I’ve seen on the Internet say to check out La Boqueria, which is a super big market near one end of the La Rambla, but in reality it’s essentially a massive tourist trap. You can get some decent fresh fruit juices there for a euro, but in terms of getting actual groceries you’re better off shopping at the Dia (a cheap supermarket) or the Simply Basic (another cheap supermarket), so I’d say skip it.

Park Guell
Park Guell

7. Taking taxis everywhere is unnecessary and expensive. 

If you read my caption on the picture of my hand holding a pricey cocktail up in front of the sea, it says that I took a taxi to Park Guell, since I was a silly little tourist and didn’t know anything. Taxis aren’t that expensive in Barcelona in comparison to other cities, but it’s still a lot cheaper to walk or take the metro, and Barcelona is a pretty easy city to do both of these things in.

To be fair, Park Guell is super far from the beach, which is why Tourist Jessica thought she had to taxi there, but just don’t plan to go Park Guell on the same day you check out the beach. Simple as.

It makes a lot more sense to take the metro from Sagrada Familia to Park Guell, which brings us to…

8. Buy a ticket for the Sagrada Familia ahead of time.

I can’t say this enough. La Sagrada Familia is hands-down the coolest building I’ve ever seen and I’m not even super into architecture. You 100 percent have to see it if you’re in Barcelona, and you 100 percent have to go inside to check out the amazing stained glass situation, and while you’re inside you might as well climb up the tower for one of the best views of the city.

The inside of La Sagrada Familia, but pictures legit do not do it justice.
The inside of La Sagrada Familia, but pictures don’t do it justice.

It costs roughly 18 euros to go inside, but I promise it’s worth it. If you’re broke and can afford to do one expensive touristy thing when you’re in BCN, make it be this, seriously. Book your ticket online ahead of time so you don’t have to wait in line, because nobody likes lines.

9. Contrary to what the Internet tells you, there isn’t someone waiting to rob you at every turn. 

A lot of articles about Barcelona on the Internet make it sound like unless you have one of those dorky under-the-jeans tourist belts that nobody actually uses unless your name is Hank and you’re a 55-year-old white man from Massachusetts, your stuff is likely to get stolen everywhere you go.

Yes; people do get robbed in Barcelona. (I’m sorry to say it happened to me.) But people also get robbed anywhere. Just like when you’re anywhere else in the world, keep an eye on your belongings, don’t wave your brand new iPhone around in public or keep it in your back pocket while you’re dancing at a club, and don’t walk around late at night on your own in a shady area. Boom. 

10. It’s going to be really hard to leave. 

Even if you don’t drink from the Font de Canaletes, which is located on La Rambla and apparently makes everyone who drinks from it fall in love with the city, there’s a good chance you’ll just end up not leaving.

I get all of my water from 30 cent big-ass bottles I buy in the supermarket, and I’m still head over heels in love with where I live. Barcelona has that effect on people.

TL;DR: Don’t be surprised when all the signs are in Catalan. Don’t eat on La Rambla. Walk or take the metro instead of taxis if you’re on a budget. And, most importantly, be careful, because Barcelona makes it hard to leave her.


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GUEST POST: A Basic B***h’s Guide to Bali

Guest post by Michelle Rick. You can find her on Instagram or at michellearick.com.

According to Pinterest, there’s a place that has beaches for days, because it’s an island, and islands tend to be surrounded by water. Its menu is designed to nurture the taste buds of a deliciously, nutriciously Instagrammable diet. And there’s many an opportunity to get in sunrise yoga selfies until you literally can’t even.

If you find yourself headed to Bali in the near future, buy yourself a Bintang bro tank and saddle up with this proudly basic guide.

A rundown of Bali hotspots:

Ubud:

This is where you’ll live out your Eat, Pray, Love fantasy. Yes, you can see Ketut, the medicine man from the book. According to this article, he tends to tell every tourist the same thing and you’ll pay more than if you see a medicine man who hasn’t been name dropped in a New York Times bestseller. If yoga is what you’re here for, Yoga Barn is the spot. Hello, sun salutations!

PSL frapps after class (no whip), anybody? Starbucks is totes in Ubud.

Also in Ubud: Monkey Forest, coffee plantations, rice paddies. Luwak coffee can retail for more than $600 per kilo. Find out what makes it so…special.

