Five years ago today, I set off on my first independent trip: a recent high school graduate, it was me, my best friend, our backpacks, and Europe. We spent exactly three weeks traveling around Ireland, Northern Ireland, and England. It was the trip of a lifetime! It made me love England more than I thought I ever could (and pushed me to eventually study abroad there for a year!), taught me innumerable life lessons, and of course, created wonderful memories with my best friend that I still look back on with a smile.

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Antrim Coast // Northern Ireland

While it was my school trip to Spain in 2010 that lit a fire under me and made me fall in love with travel, it was this independent trip in 2011 that made me realize that this is my happy place. Planning my own trips, researching destinations, scouring maps—this is my comfort zone. Five years later, it still is: these days, I still will read a Lonely Planet guidebook from cover to cover (like a novel). I have a never-ending list of travel plans. I’m continually adding things to my bucket list.

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My first ever legal beer!!! // Dublin, Ireland

But a lot has changed since June 2011! Most significantly, I can drink legally in my own country—my first ever legal beer was a Guinness in Dublin, so I like to think that I started off right. Looking back, so much has changed since my first independent trip five years ago. While these changes may have been gradual over my many trips since then, some are stark changes to what I experienced on that first trip with my best friend. These are some of my reflections on five years of independent travel.

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Antrim Coast // Northern Ireland

Smartphones have changed everything

Even though smartphones were around in 2011, I don’t think they were anywhere near as widespread, or as advanced, as they are today in 2016. Smartphones enable people to be constantly connected—every second, of every day. Prior to my departure for my trip in 2011, my parents gave me $50 and told me to buy a calling card so I could call them while I was away—which of course I immediately spent on beer (sorry, Mom and Dad). Those calling cards are a thing of the past. So are flip phones. While I am technically still resisting the smartphone craze (I use an old one with no sim card only for my Instagram account), nowadays people who travel have access to everything they could need from the internet, apps, or texting/calling—all through tapping their thumbs.

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Giant’s Causeway // Northern Ireland

It is increasingly harder to disconnect, and often easier to miss out on some standard aspects of travel—instead of asking a local on the street for directions, you can find your way via GoogleMaps. Instead of blissfully enjoying your mountain summit, you can make a record of it on Snapchat. Instead of making friends in a hostel common room, you can Skype a friend from home. Smartphones have inherently changed the way we function, both for good and bad, and this applies to travel. When I traveled on my trip in 2011, I didn’t even bring a phone.

As you can see beer, featured prominently in this trip // Oxford, England

Technology in general has changed

I didn’t bring a phone or a laptop on my trip in 2011. I visited an internet café once (or maybe twice?)—and they are more or less a thing of the past now. Kindles reign supreme as an easy and lightweight solution to the “which book should I bring?” dilemma. Some hostels offer desktop computers, which were very rare on my 2011 trip. It is so much easier to stay connected to life “back home” not just through Facebook, but through so many social media channels. Smartphones have built-in cameras that compete with actual digital cameras for picture quality. Technology has changed in leaps and bounds over the past five years!

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Nope, no selfie stick here… photo by some other random tourist at the Prime Meridian // Greenwich, England

For better or for worse, selfie sticks are a thing

Even in the past two years, selfie sticks went from being something only super nerdy tourists (see: Asians) had to being socially acceptable for pretty much everyone. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can find selfie sticks being sold from every vendor imaginable, and I think they’re here to stay.

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I have too many pictures of me, in the rain, standing next to some random historical building // Dublin, Ireland

My photos were truly horrible

Looking back at all of my pictures for this post, I cringed through most of them. Why did I take such horrible pictures of random things? Why did I never go through and delete all of the blurry, sideways pictures? Regardless, I’m glad that I’m always improving.

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No one else my age was traveling like I did

When my best friend and I left for our adventure, I, at age 18, didn’t know another single person who was traveling the way I was. Sure, I knew lots of people my age who traveled internationally—a family cruise, a European vacation with their parents, a school trip abroad, volunteering with a church or through another organization. And there’s nothing wrong with those trips! But I didn’t know of anyone else who packed up at age 18 for an adventure abroad with just their best friend.

