The Day I Became an Independent Traveler

As February comes to an end, I cannot help but remember about my first attempt at organizing a trip by myself two years ago and how badly it went because of lack of preparation. I was studying abroad in the small village of Clermont-Ferrand, France and it was time for my first school holidays.

I won’t go into details about how strange is the French education system (basically, you have special 8-hours a day classes that last for one week only and give you enough credits to re-validate it for a class that normally would take you 5 months to complete in your home university!) and long story short, after 4 weeks of those special classes, we had a 1 week break mid-February.

80% of my friends decided to spend their time and money at exploring Paris. Granted, I’ve already “been” to Paris (you can read about my short first adventure at Paris here) and yes, I was dying to join them to explore the city of Lights but then I began to think: ”

We have one week free of classes and we live about 3 hours away from Paris, it’s a potential waste of time to go there now when we could go any given weekend, let’s take advantage of our week off and explore other European countries”

Nobody listened to my idea of visiting Venice and since I didn’t have the courage to go on my own, I decided to tag along with a friend who was going to Valencia to visit a friend of hers.

Hey, it’s not Venice but at least it’s somewhere outside of France right?

Place de la Concorde. Paris, City of Love

Place de la Concorde. Paris, City of Love

How Not To Plan a Trip to Spain

My friend, who we shall Carrie for privacy reasons, had an Eurail pass, so we both decided to use the railways of Europe as our route to reach Valencia. Suffice to say, I ended up spending a lot of money by buying all those different train tickets that she got for free (or almost free since some trains required pass-holders to pay a mandatory reservation fee). To make matters worse, our first train from Clermont-Ferrand to Nimes

Mask Carnival since they were all keen on going to Paris so I had to start planning going there for myself… The problem? I just couldn’t do it.

I simply lacked the means, the experience and the courage to plan such a long journey for myself, so, in the end, I ended up joining an American friend acquaintance who got delayed and we were forced to wait in said city for one hour before the next train could arrive.

Sure, as we explored Nimes we found its beautiful Roman-inspired Colosseum but because of the delay we ended up missing our last train from Barcelona to Valencia. The thing about train delays in Europe is that you can get refunds and/or be allowed on the next available train…in the country where you purchased the tickets.

Since we bought our tickets in France, we had to send by mail the unused Barcelona-Valencia tickets with an explanation of what happened and wait 4 weeks for a refund. Needless to say, we were angry and stranded in Barcelona. “But come on, Raphael, Barcelona is one of the best places to be stranded on”, you might say.

And yes, I agree. The problem is that I was stranded in Barcelona with someone who clearly didn’t want to explore Barcelona!

How I visited Barcelona without really visiting it

Carrie was anxious to visit her friend in Valencia so we ended up buying the first ticket in the morning to Valencia. Yes, that meant that we had to wake up at 6 am in order to take our train, leaving us no time at all to explore Barcelona. After buying such tickets, we went to the nearest MacDonald’s to book our accommodation for the night. Yes, it was almost midnight and we had to take a train 6 hours from now but Carrie wanted to get some sleep in a comfy bed instead of doing so in a train station.

We ended up going to a 4-star hotel located 5 minutes away from the train station and paid a small fortune (seriously, a very small one, thank the Spanish economic crisis for that!) for a room. And yes, I insisted on separate beds. As she went to sleep, I went down to the hotel bar to take advantage of our two welcome drinks. That was the best part of my holiday now that I think about it.

Once we arrived to Valencia, Carrie backed out on our idea to say at an hostel and instead wanted to crash at her friend’s. I was totally cool by that and went happily to my hostel…only to find out it was more like a guesthouse where no young people could be found! Oh my, this was going to be a long week…

One long and boring week in Valencia

I won’t bore you with the details about the week we spent in Valencia, but suffice to say, it was extremely expensive (by Spanish standards of course) mainly because neither Carrie, her friends or I knew or were brave enough to move within the city without the need for taxis. And also because, as wonderful as Valencia is, a few days is more than enough to explore it. One week is over-kill, and well, the best option to avoid boredom? Going shopping for good-priced Spanish shoes and clothes!

And yes, I am totally aware that I could have embarked on day-trips to other Spanish cities…the problem is that I didn’t quite yet knew how. Remember I told you about me being totally unprepared?

I ended up blowing my monthly budget in one week! One week!

The many squares of Madrid, Spain

The many squares of Madrid, Spain

The Day I Paid 100 Euros for a Taxi

To me, this was the last straw that finally broke the camel’s back. Once it was time to buy our train tickets to come home to Clermont-Ferrand, Carrie had to great idea to save money by flying instead. I’m not being sarcastic here, it was a truly great money-saving idea. The problem? She used a booking website that charged an extra of 50 euros per ticket issued and instead of arriving to the easily connected CDG airport of Paris, it arrived to the obscure ORLY airport.