Kuta:

Also known as the Cancun of Bali. It generally gets a bad rap, but really it’s all about what you’re looking for. If tequila shots off an Aussie named Ethan is your jam, fuck it. Come to Kuta and let your freak flag fly.

You guys can nurse your hangovers together with fresh juice and share childhood stories while tiny fish nibble your feet. Hashtag the dream.

Kuta is home to beach clubs, kiddie waves and people hustling the shit out of you on the beach to buy souvenirs and surf lessons. You’ll probably end up getting an infinity tattoo here.

Don't forget to Instagram your food to show your friends how exotic and well-traveled you are! Photo courtesy of Michelle Rick.
Don’t forget to Instagram your food to show your friends how exotic and well-traveled you are! Photo courtesy of Michelle Rick.

Canggu:

Canggu is an awesome place to catch some waves away from the hustle and bustle of Kuta. You’ll also find boutiques, chilled out nightlife and even more awesome restaurants like the super raved-about Betelnut Cafe.

The girls over at Gu Guide have even put together a list of the best Insta-spots to visit while you’re there.

When you hit the beach, you’ll definitely come across Old Man’s, and Deus Ex Machina is known to throw a great party on Wednesday nights.

Uluwatu:

Home of big wave surfing and possibly the most beautiful water on the planet. Hashtag, no filter. A must if you come here is Sundays at Single Fin surf club, where you can hook yourself up with a Nalu bowl and an amazing view. Which one will you make your friends back home jealous with first?

Getting around

Motorbikes are a very popular method of transport in Bali, but some may find the idea of driving in a place where nobody cares about traffic rules in any form to be a bit fucking terrifying.

If you’re super loaded, your resort’s transfer service will pick you up at the airport and you won’t have to leave to go anywhere. Ever.

If that’s not the case, hit up Aussie Ethan from Kuta so he can drive you around. Other options are GoJek and Uber. GoJek is basically Bali’s motorbike taxi app. Try to download this before you leave home, for some reason I had trouble downloading it in Bali.

Uber is present in Bali but not technically allowed. My driver told me he’s not allowed to do pickups in certain towns, so do your homework before making it your lifeline.

Speaking of Insta…

Kickstart your Bali dreaming with these handles…

@thebalibible

@balibucketlist

@guguidebali

 


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Why Friendships Abroad are Different than Friendships at Home

In August 2010, most of my friends left my small hometown of Santa Cruz, California to go off to college in various other parts of the country. I was taking a gap year, so I stayed in Santa Cruz for six months working at a daycare before I moved to Antigua, Guatemala to volunteer.

When everyone left, I was a wreck. I had grown up with these kids, they had made Santa Cruz what it was for me, and now they were all leaving.

At the same time, while I knew I would only be seeing them a few times a year instead of every day, I still knew I would see them again, since our families were all still living in Santa Cruz and people would be back for Thanksgiving or Christmas or summer or what have you.

As I learned in May 2011, when I was leaving Guatemala after being there for three months, the friends you make while you’re abroad are different. Because everyone has different lives and plans and schedules, there’s a good chance that the people you meet while traveling you’re never actually going to see again, and I think it’s for that reason that traveling friendships often happen so fast and people get attached so easily.

This coming Saturday, I will have been in Barcelona for three months. Three weeks ago, one of my best friends whom I met over here announced he was going home to the UK a few weeks earlier than he had initially planned. On his last night, we grabbed drinks with some other people and went to a club. Suddenly around 3 a.m. he wrapped me in a hug and said he was leaving to pack for his early flight.

I’m horrible at goodbyes, so I hugged him back and then instantly fled to the bathroom, where I broke down and cried. I’m not a break-down-and-cry type of person, so my assessment of the situation was that it was about 40 percent because he was leaving, 30 percent because alcohol makes people do weird shit sometimes, and the other 30 percent because one of my best friends leaving was a rude reminder that even though I’ve met lots of people I care about since moving to Spain, we’re all out here doing our own thing, and I’m still traveling alone.

People come and go, so possibly sooner than I realize, I’m going to be on my own again, trying to convince airport security in a foreign country to let me board a plane without a return ticket and doing my best not to end up in the wrong city on accident.

How fitting is it that this is written on the wall opposite the hammock I was in while writing this?? Talk about a coincidence.

Here’s where it comes full circle: at the time of writing, I’m laying in a hammock at Mimhostel in Oporto, Portugal–the trip I had to take so I could go from Panama to Spain. I bought a flexible ticket, so I was able to change the date, and my friend–one of the friends I had been the most sad to say goodbye to in August 2011, as chance would have it–happened to be in Barcelona last week, so we came to Oporto together.

