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A Little Planning Can Go a Long Way

One of the greatest things about traveling is meeting people that have been to destinations that you may or may not have thought about yourself. The passion and excitement felt when sharing their travel experiences becomes infectious and often leads to additions to your own “bucket list” of trips to take.

In 2015 I had just returned from a seven month long backpacking trip and I had the itch to travel again. I had just spent the past several months exploring the rainforests and beaches along the East coast of Australia. During my stay in Australia I became good friends with a couple that were just as wanderlust as me, though far more experienced. They had been on many adventures all over the world and we would spend hours sharing stories and advice for visiting different places.

One of the places they mentioned that was especially impactful was Prague. They expressed how magical Prague felt, how special it was to walk along the medieval cobblestone streets and marvel at the Astronomical Clock. When it came time for me to scratch that travel itch it was clear to me that I needed to make Prague a priority.

It was “off season” for European travel (cold and rainy February) and I found a travel company that offered a ten day tour of Budapest and Prague. I booked my tour without any knowledge of the history, attractions, or geography of either destination. I just wanted to go. I was skeptical of going through a tour company at first. I liked the idea of having my hotel, transfers and flights arranged but I treasure my independence when I travel. I love to go out on my own and absorb new cultures just exploring by myself, with no set agenda. I wondered if this tour would take all the freedom away from me and force me to stick to a rigid itinerary.

It was perfection. My opinion of group tours has completely changed. I now know that they are not all the same. Some group tours are very structured, and everyone travels together for the entirety of the trip, others do not. This tour was considered a group but it was created for the independent traveler. I arrived at the airport and was promptly greeted by my tour manager holding a sign with my name on it at baggage claim. He escorted me to the private, sleek, black town car and off we went to the hotel. On the way he explained that I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted during my stay. There were optional tours and assistance that he provided for each of us in the group but none of them required attendance. With a brief introductory speech at the hotel the next morning at our complimentary breakfast (breakfast was included every day of our trip!) the tour director offered up many suggested itineraries and essentially cut us loose to explore the beautiful city of Budapest on our own.

On the morning we were to leave for Prague each of us gathered in the lobby of the hotel and we loaded up into a spacious tour bus with plenty of space to stretch out and relax. The ride to Prague was long…too long in my opinion. I wish I had looked at a map before I booked the trip to put in perspective how much distance is between the two cities. Eventually, (eight hours later) we arrived in Prague. I had the next three days to do as I pleased. It was wonderful.

This was my first time traveling to places where I was unfamiliar with the languages. A few weeks leading up to my departure date I watched several videos online to learn some basic phrases in Hungarian and Czech. I made some notecards to keep handy so I could greet people and say thank you on the fly. Even with some fundamental words and phrases both Hungarian and Czech are pretty complex languages to grasp and switching between the two made it even more challenging.

I reached out to a good friend of mine that has traveled to Thailand several times and asked her how she managed to communicate while traveling without being fluent in Thai. She recommended using Google Translate on my phone. It was a great suggestion except I wasn’t planning on springing for the extra data coverage while on my trip. Then she mentioned a great alternative, a personal WiFi hotspot.

There are companies that specifically work with those traveling abroad to provide wireless internet so you do not have to worry about roaming fees, or upgrading your phone service while away. The company I used made everything extremely easy. My internet hotspot device arrived a few days before my trip and it came with a battery charger, a spare battery and the device itself with simple-to-follow directions.

This portable internet was a game changer for me. I didn’t realize how important it would be until I got lost in the streets of Budapest and could not for the life of me figure out what direction I was heading. I was able to turn the internet on and off at will and connect my phone so I could utilize Google Translate and ask for directions. It also came in handy when there was no one in sight and I needed to find my way around. I was easily able to access my GPS each time I got lost.

Another important “travel lesson” I gathered from this trip was to always arrive at your destination with appropriate over-the-counter medicine. The moment I arrived at my first hotel I was overtaken with the change in environment. I instantly developed a horrendous migraine and couldn’t move from the hotel lobby’s couch for about 45 minutes. My allergies had fully kicked in and I was miserable. It was the first day of my short trip and although I desperately wanted to sleep it off I powered through and started exploring.

The following day I was just as sick but unable to muster the strength to deal with it so I ended up going to a local pharmacy before I started on my activities. I stocked up on allergy tablets, migraine capsules, and eye drops. Although I was relieved to have been able to enjoy the rest of my trip, I wish I had thought about bringing my own medicine from home to save me time and suffering.

One other take-away I had from this trip was that although I enjoy not having a set agenda, a little planning is important. My ten day tour was really just seven days if you consider the fact that the first and last days are spent flying, and the transfer from Budapest to Prague took a considerable amount of time. It sounded like plenty of time, but in truth I felt very rushed and I had to make compromises on what all I could see and do each day.

I will absolutely take group tours in the future. Everything was so easy, convenient, and I felt much safer having a tour manager that was accessible if I needed any help. Next time though, I will consider the amount of time taken up by flights and transfers so that I can really settle in and get the most out of my experience.

I loved every bit of Budapest and Prague, but there was far more to see and do than my short time there could allow. I now know that a ten day tour of one city is better suited for my travel style. That is just one more great thing about traveling, with each trip you gain insights on what to do better next time (or in my case, usually what not to do) as well as you learn more about yourself and your ideal travel style.

Conclusion:

  • Talk to others that have traveled, you may discover a new place that you’ve never considered or heard of before!
  • Group tours do not necessarily mean you have to give up your independence, it is just an easy and safe way to travel. There are many different types of group tours.
  • Instead of purchasing a data plan for your overseas trips from your phone provider in order to access directions/translations/local restaurants and attractions just rent a personal WiFi hotspot. It is cost-effective and simple to use.
  • Pack over-the-counter medicine that you could need when traveling. It is always good to prepare for allergies, headaches, and stomach troubles like heartburn and nausea.
  • Get the most out of your trip by making a list of the “must see/do” activities and understand that some of your travel days are taken up by flights and transfers, plan accordingly.