My gap year traveling through Europe and Latin America was an absolutely incredible experience, even though I made plenty of mistakes along the way. I’m sharing some of my biggest mistakes from my first long-term trip, so you can avoid them before setting off on the trip of your life.
1. Overpacking and having to check a bag
Of all the long-term travel mistakes, this is the most common. Trust me, you do not want to be lugging around an oversized backpack for months. Despite reading countless articles warning against this, I packed way too much and it cost me a lot in checked bag fees. I soon realized that most backpackers find themselves wearing the same few shirts and shorts each day. However, I did find it useful to pack lots of socks and underwear.
2. Planning too tight of an itinerary
Before leaving, I had planned out roughly what my year would look like without much wiggle room. Because of this, I was rushing through cities at the start of the trip to fulfill my itinerary. This is not an enjoyable way to travel because it turns it into a chore and takes away your flexibility.
When you’re on your trip, you’ll hear about places you didn’t know existed, you’ll get sick, lose days to rain, and end up staying longer in the places you love. Don’t turn your long-term travel into a checklist. If it’s your first long trip and you like to plan, I suggest having a rough itinerary for about 2/3 of your trip.
3. Not researching local holidays
Taking part in the holiday festivities is a great way to see a country’s food, music, dance, and fashion. This is also when domestic travel is at its peak, and the best budget accommodation is booked well in advance. Securing a nice place to stay in one of the best cities to celebrate the holiday is a whole lot better than having to change your itinerary because there’s no accommodation available.
4. Not brushing up on my Spanish
My first stop was Mexico, and after not speaking Spanish for over a year, I thought I’d be able to get up to speed quickly. Unsurprisingly, this was not the case and I wasn’t confident, which led to me feeling more like an outsider than I would’ve liked to. If you have any relevant language skills, a few weeks of practice before your trip goes a long way.
5. Taking 2 months to finally join a free walking tour
These tip-based tours are available in most cities and are a great way to learn about a city’s history and culture. Plus, you will meet other travelers and get restaurant recommendations and safety tips from a local.
6. Forgetting about proof of onward travel requirements
Buying a one-way ticket isn’t always enough to get on the plane. Many countries require proof that you are leaving the country and I learned this the hard way when flying to Colombia. I didn’t have an onward ticket and I ended up panic buying a $100 flight to Panama that I never used.
To get around this, you can use an onward ticket site to rent a plane ticket for 24 hours. Another option is to buy any direct flight to the USA, which has free 24-hour cancellation by law.
7. Not buying travel insurance
I had health insurance through my parents and trip cancellation protection through my credit card, so I decided I didn’t need travel insurance. Well, 6 weeks into my trip someone stole my laptop in Istanbul and the cost to replace it was more than 1 year of travel insurance. If you’re deciding whether to buy travel insurance or not, keep in mind that the cost of electronics in other countries can be a lot more expensive than in your home country.
8. Only booking private rooms in hostels for the first 6 weeks
I had never stayed in a hostel before and I thought private rooms would be a good way to adjust to hostel life while delaying my fears of sharing a room with strangers. This ended up being a poor decision as an introvert traveling solo. I hardly made any friends and once I started staying in dorms, I realized it wasn’t so bad. It’s a great way to meet people and you’ll realize that most people are very considerate. After a couple of weeks, sharing a room with strangers feels normal and it will save lots of money.
9. Putting my toothbrush in the luggage storage on overnight buses
Having your teeth feel clean is a difference-maker on long bus rides and you already feel slightly disgusting by the time an overnight bus arrives. Don’t make it worse by not being able to brush your teeth on board.
10. Not telling my family I was going to travel for a year
I feared the wrath I would face for not getting a job after college and traveling to countries that didn’t have the best safety reputation. So I gave my family the, “I’ll be gone for a few months”. Be honest with your family and you won’t have any explaining to do when you get home.
That wraps up the 10 biggest mistakes I made on my first long-term trip. Next, read about the best places to visit in South America!