Because of how the timing worked out, when we fly back into Barcelona tonight, most of the friends I’ve made in Spain will either be gone or will be leaving tomorrow. Therefore I’ve been a huge bitch almost the entire time we’ve been in Portugal–50 percent because my friends are leaving, and 50 percent because very soon, I’ll be alone on a different continent with no actual plan for what the hell I’m doing. And it’s way easier to be a bitch than to admit that you’re scared.

(Sorry, Chris.)

A couple of days ago, my friend from Dublin who I met in Barcelona said goodbye to one of his other friends, and he was bummed, but said that the thing about meeting other travelers when you’re traveling is that there is a chance you’ll both end up in the same city again. Even in my current cynical/fear-avoidant state, it helps a little to remember that he’s right. When I was in Dublin in June 2015, I grabbed a couple of beers with someone I met when I climbed Volcán Pacaya in Guatemala in 2011, and I never had any reason to think I would see him again. Hey, look at that, more full circle.

TL;DR: People come and go, but the world is small, and goodbye doesn’t always mean goodbye.


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I Went to Colombia and Didn’t Die, and You Can, Too!

Cartagena’s streets are lined with colorful houses, bustling with the constant sound of horse-drawn carriages clopping down the cobblestone and full of guys with push carts selling beers for the equivalent of 33 cents each.

That’s probably not what you picture when you think of Colombia, though.

Thanks to movies, television and the widely-known fact that Colombia is a major hub for cocaine, the country is regarded by most of the rest of the world as a highly dangerous country, and certainly not a safe vacation destination for 20-somethings.

Except it is, because I vacationed there, and nothing bad happened.

It should be said that since my three friends and I were only in the hyper-touristy Cartagena and its surrounding beaches, I can’t say with 100 percent confidence that the whole of Colombia is safe to visit, since I haven’t been to the whole of Colombia, so I have no idea.

I can, however, say that Cartagena is beautiful, and cheap, and I can give you a bunch of tips on how to have a fun and safe trip.

JESSICA’S DOS AND DON’TS FOR CARTAGENA:

DO: Go to Playa Blanca

Located about a 45-minute car ride from Cartagena’s city center, Playa Blanca on the Isla Baru is easily one of the top 5 most beautiful and laid-back places I’ve ever had the fortune of visiting.

Also, on the way there, we checked out the Aviario Nacional de Colombia, which is basically a conservatory with a bunch of unusual birds running around. It is also where I saw two emus engaging in intercourse, which is definitely not something you see every day. Or really ever.

Sorry that isn’t a picture of emu intercourse, but parrots are cool too.

We hadn’t booked any accommodation at Playa Blanca before we arrived, so when we first got there, we walked to the various hostels that dot the beach (which were either beach shacks or hammocks mounted between palm trees in lieu of beds) to compare prices. I was incredibly excited about the hammock prospect, but we opted for a shack instead, which only ran us the equivalent of $3 USD per person. Sleeping in a hammock would have been chill, though.

We spent the 24 hours that followed either floating in the clear blue water or laying out in the hammocks or on the sand. I also went snorkeling and spent the better part of 20 minutes floating around with a school of around 50 squid, so that was dope.

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The island also contained a bunch of cheap places to get food. I got an arepa and a rum and Coke for the collective equivalent of $5 USD.

Which brings us to:

DON’T: Get food poisoning 

The arepa/drink combination was a good idea, but getting pre-cut fruit in a bowl from a dude wandering the beach peddling fruit bowls probably wasn’t. I am not providing details at this juncture, but I was quite sick and it was highly unfortunate and you should avoid it at all costs.

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DO: Be very clear on the exchange rate

My mathematical skills leave something to be desired, so there was a good 3-5 hours in which I thought I took out 200 Colombian pesos (Copa) and not 20, so I thought I had lost the equivalent of roughly $66 USD, but then I looked at my ATM receipt and saw that I had not. Cartagena is very cheap, so it can be easy to spend a lot by making a ton of inexpensive purchases and losing track of what they are. Make a budget, learn the conversion rate, and keep track of what you’re spending.

DON’T: Be an idiot about doing drugs 

I’m not your mother, so I’m not going to tell you not to do drugs, but I am going to advise you not to be an idiot about it if you decide to do so.

