When our plane touched down in Europe on the morning of June 25th, we took our first steps into a new lifestyle of adventure and uncertainty. In those early hours and days, three months felt like a hugely long time. Now we are one month in, and (I’m sure you saw this coming) it feels like it went by in an instant. Blink, and you’ll miss it.
There’s always so much to do. Book your travel, book your lodging, go food shopping, do your laundry, take a shower, post your pictures, find an ATM, check the accounts, update the budget, book more travel and lodging, buy more food, try and find a time to call your family, blog. Oh, and don’t forget to actually see the place you’re visiting. And this is before we’ve even hit the point of rehearsal and performance. I feel so lucky to have such a happy to-do list. But just like at home, it piles up and refuses to let my mind rest. It’s no wonder an entire self-help industry has been built around time management.
Our second stop after Austria was Germany. I was finally beginning to relax into my new nomadic existence. Not knowing where I’d be sleeping tomorrow night provided a rush of excitement and possibility rather than fear. But I couldn’t get too complacent. The thought of what needed to be done (and when would it get done?) still overrode all other thoughts. I’d constantly feel pulled in conflicting directions: take care of your responsibilities, and experience and appreciate where you are now. How do I hold both? There was still much to learn, young Grasshopper.
1. Schedule “Work” Time
The most effective way I found to get everything done without letting it completely take over was actually a bit counterintuitive. I was much more able to embrace spontaneous adventures–even if there were plenty of important things yet to be dealt with that day–when Aaron and I had taken stock of what needed to happen before tomorrow, and agreed on when it would get done. If I knew I could rely on a few hours later in the evening dedicated to finding our next campsite, then I didn’t have to spend our entire hike thinking about it. I could remind myself that there is already time allotted to that concern, and that time is not now.
No, now is the time for the craft fair in the park in Munich, or for watching the sparks from our hostel’s bonfire freckle the air like fireflies, and marveling at their choices of firewood: a table and an old chair, a massive support beam from who knows what building (which hopefully didn’t still need it). Now is the time for a free walking tour of Frankfurt, or an evening of card games with the new friends we made there.
We also found that it isn’t enough to decide when we’ll start “working”. We also need to plan when we’ll stop working for the day, even if we haven’t checked every item off our to-do list. Searching for nearby markets to grocery shop, methodically washing your clothes in the sink and then monitoring them while they hang out to dry, researching the next travel and lodging, checking your bank accounts/budget, and especially internet updates (i.e. posting pictures, going through your inbox, checking those 50+ Facebook notifications that have piled up since the last time you saw WiFi)–all this can quickly become a rabbit hole. It sucks you down if you let it. By the time you blink and look up it’s past midnight and you meant to be asleep hours ago: you’ve got to be up at 5 to be sure you catch your bus.
So Aaron and I put a cap on our “work” time. We don’t do all our tasks at once. If it’s a long trip to the market and we know we’ll need time to cook dinner, we don’t try and do laundry that same day. Sometimes we can do bookings or phone calls while our laundry is drying; but if our attention is divided, everything takes twice as long. It may seem like common sense, but it’s not always so easy in practice. It’s so tempting to tell myself: Just get everything done now, and then you’ll be able to relax. But that isn’t how it works. There will always be something else to add to the list. I’ve had to learn to be okay with saving something for tomorrow.
Sometimes, we’ve had to stop working even if we did not finish what we’d planned to get done. After two hours of searching for the best price of a bus or train (and does it leave too early for us to get there? Does it arrive too late? Should we pay a bit extra for the one that takes 5 hours instead of 8? Is that campsite too far away from the train station, or can we walk a couple of hours?) you just get burnt out. It suddenly seems impossible to make a decision–or, you stop caring about the details and book a bus that leaves from the airport by mistake, instead of the train station directly across the street from your hostel. Then you find yourself speeding (and I mean speeding) in a cab at 6am to try and catch the bus that you thought you’d have plenty of time to find. Then you’re running around Terminal 1 of the Frankfurt Airport, dropping €50 from an open pocket never to be seen again, and making it to Amsterdam only by the skin of your teeth and the grace of Hector the Protector. And so we learned to cap our “planning” time at about an hour and a half in a single sitting, and to not leave it to the absolute last second, so that if we need to, we can finish tomorrow.
2. Flexibility and a Plan B
Back-up plans like making time to complete a task the next day have proven invaluable. While some amount of planning ahead is necessary–to catch affordable prices, to be sure things don’t get booked up, and for peace of mind–flexibility is also vital. What’s the point of booking as you go if you’re just going to lock yourself into a rigid itinerary anyway? Having the ability to go somewhere or do something unexpected is one of the most exciting parts of our journey. (If we hadn’t been able to extend our stay in Austria for the sheer joy of it, we never would have seen the castles of Kufstein, or made friends with our Couchsurfing host and our BlaBlaCar rideshare fellows on the way to Germany).
