Travel: How to turn your vacation into a journey
How does a trip become a journey?
It's a question I've been mulling while riding the rails in the Scottish Highlands lately, and I think there is a difference. A trip, or a vacation, means physically going some place. But a journey implies more; it's all about change physical, mental, emotional or whatever. A journey leaves a lasting impression.
Creating thought-provoking, meaningful experiences on a tight budget and schedule isn't easy, but for those who want them, there are ways to do it.
Flying "open jaw" and riding the rails • When I arrived in England I knew two things: I had to get to Edinburgh within a week and half and I wasn't exactly sure how to do that. The result was that I had to do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions, forcing me to meet more people and get the most out of my trip. The harder I worked, the greater the reward.
The best way I've discovered to force this experience is to fly "open jaw," or into one airport and out of another. Though this approach sometimes costs slightly more than a traditional round-trip ticket, it saves vast amounts of time because you only ever move in one direction there's no time-consuming and costly backtracking. It also guarantees that you'll see at least two cities, as well as whatever lies between them.
In Europe, a rail pass makes a good companion to any open-jaw trip. Eurail passes cover most countries in Europe and comes in an array of options and durations.
For my current trip, I'm riding with a Britrail pass, which lets me hop on any train in the UK without a reservation or bothering with ticket lines. I just show up to a station, look at my options on the electronic board and walk onto the train.
Probably the most important thing to remember with rail passes is that they're typically designed for foreign travelers so you need to buy them before the trip.
Plan extensively, then be spontaneous • As I walked around London recently someone called out to me from the street. Probably because I live on the west side of downtown Salt Lake City, where panhandlers abound, I'm accustomed to ignoring anyone on the street. I kept walking.
But my travel companions stopped and listened. As it turned out, the man was advertising a free comedy show, which after a moment of hesitation we decided to attend. We descended into a dark basement bar with low ceilings and a crowd of locals. Soon, we were listening to a young comic experiment with new material he had written on a piece of paper. It was hilarious and also a little heartwarming, and unlike anything I'd ever done as a tourist in London before.
I spent nearly a year planning my trip to the UK booking flights, buying rail passes, researching lodging but I always have to remind myself to be open new experiences like hole-in-the-wall comedy clubs that inevitably turn out to be trip highlights. The same goes for religious services, old ruins and other things I might happen across; the new discovery is usually the thing do explore.
I think of it like this: planning puts me in the right places at the right times, or at least gives me the tools to get to them, but what happens during the day is up in the air. Finding an interesting new friend or a beautiful old castle that I never anticipated is sort of the whole point.
Accept failure • Soon after being awe-struck by a remote castle in Scotland, I rode the train to several small villages trying to find other hidden and awe-inspiring highland destinations.
And for a day I failed. The towns weren't charming, the hikes seemed ordinary and there just wasn't much to do. It was frustrating because we were in a magical land but, in the words of one of my travel companions, "it wasn't any worse than an average day in Cedar Hills." That wasn't the standard I had in mind for this trip!
But after experiences like that I always have to remind myself that, yes, travel has its ups and downs as well. I travel with a loose schedule and an expectation of finding the unexpected. That inevitably means some things work better than others. The payoff, however, is tremendous because in the end it's not just a trip, it's a journey.
If you go
Open jaw • Anyone can piece together an open jaw flight, but I've found that I get the very best deals using a travel agent. I use the travel office at my old alma mater, Brigham Young University, which is available to all alumni. If you don't have a trusted agent already, try checking with your employer, school or other affiliated organization to see if they have a knowledgeable expert who regularly buys tickets at a discount.