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Student tips on the smart and safe ways to travel

Photo courtesy of Laura Pahulje

TRAVEL WRITER AND novelist Paul Theroux once said, “Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.” His belief resonates with my memories of my university exchange in Lyon, France a couple years ago. I look back and feel nostalgic about the year I spent travelling, discovering, and learning while I backpacked around Europe.

But, as is human nature, we are apt to forget the little annoyances and grievances that encumber travel and make our experiences less perfect than what we remember them to be. To me, and many other students, backpacking sounds like an exciting adventure. However, it is important to remember that backpacking—like many other enjoyable activities—is sprinkled with the discomfort of the unfamiliar and the unplanned. What’s most important is that you prepare yourself for all the possible headaches that come with extensive travelling.

Realism in the world of travel

From missing towels to mysterious stains on my mattress, after backpacking in Europe I understand that hostel conditions are not always the most favourable. Many hostels I visited were in pretty rough shape, but I guess conditions vary for travellers with different backgrounds.

Rose Lannan, an experienced traveller and graduate from the University of Ottawa’s bachelor of education program, explained that travellers “have to have realistic expectations of what’s going to happen in a hostel.”

Throughout my journey in Europe, I learned that hostels are not always the easiest places to spend the night, and that expecting an environment similar to a hotel is far from realistic. But there are a few other downsides to hostelling, besides general uncleanliness and the occasional lack of a mattress.
Deyne Borgia-Ellis, a 26-year-old experienced backpacker currently camping out in a work hostel in Perth, Australia, said she likes hostels because—as a solo traveller—she can easily meet people. However, she also thinks hostels can deter travellers from absorbing the unique culture around them.

“I don’t like hostels because they tend to be full of foreigners and then I only spend time with foreigners,” she said. “You never meet locals.”

On the contrary, Lannan had nothing but positive things to say about hostels and their ability to help lodgers engage with the local community and different cultures.

“Hostels are great and oftentimes they give back locally,” she said. “They might be run by families—not big organizations or companies—and they give you home-cooked meals.”

Lannan also highlighted the cheap price of most hostels. Though it’s true that hostels are more affordable than hotels, Borgia-Ellis’s experience backpacking through Asia taught her that you might end up paying more for things like transit or taxis through hostels, since the owners are aware of the naiveté of many foreigners.

During my travels, I mainly stayed in hostels, but there are plenty of other accommodation options that travellers should check out if they want to truly interact with the culture around them.

Borgia-Ellis recommended couchsurfing.org. Couch surfing involves finding a host in the location you’re travelling to via user profiles and emails online. Though it may seem a little risky, reviews of the hosts make the experience safe and rewarding.

“99.9 per cent of the people on there have amazing reviews,” she said. “Someone went there, stayed there, wrote a review, and it’s usually epic.”

Let’s talk about theft

Over the course of my year in Europe, I learned to sleep with my passport, iPod, and wallet under my pillow. I tended to be really cautious, even if it meant trying to fall asleep with the plastic buckle of a money belt poking into my abdomen. Theft is something you can prepare for.

Although there are occasions when you might forget to be careful—even for a few minutes—it can cost you a lot. One time my friends and I were travelling from France to Belgium by train, and while I was at the station I had to use the restroom, so I asked my friends to keep an eye on my backpack.

When I came out of the washroom, neither of the girls were anywhere to be found. Finally, I saw one of them running towards me. She had a frantic look on her face but didn’t have my knapsack. The moment I realized what had happened my stomach felt like it was hit with a brick.

I had fallen prey to the theft that news reporters and travel guides warn about and felt extremely angry. I was bitter and suspicious of everyone who walked past me in the train station. I skimmed the crowds with a questioning look, searching individual faces for any hint of suspicion. Alas, my knapsack was nowhere to be seen, and I had to spend the majority of my trip with almost no belongings.

Luckily, I kept my most valuable items—passport, camera, money, and phone—on me at all times, so I was able to enjoy the trip regardless of the dirty underwear I was stuck wearing for days on end.

Europe is notorious for pickpocket crime. As reported by the Telegraph newspaper, over 100,000 individual thefts were reported in Barcelona, Spain in 2011. This past year, the Louvre in Paris was forced to close its doors for a few days because of a workers’ protest due to the increased number of pickpockets targeting masses of tourists at the museum.