Once we arrived to the airport, at about 17:00 hours, Carrie was keen on taking a taxi to the train station of Paris Bercy in order for us to catch the last train (19:00 hours) to Clermont-Ferrand. I implored her to wait for the shuttle and to stay at least one night in Paris in order to avoid rushing to the train station in an over-priced taxi but no…

The fare was over 100 euros. It goes without saying that she and I never traveled together after this trip.

How I became an independent traveler!

Once I was back to my small humble apartment in Clermont-Ferrand I began to re-think all of my traveling choices I’ve made so far and decided to spend one weekend on the computer investigating everything about how to travel more with less. I binge-read many blogs, wikitravel, company policies and much more.

My eyes couldn’t absorb the information soon enough, I became obsessed with finding ways to economize and set the goal to travel to at least two new countries every month! Was it ambitious? Yes, extremely. But I wasn’t going to let one bad experience shape my future. I became my own travel agent, and a very good one I must say!

During my 13 months in Europe I managed to visit France, Spain, Italy, The Vatican, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, England, Scotland, Austria, Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, The Netherlands and Russia. 22 countries in 13 months. Not bad for a Mexican Middle-Class student, right?

Saving money is useless if you don’t know how to spend it wisely afterwards. You can blow your life-savings in one month or one year depending on the knowledge that you have about prices, economy and other ways to spend-money wisely while traveling.

In my series of “How to Travel More” I’ve detailed the 7 Tips to Travel More, check it out and stay tuned for future articles regarding the many benefits of being an independent traveler and the money you can save by doing that!

Have you ever traveled with someone like Carrie? What has been your breaking point? Share your story and let me know!

How I became an independent traveler

The downsize of being an independent traveler: trusting strangers to take good photos of you

41 Responses

  1. gretel24p

    Loved reading this article. When it comes to traveling it’s important to stay true to your interests and plan ahead. I have had similar experiences. That’s why I recently went on a trip to Europe on my own in order to get the most out of it. My friends thought that I was crazy but it was the best thing I could have done. Great post!

  2. renxkyoko

    I don’t want to travel with people who are squeamish and whiny, and those who want to travel in luxury.( unless budget is not a problem )

  3. Preeti

    Beautifully written! But if you find the right travelling companion it’s great….my husband and I took our first trip to Europe last year…and we decided to plan everything…from tickets to stay to sightseeing ourselves…two months of extensive research online talking to friends etc…and we were set…the fortnight was a glorious one! And though we too got duped for 55 Euros in Rome on our last day travelling to the airport..still the fun of planning and travelling together was awesome…

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      What happened in Rome? Did the taxi driver over-charged you for the luggage pieces? And yes, I agree, organizing a trip with a loved one is a very amazing experience on its own! :D

      • Preeti

        Actually we got a little late finishing our breakfast…about 15 mins from the given time for the taxi…he charged us 45 Euros additional for waiting!! Furious but we had to pay as we had a flight to catch :(

  4. Diana

    Great job! I am right there with you! I love finding good deals and making the most of my time and money. We are lucky because we are in Italy and live about about 10 minutes from the Swiss border, 3 hours from Nice, 3 hours from Florence, 2 hours from Luzern,etc….a very strategic location….and we try to make the most of it. What part of Mexico are you from?? Miss it there…used to go a lot in my younger days…..Mexico City….even once I drove from Saltillo to Real de Catorce. Sadly it seems Saltillo is very dangerous now. There are still a ton of places I would like to see there. Hopefully one day I can return to see all those places!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I was born in Acapulco, studied in Monterrey, tried to live in Mexico City for a few weeks but I didn’t really like the traffic so now I’m moving to Cancun! I’ve heard so many great things about Real de Catorce, I’ll be sure to visit it someday!

      PS. Which part of Italy are living in? Milan?

      • Diana

        Yes…I think Mexico City is a great place to visit…but maybe living there would be a challenge. Ohhhh….Cancun….I guess you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful beach anywhere in the world. We lived in Milan for 5 years, now we are in a smaller town called Varese about 45 min. from Milan by train.

  5. fran

    Why being an independent is desirable and travelling in a escorted group bad?. NO. Simply a question or personal taste.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      It IS a question of personal taste, however, by being an independent traveler you’re able to see more attractions while spending less money and yes, it might be a little bit snobbish of me to say it but you’ll get a more unique experience of the city by exploring it on your own pace.

      It’s not the same to compare “the time I visited Paris with a tour group and everything went without a hitch” with “the time I got lost in Paris and ended up in a lonely cafe where I met the girl of my dreams who showed me the bohemian side of the city of lights.”

