How traveling with 50 strangers changed my life

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I wanted to write this post to coincide with the anniversary of a defining moment in my life. I've had a few defining moments, some good and some not so good, but this is about a good one. Seven years ago this week I boarded a plane by myself to go on a journey that would show me what I was made of.

There are a lot of posts out there about how travel has changed lives, and that's because it does. I've yet to meet someone who's traveled and hasn't been changed by it. Travel broadens our perspectives in ways nothing else can.

Typically when you read about how travel has changed someone, it's not a story about someone who has lived a very sheltered life and then all of a sudden decides to up and leave the country by themselves for almost three weeks.

Traveling solo can be scary for anyone, but it was especially scary for me. I knew that I was pushing my boundaries and obliterating my comfort zone, but I also knew that I had to do it anyway because it meant too much to me not to. I was more afraid of how I would feel if I didn't do it. So off I went.

My Story

For as long as I can remember I've always been interested in traveling. I used to watch travel shows on television and try to learn what I could about other places, with the hopes of visiting one day. I was particularly interested in Europe. It was my dream to go there.

Most of the travel I had done in my life was with my parents, who weren't big travelers. We used to go to places that we could easily drive to. It was nice but I always wanted more.

One year I had the opportunity to travel with some other relatives and go on a plane for the first time. I didn't hesitate to jump at that opportunity. We went to Florida and it was great to go to a different part of the country. That trip firmly planted the travel bug in me.

It took me about 10 years to take my solo trip after this trip. I knew that as badly as I wanted to turn my dream of going to Europe into a reality, I wasn't quite old enough yet and I needed to save up some money.

In the meantime I continued my fascination with traveling to Europe by learning what I could from the comfort of my own home. I did take more small trips with my parents as well as taking a trip for work with a fellow coworker.

Seven years ago, right before I was going to start grad school, I realized the time was now or never. I remember going online and researching tour groups and different itineraries. I found an itinerary that I liked with a group that targeted those 18-35 years old. I knew this was the trip for me.

But it wasn't easy...

I remember telling my parents about it but they didn't think I was serious about actually doing it. When they realized I was, they kind of freaked out, especially my mother.

My mother was very overprotective of me and wanted me to stay safe. I felt like she was being a naysayer, and I had to do this for myself. I thought about it for a little bit and then I booked the trip. I was going to be going off to Europe by myself to join up with 50 strangers.

I booked probably 6 months in advance so the waiting was tough, but I used that time to prepare. When the day came I was as ready as I was going to be. I was excited and I was able to keep my nerves under control. I think if I had allowed myself to be nervous, I never would have gone through with it. And this wasn't easy for me because I had a history of anxiety.

After my overnight transatlantic flight I landed in London the next morning. I navigated my way to my hotel and then it hit me - I was alone!

I had requested to share a room with another solo traveler but that wasn't going to begin until the actual trip began. This was a bus trip and it didn't officially start until the next morning. We were having a meetup that night, but in the meantime I was on my own.

I almost went back home...

My anxiety was no longer under control and I experienced the most intense homesickness I ever have. I called my mom and told her how I was feeling and that I didn't know what to do, which only made things worse for her. I seriously considered going back home at that point. But I gave myself the rest of the day since the tour wasn't leaving yet.

I recognized that I needed to distract myself until that evening so I hopped on a sightseeing bus and checked out the city. That helped me out for a few hours and I got to see all the famous Big Ben

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Then I met two girls on that bus who were also going on the same trip as me. This made me feel better, but I was still not convinced that I should stay. At the meetup that night I talked to the tour organizers about how I felt, and they encouraged me to stay. They told me that I would probably be the one who ended up having the most fun.

After getting some sleep that night, I got on that bus in the morning and off we went on our journey to visit 10 countries in 18 days.

It still wasn't easy...

By now you're probably thinking that it should be smooth sailing from here on out, right? That I'm technically no longer alone and that this should be fun now? Well, that's what I thought, but I was wrong.

