My First Time Abroad: Hard Lessons Learned

New York City, Manhattan, first time abroad, lost in Yonkers


Sometimes I wonder how I survived my 20s at all.  It’s not like I’m a big risk taker or anything, but my naiveite and general unawareness have left me in some questionable situations.  I have walked into stranger’s homes without any exit plan or ability to defend myself.  There was also the time I got into a strange man’s car because he offered me a hot meal.  I have allowed myself to be guided by an instinct that, when compared to personal safety, perhaps I trust too much.  Certainly, my instincts have been honed over the years, and they have so far been reliable.  But when I was 19 and went abroad for the first time, I had nothing in the way of life skills, travel skills or instinct to guide me.

The decision to travel was itself a questionable one.  Acting school had yet to make me rich and famous and, since I couldn’t afford to eat or pay rent, I had no other choice but to move in with my more-or-less estranged father.  So of course I decided it would be a marvellous idea to traipse off to New York City for a month over Christmas.

It’s not like I was completely without a plan.  The idea was to crash with a friend – and her parents – who lived in Yonkers.  That was the extent of the plan.  I wouldn’t have even had a guidebook if my mom hadn’t bought me one before I left.  Perhaps it wasn’t terribly well-thought-out, but I had a free place to stay and a local who could show me the ropes.

Caveat: Digital cameras weren’t a thing yet when I was on this trip.  As such, the photos included here look like they are photographs of photographs from an old scrapbook – because they are.


New York City, Manhattan, first time abroad, lost in Yonkers
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk


And then…

And then my friend called a week before my departure to inform me her mother had cancer and it wasn’t a great time for house guests.

What did I do with this sudden change of plans?  Did I ask my friend if she knew anyone who could put me up for a few nights?  Did I try to find an affordable hostel?  Did I reassess the cost of accommodation, cut my losses, and cancel the trip?  Nope.  It never even occurred to me that travelling to NYC over Christmas might be a huge financial hit for someone who was literally stealing food from the communal lunch room at school.


New York City, Manhattan, first time abroad, lost in Yonkers
During this quaint ride through Central Park, our driver did a drug deal while we were sitting in the back.


Keep in mind as well, that this was before the internet was the ubiquitous force it is today.  I didn’t even own a computer (nor would I for years to come).  Budget-friendly, alternative resources like Couchsurfing and Airbnb were still a long ways off.

So I followed my friend’s recommendation about a motel near her place – a motel which didn’t take reservations.  A motel, as it turned out, that rented by the hour, had pubic hairs on the walls and cigarette burns on the sheets, and where guests (if that term could even be used in such an establishment) weren’t allowed to use the phone in the room to make outgoing calls.


New York City, Manhattan, first time abroad, lost in Yonkers
They tell you never to give your camera to a stranger in New York, but mine didn’t get stolen at all!


But I didn’t know this yet.  Hell, I didn’t even know where Yonkers was.  After my plane landed, I discovered it was a $70 cab ride from JFK (and this was 20 years ago too, remember).  The driver, not-so-politely, also taught me that one is expected to tip their driver.  Who knew?  I had never been in a taxi in my life!

And that was how I came to arrive at a seedy motel in the middle of the night.  I was literally lost in Yonkers.  It was apparent to me by this point, that things were not falling into place the way I expected.  One thing was for sure, this motel could absolutely not be my home for the next month.

So I did what any respectable and independent 19 year-old would do – I called my mom from a pay phone and cried.  I stayed up all night smoking cigarettes to stave off the hunger pangs in my stomach – the motel definitely did not have a restaurant – and watching late-night television because I was afraid to fall asleep.

Not that I was completely useless.  With my trusty guidebook in hand, I once again braved the walk outside of my dank room to the even danker looking public telephones.  “Is it ok that the hotel is in New York?” the helpful lady taking my reservation asked.  “Um…yeah, of course.  That’s where I am isn’t it?” I thought.


New York City, Manhattan, first time abroad, lost in Yonkers
Yeah I got my picture with Santa at Macy’s!

And then…

I survived the night and early the next morning, my friend’s father graciously offered me a ride to the train station so I could make my way, finally, to Manhattan.  I hopped in a taxi (remembering to tip this time), gave the driver the address of the hotel, and let myself relax.  Everything was going to be ok.

Except it wasn’t.  The address was closer to the projects than it was to anything resembling a Holiday Inn.  Turns out, when the nice lady asked me if it was ok that the hotel was in New York, she was referring to Long Island.  This was the point at which I gave up.  I flagged down another taxi and told the driver to take me to any hotel in Midtown.  I was soon to find out that a hotel in this neighbourhood would come with a price tag of over $300 a night.

The lovely staff at the fancy Coast Plaza were hesitant to rent a room to a bedraggled 19 year-old girl who reeked of cigarettes and looked like she had spent the last few nights sleeping on a park bench.  But, in the end, they decided my traveller’s cheques were as good as anyone else’s money and, as long as I paid up front, they would be happy enough to have me as their guest.


