So traveller, your decision’s made. You’re off on your travels to somewhere new and exciting. How will you make sure you get the best out of your adventure?
Whether you’re going solo or travelling with a group, a few tips and tricks can help smooth the way.
Erin McHugh is a seasoned traveller who has lived and worked abroad for most of her adult life. She’s just back from a stint as a trip leader for a company which takes groups of young adults on tours across Europe, packing in the sights.
We caught up with her, over coffee and cake, on a rare visit to her homeland and we asked her to share some of her expertise.
Independent versus group travel
Erin says that’s a matter of personal choice. “I prefer independent travel but it took me 10 years of backpacking before I realised exactly what I needed for a successful trip. I went to Brazil when I was 18, travelled around Europe and extensively in Asia and India. When I started out I was very shy and wanted to make myself invisible. Now I’ve learned that it’s better to make contact with people; say hello, introduce yourself and ask about them. That way you become real to them, not just some anonymous person with a backpack. Often they’ll go out of their way to help you and show you their country.”
“Of course there are problems with solo travel. I’ve been mugged twice, once at gunpoint, and I’ve made some poor decisions. It can get lonely and if you haven’t learned how to detach yourself tactfully, you can get stuck with people you don’t really want to travel with!”
“My top tip for independent travel is wherever you are try to find the right people to talk to. Look for the bored receptionist or lone bar staff and ask advice. Most people are delighted to tell you about where they live and are flattered you’ve asked their opinion. Obviously don’t do it while they are busy checking in 101 guests, but in their downtime, strike up a conversation.”
Erin does the same on long bus or train journeys. She says talking to the driver and the passengers reaps enormous rewards. Learn enough of the language to say “hello my name is…” and you’ll be amazed how far it gets you.
Choosing the right group tour
A group tour can bring just as much excitement, if you choose the right one.
“Be sure you research it thoroughly and don’t rely on a travel agent’s description. Some tours cover a lot of ground in a short space of time so you need to be ready for long hours on a coach. But if you’ve never been to a place before, don’t have much holiday time or don’t have anyone to travel with, a group tour can be great.”
Independent travel can be stressful sometimes. “You have to make choices every day when you are travelling, many more than you do in your day-to-day life. If you’re travelling with others that can lead to conflict. If you’re on your own it can get very tiring. On a tour some of those decisions are made for you, so you can relax.”
Taking a trip with a guide also helps with the practicalities. “It surprised me at first how some people weren’t familiar with city life in general and didn’t even know how to use a metro map. I soon realised that things I take for granted need explaining to some travellers. I’m also very keen to share safety tips, especially in places where pickpockets and sneak thieves are prevalent. It can be a lot to take in, but having someone give you some simple rules can save your holiday from being ruined. Travelling in a group with shared interests and a shared language can also lead to friendships and future travelling companions. I’ve even had some marriages.”
Take a city tour
Even if you’re travelling independently Erin thinks a walking tour of a new city is a great way to get started. “Many places have free or low cost tours. They give you the flavour of a place and let you discover parts you might want to revisit. If you have a particular interest, let the tour guide know before you set off as they can usually tailor the tour a bit.”
And you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions along the way. “The guides are all individuals so ask about their favourite parts of the city too. You might be surprised and get some information no-one else has.”
A day in the life…
Erin admits being a trip leader isn’t always fun. You get to see a lot of places for free but there are plenty of drawbacks.
“The days are long, the money is poor. You’re on show all the time and constantly thinking about what you are saying and how it will be interpreted by the group. You need to be very patient, or at least appear so, and it helps to be organised. And being good with people and quick to read situations helps you be aware of what’s going on. Empathy but also a lot of self-control and don’t take everything personally. Above all you have to be comfortable shouting out instructions to a group of about 50 people!”
How to be the perfect group traveller
The simple courtesies make all the difference.
“A polite ‘good morning, did you sleep well’ can set me up for the day. Being treated as human being not an information robot is nice. Some travellers offer to help with cases and such like and that is most welcome. I love answering questions but please say ‘excuse me’ and wait for me to respond before launching into a speech! And the offer of a cup of tea at the end of a long day works wonders for your guide’s morale.”
“But I’ve had some of my best travel moments while I was trip leader. One group included a history teacher who was very interesting, in another there was a superb jazz pianist. And I’ve seen what’s now my favourite building in the whole world, the Pantheon in Rome, with the amazing Oculus in the ceiling dome.”
For now Erin has stopped her tour guide work, preferring to settle for a while in Madrid.
“Of all the places I’ve travelled I have to say Nepal is my favourite. The mountains are amazing and the landscape is beautiful. The people are friendly and on my wavelength. Kathmandu is like nowhere else in the world with amazing architecture, wonderful food and it’s very cheap to live there.”
I get the feeling it won’t be long before Erin is on the move again.
Photographs © Erin McHugh. Additional photos supplied by Pixabay