Hello from Europe! If all goes well, when this post goes live, I should be day-tripping in Brussels on my way to Amsterdam. I thought I’d host a few travel related guest posts. I approached Ashley Riordan because she really impressed me when she went to Germany by herself without a plan. I’ve always thought I’d be comfortable vacationing solo because I’ve gone on business trips alone. I had days and nights where I was really comfortable dining and sightseeing on my own. One of my memorable moments from these trips was going to the San Diego Zoo by myself. However, I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to go to a different country where English isn’t the primary speaking language. I’ve fretted enough about Paris and not speaking French and I have Kim to lean on!
Well, enough from me. Here is Ashley on traveling to Germany on her own.
It’s Ashley from Ashley Riordan. While Linda is off in Paris having more fun than the rest of us, she asked me to write about traveling to Germany alone and without a plan, which I did last September. I had the idea to go to Germany for a couple years before it became a reality. When people would ask, “Why Germany?” I would give plenty of good reasons, but the real reason was that I just wanted to. At first I reasoned that I would probably have to go alone, because I couldn’t think of anyone I could talk into going with me, but soon going alone became an important part of the trip. This was something I had to do.
I didn’t intend to go without a plan. Or, at least, going without a plan was not part of the plan, as much as it seemed that way to other people. I had been thinking about going to Germany for a couple years and even declared that I would for sure go in 2012, but it wasn’t something I thought about very practically, and by mid-2012, it didn’t look like it was going to happen. Suddenly in late August, the money came through, and I had always wanted to visit Germany in the Fall, so I started looking at flights and found a good deal, and then I talked to my boss about getting the time off, and then I purchased a ticket, and that’s how Germany became a reality in a very short period of time.
I had three weeks to plan, but I was busy and terrified and had never really planned a trip before, so I kept putting it off. I decided on the cities I would visit, but I wasn’t sure how practical I was being, since I had never been to Europe or traveled much by train. A week before leaving for Germany, I took a trip home to Washington with a couple friends of mine. I would periodically mention how terrified and unprepared I was, and they assured me that all I needed to know was where I would stay the first night and how I would get there from the airport. That felt manageable to me, so that’s what I did.
I was terrified until the very second I landed in Berlin, and then I immediately put aside all of my fears and faced what was right in front of me. Traveling alone and without an itinerary means that you are faced with constant decisions, and the only way to address them is one at a time. I had booked a bed in a hostel in Berlin, but I had never stayed in a hostel before and by the time I landed in Berlin, I had been awake for more than 24 hours, so I saw an advertisement for a hotel on the wall in the airport, borrowed some wifi to see how far away it was, and then took a taxi there.
My vague geographic plan turned out to make a lot of sense. I was able to visit Berlin, Munich, Füssen, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Amsterdam in only a week. I wanted to see as much as I possibly could, and with only about 24 hours in each city, I developed clear priorities. For a girl from the West Coast of the United States, it’s completely ridiculous to think you could just walk out of the train station and run right into a site you have only ever seen in pictures, but that was true in Germany. I was able to see almost everything on foot, and get a sense of each city. I hoped this trip would help me narrow down where I might want to return on another trip to Germany, but I loved every city so much that I want to see them all again.
It is both a blessing and a curse of traveling alone that you make every decision yourself. Where to eat, where to sleep, where to go next, and what to do when you get there are all up to you. I like being alone and I’m used to making most of my decisions on my own, so this wasn’t a big deal for me. It was sometimes nice that there was no one around to witness my failures; I got to figure everything out for myself and at my own pace. My friend Nicole emphasized the benefits of traveling alone, and I no better understood them than when I was in Cologne and I wanted to do nothing but stare at the cathedral. I was staying not far away, and I kept walking back just to stare, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That was strangely also the only time I regretted being alone, because the beauty of it caught me so off guard that I almost choked on feeling, and I just wanted to look at someone and say, “Are you seeing this?”
I never felt unsafe while traveling alone, but I did take some precautions. Before I left, I gave my parents an itinerary of where I thought I would be each day, and I gave a couple friends the contact information for my parents in case they were ever concerned. I had very limited access to the internet, but I could turn my phone on if I needed to, and I tried to email someone every day just to say where I was. The one mistake I made was in emailing a friend humorously to say that I was talking to a guy in the Munich train station just so she would know in case I was never heard from again. And then I got on a train and went toward the mountains where I had no internet access for more than 24 hours. The first email I sent when I finally had access again was to say that I was perfectly okay.
In dealing with my fear before I left, I kept asking myself, “What’s the worst case scenario?” What I imagined after asking that question was always me sitting on the side of the street crying and with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. I worried that I would be too afraid to ask for help when I needed it, because I’d be invested in playing the cool traveler who gets it. But all of that turned out to be so unfounded. I always found a place to stay if I wanted it, I never went hungry, and I was so far out of my normal world that I thought nothing of looking stupid or asking for help. I didn’t even care when a German man yelled at me for not opening the train door fast enough, because I only understood half the words and this was a brand new situation.
That’s the beauty of travel for me. I become a different person. One who doesn’t freak out over inconveniences and doesn’t mind looking like an idiot. I forgave delayed flights and trains, as well as a lack of food and sleep, by just picking up my book and reading or my journal and writing. I spent a night in the Munich train station during Oktoberfest, and I was still so happy for the experience that what I wrote in my journal was, “Remember this night? It was the one I spent in the Munich hpf.” Everything that happened, both good and inconvenient, was part of the story for me.
The reason I spent the night in the train station was that I arrived in Munich at about midnight during Oktoberfest and saw what I described as “Vegas in lederhosen,” and I just knew that wasn’t where I wanted to be. The beauty of traveling alone and without a plan was that I could make that decision within two seconds of getting off the train, book the next train to my favorite castle, and then drink some beer and talk to some strangers until it was time to go again. It was my decision, and I made it quickly, and it was the right one.
Speaking of talking to strangers, a lot of the talk about traveling and doing things alone emphasizes, “You will meet people!” And that is so true, whether you’re hanging out in a new country or your hometown, but I just want to emphasize that you don’t have to. Meeting new people doesn’t have to be the point of traveling alone. It wasn’t for me, though I met some lovely people. I made a point of not spending time on the internet, even when I had access. I wanted to spend all of my time writing and reading, and I did and it made me very happy.
There are all of these expectations on traveling that you can just drown in. I discovered pretty quickly that I’m still not a foodie, even when I switch time zones. I nearly went hungry a couple times before I just said, “Who cares what you eat, you need food!” So I did have KFC, which I don’t even eat when I’m home, at 2 am in Munich. And I did eat pretzels for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and when I finally found a sandwich I really liked, I ordered it everywhere. I can’t speak to the culture or people of every city, because I spent less than 24 hours in each. Even when I travel in the United States, I very often see the most touristy places, because they’re interesting. There are many ways to travel, and plenty of compromises to make, and you have to decide how you’re going to do it.
The bottom line of traveling alone and without a plan in Germany was that I had an amazing time, saw more each day than even seemed possible, and I came home with the kind of confidence that made me think I could do anything.
Question: Where would you go on a solo vacation?