I couldn't shake the anxiety and doubt I was feeling. Luckily I kept a journal of the trip where I documented these feelings. I looked back at them the other day and I couldn't believe how many times I thought about bailing. At one point I did look at flights, but lucky for me they were cost prohibitive.

To make a long story a little bit shorter, I will just say that I calmed down after a few days and I began having fun. What didn't help matters was that I got a nasty cold about halfway through that gave me a new reason to want to go home early. But I didn't. I stuck it out and because of that I have this post for you today.

I learned a lot of lessons from this trip, and they're lessons that anyone could benefit from.

Lessons Learned
  • Travel will take you out of your comfort zone.  I was definitely out of my comfort zone with this trip. I was 3,000+ miles from home and on a different continent when the farthest I had been away from home alone before was probably within 100 miles driving distance. I was sheltered, I was an introvert, and I wasn't good at making friends, so this was a challenge for me.
  • You can make friends anywhere.  The trip may have started out with 50 strangers on a bus together, but at the end of those two and a half weeks we were all friends. There was a group within the group that I spent most of my time with and I really owe it to a couple of them for getting me through the tough times. I started this journey alone but I didn't finish it that way.
  • You will find out what you are made of.  I learned that I was a lot stronger than I thought. I learned that I could overcome my anxiety and feelings of homesickness. I learned that I could be independent. And last but not least, I learned that I could rely on others if I needed to and even develop friendships with them.
  • Traveling makes the world smaller.  I wasn't sure what to expect in these foreign countries. I didn't speak another language and I didn't know the customs, but I learned that even though we may speak different languages or have different customs, we're all just human beings trying to live our lives the best way we know how. When you travel, the world doesn't seem so big and scary anymore.
  • Travel will change you (if you let it).  I almost didn't give the trip of my dreams a chance because of fear, and if I hadn't then I know my life would look a little different today. I would probably still let anxiety control me and I would be less independent if I hadn't worked through it.
  • Travel empowers you.  This trip made me more confident in my abilities. Even though I traveled with a group, I still had to do some things myself. The biggest was getting myself to London to meet up with everyone else. I've been back to Europe once since this trip for my honeymoon. I felt so confident from my previous trip that we traveled completely by ourselves and I was basically the tour guide this time around.
  • You will become more relaxed and laid-back.  I've always been a pretty laid back person, but since this trip I am even more so. I've learned to relax and take life a little less seriously. You might say I've adopted a more European style of living. Europeans definitely take relaxation more seriously than we tend to here in the States, and I think we could learn a thing or two from being that way.
  • You'll become open to trying new things.  After overcoming all of the challenges I faced with this trip, I felt like there was nothing I couldn't face anymore. Right after I got back from the trip, I was living on my own for the first time. I had some challenges to overcome with that as well, but thinking back to the trip got me through those.
Final Thoughts

While this post has been about my trip to Europe and how that changed me, it's really meant to be an inspiration for anyone who is afraid to face their fears. Seven years ago I did something that was unfathomable to me five years before then. But in order to overcome my past I kept pushing myself.

This trip was one of the biggest challenges I put myself through, and I am so grateful that I did. Some of you might think that it doesn't seem like a very enjoyable trip if I was so anxious and homesick, but what made it enjoyable was overcoming those feelings and knowing that I had made a dream of mine become a reality.

Sure, I would have preferred an easier experience, but would it have had the same effect on me? I certainly don't think so. The point is that we have to face our fears head on if we want what lies on the other side of them. 

Call me crazy, but I wouldn't change my experience for anything. The picture below shows what made it all worth it for me. Paris was the last stop on the trip and the place I was looking forward to the most.

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So did I have the most fun on the trip like the organizers predicted? Probably not, but I sure had an experience that I'll never forget, and one that will continue to get me through other challenges in the future.

What dream do you have that scares you? I'm not going to say that you should do it today or tomorrow, or even next year. I will say that you should make sure you do it while you still can, though. You owe it to yourself to find out what you are made of, because I think you'll find out that you're made of more than you think you are.

Leave a comment below letting me know what dream you're going to go after. I would love to hear about it!  
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