You can take a couple of different approaches towards international travel, one more conventional and well planned, and the other more spontaneous. Deciding which is largely a matter of where you are going, what kind of traveling experience you already have, and what kind of experience you’re looking for.
Conventional versus adventurous travel
When stepping out into the unknown it’s often a good idea to stay on the beaten path with tour packages and a set itinerary. This is often the best way to see the sites that a country is famous for. You can not only meet other people from that country but fellow tourists as well, which can help you to ease your way into a situation that might otherwise be foreign. Traveling with a clear itinerary or as part of a vacation package is what I refer to as “conventional” travel, but don’t let that discourage you. Conventional travel is still largely exotic and adventurous. The main difference is that you have a plan, whether a travel agency, airline or cruise line makes the arrangements (transportation, hotels, sightseeing tours, etc.) for you or you book all the arrangements on your own.
Unconventional or adventurous travel involves a great deal more spontaneity. To be frank it’s a bit more of a gamble. With conventional travel, you know what you’re getting, but with adventurous travel, each moment can be a surprise.
It might help to use an example to get at what I mean by adventurous travel. About a decade ago, I traveled to Prague in the Czech Republic. I had a friend there who was teaching English there and had located a room for me to stay cheaply at the same student dormitory where she stayed. I came with a backpack and no knowledge of the language nor did I have any specific plans. Since my friend was busy working, she didn’t have the time to show me around, but that was okay. In fact the discoveries I made were enriched simply by the fact that they were completely spontaneous.
One day I bought a bottle of wine and headed to a park outside of the normal, touristy area of the city. My plan was to wander and see where the day took me. As I sipped the wine and wandered through the park, I became aware of shouts coming from behind me. I turned just in time to see a Frisbee flying in my direction, followed by bunch of dogs who were chasing after the Frisbee, who were in turn followed by a bunch of people: the source of the shouting.
Of course, with a bottle of wine in one hand and a backpack in the other, I was hardly in any position to catch the Frisbee that was hurtling in my direction. The best I could do was knock it down, which of course worked out well for the fastest of the dogs who snatched the Frisbee off the ground in front of me and became itself the object of the chase, a chase in which I was now involved. This is how I met Egon, Katchka, and a number of other archaeologists who were on a break from one of their digs. We ended up sharing the bottle of wine and enjoying a picnic they had prepared. Egon invited me to a pub they frequented that was definitely not part of the tourist area of town. Over the next three days I didn’t make it back to the dormitory where I was staying. Instead I spent the time with my new friends and saw a part of Czech culture I would never have seen had I remained on the beaten path. This spontaneous adventure lent an air of enchantment that permeated my entire trip, and I made fast friends, many of whom I still keep in touch with.
An adventurous approach to travel can lead to marvelous experiences, but it also has its drawbacks. Not every “wrong turn” will lead to adventure or it can lead to the kind of adventure that’s not necessarily pleasant, and getting lost in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language can quickly become a harrowing and even dangerous experience. Fortunately for me, many Czech citizens also speak English, so the language barrier was not too big of a problem.
Making the choice to minimize your planning and have an adventure of this sort is especially dangerous if you are traveling in a country with a more authoritarian government. I would not recommend this approach if you are planning on traveling to China or Russia, for instance.
Plan your spontaneity
Even if you prefer a spontaneous approach, it’s still a good idea to have a guidebook and backup plans. Taking advantage of the list of travel tips posted elsewhere on this site (hyperlink here?) does not preclude you from integrating some spontaneity into your travel plans.
Many international destinations have a tourist section of a city, which is where many of the sites of interest are located. Typically, the prices of hotels and restaurants tend to be more expensive in the tourist quarter. However, you usually are not limited from branching out of the tourist quarter. If you have a trip scheduled to last for a week, for example, you can plan to have a day where you wander outside the tourist area, while keeping the rest of your itinerary well-coordinated.
If you choose to branch out, it’s advisable to register your preference with the local US embassy or consulate. You should also notify a friend or relative back in the US of your plans. In case an emergency arises, at least people will have an idea of where you might be. Take some time to learn the language of your host country to some degree. Fluency is not a requirement, and the list of common words and phrases found on our line of Traveler’s Tongue language reference cards should serve nicely.
Spontaneity and adventure are not always synonymous, either. You can plan activities that are adventurous such as paragliding and spelunking, which will be thrilling but also should be well-planned. In this case, make certain that you have purchased supplemental insurance to prepare for any accidents. It’s also a good idea to travel with other people who know you, not merely to mitigate any emergencies that might arise, but simply for the reason that “pleasure shared is pleasure doubled.”
International travel is supposed to be fun and adventurous, but also safe. Plan accordingly and your travel experience can incorporate the best of all worlds.
C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.