I was one lucky son of a gun: 22 years old, graduating college, accepted to medical school. I had an airline ticket (thank you, generous aunt and uncle), a Eurorail pass (thank you, savings from college gig as a Sunday school teacher), and a ginormous new Eagle Creek backpack bought on sale (if only I’d known to travel carry-on, or that used is the new black).
The catch: I’d never traveled solo before. I recruited a close friend to accompany me, only to have him cancel a couple of months beforehand. I was excited, intimidated, and clueless.
Then I found the book that changed everything: Europe Through the Back Door, by Rick Steves. His philosophy of frugal, local experiences that minimized the separation between you and the culture you are visiting resonated with my immigrant parents’ mindset of always seeking out value. His chapter on packing light, complete with a photo of the entire contents of his emptied out backpack, was inspiring and laid the foundation for becoming someone who will only travel carry-on (and, to this day, continues to travel carry-on with kids!).
Finally, here was someone who balanced a calm demeanor with the passion of someone who deeply cares about getting to know new people and places. He created itineraries for travel and pared down essentials to avoid the trap of over-scheduling. He emphasized a mindset that was open to unscripted experiences, and met the inevitable difficulties with laughter and resiliency. He endorsed the use of guidebooks to optimize housing, minimize logistical snafus (what, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays?), quickly orient to a new city, and consider transport and meals in advance.
He even devised some original safety suggestions that continue to keep me out of harm’s way. Among my favorites: in the rare event you must walk a sketchy stretch of terrain alone at night in a foreign city, rumple and untuck your clothes, adopt the most psychotic twitch and menacing limp you can muster, and mumble unintelligibly as you walk. More than once, following this advice has repelled unwanted attention.
Thanks to Rick’s philosophy, I landed in Poland while my big checked backpack ended up in Germany and I was still able to enjoy the three day wait for my belongings without stressing. I traveled solo for over two months without ever being alone: I kept company with Australians and a New Zealander in Warsaw (it took half a day to realize the Kiwi was speaking English!), Spaniards in Italy, Canadians in Greece, and an attractive trio of women from the U.K., Portugal and Spain in Paris. People who had not thought to plan out their trips were more than happy to join me in my adventures and grateful to follow my itinerary, and the joy of this experience made me into a devout independent traveler.
Thank you, Rick Steves, for developing my appetite and aptitude for independent travel in equal measure.