Adventures in World Land
Suzhou, China ("the Venice of the East," so they said...constantly)
On the Value and Function of Getting Really, Really Lost (On Purpose!)
Travel seems to be a little out of budget for most Americans these days (even ones from the United States). Doomsaying about our generalized-anxiety enhanced New Great Depression despair aside, some of us really can't live on this planet without knowing what it's about. We settle for cashing our paychecks via the local Half Price Books, and perusing the pages of Wikipedia for hours, rather than mowing the lawn, doing the dishes or feeding ourselves (my condolences to those of us with children). We convince ourselves, maybe, that it just isn't in the cards this year... but in the next year or five, we'll build up that savings account and throw a dart at the map.
The next year, or five, seems to stay just that. The trip to Belize, Italy, China or Egypt runs away from us like our own damn evening shadow does. When we're running. Towards it. Come on, I know that's not just me.
The point is, waiting for next year is a death sentence. Idly looking up cruises online can be equally de-lifenating. It's like when I browse all the cute kitties on Petfinder. It makes our souls cry, we build up an enormous saved tabs list, and move on with our week. Nothing changes.
I'm here to say that travel doesn't have to be an exclusive feature of the elusive "when I get some money" year. We live in the age of globalization. When you walk through the mall, work at your job, go to your school or hang out in your neighborhood, you travel the world in a sense. Each person you meet with a unique background can be your gateway to Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, and anything else I didn't type up (sorry New Zealand). Talk, get to know. Become friends. Learn their language. Most international friends I've made are in the middle of a travel adventure the likes of which you yourself would love to undertake. You are kindred spirits.
Then, when the timing is right, you have your contact. You have your in. This new friend will love travel, as you do, and most likely take delight in the idea of helping you travel as well. I'm not suggesting that you make a friend with an accent just to borrow money from them (I guess I don't judge if that's what you do). I'm saying, legitimately expand your experience in the easiest way you can, and then new doors will open up to you. Make a friend whose home is in Germany. Help that friend enjoy his or her visit. Hit them up for some advice and fun hangout times when they go back home. This works, people.
Buy your ticket almost exactly one month before you plan to leave the country. This, for reasons of highly calculated airline wisdom, turns out to be one of the cheapest windows for international flying. Then, ask your friend for advice about the cheapest lodging in their hometown. I also use Priceline.com. This seems unlikely, but it works as well.
I once booked a room in a Super 8 Motel in Shanghai for only $30 per night. Once I arrived, my friend there helped me with a room in Changsha (capitol city of Hunan province, known for being the L.A. of China). For the rest of my stay, my lodging costs were $6 per night. Granted, China can be much cheaper than, say, Italy. But without my friend, I would have continued paying $30 per night. That's an 80% reduction, which can extend your trip to be 80% longer. Then again, if you don't mind the $30 per night, my friend also helped me get "local" rates and therefore allowed me to rent a room at the top-rated hotel in Changsha for the same price as a Super 8.
Learning the language can be a great money-saving tool as well. In many places, if you only make a little small talk with a vendor, you will get a discounted price for anything you need to buy. Sometimes, all it takes is a "hello."
Obviously, the true value of this sort of trip is the mind-expanding experience. Money matters are necessary machinery for making the whole thing work. Once you have this covered, sit back and soak it up. Try food that scares you, talk to people about their lives, get lost (as long as you know the address of your hotel). Human evolution comes down to variety, resilience and challenges. Make your brain work in every way possible abroad, and you won't regret it. You'll just be hungry for more.
I recommend this "getting lost" method of travelling independently over the guided tour or the cruise. Even if you are financially well-off enough to spend the extra thousands that these other avenues can often require, you lose almost everything of value. As I said, the money is just the mechanism. The beauty and the vitality of the experience comes from getting dirty. I've seen the tourist side and the local side of a few places so far. Both have entirely different perks. Take some time to assess what it is you really want to achieve with your trip, and also how likely it is that you'll ever come up with the money for that luxury cruise.
Travelling on your own isn't as scary as you might think. Millions of people live in the cities you're dreaming of visiting every day. All it takes is a little insider advice, and you can look like Indiana Jones but feel like a kindergartner on a field trip. And do it on the cheap.