Being Realistic About International Travel
Often when I visit the United States and people learn that I don’t live there anymore, they want to tell me about their own goals to visit other countries and see the world. I hear some pretty extreme plans from some people: “I want to go to Paris just for a one-day shopping trip,” or, “I want to see all of South America, but I’m not going to go until I have the time and money to take six months off and do it right.” These are both nice ideas, but unfortunately neither is very realistic. Technically, it is possible to spend any amount of time you want on a trip, but often people don’t think about the complications of long-haul travel and matching up the timing against the checklist of things they want to accomplish while they’re away.
Short trips are great, but you have to take many things into consideration. If you’ve planned a three-day extended weekend in London, but your flight from Phoenix to New York is delayed eight hours, there goes a good chunk of your trip, not to mention the fact that you’ll have missed your flight to London as well. By the time you actually get to England, you’ll barely have time to get over your anger (not to mention jet lag) before it’s time to go home again. Sure, if it all goes to plan, it can work out pretty well, but is it worth spending all that money to take that level of risk?
If you just want to spend a small amount of time in a single location in another country, a week is the minimum I would recommend, and believe it or not it is possible to do on a low budget. If you’re literally going halfway across the world, maybe you should consider extending your trip to ten days. Remember, international travel is not the same as a weekend road trip — there’s a lot of planning and logistics involved, and you absolutely must factor in the possibility of things not going perfectly. Flights do get delayed. Weather does change. Hotels do sometimes lose reservations. You need to have some extra time built into your schedule in order to be prepared for anything.
As for waiting until you have the time and money to do a really long trip the way you want to… well, my experience is that if you’re going to wait for the perfect situation, then you’re going to be waiting a long time, and chances are you’ll probably end up never going anywhere. Seriously, when exactly is it you expect to have six months free and ample money to fund a huge expedition? When you’re retired? Do you really want to wait until then to start seeing the world?
It’s important to be realistic about your financial situation and what sort of things are probable. There is nothing wrong with accepting that you are not rich and that it’s unlikely you will ever be able to see the world in the luxury you would prefer. The important thing is that you make concrete arrangements to go somewhere, and actually go. You might only be able to afford a relatively short, low-budget trip abroad right now, but believe me, when you get there you will be glad you didn’t sit around and wait for that impossibly perfect time. Even if you never manage to go anywhere else, you’re always going to remember your trip to The Great Pyramids, and it won’t matter to you in the slightest that you didn’t wait until you could afford two months in a five-star hotel. Some of my favorite trips have been the ones where I was dirt poor and saw amazing things on a shoestring budget in a relatively short period of time.
It’s tempting to want to try to see an entire continent in seven days. Because America is between two oceans, when we do manage to cross the water we think of it as our one and only chance to see everything. In fact, in Europe they make a joke about us Americans, who almost always choose a ridiculously hectic whirlwind tour: “Today is Tuesday, so this must be Belgium.” It’s funny, but it’s also a little bit sad that people don’t realize that they don’t have to sacrifice quality for quantity. This is not the 1950s; a trip to another continent is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Flight travel these days is reasonably priced and relatively convenient. It’s okay to see Spain this time and save France for next time. Even if you don’t get to France until next year or five years from now, at least in the interim you’ll have some meaningful experiences of Spain that you can actually remember, instead of a blur in your head of ten countries that you quickly glimpsed but never really saw.
So be sensible when you plan the timing of your travel. Keep your locations-per-day ratio low, in order to get the most enjoyment out of your trip. Two days jetting back and forth to see one place is not likely to be much fun, but neither is seeing twenty countries in two weeks. So choose a place and set a realistic amount of time to explore it. You can always go back and see other places later. Really, you can, even on a low budget. Just give yourself the opportunity to prove it.