By Johno Ellison
Johno Ellison has spent the last fourteen months driving a twenty year old Black Cab 40,000 miles around the world breaking World Records for both the longest ever and highest ever taxi journey.
I’m not a huge fan of those list-style blogs that tell you in, in ten easy steps, how you too can quit your job, follow your dreams and live out the travelling adventures you’ve always wanted.
However, over the course of the last year and-a-bit driving around the world quite a few people have asked us for advice about travelling so I thought I’d like to share some ideas and travel tips that I try to follow myself.
1. If you book it, you will go
I suspect that I’m like most people in the fact that I need an initial push to get me really started and serious about a project. I used to tell people, “Book the flights and all else will fall into place” but now I feel that that is a little too restrictive.
All you need to do is put something in place that forces you onward with the trip. This may be booking a flight, ferry, bus or train or booking the time off work. With the taxi trip it was buying the taxi on eBay; once we actually had a rusty car sitting in Paul’s parent’s garage and £500 from each of our Student Loans invested, we couldn’t really back away from the inevitable ferry to France and beyond.
Once you have made this first step don’t worry too much about the details. I think one of the reasons lot of people don’t embark on a trip is because they feel overwhelmed by the minutiae; Where will I stay? What should I take? How will I get around? Who will I go with? The truth is that 90% of these points will either fall into place at the time or won’t even matter anymore when you get to them.
2. Hold on to your stereotypes… for a while
Before I went to Turkey my view of the country was almost exclusively formed from grumpy kebab-shop owners serving me badly cooked and overpriced junk food after a hazy night out in Northern England. When I arrived and found that almost everyone was incredibly friendly and the country was filled with lush green valleys rather than sandy deserts I really was amazed and Turkey ended up being one of my favourite countries.
Similarly my view of America had been formed from Fat Camp, Jamie’s Kitchen Diners and Borat and I expected to find 300lb Redneck Couch Pa-tay-tas drinking Bud Lite. So I was over the moon when instead I discovered that lots of places were filled with erudite and well-informed folks who loved to party and were drinking awesome locally-brewed ales.
The point is that in both these places I arrived with a stereotype and was proved totally wrong, for the better. So don’t let a preconception of a place put you off but at the same time don’t try to find everything out before you arrive. I say leave some of it mysterious and find out things for yourself when your feet are on the ground.
This Turkish guy helped us free our car stuck in the sand then gave us a free cuppa!
3. Be prepared to spend money
Backpackers are well known for being some of the stingiest people around. For the most part this is great and sticking to a budget is important when you’re travelling for a long time without an income. Money can be saved in lots of ways and you’ll find thousands of travel blogs telling you how to squeeze every last drop of value out of your savings but there are times when you should throw your budgetary cautions to the wind briefly. One of the best things about travelling is the flexibility you have to do whatever you want day by day. So if you meet some folks who are going on an excursion that’s out of your budget and you really want to go along then just do it. If you fancy a nice meal or a plush hotel every so often then go for it. I didn’t visit the Colosseum in Rome about seven years ago because I didn’t want to bust my daily limit but looking back now it seems a bit silly that I missed out on such a major tourist attraction for the sake of £10. Skimp where you can but don’t spurn enjoyment for the sake of your $20 a day limit.
It’s essential to be able to stick to a travel budget but don’t let it run your whole trip. Splashing out every now and then keeps things interesting and lets you really get what you want out of the journey.
You won’t always be this flush
4. Go it alone
Travelling with friends is lots of fun. You can instantly share all the new experiences with people you already have a good bond with and you have an instant party everywhere you go. However, it can also be very challenging; I’ve seen a fair few strained friendships and even relationships break on the road, sometimes never to recover. These problems usually stem from people spending much more time than they are used to with each other; this can manifest in things as petty as how fast or slowly the other person is walking or more normally in things like where to stay, what to eat and what to see.
For this reason it is important to spend some time apart if you’re travelling with others. As well as giving you each your own space this also gives you some time to reflect on all the new things you’ve seen. If you’re with friends you can sometimes find yourself caught up in the usual whirlwind of conversation and fun and end up missing the environment around you. Being alone allows you to fully immerse yourself in the setting and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the new scenery.
It also forces you to make your own choices of where you want to go and who you want to interact with rather than leaving them all to your more pushy mate and this improves your whole experience of a place.
Furthermore, if you want to go away travelling somewhere and don’t have anyone who has the money, can get the time off work or can bear your company then just cut loose and go for it yourself. There are thousands of people in the same boat all around the world loving the choice they have made. There must be few places where it is easier to meet and make friends with strangers than in a backpacker hostel or at a Couchsurfing meeting so don’t let lack of companions hold you back.
Go it alone occasionally
5. Don’t be afraid to use the guidebook
Anyone who has been backpacking will have met two types of people; the guy who tells you, with a withering look of contempt in his eyes, that he, “doesn’t use the Lonely Planet” and the other guy who follows the Walking Tour step-by-step and only drinks his Mocha in the Workers’ Co-operative Café recommended by the Good Book. In reality they’re both wrong.
