At work the other day, a client was talking about a business trip they were going on and how they were nervous about the place they’d be staying in, while cracking a joke that they “hoped it wouldn’t be a hostel or something.” I piped in and talked about our trip to New York and the hostel we stayed in. They looked really confused and said, “oh...you stayed there because it was cheaper.” And while that is true, there’s so much more to it than price.
People usually think hostels are grimy places where young people stay because they can handle the not-so-five star amenities (ie bunkbeds and shared bathrooms) and are trying to save money. But here Caroline and I were, in our mid-twenties with steady jobs and an income, actively choosing to book a hostel in New York City. Here’s why:
To Meet People
Really the whole point of a hostel is to make friends and give people the space and activities to do that. The majority of travelers are open to making friends and will put in the effort because that’s what the hostel vibe is all about: sharing experiences and connecting with people from all over the world. There’s just a different, exciting energy when strangers you meet are genuinely interested in your travel story and open to making those connections, even though there’s a tiny window for your friendship. This dynamic adds some spontaneity and excitement to your trip because new friends are never planned for.
Unlike hotels, hostels are the BEST at offering fun activities that bring people together and show you the secret local spots (all of which are usually free!). HI New York City also had a community open mic night, a gorgeous patio for mingling, tours through Harlem, movie nights, you name it. If we ever felt lost on what to do or where to go, our hostel had a huge list of options that made us feel like they really cared about our stay.
Many people make the mistake of thinking a hostel is a last-ditch option when you’re running out of money instead of a lodging facility equipped with everything you need. Free tours and maps? Yep. Breakfast Cafe? No problem. While it isn’t the Hilton, you are offered the same basic amenities: a bed, a shower and a secure place to keep your things. If your goal is to explore the city, does it really matter if you’re bunking with a few roommates?
And no, we don’t book a hostel every time we travel. It truly depends on what kind of experience we’re looking to have and who we’re traveling with. And while this post is pretty much a raving review about hostels, don’t worry, we’ve stayed in some questionable places (looking at you Pizza Hostel in Naples!). But even with that in mind, we STILL chose hostels time and time again because some of our favorite travel stories have come from some crazy adventure we had or hilarious people we met while staying at a hostel. And those memories are absolutely worth more than a plush queen bed at the Hilton.
Having spent two of the best semesters of my life abroad, it can be easy to forget all the fear and questions I had before stepping foot on that first plane to Spain. Now that my baby sister is getting ready to head to England this semester, it felt like a good time to reflect on my experiences and help her bypass all the awkward, anxious moments. Here were my best answers to her questions:
Q: What kind of bag should I get?
A: To be honest, that’s a very personal and unique decision. I love my rolling Eddie Bauer bag, but I can’t tell you that bag will be perfect for you. There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing the bag, which we talk about HERE. The biggest tip is to make sure it can fit in the overhead compartment. That way you’ll never have to pay fees to check your bag. You can find that information online or ask whoever you’re buying your bag from to check that the dimensions hold up.
Q: How do you know if you’re making the right decisions about participating in new experiences?
A: When it’s your first time in a new country, it’s easy to feel like you need to participate in everything in order to make the most of your time abroad, but that’s not always the case. As we talked about in one of our last blog posts, there is no right or wrong way. Not wanting to go out and do something doesn’t make you a “weenie”. If what you need to make the most of your experience is downtime, then take it. But I do highly encourage you to step out of your comfort zone every now and then because that’s the best way to really grow through your experience and make new friends.
Q: How do you know if you’re packing right?
A: Biggest tip I can give you: remember that you’re the one who has to lug your suitcases through the airport, on the bus (if you’re lucky and don’t have to use public transport) and into your room. I don’t know that you can actually know if you’re packing right. I think no matter what you pack, you’re going to forget something, realize that there’s something you need that you never thought of, or just want something different that you’re going to feel like buying. Trust me, when you’ve been wearing the same 5 t-shirts for two months, you’re going to get a little tired of them. Also, remember that you will accumulate things, so account for that when packing and leave yourself a little extra room (aka don’t pack 10 pairs of shoes). Pack neutrals, pack light, lay your clothes out in advance and do a “practice pack” and know that you can pretty much buy anything you need when you get to your destination.
Q: How do I balance school and fun?
A: It can be really easy to go from one extreme or the other. I know people who skipped class all the time and never studied because they were always out late or traveling. While it’s important to experience things while abroad and get to know the local culture, it’s important to remember that you are there for school. On the other hand, don’t spend all of your time abroad in the library or shut up in your room studying. Make sure to take time to experience your new home. Just like when you’re home, make sure to spend a few hours a day reviewing your notes, studying for exams, etc., then make an effort to put the books down and spend a few hours getting lost, meeting new people, taking in the local culture (and cuisine...plus a beer never hurt anyone).
Study abroad in a new culture can be stressful, and it’s normal to have questions and doubts. Hopefully these answers will help you go into your semester with an open mind, ready to explore all this experience has to offer. Enjoy the little things and take it all in because you’ll be headed home in the blink of an eye.
