My first solo trip abroad occurred the summer after my first year of college, when I was 19. I had been studying the Turkish language as part of my Near Eastern history degree program, and had won a grant to take an intensive Turkish language program that summer at Bogazici University in Istanbul.
It was a great summer; the program was a lot of fun, and the international crew that I was living and studying with was one of the coolest collections of people that I’ve ever met, anywhere. I didn’t really suffer much culture shock living in Istanbul, and had a fun time exploring the city and all of its idiosyncrasies.
I had booked my plane tickets for just before and after the start/end dates of the course. However, four of the people I had befriended were taking a week-long trip down the western coast, from Istanbul to Selcuk, and invited me to come along. The thought of traveling outside Istanbul that summer had never entered my thoughts, but the trip sounded awesome, so I agreed to go and pushed my flight back a week to accommodate.
Setting out for the trip, there were two key differences that I noted between myself and my four travel companions. One was that I had brought far more luggage for the summer than any of them. My mom had helped me pack, and I had brought two massive suitcases full of clothes, plus an oversized shoulder duffel as my carry-on. I don’t think I even opened the second suitcase during the summer; I left that one with a friend in Istanbul, bringing the other one and my duffel along down the coast. Meanwhile, all of my travel companions had decent-size backpacks.
The second gap was in the choice of guidebook. I had brought a copy of Fodor’s Turkey guidebook which my dad had given me. Great choice for middle-aged travelers. All of the other people in the program invariably had the Lonely Planet Turkey guide, with a few Rough Guides peppered in.
The trip turned out to be as terrific as it had sounded in the planning stages. We caught a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to Canakkale, where we saw the Gallipoli battlefield and the remains of ancient Troy. Then we bussed south to Selcuk, where we were awed by the unparalleled ruins of the Roman city of Ephesus. Finally, we doubled back north to spend a couple languid days at the beautiful beach town of Cesme, just west of Izmir, before returning to Istanbul for our respective flights home.
This brief trip was like a massive crash-course for me in budget and independent travel. My travel companions took the lead, and I eagerly followed along, watching in awe how they operated. So many of my travel cherries were popped during that week. I saw how much more efficient my companions’ backpacks were, compared to the comedy side-show that was me trying to lug my massive suitcase around western Turkey. I saw how, though hardly perfect, the Lonely Planet book was a highly efficient assistant for planning a trip, and for getting around upon showing up in an unfamiliar city. I stayed in a hostel for the first time, and saw how those establishments were amazing traveler meeting points at budget value.
My reality had been shattered; my outlook on travel would never be the same again. I was hooked.
As I have traveled more and more over the last few years, friends, family, and brief acquaintances have repeatedly asked me the same question: How do you do it? I have come to expect the question, but still always shake my head at it. They ask the question as if I am doing something mystical and far out of their reach.
Each time that I have undertaken a trip, I have refined my methods, learned from past mistakes, and incorporated new travel tips from travelers and writers that I respect. However, the basic formula remains unchanged. It is the formula that I learned that summer on the west coast of Turkey.
Buy a plane ticket. Put on a backpack. Get a guidebook. Travel and enjoy.
Yes. It really is that simple.
Perhaps you don’t believe me. That’s fine. If you have never traveled before, or have never traveled in a budget/independent/backpacking fashion, then the idea can seem unreal and daunting. But fortunately, the solution is simple.
Just go and do it. Only by putting yourself physically in that situation will you have the same revelations that I did: That there are no magic tricks or special skills required to make travel easy, cheap, and a whole lot of fun.