Tomorrow Hamdah and I fly out to Milan for a short break from England and responsibilities. (Don’t worry, we’re all caught up!) It’s going to be our 5th trip together this year. Just in case you missed it, we travelled to Lisbon, Nice, Monaco and Amsterdam earlier this year – hey, remember to check out #pawdahtravelz 😉
Initially, I didn’t have any plans for another trip but pushed by stress, we decided to book it last month! 2017 has been a year of growth towards my more spontaneous side! (Like that trip to New York 😂)
Darren’s adventures mirror Matt’s in a way that they have both been solo-travelling. Although I’m much more confident with travelling now, I don’t know if I would ever travel to a different country alone but listening to their stories have sparked a potential in the future!
Ah, hey Darren! Thanks for doing a little feature on my blog today, really appreciated it 🤗 So to start, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi Pauline! 👋 Thanks for having me on your blog – super excited to be writing this as I’m still fairly new to the blogging scene! I’m a recent Computer Science with Maths graduate from the University of Sheffield; as I love Sheffield, the university and the Code First Girls community so much, I decided to stick around and work for the university again, now as a research software engineer at the AMRC looking into applications of Augmented/Virtual Reality in engineering and other areas such as in healthcare!
I’m always super excited to hear about your adventures when you went away. I recall our conversation on solo-travelling and I don’t know if you remember how shocked I was to hear that you travelled alone – something I can’t even picture myself doing (yet!) Where were your solo travels?
Yes – I remember very well that each time I told you about my adventures when we have a catch-up, you would always give me that look as if I’m the craziest person in the world! 😂 Honestly, it’s not as bad as people think and in fact, I find it quite liberating!
My very first solo trip was around four years ago when I volunteered through AIESEC as an English teaching assistant for six weeks in a summer camp located in a small village called Vimbodí in Tarragona, a city in Catalonia! Since I had time off during the weekends, and what the other English teachers did weren’t my cup of tea, it spurred me on to do my own little trips around Spain as at the time, I thought I probably won’t be back again for some time so I need to make the most of my free time while I was there! In that six weeks, I managed to see a lot of Catalonia including mostly Barcelona, Girona and Tarragona, the city the summer camp was in. By some sheer luck and super last-minute planning, I even managed to squeeze a weekend trip further afield to Valencia! If you are visiting Valencia, I suggest you check out L’Oceanogràfic as there are some super cute penguins there! 🐧 If that’s not your thing, there’s a science museum literally right next door to where L’Oceanogràfic is.
Other solo trips I’ve done include a week andhalf visit to Budapest in Hungary back in 2014, having met and talked to a Hungarian local from the Couchsurfing travel app for some time – I’ll say more about that in your later question. It sounds crazy, right? 🤔 I was maybe a little naive, had a lot of faith in people and luckily it all went well 🙏! Apart from just seeing Budapest alone, we travelled together for a few days too where I got to see the neighbouring cities/town (the hidden gems!) around Budapest; we even managed to squeeze two day trips out to Innsbruck in Austria and Munich in Germany!
Later on the same year, I also went to Cork in Ireland for just under a week to catch up with one of the teacher I met in the summer camp mentioned above. I totally recommend paying a visit there as it’s so green and it really reminded me of Sheffield in that regards!
After that, because my dissertation and third year in uni literally took over my life 😭, I practically took a year off from travelling. However, as an avid traveller, the hiatus never quite shook off my travel bugs!
So earlier this year, I found my spontaneous streak again and decided to go on a two-week solo Interrail trip around Europe, covering Amsterdam (the Netherlands), Copenhagen (Denmark), Prague (Czechia, as they are now known), Krakow, Katowice (both in Poland) and finished off in Bratislava, Slovenia. The route looks a bit strange if you plot those cities on a map, but long stories short… I couldn’t make my mind up at the time between exploring Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, so that was my best attempt to try and get the best of both worlds. 😂
— Darren (@MrDarrenV) July 14, 2017
As if the Interrail trip wasn’t enough… I was lucky to discover that I had a few days off as annual leave which I had to use up before September, and as I also worked out that if I used those days during the week when there was a Bank Holiday, it was enough to allow me to have the whole week off. Armed with that knowledge, my spontaneous streak struck again and as I had just a tinge of regret for not visiting Scandinavia in my Interrail trip, I decided to visit Stockholm and Oslo (where I also managed to catch up briefly with some Norwegian friends I made in my earlier Interrail trip) for that week! Both cities were amazing, although Stockholm just about edged it for me with those gorgeous views, as well as their awesome subway! I haven’t fully explored the subway network myself, but each stop is artistic and unique, so definitely worth checking out!
