My Best (and Worst) Travel Experiences of 2018

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Wow, so if this is the third annual travel experiences of the year post, then I guess officially I’m getting to be an old hand at this whole travel blogger thing. I like taking a moment at the end of each year to reflect on the awesome (and not so awesome) time I had on this crazy journey. Honestly just writing all of this down is helping me understand exactly why I’m so exhausted right now.

 

 

Why I’m Exhausted

 

This year was insane. I got engaged in February. In March I started a second blog, Sofia Adventures, focused on traveling the Balkans. In April, I launched a second podcast, Rick Steves Over Brunch, as an excuse to watch every episode of Rick Steves’ Europe. In May I started a serious overhaul of this blog to make it more of a travel resource for readers. And along the way, I walked part of the Comino de Santiago in Spain, attended the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan, and got up before dawn to watch a Buddhist ceremony in Laos.

 

I visited twenty-four countries and thirty-six new UNESCO World Heritage Sites spread across three continents.  I got published by National Geographic, featured in my college paper, and finally made it to Southeast Asia. That is to say that the travel front, things are looking better than ever.

 

But I also had some personal heartache that nearly destroyed me, had to pull back on commitments to friends out of sheer exhaustion and needing to focus on finances, and have overwhelming guilt whenever I have to leave my dog behind.

 

So while 2018 was amazing, I know that in 2019 I have to do less travel, find a legal way to spend more time at home in Sofia, and learn how to say “no” better, earlier, and more often.  Especially to homemade rakia in a Serbian winery, but that’s a story for my other website.

 

My Year in Travel

So here goes. My best and worst travel experiences of the year.

 

January

In January, I celebrated New Year’s in Sofia and then headed to Southeast Asia for the month.

 

Best Travel Experience

Cambodia. I visited six countries in the region, but my favorites were easily Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand (in that order). While I’ve talked a lot about Instagrammers ruining some of the magic of visiting Angkor, it is still a breathtaking experience to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, especially after understanding the history of Angkor better. And of course, getting to watch the Angkor monkeys behave like utter rascals. And while the town of Siem Reap gets overlooked as merely the base to explore Angkor, I found that I adored the town and used it as a base to explore what there is to do in Siem Reap beyond the temples.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

I didn’t find much not to like in Southeast Asia. I went a little faster than is ideal, but I really did find the entire region charming and I can’t wait to go back to explore it further. If I have to pick something (which is the whole point of this list) I’ll say that Luang Prabang is a bit more touristy than other places I visited that had more tourists. And I saw many tourists behaving badly there, especially during solemn ceremonies and at religious sites.

 

 

 

February

In February, I flew back from Southeast Asia to Bulgaria. I got engaged for Valentine’s Day, and I enjoyed being home so much. But when it was time to get back on the road, I met my friend Allison in Barcelona, and we explored Barcelona and Valencia in Spain and did a day trip to Andorra.

 

 

Best Travel Experience

Barcelona really surprised me. I expected not to like it that much, but I ended up really enjoying the city in the off-season when the crowds were down significantly. One of my favorite experiences was seeing the city’s monument to trans and LGTB rights.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

We took a pricey day trip to Andorra. Since I’m a country counter, I really wanted to visit while I was in Barcelona, and it’s an easy day trip to make by bus. But I found Andorra in February to be pretty boring, expensive, and meh. I wouldn’t advise anyone waste a day of time in Spain to visit unless you also want to check it off your list.

 

 

March

In March I started with a visit to Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, walked 113kms of the Comino de Santiago, and then did a ten-day road trip around Portugal.

 

Best Travel Experience

This is a hard one because I absolutely adored Portugal, but walking the Comino was a spiritual and personal journey that can’t be beaten. I loved it, even when I was getting drenched in rain in the woods alone, climbing over fallen trees, or going to bed with three pairs of socks to stay warm.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

Showing up to my guest house in Sintra on time and being told that they were still cleaning the room and I couldn’t even use the bathroom in the house even though I was literally about to pee my pants. The guest house owner and I agreed to part ways, and I checked into a nearby Ibis instead. Sintra was a great experience, but this guest house owner really shouldn’t be working with customers.

