As we were about to book our tickets, we realized that the spontaneous decision to board a plane and go wherever, was “bound to be Legen…. wait for it … dary “(In the words of Barney from “How I Met your Mother”).
But then it hit us, we knew nothing about the country we were about to go to, and we started to feel as though we were completely unprepared for this trip.
So how did we manage to survive in this unfamiliar country, you ask? Well, though there was a lot of trial and error, we just winged it and hoped for the best.
To help you avoid making some of the same mistakes we made, we compiled a list of things you should consider before traveling spontaneously.
1. It can be more expensive
Traveling without reserving a flight or hotel room in advance could end up being more expensive than having everything pre-booked. However, depending on the season, there are last minute flight and hotel deals that spontaneous travelers can take advantage off.
When Ben and I spontaneously decided to fly from Chicago to Cancun, our tickets definitely weren’t the cheapest. However, going to the airport and purchasing a one-way ticket to a random destination was totally worth it and we wouldn’t change that experience for anything. The opportunity to learn about a country’s culture by not reading about it but by actually living it, is priceless.
2. Buying a return ticket
The Golden Question: Should you purchase a return ticket? If you don’t know where you are headed or for how long you are going to stay, we recommend you buy a one-way ticket. You can always book a return flight later, when you have a better idea of when and where you’ll be leaving from. However, one important thing to keep mind is that some countries might not let you in if you can’t show proof of onward travel. Check out how Wandering Earl solved his issues of not having a return ticket.
3. Finding a place to stay
There are a few lodging options that accommodate spontaneous travelers looking for last minute places to stay. Some of them are:
Hostels are the budget travelers’ best friend. Travelers can rent a bed, usually a bunk bed in a dormitory like room, for cheap. Prices vary based on location but it is usually cheaper than a night stay in a hotel. Hostels are usually a sharing environment, meaning bathrooms and kitchen are shared by all occupants, which can give the travelers the opportunity to meet other like-minded people. Most major cities outside of the US will have them and are a good last minute option for backpackers. Two good hostel website for finding hostels near you are Booking.com or Hostelworld.
Couchsurfing is our preferred method of finding accommodations. It is a community of friendly people around the world that open their homes to travelers for free. Not only is it the most budget friendly way of traveling, it also allows you to stay with locals who can give you some tips on what to see and where to go. Some might even be able to show you around. Keep in mind that some people take longer than others to reply to requests, so make sure you send out a number of them. There are also groups called “Last Minute Couch Request” that have helped us out in the past.
Airbnb is somewhat similar to Couchsurfing however instead of crashing on a couch for free you pay for a private space (can be a room, entire house, treehouse, etc.). Using Airbnb can be cheaper than staying at a hotel and if you are traveling with somebody else it might even be cheaper than a hostel, because most times you pay for the room and not per person. With Airbnb’s “Instant Book” option, people are able to book last minute without having to wait for the host’s approval.
Camping might be a good option if you enjoy nature and don’t mind sleeping in a tent. We for example, always travel with a lightweight tent, sleeping bags and pads, because you never know when you might need it. There are two ways of camping, one is to pay for a camping spot on an official camping ground. The other option is called stealth camping, which is our preferred way of camping. To learn more about stealth camping click here.
Hotels, though more expensive than any of the above mentioned options, you can pretty much count on finding them anywhere. Two apps for finding good hotel deals near you are Hotels.com and Booking.com
4. Informing your bank
This can be a tricky one. Our suggestion is to do this while you are waiting for your flight in the airport terminal, that way you can use your local phone service that you already have. If however, you are already away from home or you don’t have service on your phone, you can look for an Internet Café or public WiFi and chat with one of your banks representatives online.
You really want to make sure to inform your bank of your travels because if they notice an unusual behavior on your bank account, they will put a hold on it. You don’t want to be in a foreign country without any money.
5. Visa requirements and restrictions
If you are the owner of a “First World Passport”, most countries will provide you with a tourist visa (usually valid for 90 days) at point of entry. However, each country has different visa requirements and restrictions, so make sure you find out before getting there.
When we arrived in Cancun we didn’t know that we could stay in Mexico on a tourist visa for up to 6 months legally. Not knowing any better, we told the immigration officer that we only plan on staying for 30 days. But later on we decided to stay in Mexico for longer and the process to extend the visa is quite tedious. Our options are either to do a visa run, meaning we go out of the country and come back to get a new visa or go to the Immigration Office in Mexico and extend our current visa. Both options cost money that we wouldn’t have to pay if we were a little bit more informed before arriving.
Learn from our mistake, because even if you don’t plan on staying for the maximum amount of time, at least you will have the option.
6. Getting around
If you are going somewhere new it always helps to know how to get around. Most destinations will have taxis you can rely on. However, depending on where you are, taxis might not be the most budget friendly way of getting around.
To save money, do as the locals do and take local buses instead. Don’t forget to check the bus schedule, as the buses might not be running at all times, and you don’t want to get stuck walking.
7. Don’t know the language
Not knowing the native language of a country can be one of the worst issues one can have while traveling. It’s extremely frustrating when you can’t communicate your thoughts to others. This same frustration can lead you to either hate your spontaneous travel decision or it can make you want to learn the language.
To help alleviate some of the burden of not knowing the language, find a store that sells books and buy a dictionary. In our case we purchased a basic Spanish phrase book as well as a Spanish– English dictionary the moment we got into Cancun.
If you have a phone or tablet we definitely recommend you also download the Google Translate App. It will make communicating with locals so much easier and faster.
Another helpful app we have found is Duolingo (Note that only a number of languages are supported) and if you are serious about learning a language it is a must have.
P.s. When locals see that you are trying to learn their language, they are more open to helping you. So show some effort and learn at least the basic words such as Thank you, Please, Hello, Goodbye, etc.
8. Keeping in touch with friends and family
We live in the age of technology and there is really no excuse for not staying in touch with friends and family. Some useful apps that we recommend are:
Whatsapp allows you to send free unlimited text and picture messages internationally however you cannot call from this app. This app is free up to a year. Both parties need to download the app as well as you will need a phone number to confirm your registration.
Tango allows you to send free unlimited text and picture messages internationally as well as video chat with anyone anywhere in the world. This app also requires that both parties have it installed on their device.
Talkatone is a great app for free unlimited calling and texting over WiFi and the best part is that the other person doesn’t have to have the app installed on their device.
Though spontaneous traveling can be difficult, it doesn’t have to be impossible.
People have been doing it way before the invention of the internet. But if you have a little time to do some research before you get on the plane, we hope this post will help you make the process of spontaneous traveling a lot smoother.
Have you ever gone to the airport, purchased a ticket to wherever and just went without doing prior research? If so, did you run into any issues along the way? We would love to hear from you.
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