On my last night in Cartagena, I was leaving a rooftop club around 4 a.m. (additional DO: go to a rooftop club. This one was called El Mirador) with some people I met at my hostel, and two cops pulled up on motorcycles and asked to search us.

They didn’t search me, presumably because I was the only girl in our group of seven, but everyone else got shaken down, and they found cocaine in one of the guys’ pockets and ended up taking him to an ATM to make him withdraw money as a bribe.

We were all unscathed, but the guy lost the equivalent of $100 USD.

MAYBE: Go to the mud volcano

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to go on a day trip to Volcán de Lodo el Totumo (or “Mud Volcano,” in Gringo Speak). I just heard “volcano” and I was sold.

Basically what it is is a giant pit full of liquid-y mud located at the top of a volcano. You have to climb up some pretty steep stairs to get to the pit, and then down a sketchy ladder to get into the pit itself. Around ten volcano-goers are allowed into the pit at one time, and are then told to lay down in the mud while under-tipped employees massage you.

I’m not a fan of a) being slathered in mud or b) strangers touching me, so while I’m glad I did it for the experience, I was a little stressed out by the whole thing. It’s absolutely impossible not to get completely covered in mud, which is why after 15 minutes or so, you’re escorted to a spot back on land where more under-tipped employees dump water over your head and wash the mud off of you so thoroughly that I almost thought I should have bought the woman who was washing me dinner first.

I’m putting this down as a hard maybe because I did it more than two months ago and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but if this sounds like your cup of tea, go forth and mud volcano, my friend.

TL;DR: Don’t be scared out of going to Colombia. As with traveling anywhere else, use some common sense and you’ll be golden.


My First 48 Hours of Traveling Alone Were One Big Misadventure–And I Lived to Tell the Tale

As someone who was still prone to getting lost in San Francisco after living there for five years, I got a lot of raised eyebrows when I told people I a) bought a one-way ticket to Colombia to meet up with friends and b) was traveling alone after.

Three weeks before my flight to Cartagena, I took a job in Barcelona, fully aware that that’s nowhere near Colombia, and spent literally an entire day researching the cheapest and most effective way to get there from Cartagena, which turned out to be flying to Panama for a three-hour layover before landing in Madrid and then taking a bus to Barcelona from there. I decided to spend a couple of days in Madrid, because why not.

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After my friends left Cartagena, I checked into a hostel by myself, met a bunch of cool people and ran around the city with them for the night, got to the airport the next morning, and flew to Panama for my layover without any drama.

When I tried to board the plane from Panama to Madrid is when the sh**show started. And yes – that is the best terminology to describe it.

Sh**show Part 1: I almost couldn’t board my plane.

A few minutes before the first boarding group lined up to get on the plane, I noticed I didn’t have a boarding group number, so I went to the front desk to ask them about it. The gentleman working there asked if I had a permanent address in Spain, and when I said no, he told me I couldn’t board the plane to Madrid without some kind of return ticket, and said I had roughly five minutes to do so.

After the mandatory 1-3 minutes of panic, I started trying to buy a ticket to Portugal for mid-August, since it’s close to Spain and therefore cheap to fly to. (Completely ignorant at the time of Schengen Zone rules.) Of course, the second I put my credit card information in and was about to hit submit, the WiFi stopped working.

I refreshed the page a million times and tried to disconnect and reconnect to the WiFi ad nauseam on both my phone and my tablet, and it still wasn’t working. I went to ask the people at the counter if I could possibly use their computer, because I wasn’t sure what else to do, and they basically said “too bad.”

The last boarding group was starting to get on the plane, so I tried to board at the other desk. They too said I needed some type of return ticket, and when I said I was trying and the WiFi wasn’t working, they said they couldn’t help me and it must be my phone. (Even though I was trying to connect with two different devices.)

I started going into panic mode, explaining (in Spanish) that I paid for the flight, and I could buy a ticket out of Spain, but needed the WiFi to be working, and they just told me to go away. This is what I get for not getting an international SIM card before leaving the country.

I started thinking that worst case scenario, I would sleep in the airport overnight and just keep trying to get the WiFi to work. However, a flight from South America to Europe isn’t cheap, I knew the airline wouldn’t reimburse me, and I can’t afford to lose the money I’d already spent on the flight, so I was like, hell no, I’m not letting this happen.