 

 

April

I spent the first half of April in Bulgaria, and the second half exploring Athens, Crete, Rhodes, and the region around Thessaloniki. While in Bulgaria, I got to show my friends Gemma, Megan, Maggie, and Erin around Sofia. We starred in a local music video, Megan nearly got into a turf war, and we accidentally spilled duck sauce and dog urine all over a mall. It was a strange but epic month.

 

Best Travel Experience

Renting a villa in Crete to celebrate my friend Megan’s birthday. I don’t think I even need to elaborate on this one.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

You would think the duck sauce incident would definitely make a “worst list,” but I’m leaving out anything that happened in Sofia since that’s my home base. So my worst travel experience in April would definitely be when the bus driver in Chania almost forced me onto the next bus because I wanted to bring on a soda and Allison wanted to bring on a coffee. WTF. Greece is a land of almost no rules, but the bus drivers are cray.

 

 

May

I rang in the month of May on a bus from Thessaloniki to Sofia, then stayed home for a few weeks before heading off to my first trip to the Caucasus.

 

Best Travel Experience

Seeing the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan. I loved traveling in Azerbaijan, probably because it reminds me so much of Turkey and doesn’t feel European at all, yet there’s Cyrillic and Russian everywhere because of its history as part of the USSR. Nakhchivan was like a travel writer’s dream come true: an epically gorgeous place to travel that seemed entirely devoid of tourists. It’s hard to get to and not connected to the rest of the country, so there just aren’t that many travelers willing to go that far off the path. I found that outside of Baku and Sheki, we didn’t find many tourists at all. Even Ganja, the country’s second largest city, didn’t have many foreigners when we were there.

 

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

While I loved Azerbaijan, getting between Ganja and Sheki and then going from Sheki to Tbilisi was kind of hell on earth.

 

 

June

In June, I continued on my Caucasus trip, spending time in Georgia and Armenia. I then went to Istanbul for a few days, before heading back to Sofia for the rest of the month.

 

Best Travel Experience

Seeing Yerevan. While I like Azerbaijan more to travel, Yerevan is the city I’d live in if I had to move to the Caucasus. It’s sleepy but interesting, with great food and wine. And while I prefer Balkan monasteries like Rila Monastery to Armenian ones, I had a very spiritual time visiting Geghard Monastery outside of Yerevan.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

Tbilisi and I just don’t get along. While I did find a lot to like there as individual activities, like the funky Dry Bridge Market, and the ramen is insanely good, I don’t think it’s a city I need to go back to any time soon. I find that Armenia and Azerbaijan are much more culturally interesting and offer more value, while Georgia felt a little too fawned over for my tastes.

 

 

July

July was really hard. It was at this point that my personal life started to really wreak havoc on my ability to enjoy being on the road. Combine that with a trip to Canada and America, where everything is both expensive and weighted with emotion, and it left me exhausted.

 

Best Travel Experience

This one is hard. Every leg of my trip to North America was to see people I care about, so I don’t want anyone to feel slighted. Seeing each friend or family member was special. Altogether, I visited Toronto, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

 

On the travel front though, from a pure travel experience perspective, seeing behind the scenes at Elfreth’s Alley was amazing and left me even more in awe of Philadelphia, a city I lived in for ten years before I left to travel full-time.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

Emotionally I was just not in the right frame of mind to visit home, and I know there were days when I should have been happier but I was just coming apart at the seams. It wasn’t any one place or thing that did it, I was just overtraveled and having a lot of personal problems that lead to some sad nights that should have been happier.

 

August

I left D.C. on August 1, and I spent the rest of the month in Bulgaria, including taking a vacation to the Black Sea Coast. At the end of the month, I left for Kyrgyzstan.

 

Best Travel Experience

Finally exploring Nessebar and Sunny Beach after being in Bulgaria for almost two years was so much fun. I love this part of Bulgaria, where the Happy Hour Special might just be they bring you a second drink for free. A highlight was visiting Bulgaria’s Pink Lake, which acts as a natural spa.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

I had some bad bouts of acute anxiety that gave me some trouble while on the coast, including a particularly bad spell while walking Nessebar that forced me to just sit down and be still for a while.