Which was your favourite place to travel (so far) and why?
This is a really tricky and contentious one, but if I have to choose… it has to be Barcelona, mainly because it was my very first solo travel destination. I think as with everything, first-time experiences are always more memorable (and luckily in this case, in a positive manner) and so Barcelona will always have a special place in my heart. Apart from that, needless to mention the lovely weather, the food and drink (did I tell you I’m a big fan of paella?) and the people 🔥 💖
Could you share your favourite photo from your adventure?
My favourite has to be the sunset photo I took recently from Stockholm! It was probably right up there as one of the best scenic photos I’ve taken. 📸
Do you have one funny story you can share from one of your adventures?
This is another tough one to whittle down, as there have been a few which have been memorable, but I think I have to choose the one that I told you already, even though it’s a bit embarrassing to the point that you told me that the story made it into your daily journal! 😳 Here’s how it goes…
At this point, I was about halfway through my two-week Interrail trip that I mentioned earlier. As I had this crazily ambitious plan to go from Copenhagen to Prague within a day – which took a little over 12 hours, so definitely not something I’d recommend – I had to be up from 5:30am just so I can get to the station in time to catch the first of the two trains I needed, which left at 7am. It was quite an ordeal as by that point, admittedly the lack of good quality sleep started to catch up with me slowly then.
Anyway, my tiredness (that I still blame as I’m writing this) which led to this funny incident only because the first train, which took me from Copenhagen to Hamburg, wasn’t like any ordinary train; when it approached the Danish-German border towards the sea between Rødby and Puttgarden respectively, the train DROVE ONTO A FERRY (can you tell I was hyped? 😭) and once it’s on the ferry, you have to leave the train for around 45 minutes. Having to leave the train meant that I had to take important belongings with me such as my Interrail pass. The novelty of going on the ferry from the train also meant that I was a bit carried away and at some unknown time during the journey, I DROPPED MY INTERRAIL PASS on the ferry. Now pause just for a moment – this could have easily been the point where the rest of my trip would have been ruined.
Around 10 minutes before I had to go back onto the train, the ferry staff announced on the speakers asking for someone with a name which sounded like mine to go and find them at the Information Point. Now, I said that it sounded like my name for two reasons: first of all, as I was in the toilet doing my business at the time 💩😳, the speakers weren’t sounding as clear as they were if I were on the main ferry; secondly, since Darren isn’t my legal name (and I’ll leave you guessing as to what that is 😉), and yet I adopted it for so long that practically everyone calls me that, I simply wasn’t used to being called by my legal name! Luckily, I wasn’t THAT tired (and dumb…) so that when they said the name for the second time, I realised it was me, spoke to the staff and found that… THEY GOT MY PASS! A fairy-tale ending which could have ended terribly otherwise. 😇
Did you run into any challenges? How did you overcome them?
The number one challenge has to be getting lost, which I think it’s natural for anyone going into a new country. Having said that, I don’t see it as a bad thing though, as I always find that being lost is often the best way to discover and experience the vibe in your new surrounding! With the advent of technology nowadays and the good old roaming charge ban in the EU, shopping online has never been easier and so the challenge has largely been overcome by using Google Maps! In countries where Google Maps doesn’t seem to know much of (such as in Slovakia), the challenge was largely overcome from being open to ask people for help in any opportunities possible – people in your hostel, in the restaurant, in the street etc.
Despite an increasing number of people being able to speak English, especially those in our generation, that still can’t be fully relied on and so language barrier remains to be another challenge. The key thing to remember though is that languages are only one method of communication, so when that doesn’t work… the best way I found to overcome it is to resort to something more primitive, namely lots of hand gesture! Speaking slowly and clearly using short, simple English words may also help as some of them may be cognate words, so the person you’re talking to may be able to guess what you are trying to say!
