Why my first backpacking trip got off to an awful start

I was running around the Heathrow airport with my 80L backpack looking for anyone who could help me. My debit card and my credit card weren’t working and I had brought no cash to exchange. My American phone didn’t work abroad so I tried using pay phones to call home, the bank, anyone. What if I tried to reverse the charges? What if I called the toll-free numbers? Nothing. There was nothing around but an exchange office, so I went to the woman working there and asked her what she thought I should do. The first thing she said was, “You came alone?”

The trip of a lifetime was finally happening, and I wanted more than anything just to go home.

Let’s backtrack. The night before my trip, a bunch of friends had come over to drink and say goodbye. I should have been happy, I should have been ecstatic, but instead I felt deflated. For months, I had been beyond excited. Now that the time was coming to actually leave, I was wondering if I knew what the hell I was doing.

“You’re traveling alone?” (Yep.) “You’ll be gone for 3 months?” (Yep.) “Have you ever done this before?” (No.) “Have you ever left the country before?” (No.) “Have you ever taken a bus before?” (…No.)

“Aren’t you scared?” I hadn’t been, but hearing this over and over had slowly started to terrify me. Should I be?

“Aren’t you worried you’ll get taken?” No…wait, what?

So at this party I started telling people I didn’t want to go. I was going to cut the trip early.

I tossed and turned the whole night. The next day, I went to the bank and told them that I would be traveling abroad and wanted to make sure my cards would work. I had a great conversation with the woman that worked there, and in hindsight I’m wondering if she had been too distracted to actually put the travel note on my debit card. “Call your Visa, just in case.” I did.

I came home and my scam artist of a landlord came over threaten eviction because he was a small, angry man with no other outlet for his rage. Then my dad called and said we had to leave immediately, more than an hour earlier than planned. I hadn’t packed at all. I threw a bunch of random clothes in my backpack and ran out the door. We got on the highway–24 to 78, then followed the signs for the Newark Airport departures. I realized that I hadn’t even pictured this part of the journey. Whenever I had been planning the trip, I had already imagined myself as a well-seasoned traveler in Europe, never thinking of how long it would take me to get to that point.

I made a list of the things I had forgotten.

We said a hurried goodbye and I made my way over to the gate. I sat in the same chair for three hours, as the sun began to set and the waiting area filled with groups of families and friends speaking in lilted British accents. I became of how alone I was. I texted the boy I had been talking to, and he never responded.

We finally boarded the plane, and I was so nervous that I wanted to cry. I curled up against the window and tried to fall asleep. I was adamant about sticking to my shoestring budget and politely declined wine, only later realizing it was free. I did not sleep.

Red eye flights to Europe are the shortest nights. The setting of the sun was accelerated and before I knew it, it was pitch black outside. After a few hours, I could discern the outlines of clouds and the night sky faded to light blue. Then the sun started coming up and we were being served breakfast. When we were low enough to see the ground, I remember being surprised at how much green there was compared to the muddled grays and browns of landing in Newark Airport.

We landed and my backpack had arrived safe and sound. I was starting to feel better until I tried to withdraw money.

Error. I tried another ATM. Error. I tried yet another, then another. All of them gave me error pages. I tried to use a cash advance from my credit card–I was entitled to at least $1,000–and received the same error messages.

I felt a sinking weight in my chest. No, no, no. After trying to make all of those failed phone calls, it really hit me: I was thousands of miles away from anyone that knew me.

The woman at the exchange office looked at me exasperatedly as I came back again. “Look, you said you tried to withdraw money from your credit card, right? Try swiping it, get a ticket for the Tube, and go to a bank in London.”

And voila, I was on a train.

A lot of this could be attributed to being an unprepared idiot and listening to the dude on Thorn Tree who convinced me to arrive without cash, but as this was my first time traveling internationally I had no idea what I was doing. Nonetheless, this was not how I pictured the trip starting at all. I sat on the train feeling anxious and full of self-pity until we emerged out of the darkness and started passing by homes.

I looked up, shocked. The first thing I thought was, “It looks just like the movies.” Then: “Oh my god–I’m in London. I’m really, truly, finally here.” I got my head out of  my hands and sat back. Then, I started to smile.


  1. That sounds horrible! How did you solve it? I just booked my flights for my first extended solo adventure, it’s about 4.5 months from now and I already have little freak out moments about scenarios like this one. Note to self; make sure my cards work!
    But… In the end I guess this kind of thing teaches you that you can overcome pretty much anything. Good story :)

    • Haha if traveling has taught me anything, it’s that everything eventually works out. And call your banks TWICE, because the same thing happened to me yet again this year.

      I got into the city and bought a super cheap SIM card with credit and put it into my phone (which was unlocked for the trip). Then I was able to reach my parents and call them and they solved everything. But this summer I made the expensive call to the bank myself (from Spain) and asked them what the hell they were doing to me, lol. Sometimes when you make these big purchases for your trip (flights, tours) after being frugal all year they put a hold on your account–so even if you called to let them know you’d be abroad, there’s still a hold once you get there. So double check!!

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