I said three or four times (in different phrasing) that I’d buy a ticket but I just needed a WiFi connection, and in the process of doing that, I watched the last person board the plane.

Finally, the woman at the gate called over another employee and had him make a hotspot on his phone for me so I could connect to the WiFi and buy the ticket. He did, I bought it, I thanked them both an embarrassing amount of times, and got my ass on the plane.

The second I buckled myself into the seat, I was like wait, hell yeah, I’m going to Portugal in two months.

TL;DR: Make sure you’re 100% clear on the visa policies to any country you plan to stay in for a long period of time without a visa, and that you have proof of leaving the country before you try to board the plane. Also, it’s probably a good idea to have a phone that works abroad before you go to a different country.

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Sh**show Part 2: I literally walked myself out of Madrid.

After spending nine hours flying through various time zones, I landed in Madrid. When I got out of the two-hour-long customs line, I realized my phone was dead, so I went to ask the people in the tourist information booth how to get to my hostel, and they gave me a map of Madrid and showed me that it took two trains and took about 45 minutes to get there, but that would put me right outside the hostel.

When I got off at the second stop, I found a cheap place to grab food. The super nice guy who worked there let me charge my phone behind the counter while I ate, and when I got it back, I saw that I was actually an hour away walking, which isn’t a big deal, because walking around a new city is the best way to explore it anyway.

So, I started walking, but 15 minutes into it my phone died again, so I took out the map from the airport, but I’m embarrassingly terrible at reading maps, so I started walking in what I thought was the general direction of the hostel. After what must have been 45 minutes, I stopped to look at a metro map to see if taking a train would be easier, but the metro symbols on the map didn’t match the ones on the map I had, and I saw a taxi drive by, so I hailed the taxi and showed the driver the address of where I was trying to go.

He looked at the paper, looked back at me, and said (in Spanish), “this is in Madrid.”

“…Sí…,” I said. Duh, sir.

Pero no estamos en Madrid,” he explained. Turns out I ended up in some random Spanish city. Because of course I did.

It was about a 20 minute car ride to where I was trying to go, and he initially said it would be 40 euros, but seeing my facial expression, he only charged me eight. I got lucky.

TL;DR: If you’re in a new city and awful at directions/general map reading, it would probably be a good idea to have a charged phone when you arrive. Also, I now know that the app MAPS.ME is a freaking godsend. (No, they did not pay me to say that.)

Sh**show Part 3: I confused the time zones.

I finally get to the hostel (Cat’s Hostel), but because I had reserved the hostel bed in America (time zone #1) for when I got to Madrid (time zone #2) after Panama (time zone #3), I had tried to do the math but messed it up, so I was a day late for my reservation. They said they had room at their sister hostel, and I asked how far away it was, thinking that with the luck I’d been having, it would be an hour away by foot, but it was just around the corner (Mad Hostel).

TL;DR: Be super clear on time zones. Check your math. Use the Internet.

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What started out as a series of unfortunate events (book series from 2002 reference intended) ended up as a lovely four days full of lots of new friends. I managed to take the bus from Madrid to Barcelona without incident and have been in Barcelona for a little over a week now.

I’m awful at directions and apparently can’t deal with things like time zones, so if I can travel alone and end up fine (albeit make some stupid mistakes), you can, too.


EuroMyth: Common Misconceptions about “Euro Trips” and Why They’re Wrong

When I was backpacking across Western Europe (Friends references will never get old, that’s a fact), I had some experiences that negated some “advice” I had heard before I went. I’m here to debunk some “Euro myths” about your upcoming Euro trip. (See what I did there? That was funny.)

Suitcases double as excellent chairs while you're waiting for the bus in Florence, Italy (or anywhere)
Suitcases double as excellent chairs while you’re waiting for the bus in Florence, Italy (or anywhere).

1. “Hostels are dirty and full of sketchy people who will stab you in your sleep.”

I’ve said this before  and I’ll say it again: despite what a lot of people think, hostels are awesome. Everyone loves a spacious, relaxing hotel, but if you’re traveling on a budget, hostels are the way to go. Obviously, check the reviews before  you book anything–that’s what the Internet is for. I’ve stayed in my fair share of hostels, and shared a room with at least three strangers each time, and the only slightly unfavorable hostel housemate I’ve had was an older gentleman who wouldn’t stop talking about the color wheel for no reason and was super vocal while taking care of his business in the bathroom. And that’s more of a funny story than anything else.

In my experience, checking into a hostel and meeting the randos with whom you’re in a room is like being given automatic friends for the next couple of days. Most other people who I’ve met in hostels are 20- and 30-something (with the exception of the Bathroom Gentleman) and just trying to explore a new city.

Most hostels also offer some kind of meal and/or host a tour of the city, and sometimes even a pub crawl, all of which are great ways to meet the other people staying in your hostel. Also, people who work at hostels are generally super chill and laid-back.

2. “Everyone in Paris is stuck-up and won’t talk to you if you don’t speak French.”

If you’re an American living in, say, Missouri, and someone just walked up to you on the street and started speaking to you in French, and you don’t speak French, you’d be like, “what the hell,” right? It’s the same thing. If you learn a couple of important phrases in the language of every country you visit–like “hello,” “thank you,” “what time does happy hour start,” etc.–you should be good to go.

I needed to ask for directions several times while I was in Paris (and everywhere else), so I learned how to ask “do you speak English?” and also to say “I don’t speak much [language]” in the language of each country I visited. When I opened with that, people were more than happy to help me out wherever I went, and most people also knew a substantial amount of English.

Which brings us to…

3. “Nobody will speak a word of English anywhere you go.”

While this is certainly more true for some countries than for others, most people in most countries speak at least enough English to have a short conversation. Which is unfortunate, actually. It’s a little harder to have a full-fledged cultural experience if there’s still English everywhere you go, but it is what it is.

Regardless, it’s a good idea (and the respectful thing to do) to learn some words and phrases in the language of wherever you are.

4. “Pickpocketing is a huge problem and you’ll definitely get robbed.”

Pickpocketing is for sure a thing, but it can be a thing anywhere. Just like everywhere else, keep an eye on your belongings, pay attention to where you are, and don’t be an idiot. Those are solid rules for life, actually.

Picnics are the cheapest way to eat in Paris, hands down. Six euro wine is a plus.
Picnics are the cheapest way to eat in Paris, hands down. Even with wine.

5. “You have to be rich in order to be able to go.”

You don’t have to be wealthy to go to Europe, but you do have to know how/be willing to a) save up and b) budget.

5a. Saving up: This is easier said than done, but before your trip, try to start thinking things like, “Would I rather spend $7 on this burger right now or have 7 more dollars that could go towards a night at a hostel?”

(This isn’t as crazy as it sounds–yesterday I was lurking different hostel websites and saw that there’s a hostel in Thailand that costs $7.95 a night. True facts.)

Start putting some extra time into making food to bring to work and/or school instead of buying meals out, don’t buy drinks at bars (except for at happy hour occasionally), leave your friend’s party before midnight so you can take the last bus home instead of calling an Uber. Save a little now, and you’ll thank yourself later. Is that already the slogan for an insurance company or something, because if not, it should be. Any slogan-less insurance companies out there, get at me.

"A penny saved on a sandwich in Missouri is a penny that can go toward gelato in Venice," just like the old saying goes.
“A penny saved on a sandwich in Missouri is a penny that can go toward gelato in Venice,” just like the old saying goes.

5b. Budget: Although I liked the idea of bouncing from European city to European city without any actual plan, it was waaaay cheaper to book my accommodation and transportation ahead of time (and I’m glad I did). I also printed out all of the confirmation pages for all of my hotels, trains, and flights before I left, and lugged them around with me everywhere in a folder in my backpack, which was a slight pain in the ass, but still saved me a ton of trouble when I was there, since sometimes the WiFi was crappy or nonexistent and we wouldn’t be able to pull up our confirmation emails at the hostel or train station.

I budgeted around $40/day not including flights or accommodation, which ended up working out fine, especially since in some countries you will definitely spend more (cough cough drinking in Spain), and in some countries you will definitely spend less (Greece).

Once I was there, I was also super careful about picking which activities I wanted to spend more on. I literally didn’t eat a legit meal the whole 36 hours I was in London because I heard it was expensive and I wanted to save my $$ for experiences, like the London Eye. I don’t necessarily recommend only eating nuts and janky half-frozen sandwiches for a day and a half like I did, but you get my point.

TL:DR; Hostels are dope! A lot of people speak English, but it helps/is considerate to learn some phrases! Keep an eye on your stuff and you should be fine! You don’t have to be ballin’ to go to Europe, but you do need to learn how to save up and budget!