In the past couple of weeks I came to know that several of my friends have never travelled overseas. Learning this fact was most surprising to me when I heard it from one particular friend with whom I share a 16 year friendship. I realised that we had both gotten so busy with our lives since we left school that I actually didn’t really pay attention to that fact.
I was 9 years old when I first went on a trip outside of South Africa; it was with my parents to Mauritius. I had never been on a plane before and I couldn’t have been more excited. It was the most thrilling thing for me to wake up knowing that I’d be flying later that day to a place I had never been to before. I was more excited about the fact that I’d be flying; the destination didn’t matter.
Over the years I’ve been to 16 different countries and the excitement of travelling never died. I had the same enthusiasm as I did all those years ago when I first stepped on that plane to Mauritius. The process of wheeling my bag to through the airport, checking in, boarding the plane and then my ultimate favourite, take off, are equally thrilling every time I do it.
16 countries, compared to some people, isn’t a lot, but that number makes me the most travelled person in my family, as well as my friend circle. It definitely feels good!
I get asked similar questions quite often and so, at the request of one of those friends whose never left the country, I have decided to put the answers, as well as tips, in writing.
The Best Time to Travel
This depends entirely on you. Personally, I prefer travelling in the middle of summer to ensure good weather all round. If you’re planning to go to India, mid summer is a bad idea since it is monsoon season. Because India isn’t much north of the equator, its better to go in winter when its slightly cooler. I can’t really speak for the far east or the west since I’ve been to neither, but from what I’ve heard, places like Malaysia are hot all year round in any case, so it makes no difference when you choose to go.
I’ve been to Europe in mid summer, autumn and early winter, and I would choose mid summer any day. I’d love to do a white Christmas one day, but I’m not ready to face that kind of cold just yet.
What to Pack
I am the worst person to ask that question because I always over pack. In terms of how to pack, it helps rolling up your clothes rather than folding them. Its less bulky hence takes up far less space. Put toiletries including creams and a bit of washing powder in small zip-lock bags so you don’t need to carry around bulky, hard bottles that also take unnecessary room. It not only helps with saving space, but allows for more valuable weight that you’d need for all your shopping.
I’d say pack one pair of jeans for every week of travel. More than 7 or 8 pairs of socks for a 2 week trip is excessive, so don’t be a lazy bum – use some of that washing powder to wash 2 or 3 pairs of socks at a time in a place where you have at least 2 nights of stay, since it will allow enough time to dry even in a room with no direct sunlight.
Don’t pack something you haven’t worn before, especially shoes. Travelling is about exploring, and if you’re going to pack brand new shoes you’re probably going to end up with blisters from wearing them in with all the walking you’ll be doing. In terms of clothes, you’re going to end up wearing what you’re most comfortable in, which isn’t necessarily that new shirt or jacket. Also, if you hate to wear something at home, you’re going to hate it even more on your trip. Don’t think that by packing it you will force yourself to wear it because trust me, it will just sit there.
How the Schengen Visa Works
I take this for granted now since I’ve been to Europe thrice, however I still get asked what type of visa to get and how it works.
The Schengen visa covers pretty much all of Europe. If you intend on travelling to more than one country, you need to get only one Schengen visa, either 1) for your first point of entry or 2) the country you’ll be staying in the longest. In 2009 I went to Greece and Italy, each for 4 days. Since my point of entry into the Schengen area was Greece, I had to get a Greek Schengen visa.
When I did the Contiki tour to Europe in 2012, my point of entry was Calais in France, and I spent the longest number of days in France, so had to apply for a French Schengen because the same country met both conditions.
Once you have the visa, you can travel anywhere in the Schengen area. Except for Switzerland, there are no physical borders in Europe, though I can only speak for central Europe. You won’t realise when you pass into the next country until you see that the language of the road signs have changed. For around €4, you can get your passport stamped in Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein is so small that its extremely easy to find a place that can stamp your passport for you.
