I’ve always been a planner. I think you can probably blame my dad for that – I remember going on road trips when I was younger and having an itinerary down to the quarter hour. I grew up thinking that we had to maximize how much we did in a set period of time because time is limited/we traveled all the way here, may as well do something/what if I never come back/I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities … basically, I understood FOMO about 15 years before it was a cool hashtag.
A few years ago I traveled to Italy with my boyfriend at the time. He had never been that into traveling and it was my first time in continental Europe (Iceland was my first European country.) I was so nervous about this trip because I wanted him to look forward to traveling as much as I did. This anxiety transformed itself into an obsessive need to plan the perfect trip. If I didn’t plan the perfect trip, he may not enjoy himself! If the trip wasn’t perfect, he may not want to travel again!
Long story short, I tried to micro manage the hell out of this trip. I wasn’t exactly planning the itinerary down to the quarter hour, but I could tell you pretty much exactly what the plan was by day and by time of day. I had pages and pages of research. Maps of the local cities in Tuscany. Rail schedules. Weather forecasts. Pins dropped into my Google account. A folder with all of this printed out with tabs by day.
Makes me cringe just thinking about it.
To his credit, my ex boyfriend was a really laid back guy. He didn’t particularly care about the plans, he was just going with the flow. But me… well, I cared about the plans. We HAD TO DO ALL OF THIS. EVERYTHING ON THE LIST.
I was stressed. It made him stressed. We didn’t live for the moment but for the list.
Florence – check. Pisa – check. Pasta – check. Glass of Chianti – check.
You would think that this experience would be enough to teach me that “checklist traveling” isn’t the way to go, but nope, I repeated it when I backpacked in western Europe.
Eiffel Tower – check.
Notre Dame – check.
Champs-Élysées – check.
Macaron – check.
I did not sleep in a single day in Paris. Not one. The latest I slept was 7:30 am, and it made me feel guilty!
My first leisurely experience traveling was at my next stop after Paris: Ghent, Belgium. A sleepy town even without being compared to Paris, it was the first place that didn’t really have a checklist. I remember sleeping in until 8:30 my first morning there and it was wonderful. Nothing (specific) to do, nothing (specific) to see, just wandering.
While in Ghent, I took a wonderful free walking tour, drank as much trappist beer as I could handle, tried every chocolate shop I could find, explored streets without a specific direction, hunted for artistic graffiti with a woman I met at the hostel, explored the local castle, bell tower, and church, and read books while occasionally people watching. Certainly not “exciting”, but it was the breath of fresh air I needed in my trip.
All this to say: my travel philosophy has evolved with experience.
From my experiences, I have learned that I need to have a balance of seeing, doing, socializing, enjoying, and relaxing to really enjoy my trip. What that generally means is:
Seeing: Yes, yes, sight seeing is what checklist travelers do. This shouldn’t be the bulk of your trip, but it is important. You need to get that selfie with the Colosseum, after all.
Doing: Get out there and do something at least a little bit physical. I loved the Eiffel Tower, but I almost never talk about it. It wasn’t an experience, it was a pitstop. What I do talk about, however, is what I did on my trips. My Wachau Valley wine tour outside of Vienna (below) is still the best thing I’ve ever done. Riding bikes through the crisp autumn air in between glasses of sweet white wine with new friends is way more fun than seeing a painting or looking at a cool clock.
Socializing: This is more directed at solo travelers, since people traveling with companions will have a social aspect built-in. I am an extrovert with introverted tendencies, which generally translates to “I can make friends, it’s just not super easy.” If you’re traveling alone, find ways to make friends. For most, that can be done at the hostel. For me, that usually means finding a group to drink beer with or meeting cool people on tours I take. I met a lovely couple on that wine tour I just mentioned, and we ended up meeting up again in Budapest!
Enjoying: Let’s be honest, this means food. I didn’t want to call it “eating” because that sounds gluttonous, but that’s what I mean. Black truffle pasta in Umbria, fondue in Zermatt, stroopwafels in Amsterdam, Sacher torte in Vienna – mmm. Delicious. Food is just as much of an experience as anything else, so plan on trying that street cart, ordering a bottle of wine at lunch, or splurging at the nicer restaurant for dinner.
Relaxing: Traveling is stressful and exhausting. You really need to selfishly prioritize yourself a little bit and take the time you need. Sleep in a bit instead of taking the first train out. Go back to your room and watch a movie. Read a book on a park bench. Sit at a bar and sip local beer while browsing on Facebook.
You don’t need to figure out how much of each is right before going: just be ready to pivot if you feel something else would be more satisfying.
And, remember: what you need may be different from what your companions need. It is perfectly ok to separate for a few hours to fulfill separate needs. If your traveling companion(s) want a nap but you want to walk by the river, do it! You aren’t wrong, but neither are they. If your companion needs some alone time, grant it to them, without being offended. Be a little selfish and allow your companions to be selfish, too.
What is your personal travel philosophy? Comment below!