Recently, my college-age son and his girlfriend took a European vacation by themselves. Many parents would be hesitant to allow their young adult children to travel without them these days, although I set off at the age of 18 on my own and have never looked back. Both my kids had traveled through Europe and other foreign locals previously, as children and as teens, with family members and in school groups, but this trip was the first solo adventure. I sent son and his gf a series of emails to coach them along, help them get ready, which must have been helpful, because they shared them with the gf’s mom, who shared them with her friends, who shared them with their friends, etc. Below is my advice for college age kids travelling on their own for the first time:
First, do your research:
1)Decide where you are going, and for how long
2)Read travel guide books and online websites to get information about what to see and do, how to get around, currency, travel warnings, etc. I like Rick Steves but he’s kind of old-fart-y. Classics such as Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, etc are also great.
3)3-4 months before hand- apply for your passport if you do not already have one
4)book your flight- research deals , play around with dates
5)book your hotels
6)If you are under 26, consider getting a EurRail Pass or Hostel Pass
7)Develop a budget and plan your trip accordingly
What do I do if:
Q. I leave my passport, bag, ticket on the plane?
A. Do a passport check as soon as you get off the plane. Before you go anywhere. If something is missing, go to the nearest airline person and ask for help. If you do this right away, they can find whatever you left on the plane- but you have to do it before the trash is taken out and the plane leaves.
Q. My bag gets lost?
A. Always take ALL essentials with you in carry-one luggage on the plane- all papers (ID, tickets, passports, etc) meds, electronics, contacts/glasses, etc, plus an xtra pr underwear, toiletries, toothbrush. Best is if you can pack so light your only bag is carry-on. If you must check a bag - label it inside and outside with your full name, cell phone number (include international prefix for USA, which I think is 11 but not sure), home address, and the name of the first hotel you are going to stay at. If this gets lost, you go to the lost baggage desk, usually next to the luggage pick-up/carousel, and file a claim.
Q. I lose something important/get mugged/ something goes wrong?
A. First, go sit in a protected area for a moment - a cafe, a train station, park bench, museum snack bar, and calm down. Think for a moment what to do. Assess the situation, look around. Then ask for help - from someone nearby who works there. A clerk, cashier, desk person, ticket-seller, guard, etc. Explain briefly what happened and ask for help. Speak in slow clear English , use good manners , start with a greeting and "can you help me?"
Q. Avoiding trouble:
A. Don't dress like an American; observe how college kids around you are dressed and adapt. (Generally, dark colors, black, navy, brown.) Don't speak loudly in English in public places (subways, trains, airports, train stations, museums, etc); instead, confer quietly w each other. Don't stand around in public and gawk at something, consult your map/book/phone, look lost, scared, or argue. (To do any of these things, sit down somewhere, out of the way, a cafe or bench off to the side.) Try to project a calm air of knowing what you are doing (even if you don't). If you get lost, pull over, consult a map, read a sign, ask for directions from someone one who works there, not a stranger.
Q. Get along/get what you want:
A. Europeans are more polite, and more formal than Americans. Dress appropriately (no pajama bottoms). ALWAYS greet whoever you are about to talk to with the correct greeting, before you say ANYTHING else:"Buon giorno", "Bonjour", "Buena sera", etc. The ritual is important. Then ask , politely, if the person you are speaking to speaks English. 99% do. If not, use a phrase book and try to say what you need. Worse case, point, use hand gestures, broken words in their language, etc. If you try, smile, and are polite, they will help you.
I'm hoping you've both seen "Taken", bc while it is a rather melodramatic movie and considerably over blown, it does contain some good lessons:
1)Never let a stranger pick you up, chat you up, share a ride, lead you anywhere. No matter how friendly and chatty or innocent they seem or if they claim to know someone you know. Never go somewhere - to a club, a concert, a drink, meal or a meet-up with a stranger, or agree to meet a stranger there, later. Don't get in a car with anyone you don't know, or an empty train/bus, alleyway, or let them lure you around a corner. Don't let yourself be alone with anyone (1 or multiple people) you don't know really well. Stick to well-traveled, well-lit places, with lots of tourists and people around. Don't accept an offer of "help" that requires you to go anywhere....if someone asks you if you need help, say "no thanks"....only ask for help from people who work where you are - store owners, waiters, desk clerks, cashiers, police, mailmen, etc.
