From the memory bank: reflecting back on Europe 2013.
By mid 2012, I’d established that 2013 was going to be my “conquer all” year. It began by ringing in the new year, Las Vegas style; from where I immediately flew to Thailand for a short-term study abroad trip in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai; two months later I celebrated my last spring break as an undergrad in South Beach (typical, yes -- yet SO much fun); two months after that came graduation; and a few weeks later I was off to spend a little time in Portugal and Spain. Throughout the year, I’d also taken quick stints to Pittsburgh, Atlanta, New York, and Charlotte, and explored more than ever right in DC.
I’m not quite sure who I thought I was last year, but I loved every minute and every spontaneous misadventure the year brought. As you can imagine, my bank account wasn’t too pretty by the end of it, but I made it work. It was my last full year before facing the real world’s countless responsibilities; I wanted to live it to its fullest potential.
I couldn’t think of any other way to cap off my college years other than with an epic abroad adventure after graduation. Embarking on a post-grad trip was one of the best decisions I’d made and the sweetest way I could imagine bringing my four collegiate years to a close.
I fell in love with the vintage suitcase cake (or “suitcake” rather) that my favorite travel blogger got made for her graduation party, and knew right away that with my passion for travel and my upcoming graduation trip, this cake idea would be perfect for my party as well. Having a family friend who is a stellar baker came in handy -- she recreated the decadent edible art with ease, and it tasted just as good as it looked.
In honor of the special destinations I’d visited in the past, as well as all of the places that awaited me in my future as I began the next chapter in my life, I picked various emblems to tag the cake and cupcakes with: Vintage travel luggage stickers. When I laid eyes upon the final outcome, I visualized the unforgettable experiences throughout my life in some of my favorite destinations -- Italy, Thailand, France, Mexico -- it all made for a surreal feeling. I felt so blessed in those moments, surrounded by everyone I loved. I was also excited for my upcoming journey -- but nervous!
I mean, I was only planning on going overseas with someone I’d never even met before...
Let’s rewind. I really wanted to make a graduation trip happen. It was already April and I still hadn’t set anything in stone for June. Coordinating with my friends wasn’t working out -- insufficient funds, jobs, and schedule conflicts were all hindering us from being great. That wasn’t going to stop me. I’d read plenty of travel blogs and collected tons of helpful advice on solo female travel. As an only child, I’m naturally independent -- traveling by myself didn’t intimidate me at all. In fact, after reading stories about how much young women learned about themselves and how they experienced many new things by traveling solo, I was quite excited to do the same. I knew I’d meet all kinds of new friends and like-minded travel buddies; I’d never really be alone unless I wanted to be.
My parents shot down that idea as quickly as I conjured it up. No matter how many emails I sent assuring them that solo travel is very common and safe (I’m more likely to be harmed right here in the US), they weren’t having it. “But I’m 22 and capable of navigating a foreign land by myself.” I literally begged them to let me go. Still … it was no. (It didn’t help that my dad and I had watched Taken together.)
Instead of giving up and delaying my trip for some elusive date to wait for someone else to go with me, I was still set on making something happen.
I found a site called TravBuddy.com -- a travel website and social community that allows voyagers to read and write reviews, blog posts, guides and tips for destinations all over the globe. Its primary goal is for travelers to post their travel itineraries and to connect with other people who have similar plans, or link up with locals who can show you around while you’re visiting their city.
I signed up for an account, uploaded some pictures of myself, and filled out my profile with places I’ve been, my interests, and countries on my ‘dream destination’ list. Then, I began to explore the site. The same day I created my account, I found the girl who would end up being my tripmate -- the solution to my travel dilemma!
Based on her profile, Shana seemed like a down to earth adventure lover like me. She was a fashion-forward New Yorker with a bright smile, also a fellow sista'. I used my good judgment to determine that she was normal. She had already made travel plans for the summer and indicated that she was interested in meeting people to travel with. Shortly after browsing through her page, I left her a comment:
I am planning a possible summer trip around Europe after I graduate this year, and I see you have some of my dream destinations on your list as well! I am looking for others around my age to travel with, so if you're interested, feel free to get in touch!
She messaged me back enthusiastically, recruiting me along for her two week Eurotrip.
“Girlfriend!! I know it's short notice, but I would LOVE if you could come to Barcelona, I think it would be absolutely epic. I planned the whole trip by myself, BC it's so hard to find people my age to say " hey, do you have $1400" for a plane ticket. I went to Amsterdam and Paris last year by myself, and I was never alone. I met so many people from different parts of the world. Now I have the travel bug.
