Greetings from Ireland, fellow travelers! This is your former Cluster copy-editor Brittani Howell, and for the next three months I’ll be your foreign correspondent from the UK as I study at Oxford University in England. For years I’ve listened to the stories of friends who have studied abroad, and I know how much those stories influenced me to do it for myself. It’s my hope that this column will provide helpful advice for when you decide to study abroad or go backpacking, or at least that it will provide you with some entertainment of a foreign flavor.
I’m actually writing this to you from a bus traveling cross-country from Galway to Dublin. We—that is, my friend and fellow Mercerian Sean Rayburn, and I—have just finished up a tour to the Cliffs of Moher, which you probably saw most recently in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The excursion has rounded off our week of backpacking Ireland, and we have crammed more into this week than we could have expected. Armed only with a Eurail Pass and a healthy curiosity, we’ve crossed the country twice and seen every kind of geographical feature Ireland has to offer, in addition to battlefields, cathedrals, museums, and Neolithic burial tombs that pre-date Stonehenge. Our strategy has, essentially, been to fly by the seat of our pants and go anywhere that looks remotely interesting. Sean and I have learned that we’re amateurs when it comes to this kind of travel, but a week on the road has been an excellent education in the basics of backpacking. Here are some of the tips we’ve picked up so far: Pack light. Yes, I know you’ve heard that tip before, but let’s face it, you probably won’t heed it when the time comes. The fact is, you only really need three or four sets of clothes, the essential toiletries, and a towel. Most hostels have an inexpensive laundry service for when you really can’t stand smelling yourself anymore, but the fact is that most of the people you’ll be interacting with are doing the same thing you are. All backpackers end up looking a little rough. You won’t be judged too harshly.
Be prepared. On the flip side, you’re going to want to have your bases covered. Bringing clothes that you can layer is advisable, especially if your chosen country has volatile weather (like Ireland). I suggest investing in good walking shoes, one thick sweater, and a rain jacket.
Food. You probably don’t need as much as you think, but don’t become undernourished for the sake of pinching a penny. Grocery stores have pre-made or deli sandwiches for a decently cheap price, along with breakfast pastries. If you plan on staying in one place for three or more days, you might do well to cook in the hostel, if it has a kitchen. In Dublin, at least, it’s been pretty easy to eat out for six Euros or less per meal. And it never hurts to bring a little food of your own, too. I brought a box of oatmeal with me, and it’s come in handy more than once. (A tip: If you want to bring peanut butter, put it in your check luggage during the flight. I didn’t, and they took my peanut butter, and I was sad.)
Don’t be afraid to walk. Public transportation can be expensive, but in some cities it’s actually unnecessary. Dublin, for instance, is so compact that you don’t need to use a bus once if you don’t want to. Don’t overexert yourself—Sean and I ill-advisedly traversed half the city on the first day, and we were dog-tired the next—but check out what sights you can reach by foot before you hop on a train.
Bring your student ID. Museums, tour companies, and historical sights like castles will give you excellent discounts for entry if you bring your student ID.
Be flexible. It’s not a tragedy if you miss your train, your flight, or your ferry. If your best-laid plans do go awry, just remember: you’re in that elusive Elsewhere to which we’re all itching to go. There’s always something to see or learn anywhere you go, if only you’re willing to seek it out. So make the best of your unexpected layovers.