Once you make the decision to head out on the road the fun part can really start: planning where you’re going to go. All of your dreams start to take shape. The thought is really exciting, but for me it was really hard! When you have the whole world at your fingertips you then have to figure out how you’re going to get around the whole world. The process can be really daunting. Here’s how it played out for me.
Picking a starting place
The first step is figuring out the first step: where to start. Literally. Once you leave home where are you heading?
I have a tendency to get stressed out easily, and it didn’t take long in the process for that to creep in. Again, when the whole world is out there it was hard for me to narrow down where I would start my adventure.
First I started making a list of my dream destinations. What were those places I found myself envisioning when my mind wandered? South Africa, New Zealand, Iceland, Italy, Thailand, Vietnam, Senegal.
Next I decided that in order to allow myself flexibility I should focus on places where I would not need a visa to enter the country. I wanted to give myself space to change my mind on timing and location. Not needing a visa would let me maximize that.
I thought of every single country I could possibly want to visit and cross-referenced that with the State Department’s country information pages. If no entry visa was required I added that country to the list. I made a secondary list for countries where I could obtain a visa on arrival.
Next I looked at places I couldn’t pass up.
The one thing I knew I absolutely, 100%, without a doubt must do on this trip was the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago is a walking (sometimes bike riding) pilgrimage to the town of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. More details on the Camino in later posts.
Since the Camino was the most important experience for me I decided to build my trip around that. I knew that I wanted to do the Camino in late April/early May. I also knew that I would probably want to be walking for about two weeks.
Having these parameters helped because I then knew when I would need to be in Spain and the minimum amount of time I would need to be there.
Next I decided to look at other key dates and events to help guide me.
My brother was graduating in June, and I knew I would go home for that. This created another guidepost: I knew the first leg of my trip would go from my departure date until graduation day in June. Coupling that with having a rough estimate of when I would do the Camino things were starting to take shape.
There was a Barça game in the latter part of April followed a few days later by a Real Madrid home game. I thought I might be able to start in Barcelona and do both. El Clasico fell a few days before this stretch. The game would be in Madrid, but I knew it would be next to impossible to get a ticket. I still wanted to at least be in Spain for the game, thus came the decision to start The Big Trip in Barcelona the day before El Clasico. Now I had a start date and location.
Continuing to look for other things I wanted to do I came across the Secret Solstice festival in Iceland. It looked like a really cool experience and decided to put it on my itinerary.
Coldplay was touring Europe and would be performing in Sweden not too long after Secret Solstice, so I decided to work my way across Scandinavia.
Biting off more than you can chew
Once I had the guideposts in place I started trying to make a route hitting up other things I wanted to see. I started to get massively overwhelmed. There was just so much I wanted to see and do. I didn’t know how I would do it all.
I had to step back and tell myself that even though this would be an epic experience I didn’t have to see and do every single thing on this one trip. In fact, I could not see and do every single thing on this one trip.
After creating an ideal route I started to look at costs.
Years ago I started putting money aside in a separate bank account dedicated to travel. I took a portion of every paycheck as well as any bonuses and added it to this little nest egg. Using this amount I knew how much was available to get me through the trip.
I then undertook the painstakingly tedious task of pricing out every single element of my plan thus far.
I looked at airfares and factored in credit card reward miles I’d be able to use.
For each city on my list I looked for hostels where I’d want to stay and estimated how much I’d spend on food and things to do. I also priced out transportation on municipal systems and on intercity buses and trains.
This process took a really long time, but it made me realize something very important. I was not going to be able to visit all of the places I wanted for the length of time that I wanted. I had to cut back on my time in Norway, and Switzerland was also on the chopping block. I had to go back to the drawing board and make some major edits.
Revising the plan
I had the idea that I would probably spend about three to six months traveling. Based on the money available and the number of things I wanted to do it looked like most of that time would be spent in Europe.
Throughout my final weeks at work I was sharing my plans with my colleagues. One of them asked how I was able to spend so much time in Europe without a visa. I explained that I wasn’t going to be in any one country for longer than three months, so I wouldn’t need a visa.
As I was explaining this I stopped dead in my tracks. It wasn’t true! I knew it wasn’t true. Most of the countries in Europe are part of the Schengen area, a 26-country bloc, which, for the purposes of travel, acts as one borderless area. These countries essentially act as one country when you’re moving between them. So instead of having three months of visa-free travel in each one of the Schengen area countries you have three months among all 26 countries combined.
I was so mad at myself. “Imani, you knew this!” Why hadn’t this come to mind when I was going through the laborious process of making a plan and budgeting? I was daunted by the prospect of starting all over again.
Instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water I realized I would have to lean into the flexibility I desired from the beginning. Everything wasn’t going to be fully laid out, and that was a good thing.
I knew I’d start in Spain, go back home in June, and pick up again in Iceland. Everything else would have to sort itself out along the way.
That freedom and flexibility would come to be one of the things I cherished most about my time abroad.