Guidebooks are a really great resource and the Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and other guides are brilliant for getting an overview of a place and deciding which things you want to see. We’ve all left a place only to find out about an ‘unmissable’ thing that everyone apart from us saw. Why deny yourself these things based on a snobbery about “getting off the beaten track”?
That said, lots of the places recommended in the books have inevitably gone downhill since the influx of thousands of the type of people you were trying to get away from. Ultimately you can’t beat just talking to people, both locals and other travellers. These are the guys who will tell you about the hidden gems of the towns and cities; the amazing little attractions and the great value local eateries and pubs. As with most things in life the best way to get the most of a place is to consult a variety of sources.
Use the book… but not too much
6. Meet some locals
Leading on from the previous point meeting local people is a very good way to maximise your enjoyment of a place. They are the ones who will show you all the best places around where they live and help you understand a little more about the people and place you’re visiting.
Couchsurfing is a great way to do this. At just one Couchsurfers, as well as meeting a great family and finding out a little more about the local way of life, we got to use two snowmobiles for two days, go husky sledging, share a traditional meal, sleep in an igloo and use a private sauna. These things would have cost us hundreds of dollars privately yet they were provided free and furthermore the hosts seemed happy to see us enjoying ourselves so much. The point isn’t really the money you save but rather the experiences you gain.
Do remember though that people have been “Couchsurfing” for thousands of years before someone decided to build a website and don’t feel tied down to that one particular community or be disheartened if it’s not working in one place for you. Couchsurfers mostly tend to all be a similar sort of person (in a good way!) but out on the road you will meet all sorts of others and consequently have all sorts of experiences. Don’t feel afraid to take up someone’s invitation just because it wasn’t sent from a fully-referenced online profile!
Saviour in Southern Russia – provided us with petrol then tried to get us drunk!
7. Don’t judge a whole country by a few bad apples
Back in England I once saw a coach driver kick a guy off without his luggage because he asked him if he would let him off at an unmarked stop. Conversely I was once squeezed onto the jump-seat of a packed National Express coach by a friendly driver after I had missed my own coach home on a rainy night. The words of Frank Turner, “Some of them are just like us and some of them are dicks”.
The same is true anywhere in the world. There will be people who are having a bad day and don’t want to help you out and there will be people who see you as a walking money bag and try to rip you off.
Try not to judge a whole wedge of people the actions of a few idiots because at the same time there’ll also be people who’ll go out of their way to get you to the right place, people who invite you to have dinner with their family and people who will show the best of their country with a smile on their face for free.
The proportions of nice to nasty obviously vary from place to place but generally I’ve found that the nice vastly outnumber the nasty.
Don’t judge everyone by a few silly people…
8. Go at your own pace
People are different and places are different. I normally like to travel quite quickly and after a couple of days in one place I start to get a bit bored. Loads of people would completely disagree with me and say that you’ll can’t really appreciate a place until you have spent months there really digging into the underground.
The reality is that this all depends on the person and the place. There have been many places I wish I could have seen more of but the only way you can really know this is by turning up and finding out in person. You may want a whistle-stop tour of Everywhere or you may want to really get to know a few places very well. This is entirely your choice. It’s your life and the only way you’re going to enjoy it properly is by moving at your own pace.
Move as quickly as like
9. Don’t plan too much
Someone once told me that one of the most important principles to live by when trying to achieve something is, “Selection and Maintenance of the Aim” but then later in the same conversation told me that, “Flexibility is the key”.
Although these two principles may appear to contradict each other they can actually be used together in most situations: it is good to have an overall plan in your head yet keep the details vague.
As mentioned in a previous point having extreme flexibility is one of the most enjoyable aspects of travelling and as such it’s important not to plan things too closely. It’s amazing how many serendipitous things happen on the road; once I got a bus through Montenegro unsure of my plan and ended up meeting another backpacker onboard and spending three days together rafting down one of the largest canyons in the world with some locals.
Being open to these kinds of possibilities means that you can enjoy anything that gets thrown at you and experience things you never expected.
Flexibility is the key
10. It’s okay not to enjoy it all the time
Here is the big one: travelling can be utterly utterly crap.
At times it’s amazingly stressful. You’ll be cold, tired, sick, uncomfortable and want to sleep in your own bed. You’ll miss your boyfriend, girlfriend, family or dog. You’ll be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no idea of where you’re going and with no one who speaks your language. You’ll long to be able to order food without just pointing at things or guessing at words on an illegible menu, you’d kill for a Gregs pasty.
However all these feelings will pass and all the bad times will make the good times that much better. By moving out of your comfort zone you actually extend it and improve your outlook on life in general.
There are times you’ll want to go home or wonder what you are doing but as long as you expect these from time to time you’ll be able to get through them. Once they’ve passed you’ll see things and make friends you’ll never forget. You will see yourself grow for the better and appreciate your own home and culture both for what it is and within a larger worldwide context.
Once your journey is finished (if it ever does) you will hopefully be able to look back on it as some of your fondest memories. At the start of the taxi trip someone told us that bad events make for good stories and this is the way I try to look at things that go wrong now.
If things aren’t going well or you’re feeling crap then tell yourself that tomorrow is another day and after a good night’s sleep you’ll feel better. You will.
There will be crap times