So my itinerary is as follows:
June 10-14, Lisbon Portugal for the festival of Saint Anthony, which is like their version of Carnival. Then Barcelona from the 14th-18th. I'm going to the Sonar Music Festival, which is like Coachella, but better! Then finally 3 days in Ibiza.”
From there, it was history -- no lie! We exchanged emails, Facetimed twice, and before I knew it, I had myself a graduation trip in the works. Luckily for me, it was already planned out. I was PSYCHED.
From an all-too-brief 2 day visit to Barcelona in 2011, I’d already fallen in love with the Catalonian city and knew I’d have to soon return. I was also excited to visit Ibiza, the European party paradise that had always seemed like some mystical island to me that I wouldn’t get to visit until I got rich.
Portugal, on the other hand, hadn’t particularly been on my immediate list of places to visit. I wanted to replace Lisbon with Amsterdam and then meet up with Shana in Spain. “I’ll only be by myself for 4 days in Amsterdam,” I attempted to convince my parents once again, this time only asking about a few days of solo travel as opposed to a whole trip. They still turned down the idea.
So, Lisbon it was. And I couldn’t have been more grateful -- I absolutely loved my days in Portugal! I had never even heard of the Festival of St. Anthony, but the national holiday ended up being hands down one of the most fun experiences I have ever had in my life.
Even though we lived in cities only 4 hours away from each other, Shana and I hadn’t actually met in person until we both arrived in Portugal. It was quite random and a huge risk -- I’d literally booked the same exact trip (flights, hostels, excursions) as this girl I’d only ‘known’ for a couple of weeks. Of course I wondered whether I’d like her, whether or not she’d be crazy, and whether this trip would be a success or a complete fail.
However, I can’t imagine it having turned out any other way.
Shana and I hit it off. She was a tad more out there than me (as in she’s a serious raver), but for the large majority, we enjoyed the same things -- shopping, dancing, exploring, making friends. Her outgoing personality made it easy for me to come out of my introverted shell & we vibed right away.
We both branched out and met new people at our hostels. We didn’t feel the need to be conjoined at the hip throughout the trip -- if by chance one of us wanted to do something the other didn’t, it was all good. The one low point came when she decided to get her hair done the day we were set to leave Portugal to head to Spain. She failed to allow herself enough time. As a result, we left for the airport too late to make our flight, and had to drop $300 to get ourselves on the next available ones.
I was pretty furious, but I really wasn’t obligated to wait for her. I should have just made my way to the airport once I noticed it was getting closer and closer to the time we were supposed to be leaving. That was my biggest learning lesson during that trip: You can’t wait on other people when it comes down to the wire and you’ve got a flight to catch. ALSO: Always always set aside a financial safety net in case of an emergency while you are on the road. (My partner had to borrow money from a relative until her paycheck came in two days later -- you definitely don’t want to be stuck in this predicament).
Other than that, the trip panned out perfectly. I experienced a lot of firsts - first time traveling nearly solo/with a stranger, first time staying in hostels (and I loved them!), first time being immersed into a music atmosphere unlike what I’m used to, first time in Portugal, first time partying European style in Ibiza. It was all such an incredibly phenomenal time. Overall, I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to have discovered Shana and for having her as my two-week travel sister. I would not have visited Lisbon or attended Sonar without having adopted her itinerary, and I’m so thankful for the euphoric memories that I gained as a result.
I will forever cherish this graduation trip as one of my best travel moments -- all thanks to TravBuddy and for taking the risk to go jetsetting with a stranger!
For all my college seniors, I can’t encourage you enough to reward yourself with a grand bon voyage for all of your hard work and all-nighters. You deserve it! Whether you are graduating this December or next May -- begin planning your trip now. The more time you allow, the more likely you’ll be able to travel with a friend or two. You’ll also want as much time to research where to go and what to do. If, like Shana & I, it’s too difficult to find a friend to go with, you can always fly solo or find yourself a travel buddy!
Read the full story: Budget Breakdown: What Two Weeks in Europe Cost Me; Checking in: Becoming Acquainted with Hostel Life (Yes! Lisbon); Charmed by Lisbon & Saint Anthony's Festival; Bar-Say-Lona Lovin' | Sónar Music Festival; Beaching, Biking, and Basking Barcelona; Island + Party Life: Ibiza Style