Traveling is like a crash course in life. It means seeing eye-to-eye with a new culture, looking inside yourself, and stepping outside your comfort zone over and over again.
But sometimes, even just booking a trip can teach you something, and I discovered this fact the same time I discovered a $400 flight to Moscow. From picking my final destination to reaching out to locals before I left, I learned a staggering amount about my desire to see the world, not to mention about traveling itself.
These are the lessons I learned before experiencing Russian food...
...and meta selfies.
This is the story that took place before I'd even bought my flight. Turns out you can learn travel lessons without leaving the house.
It was February in New York, and I was both cold and bored. What's more, my roommate Jamie had just gotten back from a life-changing trip to Berlin.
We'd scheduled a night for her to tell me all her stories, but of course, I already knew them. I'd been stalking her every move on social media, flipping through updates while cooped up in my apartment. She'd seen the world; I'd seen every streaming movie the internet had to offer. The disparity nearly made me nauseous.
Instead of being a good friend and listening to Jamie, I decided to be a good traveler and take out my laptop.
"Sorry. I just…need to book a flight ASAP," I explained, furiously opening my browser.
"Exciting!" Jamie was still high from her trip and didn't even mind switching gears. "Where are you going?"
I fell silent.
"I have no idea."
Jamie was right — I had no idea where I was going. All I knew was that it was February in New York, and cabin fever was crippling me. Sure, I was going out of town during the summer, but that was months away. I couldn't bear any more hanging out in the snow, watching other people live the life I wanted to. I didn't know where I was going or who was coming with me — all I knew was I needed to escape.
There was just one problem: I was broke. I could spare about $400, but it would be tough to piece together hotel and travel expenses from there. I was determined to figure out how to make do, though — desperate times called for desperate measures. But desperate bank accounts, alas, were limiting: Surely my budget wouldn't get me anywhere exotic. Would it...?
I looked up a few specific destinations. Berlin, my Jamie-inspired first choice, was far too expensive. Then I thought of the KAYAK Explore tool, and grinned. I'd stumbled upon it a few months back while looking up flights on the site and remembered that it let you search by budget among other things (weather, activities, departure month, and so on). The only catch was that the price was only for the dates provided, and that was another currency I didn't have much of: vacation days.
Sure enough, once I entered $400, a series of possible destinations popped up. Most of them disappeared when I set the weather module to 75 degrees, so I decided I might have to settle for cold. Most of them were in the U.S., but when I scrolled over to Europe, I noticed a few that caught my eye. Oslo? Yes PLEASE, but I couldn't take two weeks off to hit that price point. I scrolled further east, and eventually saw an offer peeking out on the right: "$383 to Moscow." The trip was five days in April, and I'd only have to take two off work. It worked perfectly.
But did I really want to go to Russia?
The truth was (and is) that I didn't know much about politics. All I really knew about Russia was that I liked their authors and that, in February's NYC weather, I really needed a new fur hat.
I also knew the country was quite far away for a five-day trip. An eight-hour flight for a selfie in front of St. Basil's Cathedral and borscht? (Spoiler alert: Yes and yes.) I was generalizing, but I didn't have much else to go on — actually visiting the country was supposed to be the thing that opened my eyes.
While I grappled with my decision, Jamie reminded me of how desperate to escape I'd been just days prior. And when you're determined to travel on a budget, you can't be a chooser — you have to get out there and see the world.
In my head, it was settled: I would go. But the next question was the hard one: Who could I convince to come with me?
It only took a little investigating to decide I shouldn't go to Russia alone. This was a new country halfway across the world — I didn't speak the language, understand the politics, or know a single person in case of emergency.
But who would be my partner in crime? Jamie was all traveled out, and most of my other friends were too hung up on the destination. "I'd rather go to the beach" seemed to be the most common response.
My best negotiation tactic was the trip's price tag. I felt like this exotic experience was well worth $400, and hopefully someone else would agree. One day, I texted my co-worker Stu a compelling argument, consisting only of a link to the price. He must have had cabin fever too because he was far more accepting than expected:
Over the next few days, we constantly talked about the possibility and started planning our trip as if we already had it on the books. I extended the invite to everyone else in our office, but no one was biting. It looked like it would just be me and Stu...until Angela IMed me, wondering if the trip was real.
Despite my initial eagerness, I wasn't sure about traveling with two people I'd only known in a professional context for a few months. What if we all hated each other by the end of this long weekend in Russia?
But then I realized what we all had in common: the desire to see a whole-new part of the world. It didn't matter where we were going, as long as we stuck to our budget. Somehow, that united us. Our differences would pale in comparison to the fun we were about to have.
At a certain point, you just have to pull the trigger. Luckily, centering your plans around a cheap flight can encourage you to do just that — you live in constant worry that the price will increase, and your chance at a worldly excursion will be lost forever.
For me and Stu, it was a game of chicken. We texted back and forth, half waiting for the other person to drop out. Luckily, neither of us did.
At least I hoped so.
From the moment we clicked "BUY," the research began.
First, we called the Russian Consulate to figure out how tourist visas worked and weren't deterred when we discovered we'd need to renew our passports in order to get them.
Once the logistics were dealt with, we scoured forums for lists of things to see, do, and eat.
And finally, we posted updates desperately searching for locals to show us around the city.
It took a few weeks, but as a result of our collective social efforts, a friend put us in touch with a friend of a friend. We had made contact — a distant contact, but a contact nonetheless! Immediately, Anna and I started "texting" — it felt like we'd known each other a lifetime.
She hated cold weather. I hated cold weather. We would be best friends in no time.
Stu, Angela, and I couldn't contain our excitement, so in the days leading up to our trip, we made every bad pun possible.
Our Cyrillic skills were terrible, and so were our jokes.
We did so much "comedy" before we left that we almost started thinking that that was the fun part. But our trip was only about to begin. And then, suddenly, it was time to go to Russia.
Immediately after we touched down in Moscow, I took to social media like it was my job. This was my trip, and thus, my chance to make people jealous. The one hangup was that most Russians didn't smile in photos. I decided to follow suit.
I smiled at every like and comment — sure, they were small and meaningless gestures (not to mention few and far between), but I'd earned every last one of them.
Of course, sometimes I put my phone away to actually experience our trip, but I didn't scold myself for occasionally being glued to it. After all, I'd earned the right to brag — I'd had a $400 budget for a flight abroad, and had somehow gotten myself to Russia. It felt good to have a digital record of this accomplishment. Maybe, just maybe, I could become someone else's Jamie, giving them the push they needed to finally book a trip.
The minute we touched down back in America, I felt an immediate craving to do it all over again. Where should I go? When? With whom?
It took just a second for me to calm down. It turned out there was quite a lot of merit to surprising myself with a destination. Maybe the trip had been so fantastic simply because of the element of spontaneity (even though I planned it a month in advance).
But as we went through customs, I felt a sense of relief. I'd get another chance to roll the travel dice and play them as they lay, but for now, I was jet-lagged, and, like Jamie had been, still high from experience. I'd wait for a few months to let my budget replenish.
And next time, I'd go somewhere warm.
No more excuses for putting off that big adventure — Explore is just one of the many ways KAYAK helps solve travel problems.
The account discussed in this piece is retroactive. All images via BuzzFeed unless otherwise noted.