I think there’s often a perception that if you don’t spend every weekend traveling, stay out till 6am, etc., you’re somehow wasting your time abroad. To be honest, when Lexa and I were studying abroad, I caught myself sometimes thinking that we were doing it right and those who stayed in weren’t making the most of every minute. But the reality is that there is no correct way to study abroad. As my sister prepares to head to London this Fall, that’s been one of her main concerns. What if I don’t do it right? What if I don’t make the most of my time? Her biggest concern is that she’ll come home with regrets.
I think that’s something most students preparing to head abroad fear - the unknown, not knowing who else will be on the trip or how you’ll get along and not knowing how you’ll like the place you call home for the next semester. The experience can be the best time of your life, but it can also be nerve wracking, and everyone handles it a different way.
That’s the beauty of going abroad - you can do it 100 times in 100 different ways, but as long as you’re learning about the world and yourself and fueling yourself in a way that makes you happiest, you’ve succeeded.
If you’ve kept up with our travels, then you know that our travel style is usually pretty frugal (which has landed us in more than a few funny situations), but for this trip we decided to splurge (if you count $30 each per night splurging) on a private room in a hostel right in the heart of the city. While we’re huge proponents of using hostels as a way to interact with fellow travelers, meet locals and find all kinds of fun, cheap things to do, we decided that the focus of this trip was our reunion with Mai, who we hadn’t seen in over a year.
Usually on our trips you can find us closing down the bars, chatting with locals or swapping stories with other travelers, but one thing we really noticed about our first trip as “adults” was that our view of exploring a city changed drastically. Before, it always seemed like if you weren’t on the hostel bar crawl or checking out the local pubs you weren’t making the most of your time in a new city and were missing out on meeting some really cool fellow backpackers. This time, we realized that exploring a city didn’t just mean checking out the nightlife, and we felt no pressure to push ourselves to explore the city in a way that didn’t feel natural.
Spending the evening catching up and relaxing in our hostel or heading home after a late dinner or casual drink were a welcome change on this trip. We realized there are so many ways to really see and experience a new place. We ate different cuisines every night - Thai, Indian, Italian, Spanish, etc. You name it, we ate it and really connected with how vibrant and culturally diverse this city was. We took a much closer look into the history and diversity of the city. We checked out museums, took a tour to a concentration camp and went back to take a closer look at a lot of the places and events covered in our 2 hour walking tour.
It’s pretty easy to make friends when traveling to a new place. Everyone is out of their element, feeling a little overwhelmed and eager to meet new people who want to share similar experiences. I’ve said it before - traveling, especially solo-traveling, leads to that kind of kindergarten atmosphere again where everyone’s walking up to each other asking if you want to be friends. It’s amazing and so easy to bond with the people you meet at your hostel or on your group tour.
I’ve had a lot of good experiences using this theory, whether it’s been checking out local pubs in England with backpackers from our hostel or becoming close with the group I explored the rainforest with in Australia, so I decided to give it another try in Copenhagen. I arrived at my hostel around 10 a.m., but check-in wasn’t till 2. I had some time to kill, and even though I was running on about 3 hours of sleep and wasn’t feeling super outgoing, I decided to strike up a conversation with a couple guys I could tell were American who had just checked-in as well.
Funny story, turns out we were on the exact same flight from Toronto to Copenhagen, and they had just happened to book the same hostel about 30 minutes before arriving. I guess my “making friends meter” was pretty accurate because they were as eager to make friends as I was, and we quickly began touring the city together.
We struggled through the cultural barriers of finding lunch in a new city and bonded over the shock of paying $20 each for a lunch we weren’t quite sure about. We struggled to read a map and found a random tower to hike up, followed by a much deserved nap. After passing out for a few hours and struggling to dry my hair under the hand dryer, we decided to meet-up for the evening at the hostel’s happy hour, which seemed to be the go-to scene for everyone staying in the hostel. Drinks were good and cheap, and the atmosphere was amazing.
Everyone was eager to explore Copenhagen and make new friends, and it became easy to walk up to some random guy sitting by himself on a couch and strike up a conversation. Which is exactly what Blake and Jeff did, and it worked out in our favor because we made a new British friend. And it turns out he’d already made friends with a bunch of guys from Belgium, Portugal, etc. That one chance encounter of meeting a random Brit led us to a group of 5 more friends who we spent the night hanging out with.
Traveling alone can be awkward and intimidating at first. It makes you feel vulnerable in a way we typically avoid as adults. Make it easier on yourself - take a group trip or stay in a hostel. If I hadn’t branched out and talked to the two guys checking in at the same time, I would have missed out on so much. I might not have ventured out of my room at night, I wouldn’t have spent my few hours in Sweden laughing as one of the guys fell in the river, and while my trip would have still been great, I probably wouldn’t look back on it with quite as many fond memories. So don’t be afraid to travel on your own and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone by talking to new people. It might just change your trip for the better.
Bring on the dramamine - Personally, neither of us had any problems with seasickness (although the boat rocking on the first night was a little trippy), but nothing could be worse than being sick while you’re stuck in the middle of the ocean. Bring a little stock just in case - better safe than sorry.