Getting a good quality night of sleep was also taxing at times, because of the noise (snorers are the worst!) from people around me in the room I slept in. There wasn’t much I can do to resolve this problem though, considering I was being a stinge and went for the most budget accommodation I can find 😂. A good old pair of earplugs did help to block out some noise to a level where I could sleep for some time.
What did you enjoy about travelling alone?
The freedom to do whatever I want in my own pace without necessarily a concrete plan! Even though I have really enjoyed the trips that I went on with others, in some occasions, there were still some conflict of interests where I wish I didn’t feel obliged to stick around to something I was perhaps less interested in, purely because I was with a group!
Apart from that, the ability to control my schedule also allowed some degree of spontaneity, as there were a few occasions on my solo trips where I completely scrapped something I planned or changed my plans on a whim, and I am glad I did as I met some awesome people along the way that I wouldn’t have otherwise! That would have been hard if I travelled with others as we’d have to coordinate our plans, and I would probably be less inclined to meet new people as it’s easier to stick with your own bubble of friends.
At the same time, if I were in a rush to visit places or just wanted some personal space, I could control that too. Once again, this would be tricky if I travelled in a group. As much as I liked the people I travelled with, there were times where I wish I could shut up, be in my own little world and not be judged for being unsociable!
What didn’t you like about travelling alone?
The fact that you have to be disciplined, be organised and book everything yourself, despite a theme of spontaneity in my responses throughout this feature! Despite the fact I enjoy travelling to a place when I didn’t even plan it, it is still nice sometimes to map out roughly the points of interest and places to go. Having other people to talk through and exchange ideas with would have helped for any of the trips I did!
Even though I mentioned above that travelling alone practically gives you the freedom to choose whether to be sociable or not, occasionally it does feel a bit lonely as there were times I wish I could have someone to share the moment with and take the odd photos – selfies gets a bit boring if you don’t have different kind of photos to go with in your album to mix it up. This became even more challenging when I was short on time in certain places due to my spontaneous nature and so the lack of a thorough plan. As a result, there were little time to socialise and meet other travellers to overcome the problem.
What are your three top tips for those people who want to travel alone?
- Bring a portable charger so you can always charge your phone safely, since there are some hostels where plugs aren’t right next to your bed. This is more likely to be the case if you are a stinge like me when booking your accommodation;
- Go with an open mind, and try go to meetings which are a bit out of your comfort zone! A simple example would be that if you are a teetotaller, don’t be put off if a meeting happens in a pub or a bar (except nightclubs, they are terrible for meeting people!), since you can still talk to people there without having any alcoholic drinks! In all meetings I went along, there were no point in time where I felt I was pressured to drink if I didn’t want to. If that does happen (which it occasionally does), it’s easy to make up an excuse (“I need to go to the toilet… brb”) and leave since you probably never see them again, if you don’t choose to stay in touch!
- Apart from the usual tourist spots, explore outside of that and off the “beaten path” too, because let’s face it, those places in most big cities will be similar, so you haven’t experienced the real culture of the country if you only stay in what I’d called the tourist traps! Try to speak and interact with locals too if you can, for example through your Airbnb host, to get a even better flavour of a place as well as any hidden gems you may not find from a simple Google search!
Since you’re such a techie haha, could you share your favourite apps that you found useful whilst you were abroad?
- Google Translate – for bridging the language barrier, especially when trying to buy food in the supermarket and you have no clue what the heck it is!
- Couchsurfing – this is hands down my favourite one! It’s a hospitality service where travellers may get to stay with a local host for free in exchange of cultural experiences! Even though I haven’t been so lucky on that, the “Hangout” feature in the app was still a very cool way to meet fellow travellers based on GPS location.
- Meetup – this seems to be growing in popularity recently, especially around Europe, and so may be useful to meet locals too as you can find events based on interests.
- Booking.com – a controversial one, especially for those who prefer Hostelworld, but I like Booking.com more due to the ability to cancel your bookings for free directly in the app/on their website, as opposed to having to call up the hostels/hotels yourself.
- Swarm – as recently recommended by yourself and Matt to record all the places you’ve been to (and collect all dem coins 💰 even though they seem a bit useless at the minute 😆)!