In the months leading up to the first European trip I planned and financed myself, I gradually began to realize I didn’t know what to do. I had a general idea of where to go, but I had no clue how to plan the fine details of a trip. I was lost.
And so I turned to the only travel authority I knew of at the time: Rick Steves, and his book Europe Through the Back Door. It was a fortunate decision, and the lessons I learned on that trip have stuck with me ever since. Here are a few:
Travel is a skill, and like any other skill you get better with practice.
The entire first half of Europe Through the Back Door is about travel skills — an idea I think is as important as it is overlooked. For me, this idea breaks down into two parts: practical considerations like quickly selecting a good restaurant in an unfamiliar setting, and more philosophical decisions like learning to be happy on the road or knowing beforehand if something is likely to be rewarding.
This is a skill that really only comes via trial and error. In fact, one reason this blog is call “Tripping” Over the World is because I’ve learned that sometimes you “trip,” or make mistakes, but those mistakes can ultimately be a positive part of the experience.
You don’t need to be rich, or even have much money at all, to see the world.
Travel is expensive, but it’s less so than some people make it. When Laura and I first started traveling together, we had a combined yearly income of less than $25,000. On that salary we managed to travel for two and a half months across two continents.
Europe Through the Back Door points out that affording travel is a matter of priorities — if you want to go, spend less on other things. And sometimes, spending money merely puts up barriers between travelers and locals.
Travel can be a “political act.”
One of the things I most like about Rick Steves’ work is that it consistently champions the idea that different people with different ideas have something to teach travelers. As he has written many times, “globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity.”
Europe Through the Back Door continues:
Travel can make you a happier American, as well as a citizen of the world. Our Earth is home to six and a half billion equally precious people. It’s humbling to travel and find that other people don’t have the “American Dream” — they have their own dreams.
This is an idea Steves teases out in Travel as a Political Act.
Being an “ugly American” is a choice.
Europe Through the Back Door doesn’t mince words on this point:
Those who are treated like ugly Americans are treated that way because they are ugly Americans. They aren’t bad people, just ethnocentric.
The idea here is that if you go in wanting to broaden your perspective, you’ll probably be fine.
The cheapest bed is not always the best bed.
The first few times I went overseas the cost was inevitably the biggest concern. I had no money so I had no choice — and I consequently stayed in some pretty sketchy places. Other times, I stayed in bland hotels that offered no connection to the local culture (Easy Hotel, I’m looking at you.)
Thankfully, over time I’ve been able to afford slightly less cheap beds when they might offer more rewarding experiences, or even just a more restful night’s sleep. This is a useful guide from the book:
The best travelers are not those with the thickest wallets, but those with a knack for connecting with locals and their culture. Before delving into the nitty-gritty of money-saving tricks, ponder how finding rich experiences can increase the value of your trip.
— Jim Dalrymple II