Don’t miss all the fun activities - We spent most nights in the night club dancing and hanging out with the few young people we met along the way, and it was easy to forget about all the other awesome activities going on each night. There are some super talented people providing entertainment on the cruise, so make sure to take time to go see them. Go see a comedian or take in one of the performances going on. There’s a whole itinerary for you to enjoy each day, so take advantage of it. But also make sure you give yourself time to enjoy the things you really want to see instead of rushing around trying to be part of everything.
Don’t be shy - Some of our favorite memories from the cruise were the people we met. Our favorite place to meet people? The 21 and over hot tub. Instead of being surrounded by families, you finally get some space to enjoy other adults.
And let’s be real...what’s better than enjoying the tropical weather, tasty drinks and some quality conversation in a hot tub overlooking the ocean? Instead of being awkward or keeping to yourself, talk with the people sitting next to you. We met people we ran into every other day on the cruise ship and who spent the whole trip joking around with us.
Explore the boat - There are all kinds of hidden gems around the boat-from the mini golf on the top deck to the 21+ deck/hot tub. Hit up the different bars (which offer different drinks and specials), join the line of kids and ride down the waterslide, then head to a comedy club or to the lounge for a performance. Also try the nightclub, piano bar and the room where there’s always karaoke.
Try an excursion at one of the ports - We picked one excursion to go on, which was perfect because booking a trip at both could get a little pricey. This gave us a break from the boat to do something fun, but also gave us time to explore the islands as well.
Recently I decided it was time for (another) change. After job searching, writing more cover letters than I care to remember and making trips for interviews that ended with a job that just didn’t check all the boxes, I decided to go back to school for an MBA. Taking online classes left me with a pretty flexible schedule, so once I quit, one of my former co-workers and I decided to escape the cold weather and head south for a cruise to the Bahamas.
I guess I should start by explaining how I chose a cruise to the Bahamas. Honestly, when I started doing some mini trip research, the Bahamas wasn't even on my radar. We started looking at trips to resorts in Mexico, but as you can imagine, those got a bit pricey. It only took a little Google searching to start finding other, more budget friendly options (like cruises). There's tons of cruise lines, so it's pretty easy to find one that has exactly what you're looking for at the right price. Obviously, not having jobs meant that we had to be conscious of our budget. So how did we book a 4 day cruise to paradise without breaking the bank?
As of October, I've solo traveled in 3 continents: Europe, Australia and North America. So now that I've got a little experience under my belt, here are some of the things I noticed about traveling solo around the globe:
Sharing a common language definitely made navigating the cities easier, and there was decent public transport within the big cities, although it was pretty pricey to get around.
Europe has the best public transport by far, but if you're traveling to a country where you don't speak the language, it can be a bit tricky to navigate by yourself. There were some cities where I definitely would have been lost without having Lexa to figure things out with.
What To Do if Your Phone Gets Stolen
2. Get ahold of family and friends to let them know what's going on. Sometimes it's difficult to access some of the accounts or get ahold of the people you need to contact in order to solve the problem while abroad, so having someone from home do it can be a huge help. If you get a particularly nasty thief, like I did, your parents might be freaking out over the weird text messages they're receiving, so give them some peace of mind and send them an email or use a friend's phone to let them know what happened.
3. Once you have access to a computer, log out of all social media accounts, mobile banking apps and email accounts (make sure to log out on all devices) and then change your passwords. Although most phone thieves are probably just looking to make some money by selling your iPhone, they might try hacking your accounts to find credit card info, bank info, passwords or contact friends/family for money.
Helpful Tips to Keep Your Phone From Getting Stolen
Most big, touristy cities are notorious for scammers and pickpockets. When my phone got stolen, I had spent all day being extremely cautious about my phone, my bag, etc. but I let my guard down for one second in a very busy area, and the next thing I knew, it was gone. I fell prey to a teenage girl asking for directions. When she laid her map on my table, she distracted me (and my entire table) long enough to grab my phone without anyone noticing. Here's a couple tips for keeping something like this from happening to you:
We got to see some crazy, beautiful places, but these can be some of the most dangerous places when it comes to pickpockets
Excursions vs. flying solo: What's your planning style?
One of the most exciting, and honestly frustrating, parts of traveling is the planning. Once the dates are set, it's easy to get swept up in the fantasy of your perfect trip. Well slow down there eager beaver; there's still a lot to do. It took Caroline and I a solid three months to coordinate our route through the U.K.
Whether you're taking a solo trip through Southeast Asia or just hanging out in Italy for a week, the most important thing to do is figure out transportation. Nothing is a bigger mood killer than being stranded because you didn't research train times beforehand. Here are a few tips that kept us sane during our backpacking trip:
Now that we've covered tackling the monster of transportation, let's get to the fun stuff: planning day-to-day activities. There's two ways to go-creating an itinerary by yourself or picking an excursion. My recommendation is to go with both so you can figure out which goes with your travel personality. Throughout our trip, Caroline and I did a combination because we liked the spontaneity of picking our own activities and also liked the convenience of being toured around by an expert. Not sure which option is for you? Here's a pros & cons breakdown: