On this week’s indie traveller interview, I’m chatting with fellow travel blogger Sofie Couwenbergh. It so happens that today is also Sofie’s birthday, so before we begin, I’d like to wish her a big happy birthday—Hartelijk gefeliciteerd, Sofie!
Sofie is a Belgian language lover and travel aficionada who combines a full-time job with freelance writing and blogging. She uses her weekends, vacation days and public holidays to travel the world and share her experiences with you on her blog Wonderful Wanderings. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and Facebook or connect with her on Google+.
1) How would you define independent travel and how do you feel it differs from how most people view travel?
For me independent travel is any kind of travel that involves doing your own planning and organizing. It might include taking a day tour somewhere, but traveling independently, for me, means that you book your own flights, seek out and book your own accommodation, make your own planning of what to see and do and so on.
I find it a bit strange that you ask me how I feel that differs from how most people view travel. It is as if you presume that ‘most people’ view travel as something that happens through travel agencies and at all-Inclusive resorts.
To be honest, I don’t think there is a way ‘most people’ view travel. I think travel is something really personal in which we make compromises when we do it together with someone else.
I also don’t think that you are either an independent traveller or not. I think there are many gradations of ‘independent’ travel and I think most people move across that spectrum with the different trips they do.
For instance, my dad absolutely loves travel planning. He’d worked out the entire itinerary for a three-week trip to Canada he did with my mom. He searched out the best flights, booked the hotels, got a rental car, created an itinerary et cetera. They had a blast.
In February they’re going to Gambia for a week, just to catch some sun and nice weather during winter. That trip will be fully organized by a travel agency. I’m sure they won’t enjoy it more or less because of that. It’s just another way of traveling that’s more suited for what they want to achieve with this trip, which is enjoying the warmth and relaxing.
2) Could you tell us a little about your first independent travel experience?
My parents wouldn’t let me travel abroad alone until I was 18, but as my birthday is in February I could immediately start planning a summer getaway when I turned 18.
A friend and I went to Barcelona for six days. We arranged our flights, booked a hostel and had an amazing time. The hostel was actually pretty crappy and it rained during more than half of our stay, but we got to know a bunch of cool people at our hostel and explored the city following both our guide book and our feeling.
I recently went back to Barcelona with my boyfriend, who’d never been there before. I still loved it, and I’m glad he did as well.
3) How has your trip planning changed since you first started travelling?
Well this is actually pretty strange. After that first independent trip I kept on planning my own travels, except for the first years (!) my boyfriend and I were together.
I don’t know why. I think we wanted to ‘play it safe’ or something, but we actually booked our summer holiday through a travel agency several years in a row and we always went to ‘typical’ destinations like Corfu, Zakynthos, the South of Spain and Rhodes.
That trip to Rhodes wasn’t a success, however and we decided that we’d (read: I’d) plan everything ourselves from then on.
Since then we’ve been to the Basque Country, Portugal and Barcelona and we didn’t kill each other.
4) What do you feel is the number one travel planning pitfall for first-time travellers to avoid?
I often notice that people try to plan too much in a short period of time. It’s not bad if you have a lot of possible to do’s on your list so that you can pick one you feel like at the moment. Some things might also be a bit disappointing and then you’ll be glad that you have a back-up plan.
But often you’ll also discover things that aren’t on your planning and it’s a shame if you can’t explore those further because you don’t have the time.
I always make daily plannings, but I also always divert from them. I just make them to know what my options are and what I have to take into account to do something (opening hours, transportation possibilities etc.).
5) What is the number one lesson you’ve learned through your travels? How has travel changed the way you view the world?
That I need to be the same person at home as when I’m traveling.
For some reason I always hold back more at home. I’m much more quickly afraid of something. When I’m traveling I feel much more free. I don’t know if it’s really a lesson, but I definitely want to be more the person I am when I’m traveling all the time.
Does that make sense?
Maybe one other thing travel has taught me and that’s related to my previous remark, is that it’s so important to surround yourself with positive people. People who are pessimistic or don’t believe in what you’re doing or where you’re trying to go will only hold you back and demotivate you. You don’t need that.
Travel has made me much more aware of what’s going on beyond the things they show you on the news. It’s made me feel more ‘engaged’ and part of the world, in a way.
6) Unlike many other travel bloggers who are permanent travellers, you’ve chosen to base yourself in your home country of Belgium. Do you have any tips for people who want to travel abroad more but are uninterested in becoming perpetual “90-day expats”? What can people do to maximize their vacation days?
Phew, that’s a very broad question and I could take pages to answer that, but I’ll try to keep it short.
- At the end of the year try to think of where you definitely want to go the year after. That way you can already calculate how many days you’ll need for that and how many days you’ll have left for something else.
- Look at public holidays and other special occasions that might prolong your weekends and give you extra time off.
- Save your vacation days for travel. Last year I’ve spent all of my vacation days on travel besides maybe two. One I needed for medical stuff and one for my birthday. I always take a day off on my birthday and last year I actually visited Antwerp that day.
- Treasure your weekends. There’s a lot you can do in two days.
- You don’t have to go far to travel. Belgium, where I live, is such a small country and yet there’s so much I haven’t seen yet. If you only have weekends left, spend them exploring things that are just a train ride or a drive away.
- Research your trips thoroughly so that you won’t have to stress about anything while you’re traveling. Research how to get to the places you want to visit, research opening times, print out maps, take a guide book with you, find hotels in practical locations…
7) Elsewhere you’ve mentioned that you have a passion for dancing. Has that passion ever driven you to visit places or experience things that other independent travellers might not think of?
Well, I’m sure someone else would think of going to Los Angeles as well, but dance was my main reason to spend two weeks in Los Angeles in 2012. I knew several people who’d been there to take dance classes and they are were so positive about it that I just had to go there too.
It was a big trip for me. Crossing the ocean with a friend I’d never traveled with before, to a big city I’d once only spent one evening in with my parents.
I absolutely loved it.
8) On Wonderful Wanderings, you often talk about travelling close to home. Living in a beautiful and compact country like Belgium, the opportunities would seem endless. But what advice would you have for people wanting to travel closer to home and discover new local destinations while living in places like the United States or Canada where distances are sizeable and tourist attractions aren’t as obvious as they would be in places like Asia or Europe?
To be honest, I don’t see a lot of difference between Europe and the US in this respect. Yes, they are two completely different continents and Europe has its rich history which might indeed make for ‘obvious’ tourist attractions, but the idea of traveling close to home can be applied anywhere. Just take a map, take your home as the centre and then draw a circle around your home that resembles about 200 kilometres.
Now just look at everything you could visit inside that circle. There’s so much! There will be towns you haven’t gone to yet, museums you haven’t visited yet and parks that are just waiting for you to take a walk in them.
Even if you live on the edge of a large nature reserve which means that there’s nothing else besides that reserve to the left of where your home is on the map, that still means you have a whole lot of nature reserve to explore.
You know the clichéd expression that the grass is always greener on the other side? I think that definitely applies to travel as well. Europeans love to go to the States and Canada for the amazing nature, the vast areas of nothing but green, desert-like landscapes or snow.
People from North America, on the other hand, love that they can visit 10 cities in 10 days in Europe. (That’s not what they should do, of course, but it can be done.)
The mere fact that people from all over the world are traveling to everywhere else in the world, means that there’s something worthwhile everywhere, you just have to open your eyes to it.