Avoiding pickpocket crime and theft during any type of travel takes vigilance and preparation. I used a money belt where I secured my passport and larger wads of bills. Another good trick—if you carry a knapsack—is to place your valuable items at the very bottom of your bag, covered by your socks, underwear, and toiletries. That way, in the event that a pickpocket attempts to quickly raid your bag, the most he or she will take is a handful of your under things.

On her travels, Lannan saw the damage pickpockets can do, and tried her best to keep her things safe.

“In India, I met a bunch of people that said their bags or fanny packs were ripped off them on the public transit with a knife—just ripped off their person,” she said. “I always kept all my stuff really close to me and all my valuables under my clothes so that if anything ever happened, they would be in a little purse that would fit tightly to my body.”

Lannan also advised travellers to keep a photocopy of their passports on them instead of carrying the actual passport around to avoid identity theft.

Both Lannan and Borgia-Ellis carried locks with them in their backpacks and luggage at all times to lock up belongings they had to leave unattended in a hostel or other lodging.

Depending on where travellers are staying, more extreme measures can be taken to ensure their belongings remain in their possession. Ryan Mason, a graduate from the natural resources program at Northern College, went on a month-long backpacking trip through Mexico in 2009. In one of the places he stayed overnight, his travel companion and guide showed him an interesting and necessary place to hide his valuables.

“We were in the room, and she reached up and put our passports and money on the blade of a fan,” he said. “She said that if anyone raided our room, the fan would be the last place to look.”

Watch out for scams

Frequently, theft happens in the form of scams. Some locals scam tourists because foreigners often have very little knowledge of the practices, currencies, language, and other aspects of the country. This is when theft prevention becomes more than wearing a money belt under your shirt.

While you’re travelling, be sure to keep your wits about you. If the price of anything seems too good to be true, it probably is.

It is also important to thoroughly understand the local currency. When Lannan visited Egypt, a drink cost her a pretty penny because she didn’t know enough about Egyptian currency.

“When I was in Cairo, I bought a bottle of water and he short-changed me back,” she said. “Their currency is all in bills, so I wasn’t used to it, and when he gave me the bills back he gave me pennies back, but I wasn’t aware. Then I took a cab somewhere and I tried to pay for the cab with that change and [the driver] laughed and said, ‘No, no, you’ve been taken for.’”

Mason encountered a similar type of scam while he was in Mexico taking a local taxi. His friend was well-versed in Mexican culture and prices, and saved them extra money by directly pointing out the cab driver’s incredibly high price.

“As soon as she started speaking fluent Spanish, the cab driver gave us a fair price,” he said. “When he thought we were naive tourists, he assumed he could get away with charging us an obscene amount.”

The little things

There are certain tips and tricks to a successful trip that can only be learned through experience.

Borgia-Ellis gave her most valuable advice for backpackers.

“When you’re packing your backpack, buy a bag that’s smaller than the one you originally wanted,” she said. “My biggest tip is take everything you would want, put it on your bed, cut that in half, and bring twice as much money. You’re going to buy a lot when you travel.”

Aside from urging travellers to buy the Lonely Planet books—travel guides of different countries—Lannan also reminded tourists that they’re visiting new places to experience the unfamiliar.

“Learn to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in the language. It shows that you are interested in it and you are humbled by it,” she said. “Remember you’re going to a different place with different ways. It’s not your way, but that’s okay, and that’s why you’re going there. Remember what your reason is to travel and keep an open mind.”

Overall, I had a fantastic experience travelling around Europe. Besides the memories of grime and theft, I am happy I did it and I learned a great deal about myself and the world outside my Canadian bubble.

Theroux said travel is only glamorous in retrospect, but dirty underwear and lumpy beds are just tangible things. To travel is to remove oneself from the material world. It is about embracing a new culture and experiencing the local food, music, and art.

While my means of travel may have been meager, its true glamour lies in the richness of the memories stockpiled  long after the images of gritty hostels have faded. And looking back at a photo, can anyone really tell if you’re on day two—or three if the situation is dire—of that pair of underwear?

—With files from Tori D