After every trip, I like to spend some time going over everything that worked and anything that didn’t work. A plane trip home is a great time for this. My husband and I spent about an hour and a half going over our two-week trip to Spain, brainstorming and comparing that trip to our Iceland trip four years earlier. What works in one season, climate, terrain, culture, or linguistic setting won’t necessarily work in another. The post-trip rundown helps us figure out what questions to ask when we plan our next trip.
What kinds of sights will we see? What kinds of activities will we want to do?
When we went to Iceland, we had plenty of time to see and do everything because 1. We had three weeks, 2. The country is not all that big, and 3. Most of the towns were very small. We hadn’t dealt with the problem of FoMO before. Almost every city we visited in Spain could easily have kept us busy for a month. We tried to cover too much ground and see too many things, and as a result we felt simultaneously rushed and like we were missing out. Sometimes we wanted to do mutually exclusive activities, and choosing one would feel like a loss to the other party.
Lesson learned: Plan at least three days per city with a full day of transition in between.
Lesson learned: Choose at most two sights or activities per day, one in the morning and one after lunch. Anything else should be a bonus approached with a sense of relaxation and ample time.
Lesson learned: Focus more on things we both want to do, and acknowledge tradeoffs.
How organized and prepared do we need to be in advance?
What we’re talking about is the difference between planning and the wing-it method. When we went to Iceland, I spent weeks putting together a spreadsheet of our itinerary, and about 85% of it wound up being accurate and useful. For the trip to Spain, we decided to arrive in Barcelona with no plans, tickets, or reservations of any kind. This was about 80% successful. The “fails” in Iceland were all the result of using a 4-year-old guidebook and encountering museums or tours whose days of operation had changed. Buying a brand-new guidebook for Spain was a $25 fix for a $500 annoyance. The “fails” in Spain had to do with not being able to find special fuel canisters for our backpacking stove, getting behind on laundry, delaying too long on grocery shopping, not being able to find bus stops, and running out of cash.
Lesson learned: Experiment with backup cooking methods, such as an immersion coil and/or hot plate.
Lesson learned: Carry one extra meal’s worth of “emergency rations.”
Lesson learned: Carry an extra $50 or equivalent in “emergency cash.”
Lesson learned: Always ask about laundry facilities upon checking into a new campsite.
Lesson learned: Check addresses using independent sources.
Lesson learned: Avoid having a time crunch when looking for a new bus stop. (Not sure if there is a way to find specific bus stops in every transit system worldwide by using an internet search).
Lesson learned: Focus on listening comprehension, safety/transportation vocabulary, and nouns. Know the names for all our gear, such as ‘tent’ and ‘propane canister.’
What is the minimum amount of gear we can get away with?
Backpacking is a great teaching tool for building discipline in minimalist packing. No, you really don’t need that; no, it won’t fit; no, you shouldn’t bring it. After you hike around carrying a third of your body weight up several flights of stairs in the Metro station, you finally understand why.
What I’ve found on every trip I’ve ever taken is that I’m never warm enough. It’s pointless for me to bring shorts, sundresses, or tank tops “just in case.” We live south of every single city in Europe, and I rarely wear those clothes even at home. I just bought a warmer backpacking jacket, and eventually I’ll upgrade to a warmer sleeping bag as well. I also always use all the ink in every pen I bring.
My pack weighed 35.5 pounds, and my husband’s weighed 42. Our goal is to get to 35 pounds for him and 30 for me. This time, I carried 5 lbs 8 oz of electronics and 1 lb 10 oz worth of gear that I never used. Most of this extra weight came from my laptop and five backup batteries for my phone. The laptop was for a single specific work purpose that couldn’t be automated at the time. As it turns out, I never needed more than two of the backup batteries and might have gotten by with one.
The way I rate what I need is simple: As I unpack, I look at each individual item and ask myself: “Did I use this or not?” Everything I never used goes into its own pile. The items I did use are rated by whether I could have made do without them or whether they were redundant. I take notes and review them before the next trip.
There are certain things we always bring, and if we don’t have an opportunity or a need for them, that’s fine. Swimsuits are so small and lightweight that they’re worth carrying. Not using a first aid kit is cause for celebration. Same with a space blanket and repair tape.
Lesson learned: Don’t wear white on the plane because the meal always has a sauce.
Lesson learned: Don’t bring canned food of any kind because security always throws it away.
Lesson learned: Don’t bring any clothes that need to be drip-dried.
Lesson learned: Banks and phone passport will not accommodate spontaneous plans to add a new country or continent to the itinerary. No data, and no access to debit, credit, or ATM.
Lesson learned: Always go for the bigger data plan.
Lesson learned: Pack journal in a zip-lock plastic bag.
Lesson learned: Bring double the amount of socks and underwear.
Lesson learned: Always bring the Therapik, a 9V battery, and insect repellent no matter what.
Lesson learned: Wear slip-on shoes to the airport.
We’re already tossing around possible locations for our next trip. The more we tighten up our planning, the more secure we are when we encounter unexpected obstacles. We’re getting closer to hassle-free all the time. These are skills that are good for travel, and also for life in general.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.