Can you tell that this picture was taken by someone who was severely hungover for the first real time and only had 3 hours of sleep the night beforehand? No? Good. // Stonehenge, England

As I traveled on that trip, and throughout all my travels since then, I have met so many 18-year-olds who were traveling the way I did with my best friend—either on a gap year or just on a holiday. No parents, no group, just them. But the difference? I can’t remember any of them being American. A gap year is so much more socially acceptable in other countries, and the young travelers I met (and still meet) tend to be largely Brits, Aussies, or Kiwis. Young Americans just don’t travel abroad the way those other nationalities do. Now that I’m older, I see lots of people I know who are my age doing the type of trip I did in summer 2011—lots of Americans traveling all over the U.S., a post-college Eurotrip, adventuring in Southeast Asia. But the difference between 18 and 23 is a big one; independent travel is something I wish more young Americans would see as a possibility and as an amazing opportunity.

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The exchange rate is so much better for Americans now than it was in 2011

If I could take the exact same trip I took in the summer of 2011 today, I would probably have several hundred dollars more to spend (and not just because I’m better with money and traveling on a budget). The dollar is so much stronger now, even compared to my year abroad in 2013-2014, and Euro rates are lower. When I traveled on this first independent trip, the exchange rate was about £1 (pound)= $1.68 USD, and 1€ (euro) = $1.38 USD. Today’s exchange rates are roughly £1=$1.45, and 1€=$1.13. For every 100€ I spent on that trip, I would have an extra $25, just from exchange rates. Don’t wait, America—travel now!

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Am I crying because I love England, or crying because of how much money I lost on foreign transaction fees? One can only guess… // London, England

It is still sooooo expensive to get cash from an ATM abroad

ATM fees are killer. Having cash is always the best way to go (you never want to be “that person” who can’t pay a restaurant check since you don’t have the money…) but banks still charge crazy rates for foreign cash withdrawals. I averaged out that from my first semester abroad in the UK, I lost around $200 just from foreign transaction fees (including cash withdrawals). It was the same 5 years ago. When is this going to change?!

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Terrorism has spread a fear of traveling and of “the other”

Back in 2011, the global fear and paranoia that ISIS has created simply didn’t exist. While the possibility of terrorist attacks was always present, the ISIS terrorist attacks around the world (specifically the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Bataclan theater attacks in the Western city of Paris) have meant an increased fear and xenophobia of the Middle East across the west. People fear “the other” (anyone who is different to them, but particularly Muslims, people from the Middle East, anyone who looks like they may be from the Middle East, etc.) as a potential threat. Despite living in a country with an extremely high proclivity for gun violence, Americans worry about traveling to “safe” places in Western Europe because of terror attacks. Islamophobia runs rampant today much more than it did five years ago. Travel is one of the best ways to counteract this fear. Going out and meeting people and talking and learning is the one of the best ways to destroy stereotypes.

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” –Mark Twain

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Botanical Gardens // Belfast, Northern Ireland

It’s still important to take the news with a grain of salt

The media can be misleading and deceiving. All too often, something bad will happen and that place/country/region will be labeled “unsafe.” While there are undoubtedly places that remain exceedingly dangerous in the world and travel is not advised, the news sources will always sensationalize to get their story. As my best friend and I were sitting at the airport, we noticed a report on TV about riots in Belfast—there were fires and shootings and a journalist had been killed. We both panicked (we were supposed to be going there in one week), and once we got to our hostel in Ireland, we asked the manager about it. He responded, “I think it’s absolutely fine for you to go there. You would never be in those rough areas where the riots took place as a tourist. Belfast is very safe.”

