Many years ago I took 6 weeks to travel around Europe alone by train. I visited several countries, using public transportation and finding my way around.
One day I met an Australian guy also traveling by train.(You meet a lot of Australians when you travel in Europe.)
“I’m so tired,” he said. “I could go home right now. I’ve got another couple of months to go.”
I know exactly how he felt. Travel can be fun, educational, and life-changing. But it’s also totally exhausting and frustrating. I just finished a 16-day trip to Budapest. It’s the first time I’ve ever posted photos of a trip while I was traveling. Each time I wrote truthfully, “I’m exhausted.”
Someone posted to a Facebook travel group, “I’m nervous about travel! I’m getting older. I’m worried about being alone. I have health issues that make walking difficult. But I’m determined to go on my trip!”
Several people from the group sent encouraging notes to the contributor. They encouraged her to be brave and take off. They assured her she’d feel better once she’d taken off.
I came across an article by the prolific travel blogger Tom Kuegler. For once, someone’s telling it like it is.
Tom said he doesn’t travel to see sights and take nice pictures. He travels for the challenge. And I can totally relate.
When you travel you’re moving all the time. In Europe, people are more used to walking. I live in a city without a car. I work out and walk a lot. And I can count on sore feet almost every time.
Every time you do something, you’re on your feet, often in motion. You’re often walking on uneven ground with lots and lots of stairs…sometimes stairs without banisters! Escalators go really fast. Tram and train steps seem higher off the ground.
For me, though, the worst part is the planning. When you travel alone you have to decide what to do every day. You want to see a sight? You need to figure out how to get there from your hotel.
Sometimes you can read a map or go online with Google Maps and it’s easy. Sometimes the directions begin, “Go southwest on Boulevard X…” and you realize you have no idea which direction is Southwest. It’s easy to miss a street or a turn.
Some people have a solid sense of direction. I don’t. I have to allow extra time to get lost. When I join a walking tour (and I happen to love walking tours) I have to figure out how to get to the meeting place.
You also realize that people outside the US seem remarkably self-sufficient. They figure things out. They even open their own train doors. They walk fast.
They don’t always speak English. Hungarians love to speak a language that’s difficult to learn and spoken by few. My phone charger cord was damaged in Budapest. The store staff barely spoke English but they figured out the problem and sold me just what I needed and no more. Another customer who spoke excellent English helped translate.
But it’s scary getting lost in an unfamiliar part of town, tired and sore, and realizing there’s absolutely no way to ask for help. The directions say “Catch the 123 bus” but don’t say where to find the stop.
I’m in great shape. I walk a lot. And I get tired.
I googled “travel fatigue.” Lots of discussions came up on Reddit and elsewhere. I was shocked to learn that some people don’t leave their hotel rooms for days.
I’ve done a ton of travel over many years. I traveled all over the US on business by planes, trains automobiles. I’ve lost track of the number of trips I’ve taken overseas, mostly vacation.
Here are 3 tips I reviewed on my most recent trip. I’d love to hear if you agree or have another perspective.
(1) Get to know your travel style and your limits.
I have a friend who spends a full month on every single trip. She goes nonstop the entire time. She says she can go full speed for about 2 weeks before needing a break. Her idea of a break? A walk in the park. Literally. I.e., more walking.
Some people can’t handle more than 5 days. Some can go three months.
There’s no point in going past your limit. You’ll be too exhausted to take anything in and you’ll waste time.
Some people like to go on a tour or cruise. Some hire a personal guide. If you’re single, these options become challenging. Tour operators and cruises charge a single supplement, which can be significant. Some enjoy the companionship of fellow travelers; some feel trapped.
I met a woman in her fifties who happily asked the tour operator to pair her with a roommate – a total stranger – on every cruise. Others (like me) say it’s like paying for a prison term.
Be honest with yourself. On my last trip, I realized how much I hate getting lost. Next trip I’m hiring more private guides and taking more taxis.
Tom Kuegler argues that you enjoy travels when you have to work for the rewards. He says you remember the struggles.
Not for me. It’s like what I hear about childbirth. I forget the frustrations of getting lost, the lines at the airport, the stairs, and the sore feet. As soon as I get home I’m planning the next experience.
(2) Plan for downtime.
It took me a few trips to realize that downtime can be an essential part of your travel experience. Sitting in a coffee shop or sipping water on a park bench, you’re doing something you couldn’t do at home. I like people-watching on city streets. In Prague and Budapest, I visited the cat cafe for some downtime with cats and local color.
How much downtime? That’s something to learn as you travel.
(3) Set priorities based on your interests(and be ruthless).
For a long time,I planned my trips around art museums. I’ve studied art history. I get a great deal of value from my time looking at art.
I have a friend who’s just not interested in art. He doesn’t visit museums when he’s home. At first, he’d visit museums but soon realized he’d rather do something else.
I’m that way about music. I do attend some “classical-lite” concerts where they play things like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I never learned about opera and it would be wasted on me. So would gourmet food: I’m not a foodie so a 4-star restaurant doesn’t make sense.
It’s okay to say “That’s not for me.” And it’s okay to focus your trip around a theme.
When you try to enjoy what you “should,” you waste time and annoy others. I would totally understand someone who visited Paris and skipped the Louvre. If you’re not into art, you’re just looking at framed images.
Some tourists respond by taking pictures of what they “should” enjoy. There’s no reason to walk around a room, glancing at each object for a few seconds and taking photos. You lose the immediacy and texture.
I take a few photos of objects I want to learn about later or remember especially. But I spend a lot of time on objects I like. I’ll make time to go to a special exhibit rather than look at something that “everybody” says I should do.
The bottom line: Don’t wait to travel. It’s not something to save for retirement. Start as early as you can afford, so you’ll get to know your travel style and establish priorities. Don’t waste time on things you think you “should” do.
You might decide you want to do more independent travel. You might welcome the challenges of scheduling and sore feet. You might decide you’ll only travel if you can afford to pay for pampering and skip the challenge parts. Occasionally, you decide travel isn’t for you and you’d rather do something else.
For me, I rate a trip as “successful” when I find myself changed after getting home. Do I gravitate to certain books? Do I want to learn more about something? Do I enjoy doing things I used to avoid or vice versa? And how fast do I forget the sore feet and the frustrations and start planning the next one?