2)Never give a stranger (does not include people who have a legitimate reasons: hotel desk clerks, airline personnel) your personal information : hotel, phone #, where you are going, staying, your names, your plans, etc. Don't let anyone you don't know overhear you give this info to anyone else.
3)Never, ever leave a young girl, your girlfriend, alone. No one is much interested in young men but there IS human trafficking in young pretty girls.
4)Be observant and aware - look at people around you. Look at who is also looking at people around you.
5)Don't make yourself vulnerable to mugging, pick-pockets, etc. Hide your money, phones, and passport in interior pockets, zipped up. When walking through crowded areas, try to stay away physically a few feet from others- fall back, let others pass. Better to be last, and keep an eye on the crowd, than first, and get your pocket picked. Avoid small children, women with babies, beggars who come up to you and try to give you something, sell you something, show you something. Europe is plagued with bands of gypsy pick-pockets; I'm not making this stuff up.
6)Blend in and you will be left alone. Wear dark clothes, avoid American brands, speak softly to each other. Don't flash your stuff. Keep jewelry to a minimum and phones tucked away. Your grandmother got mugged once or twice in Italy and London, bc she wears a lot of gold jewelry, talks loudly, and doesn't observe the people around her. Avoid white tennis shoes like death.
7)If persistent street merchants won't leave you alone, and you have tried shouting "NO!" loudly and firmly to no avail....go inside a shop. Do not let them put anything into your hands - they will try to claim you bought it/ stole it /broke it. Keep your hands in your pockets.
8)Decide in advance what you are going to do, where you are going to go and how, before you get out onto the street. If you get lost, pull over, sit down, figure it out.
9)If you get angry and have a fight - and you will, everyone does – follow "gentleman's rules": Never separate out in public. Stay together, get back to the hotel, or an art museum cafe, then you can scream and argue or separate and stew.
10)Feeling stressed? Worried about running out of money? Small towns are less stressful, easier to get around, safer (in terms of crime), and CHEAPER than big cities - hotels and food. Wherever possible, opt to stay in a small town.
11)Dress like a local. Do a google search of how the people dress where you are going
T- 7 days last minute check list ....
1)Make sure you have your passports, check the expiration dates
2)Print out copies of your flight e-tickets
3)Guestimate how much you will have to spend and develop a budget. X amount of money / y number of days. Force yourself to stick to it. If you go over your budget one day on your trip, you live under it the next day.
4)Using the guidebooks or travel websites, contact the first hotel you plan to stay in....call or email them, get a reservation......and ask them the easiest way to get there from the airport, how to do it, how much money you need to have for a cab, train, bus, etc to get there. This is the most difficult thing, bc you are jet-lagged and hungry, dirty, tired and confused. If you can make this part of your trip easy and familiar, everything else will go smoothly.
5)a)Go to your bank, transfer all your money into the currency of wherever you are going. The days of travelers checks are over. Contact your bank and tell them you are travelling to “x” and ask them to allow charges from there. This will still probably, in my experience, get screwed up. So have the 1-800 emergency number ready.
b)Inform your phone carrier where you will be travelling . You can buy inexpensive travel packages (data, minutes) from them.
6)Decide what electronics you will bring, and figure out adaptors, etc you will need for them
a)refillable water bottle (better, with a clip)
b)warm rain coat that covers your torso /trunk if it is winter (or even if not and you are going someplace cold. I once went to Stonehenge in July; it was 38 degrees and raining).
c)strongly suggested- money belt or neck wallet
d)hat, gloves, muffler if winter. Sunhat if summer
e)at least 2 pairs of comfortable walking shoes, water/snow proof
f)small foldable umbrella, packable raincoat
g)pants, jeans, leggings, shorts - 2 to 3
h)shirts in layers you can put on, take off - t-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, hoodies/sweatshirts/sweaters
i)strongly suggested- thermal underwear if winter
j)all meds, Rxs, contacts, glasses, etc
k)socks, pj's, and underwear as needed
j)I highly rec a small thin but fluffy blanket or throw- you can use it on the plane, in the airport, and as an extra layer on your bed if you are cold, bunch it up as a pillow, as a shawl, etc