It’s also a great way of embracing the mindset that things probably won’t go according to plan. And that’s okay. We make it work somehow. Sometimes it’s about pushing through despite being uncomfortable: trekking through the rain to reach our ride, hoods up, rain covers on our backpacks, hoping the sidewalk doesn’t end before we reach the pick-up spot. Other times it’s about changing our plans to accommodate the circumstance, rather than trying to bend the circumstances to our will: packing up the tent a day early, before the rain, and finding a new spot to crash.
And sometimes the unexpected, the Plan B, is where the magic happens. In Frankfurt we were on our way to a restaurant that had been recommended to us, to try the traditional green sauce (served with boiled eggs and potatoes) and apfelwein (yep, it is what it sounds like, apple wine). On our way, we stumbled across a small street food festival offering all of that and more, for half the price! I must admit that the apple wine, though worth a try, was not my favorite. Our Frankfurt tour guide said that some people, when they try it for the first time, say it’s “like rotten apple juice,” and for my taste, they weren’t far off. But it’s a Frankfurt staple rich with history; and the green sauce was so good we hardly remembered to snap a photo before it was gone!
In Amsterdam we had a massive stroke of luck on our way to check out Vondelpark, which I’m told is the Central Park of Amsterdam. We walked by the Rijksmuseum with the park as our goal, but decided to stop in at the museum. We knew we probably couldn’t afford a ticket; but maybe they’d be having a “pay what you can” day or something like that.
Indeed, we had not budgeted the €40 it would take to get both of us in. We were just about to leave when a woman approached and asked if we were going to buy tickets. “The other couple who was joining us couldn’t make it,” she said. “Do you want tickets? Please take these.” And she handed us two tickets and walked away. We saw some incredible art, and historical weaponry, and ship models, and even the restoration process of a painting. All because we let our curiosity lead us and we didn’t get too attached to Plan A.
3. The Booking “Sweet Spot”
But how the heck do you stay flexible on a budget? Back-up plans are all well and good, but we definitely can’t afford an emergency cab ride every time something goes wrong (which, like I said, it does and it will). Plus, everybody knows that it’s cheaper to purchase travel in advance…so…?
What’s been working for us is to make a jump from place to place, and then stay there for a bit. The price of lots of little trips–trying to move along every other day–starts to add up quick. Instead, we choose our next location, search checkmybus for travel for our ideal date and the few days on either side of it, and then plan to stay there for a good few days, rather than moving right along. Plus, this gives us time to explore the place we’ve chosen without trying to pack it all into an afternoon.
The eternal question, then, is how far in advance do you book? It’s always a crapshoot for sure. And it varies by mode of transport. It also makes a difference whether you’re staying in the same country, or crossing a border. But in general, we’ve found the booking sweet spot—especially for buses—to be 3-5 days in advance.
There have been times that we’ve found decent deals the day of a bus ride, as well as weeks beforehand. But all of my best finds were unearthed in that sweet spot: €10 for two people from Amsterdam to Brussels was booked 3 days in advance. And my crowning glory, €2.88 for the two of us to get from Munich to Frankfurt, was booked 5 days in advance (and made the drop overnight from €10 each to €1.40 each!; couldn’t tell you why).
The compromise for these incredibly affordable journeys is that they often take longer, and make a lot of stops along the way. They are comfortable as coach buses go, but we definitely had to do some mental prep in order to stay content on a 9 hour bus ride.
4. “Travel” and “Rest” Days
Whether it’s due to a 9 hour bus, or just the exhausting nature of travel, sometimes an entire day must be dedicated to getting from place to place. And that is not a day wasted! It does, however, mean that you might want to give yourself an extra day at your destination if you want to be able to see the place.
It is so easy to stress yourself out by telling yourself, “Well, I’m only here for x amount of days in my entire life! I have to plan something amazing every day!” Even if your trip isn’t months long like ours is, that is a lot of pressure to put on yourself, especially if your journey has multiple destinations.
Travel takes so much time and energy. If you’ve got time and energy left when you arrive, then great! Go out, see the city, do your thing, live it up! But if you don’t, that’s understandable, and no reason to guilt yourself. It’s okay, and I know I feel healthier, when I take the travel day to let my mind and body adjust if that’s what I need, and save the sightseeing for tomorrow.