      Just a matter of personal taste, of course, since I love improvisation and weird travel experiences! :D

  6. Travelling Book Junkie

    Great article. I have been very fortunate that my father was and still is an independent traveller so I gained many of my searching skills from him, although I have definitely overtaken him now and he often comes to me for advice on how to get the best deals. I have only once allowed someone else to have full control over the holiday and it turned into a disaster. I nearly didn’t return to Mexico because of it. Hence to say that I now do all the booking for our trips, the only time relinquishing some control was last year when we went travelling with another blogging couple whom I trust with the details.

  7. alisabee

    I love this post! This totally demonstrates why traveling with other people can suck- especially when that person dominates the trip, and the whole time becomes about pleasing them. When I was studying abroad, I traveled through Turkey, Greece, and Italy with a girl from my program whom I did not know very well. What a mistake that was! She had a totally domineering personality and mostly did whatever she wanted to. I ended up spending way more money that I would have liked. Traveling independently is so much better.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I agree! I believe that traveling has the potential of wrecking friendships when a balance cannot be found in terms of budget, I have often felt kind of intimidated when a friend invites me to the Hard Rock Cafe and offers to pay for everything but hey, sometimes we have to accept it and enjoy the ride (plus, free hamburgers!) :D

  8. The Caffeinated Day Tripper

    I got so sad for you that the 2 complimentary drinks were the best part of your trip! You poor dear! Well, we live and learn and as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” :) Now, look at you!

  9. surfingtheplanet

    Very entertaining piece! It’s a pity that you didn’t have time to visit Barcelona, maybe next time!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I did re-visit it later that same year, but since it was only a quick weekend geteway from school, I didn’t had time to visit Park Guell or enter the Sagrada Familia. The beach was amazing, though :D

  10. Claudia

    It absolutely makes such a difference who you choose to travel with, doesn’t it? I’ve been very lucky that my husband and I travel so well together. We’ve been to lots of places, eaten wonderful foods, discovered great places. He’s awesome to travel with, excited and eager to learn about places and people. Travelling on my own occasionally has been fun too :-)

  11. Milene

    Ha what a great post and I totally recognize myself in this… Even nowadays I’m still quite nervous when I go somewhere all by myself (yep I’ve been travelling alone for more than a year now but no it doesn’t change anything). I think it’s mainly because I plan and I fail all the time! Great peace, loved it!

  12. foreignsanctuary

    When I first moved to Taiwan, I explored many places independently. I found the planning, the anticipation, and the reward of successfully navigating my way there an accomplishment in itself. Now, I travel with my husband and I still do all the planning. He comes along for the ride but he knows that I will plan an itinerary that is interesting for the both of us without breaking the bank.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Great points, I always love the charm that comes when moving to a new city since, more often than not, the place where we will be working/studying is removed from the tourist area so guidebooks are useless in that aspect :D

  13. tuanjim23

    22 countries in 13 months but no Poland, it’s like going to Latin America without visiting Mexico… ;)

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Haha tell me about it, Poland and Croatia were the two countries that I really wanted to visit but couldn’t due to time issues. Next time I’ll be sure to prioritize those!!!

  14. Jeff Johns

    This is a great article, love all the honesty. So many travel bloggers write without admitting fear, caution, etc. We all have some rough trips in our past, glad your inspired a change and more travel instead of pushing you away from the lifestyle. Bravo!

  15. Caroline Achieng Otieno

    I haven’t travelled with anyone the few places, I’ve gone to..but I’ve been hosted in Singapore, and ended up not going to all the places in my itinerary due to my host throwing off what .i had planned or choosing other places different to my choice because of distance (closer). Solo travel rocks except for the part where you keep asking people to take pics of you.
    It’s not such a good feeling and I guess how you must have felt. I’d love to travel cheap, so I’m following your stories for tips.

  16. Salman

    But dont you have a job or something? how do you manage to travel always? and also the money issue..where do you earn. I have to find this out and do this!!!

  17. Eric

    I’ve just come across your site and have read several articles. Great job putting this all together! I am taking a trip late Spring 2015 to Asia (Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam and Hong Kong.) First time to all these places and really look forward to it. I’m traveling there with a friend that has different tastes, but have traveled solo to many countries. I am going into this trip knowing his preferences and limitations (not quite as adventurous, and he likes hotels vs me who loves staying in hostels.) Most of the trip is a cruise, so I’m looking at this as a good introduction to four new countries that I will no doubt go back to. Summer 2014 I spent 5 weeks in Europe visiting new places and re-visiting some of my favorites. It was a combination of solo and meeting up with friends and then capping it off for a week with my nephew. Fantastic combo of a trip that I will always treasure. Great job on the blog/website! Keep it up and keep traveling. Don’t be surprised if I make a couple more posts on other sections.