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Winter Palace // St. Petersburg, Russia

It was a fairly similar situation prior to my trip to Russia in June 2014—fighting had broken out in eastern Ukraine, Russia had annexed the Crimea, and the region was in turmoil. So many news sources said it was too “dangerous” to go to Russia—all the meanwhile ignoring the fact that the regions in question were literally hundreds of miles away from the large cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg that I was going to. While it is incredibly important to follow world events as a traveler, and have a back up plan in case a destination becomes unsafe, it should still be remembered: take the media with a grain of salt. This is still the same five years since my first independent trip.

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A blurry picture of my first ever hostel // Dublin, Ireland

Hostels have improved

You will always find bad hostels. You will always find gross, dirty, the-bathrooms-have-never-been-cleaned hostels. But in general, I’d say overall hostels have improved greatly in the past five years. All hostels are now hard-pressed to offer more amenities: free wifi is a standard everywhere (although the quality can still be dubious), kitchens are more important (as they pull in long-term guests on a budget), and some cater heavily to the party (or actively social) crowd with on-site bars or free welcome shots. Boutique hostels (with exceptionally fancy private rooms) are springing up all over the place—they’re so nice that 50 Cent is promoting them on Hostelworld! While you can still find your basic hostels, most are trying to get a step up on the competition by offering more.

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AirBnB is changing the travel industry

I seriously think that AirBnB is revolutionizing the way people travel. In case you haven’t heard of it, AirBnB is an accommodation website that allows people to rent a room, or a whole apartment or house, out to visitors for prices that generally are much cheaper than hotels—although there are some seriously pricey luxury rentals, if that’s your thing. Typically, with an AirBnB rental you’ll have access to a kitchen (so you can save money by cooking your own food), access to wifi, and get a better feel for a place as you live like a local. I think hotels will have to seriously up their game to still draw in numbers for leisure travelers (like how can my hotel in Venice seriously still charge for wifi these days?!). AirBnB wasn’t a thing five years ago, but now is one of the best ways to travel for cheap (if you don’t want to brave the hostel dorms). And if AirBnB is good enough for Beyonce, it’s good enough for me!

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Houses of Parliament as seen from the London Eye // London, England

Each and every trip makes planning the next trip so much easier

There’s a secret to independent travel and planning your own trips: long-term, it becomes so much easier. While the first trip is so overwhelming (what hostel should we book? How will we get from Point A to Point B? How many days should we stay in London?), over the years the planning aspect will get easier. It will be less stressful the more trips you plan.

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Matthew Lewis aka Neville Longbottom at the world premiere // London, England

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Rupert Grint aka Ron Weasley at the world premiere // London, England

You really can make your dreams happen with independent travel

When you plan your own trips and travel independently, you can make your dreams happen in a way you just couldn’t with trips planned by other people. Five years ago, this led me to spending my last day in London at the world premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 movie, watching the celebrities walk past on the red carpet, squealing like the fan girl I am, getting autographs from the stars—it was one of the absolute best days of my life. This has only repeated itself: visiting the places I dreamed of all over England, my trip to Russia, soaking up incredible scenery in the Balkans. Those trips happened because I planned them that way—and living out my dreams meant so much more since I was the one who made it happen that way.

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My “after” picture, July 13th 2011 // MSP Airport

Travel has changed me in a million ways over the last five years

While most of this post is about how travel itself has changed, maybe it goes without saying that travel has changed me intrinsically over the last five years. I am a thousand times more confident, empowered, and independent now since I started traveling. I can be outgoing and social, at times with great ease (something I struggled with for much of my life as an introvert). I rarely wear makeup because I just can’t be bothered, and feel beautiful in my own skin. As a notorious planner, I’ve learned that sometimes going with the flow is the best. Once the travel bug bites, there’s no looking back!

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So much has changed in the last five years. Sometimes I still can’t believe all the trips I’ve gone on and the places I’ve seen! And I definitely can’t imagine what the travel industry will look like five years from now. Until then, there’s one thing I know for sure: five years from now, I will definitely still be traveling.

What do you think has changed about travel? What is different about the first trip you ever took to now? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!