You can find pretty much all information about the Schengen Visa here.
With any country, it is important to keep your passport with you at all times. I was not questioned upon leaving Switzerland, however upon my re-entry from Germany, I was asked to produce both my ticket and passport to security officials on the train. I was also asked to show my passport on a local bus in Nyon, just outside of Geneva. Switzerland was the only country where I was ever asked to show my documents, but it does not mean that other countries won’t.
For safety sake, make copies of your passport and other travel documents. If you have a tablet, scan your documents and email them to yourself so you can retrieve them quickly and easily in case something goes wrong.
Pick pocketing is a global problem hence cannot be isolated to one country or city. No matter where you go, you should be careful with how you carry your money i.e. do not carry too much and do not put your wallet in your back pocket.
Never carry all your money around with you. If your hotel room doesn’t have a safe, keep the bulk of your money away in your bag and keep it locked. Only carry enough cash for the day. Rather use your credit card for larger items when shopping.
In places like Paris, Geneva and Zurich, cities known to be amongst the most expensive places in Europe, you’d need roughly €50 a day for all 3 meals. Don’t waste money going to fancy restaurants because you can get decent, tasty street food for much more reasonable prices. Street food, a lot of the time, is tastier than the restaurants since the restaurants charge more for the views they provide rather than the quality of their food.
Usually shops don’t allow for the use of a credit card if the purchase is less than €10, so if you intend on buying very small souvenirs, take cash.
All I can say is that public transport in Europe is a dream. Personally, I like walking as much as possible since I can’t walk at all in South Africa. Most countries have travel passes that covers most if not all public transport. You can get a Swiss Pass in Switzerland that covers all public transport as well as entrance into most museums. You can get it for a minimum of 4 days and a maximum of 1 month. The pass can be bought for either first or second class transport so it is up to you which one you prefer. The second class transport is decent enough for a single female traveller so I think it unnecessary to pay double the price for a first class ticket. If you sit in the wrong class, chances are you’ll be asked to relocate to the correct one!
Never try to get onto a public bus or train without buying a ticket as the fines are hefty should you get caught – between €200-€400 worth!
Like Europe, travelling around the UK, especially London, is fantastic. If you’re going to be in London, depending on how long, get the Oyster card. If you’re only going to be there for a couple of days, you can get one ticket that will last you all day – just ensure that you get it for all the zones that you intend on travelling within so that you don’t end up buying more than one ticket a day.
Do not underestimate the proximity of places in London – people tend to be lazy by taking the Underground when they might just need to walk one block.
Auto rickshaws are the best way to travel around any Indian city. They are cheap, fast, and can weave around traffic. Their horns make an extremely amusing quacking-type sound too. Initially, you might feel like you’re going to die, but learn to enjoy the ride and accept the craziness that is the auto rickshaw, and it will be the most fun ride you’ll ever have.
If you have large bags and are travelling with more than one person, avoid being driven around in an Ambassador. The space inside that car is inversely proportional to the look of it on the outside. It has extremely small trunk space so having more than one big bag is a problem since all but the one will have to fit in the back seat.
Other Random Stuff
Airplane seating rules: Window seat gets the window and something to lean the head on when sleeping; middle seat gets both arm rests; aisle seat gets first access to the bathroom and aisle armrest only.
Its never acceptable to sleep in while travelling. If you’re travelling with people who don’t want to wake up early, leave them behind and just go out on your own. You would have paid good money for your trip so don’t let someone else ruin it by not wanting to step outside the hotel room early enough to see as much as you could have if they had woken up early.
Always have a map of the area with you so you know exactly where you are in relation to everything else. It not only serves to help with navigation, but will make you streetwise should you encounter a dishonest taxi driver that takes the long way round just so he can charge you more.
Never buy anything, including food, from the main tourist areas. They are always significantly more expensive than the quiet side streets located just around the corner.
Trip Advisor is your friend.