Advice on unplanned, international travel

I just got back from a solo-trip to Japan, and had a lot of time to think about the way I travel. Traveling in an unplanned fashion is something I'd recommend anyone try at least once, so I decided to collect some thoughts into a guide.

 

Flights

International flights can be surprisingly cheap if you follow these guidelines: 

  • Use flexible destinations — the bulk of the cost is usually getting out of the country. Once you're there, it's easy to take a train or another short flight to get where you want to go.
  • Use flexible dates — airline prices fluctuate wildly depending on the season and day of the week. Look at a grid like the one below to find the best price.
  • Use Google Flights — forget other travel websites, Google Flights is by far the best tool I've found.

Here are some Google Flights results for a trip from San Francisco to Frankfurt. You can get there for as little as $500 if you leave on a Thursday. But I've seen cheaper — SF to Stockholm for $325, SF to Tokyo for $400 — that's the same as plenty of domestic flights. 

 

Lodging

I think there's a comfortable middle ground between couch surfing and staying in hotels. I usually prefer to change it up — one night I'll stay in a hostel, the next in an Airbnb or a hotel. Remember that it's just a place to sleep, you're not there to stay in the room.

I prefer to know where I'm sleeping 2-4 nights ahead of time, but try not to plan much farther than that. 

Hostels are hit or miss. I'd recommend them only if you're traveling by yourself. There are also some upper-scale hostels, like Wombats, but you usually have to reserve early if it's high season.

Pros:

  • Meet a lot of people
  • Usually the cheapest option if you're traveling solo
  • Hostel events (e.g. bar crawls, dinners, etc.)

Cons:

  • Sleeping in the same room + sharing bathrooms with 4-12 strangers
  • Keeping your stuff in a locker, or a shared storage area
  • The best hostels are booked in advance

Airbnb has changed the game. It's by far my favorite way to stay. If you're traveling by yourself, try staying with a host in a private room. I've been invited to family dinners and gone out with hosts and their friends. If you're traveling with a group of 2-6 people, get an entire home or apartment and split the cost among the group. I've found this can often be cheaper than staying in hostels, which will charge per person.

Pros:

  • Chance to experience things with or learn from a local
  • Stay in incredible apartments, like this houseboat in Amsterdam
  • Opportunity to do laundry
  • Easy to book last-minute and almost always available

Cons:

  • Getting the keys/learning about the house can be a hassle if you're only staying for one night

Hotels — I prefer to avoid hotels, but they can sometimes be a relief because you know what to expect.

Pros:

  • Easy to book last-minute and almost always available
  • Privacy

Cons: 

  • Less of a unique experience
  • Cost

 

What to pack

I brought roughly the same stuff for a one week trip to Japan as I did for a two month trip throughout Europe. In general, I'd say the lighter the better. If you're traveling for a long time, you'll have to do laundry at some point. Washing your clothes in a sink or a bathtub isn't too difficult, but it helps to have clothes that dry quickly. I've included links to things I particularly liked.

Remember that you can always buy the small things you forget, so don't worry too much about getting everything right. Check out this post by Keegan Jones for some more advice.

As for the bag, I used the 60L Lost Coast by Boreas. 60 liters is much larger than you need if you're traveling in cities, but it's sometimes nice to have the extra-space.

 

Phones and Internet

If you're only going for two weeks, I'd recommend keeping your phone in airplane mode the whole time. Not only does this save money, but it'll also keep you from checking your phone every five minutes. WiFi is usually available in at restaurants, cafes, or wherever you chose to stay.

Something I learned — Google Maps' GPS works well in airplane mode. Search for your destination while you have Internet, then follow yourself on the map.

Don't worry

There's a lot of advice in this post, but you'd probably still have a good time if didn't listen to any of it but this — don't worry. Be in the present. Do what you want to do, and not because read about in a guidebook. Make your experience yours.

Happy travels.