 

 

 

September

September was so fabulous! I attended the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan and hung out with my friend Megan in Kazakhstan. It was my first trip to Central Asia, and I am absolutely in love with this part of the world.

 

Best Travel Experience

This one is super tough because September was just jam-packed with awesomeness. My dream-come-true moment, though, was watching the women compete in horseback archery at the World Nomad Games.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

I spent most of my time in Central Asia sick. I sprained my ankle. The food didn’t agree with me for the first week, and by the time I adjusted to the food I got a wicked flu that was going around. Looking back, I remember everything as simply wonderful, but at the time I spent a lot of my days throwing up and/or coughing my brains out. It was worth it though. Traveling in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was epic.

 

 

October

After I recovered from my Central Asian illnesses, I spent all of October in the Balkans. The middle two weeks were in Serbia, which is seriously one of my favorite places in the world. The other two weeks I was home in Bulgaria, stuffing my face with cheesecake.

 

Best Travel Experience

All of Serbia was awesome, but visiting the art nouveau heaven of Subotica near the Hungarian border was like finding a piece of hidden Europe that not many get to see.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

Overall Serbia might have been the most relaxing and rewarding trip of the year, but it definitely had some weird moments. The worst travel moment here is a three-way tie between throwing up the homemade rakia I was forced to drink in a winery, getting verbally assaulted by a tollbooth operator for taking a picture when there were no signs that said it was not allowed and taking a pre-dawn bus back to Bulgaria. Being at a bus station at 4 am is always disgusting.

 

 

 

November

This November was all about Germany! I started with a few days in Dresden, then I spent the rest of the month catsitting for a friend in Berlin.

 

Best Travel Experience

Getting on the road and driving through Saxony. The fall foliage in Germany in autumn is out of control.

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

Nearly getting arrested in Dresden over a misunderstanding with my hotel and taxi driver over ten euros. And having the tour guide on my tour berate me for it. While I generally loved every Dresden tour I went on, this was easily the worst tour I’ve been on in my entire life.

 

 

December

I ran out of days in Bulgaria, and I am literally out of any desire to travel for at least six months, so I’m currently washed up in Heraklion, drinking raki, eating gyros, and trying (and failing) to get caught up on work. While I’d rather be home, Greece is a really, really good second place.

 

Best Travel Experience

Slowing down and just enjoying being in Heraklion. It’s a quiet city this time of year, perfect to just wander and enjoy the cafes, cuisine, and, of course, the sheer volume of complimentary raki that accompanies every meal.

 

 

 

 

Worst Travel Experience

Is it weird that the honest answer to this is writing this post? Just going back over the entire year has been emotionally taxing. So much so that I literally had a nervous break down around writing the August section and called home to Facetime my dog. My fiance was not amused.

 

Greece - Heraklion - Facetiming my dog
Calling Lucy for emotional support on this post.

 

 

More End of Year Reviews

My Best (and Worst) Travel Experiences of 2017

My Favorite Travel Experiences of 2016

4 Comments

  1. Congratulations for your engagement!!
    A nice article to read, I loveeed the images there. Thanks for sharing such an amazing article.
    Cheers.!!!

  2. Congratulations on your engagment!! How exciting! 🤗 I loved reading about your year and allll of the places you visited, what you’ve been up to and your take on everything. Incredible. You rock!

  3. I devoured every detail of your trips. As I reminisce with you during your year in review, I want to go back and read each one again. So many pics and stories. I love how you take us to the most unusual places. Rest up, we will be waiting for your next adventures. My favorite stories were the El Camino and the World Nomad games but every destination was amazing!

  4. Congrats on your engagement and it looks like you had a wonderful year. I too worry about leaving my dog when I travel although I haven’t traveled anywhere but to the Four Corners in over a year. Teaching full-time and going to school full-time and there’s no energy left to travel. I miss it.

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