Plus, those long bus rides can be nice opportunities to calm my mind, to watch the countryside through the window, to read or to nap, and even to meet my fellow passengers. A simple bus ride is still part of the adventure. Just because it was a travel day doesn’t mean you didn’t do something amazing.
There is also a difference between travel days and rest days. A nap on a bus is all well and good, but most of us certainly can’t rely on actually getting sleep in those environments. Even our early morning trips, when we’ve felt so tired we could drop, it could be impossible to sleep: our adrenaline spiked so much when we couldn’t find the pick up spot, or thought we might be late, that we were “awake” for at least the next few hours.
Some days have to be for sleeping in and eating a slow breakfast; for sitting in the park and watching the people and the clouds go by; for playing cards and having a drink. You can’t enjoy the get-up-and-go type of adventure if you’ve drained your own personal stores of get-up-and-go. Those slow, easy days may not make the best stories, but they create the mood, the sensations, the spirit of my memories of a trip. They are the times that I can take a moment to appreciate just being with Aaron, or the way the sun streams in through a window. And it’s these little things that make the real substance of our lives.
5. Account for Cultural Differences (And Always Include Buffer Time)
In an unfamiliar place, everything takes triple the time. You just can’t be sure exactly where you’re going, the best way to get there, whether your ride will be punctual, whether you have to wait in line for a ticket or to check in.
And this doesn’t only apply to travel: shops close early and don’t open on Sundays in lots of places, so you’ve got to keep that in mind when you plan errands and meals. Things might not be where you expect them to be. We silly Americans searched in vain in so many markets and grocery stores for Advil and bug spray before we finally realized that pharmacies are always their own separate stores, and those things aren’t sold anywhere else. Also, you often have to pay for water or for bathrooms.
Of course, some cultural differences make things much easier (though they are still a mindset adjustment, for sure). Prices include tax, and in general tipping is not a thing, so you actually know how much something will cost before you pay for it. And some things–like beer and wine–good beer and wine–are available everywhere, and at great prices.
6. Prioritize What YOU Care About
You cannot see everything. There, I said it. It’s simply impossible to do an entire city in a day, or two days, or three days. There’s going to be something you’ll miss. And that’s okay. FOMO is real, but if you take every little thing that happens to you–the good and the tough–as a positive part of your own adventure, then there’s no need to compare how that time could have been spent with how it was spent.
Instead, you can focus on making time for the things that matter to you. If you’re not crazy about art museums, then who cares if you can’t use it as a talking point that you visited every museum in Munich? As long as you are getting what you want to out of your days, that’s what matters.
Aaron and I had only one full day in Munich, and we had a fantastic time despite never making it to the city center at all. There was an incredible crafts and food festival in Olympiapark that happens semi-annually: Tollwood. We spent the day there, looking into booths and sampling bratwurst, even wandering into a little grove that was some sort of museum/memorial to a man who built a church there (this whole area was very confusing for us. All of the information was in German, so we had no idea what we’d wandered into. There were lots of strange alters and baby’s pacifiers hanging from trees. But it led to lots of inventive speculation on our part about what it all meant, so it was well worth our while–especially since we made it out safe and sound. Thanks, Hector the Protector!).
My favorite way to experience a city is to get an overview–and lots of really fascinating insight–via the free walking tours that most cities offer. Then, Aaron and I love to just wander toward the spots on the tour that interested us, or toward distinctive buildings or sculptures we see in the distance, or through a park nearby. We ask for recommendations of what we can do for free, or Google it. Our second day in Amsterdam was spent taking a ferry away from the city center to NDSM-werf, an abandoned shipyard turned street art and performance art hub.
Instantly we felt we had found the part of the city where we belonged. There was a festival where we watched a show that involved turning the entire audience into a very unusual band, and a multi-media exhibition using everything from music to VR headsets to explore where children “go” when they have absence seizures, and an incredible soundscape installation inside a warehouse, and the most beautiful graffiti around every corner.
Short of anything else, we just follow whatever we feel most drawn toward. This was how we ended up climbing to the top of the clocktower in Frankfurt and looking down on the city below (and pretending to be gargoyles, of course). This attitude has also given us the ability to easily alter our plans if we stumble upon something, as I mentioned in number 2, Flexibility/Plan B.
7. Never Skimp on Sleep
Seriously. You have to take care of yourself. Keep yourself fed, watered, and rested, even if it means skipping a fun outing here or there. Don’t compromise on sleep. You’ll thank yourself later (and probably your fellow travelers will too). Making the most of how you spend your time means knowing that it’s your time, and it is best used for what you need. It may not always be luxurious (or even interesting). But it’s all a part of your own adventure, and it is what you make it.