New York City, Manhattan, first time abroad, lost in Yonkers
Making out with a skeleton at the Jekyll & Hyde Club;)

Finding cheaper accommodation was still a priority.  Sadly, being only a few days from Christmas, all of the hostels were fully booked.  If I had looked harder, it’s possible I could have found something at least cheaper than the wads of cash I was putting out each night at the Coast Plaza.  But instead, I went sightseeing and 5 days later, I was out of money.  After the cost of changing my plane ticket, I almost didn’t make it across the border because I didn’t have any money left to pay the duty on the Furby (and other stuff) I had bought.  Fortunately, my acrobatic credit card stretched a bit further and the Canadian airport welcomed me home.

I learned a lot of lessons on that trip.  I learned them so hard, it now takes me hours – nay, days, weeks and months – to prep for a trip.  I travel with a budget so strict, it makes my wife dread planning holidays.  Perhaps, one day, my youthful spontaneity will return to me.  Then again, if I’m the kind of person who thinks purchasing a talking toy is a necessity, perhaps it’s for the best if it doesn’t.



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New York City, Manhattan, first time abroad, lost in Yonkers


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28 Replies to “My First Time Abroad: Hard Lessons Learned”

  1. So enjoyed the New York story!

  2. Great story! I was feeling your angst and was intrigued to find out how things would work out for you. I had a somewhat similar experience when I was 18 and flew to New York to join a ship. You learn a lot of stuff real quick, particularly with regard to money and how far it goes.

  3. Trips that don’t go the way as planned can often times make some of the best memories, if not the best travel at the time. I too have had a similar experience with a low rent hotel. I should have probably not expected much when I realized the lobby was a drive thru behind bullet proof glass.

    1. Your hotel sounds worse than mine!

  4. It sounds like a nerve wracking trip! you had me nervous for what might happen next!! Cannot believe how much it cost even back then

  5. Taxi in the US from and to airports are sometime so expensive. It is so not worth it we try to stick to public transport whenever we can. Super interesting story, really not a cheap city you happen to chose for a first adventure like this one haha!

  6. I love this post! It reminds me the old times too (I was 18!). Well, there’s always the first time! And we always learn from it. I’m glad you made it through. Btw, I also cried over the phone talking to my mom once I was lost. Great post!

  7. I really like the way you write your travel stories. It never sounds boring.
    You were so brave for going to the NYC when you were just 19. NYC can be daunting for the first-time travelers. I felt disgusted when I read about the motel. I hope that motel does not exist anymore. Then, you stayed to a $300/night hotel. That must be so cool!
    Your experience was very valuable. I learned so much from my first travel overseas. Then, I was a bit more okay with my succeeding travels. However, I still need to improve my planning skills.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I definitely saw life from both ends of the budget spectrum on that trip!

  8. I too wonder how I survived my first trips, before I was even 20 years old. You obviously learned a lot from your first trip and with the help of internet today, this makes traveling much easier. What’s impressive is that you still have photos from this trip, my first few trips I don’t have the photos.

  9. Wow you are so brave to venture out abroad by yourself. And New York at that, which I could only imagine would have been tough! But it’s quite a story to tell and I really enjoyed your journey!

  10. OMG! I felt so stressed for you reading this post you went through so much and this would make a great book. I can tell that you have a stubburn streak in you and if you make up your mind to do it, it will be done nothing will stop you. Honestly Great Post!

    1. I have been called stubborn once or twice…:)

  11. At least you survived! And came back with great stories. My first big trip was to Guyana and home via a week alone in New York. New York seems a great city to have first travel mishaps. My shuttle bus took me to the wrong hostel. I left my bag open. Caught the wrong train… Ah the memories

    1. At first you think nothing can go wrong…and then everything does:)

  12. Absolutely loved reading your post. I’ve only started travelling in the last few years so I never experienced it before smartphones and the internet were so common – I guess it must have been so different then, in positive and negative ways!

  13. Love this post! I don’t think it matters how old you are or whether you have the internet or not because I have even in my 30s & now 40s made similar insane mistakes! For example, I thought it would be a smart idea to ride the MegaBus from Edinburgh to London overnight because it was so cheap….everyone in Scotland that I told looked at me like I was crazy cause the train was faster and only 15 Pounds more! But I was intent on saving the cash…BIG MISTAKE!
    Glad you survived and have such an awesome story to tell though. Life is filled with crazy adventures like that

    1. I tried a night bus once in Mexico for similar reasons. Why not save money on a hotel and sleep on a bus? Definitely won’t ever be doing that again:)

  14. Wow, what a trip! I can’t believe that the motel charged by the hour!? That’s crazy. At least you can look back and you’ve learnt from your experiences! I love to plan our trips so I don’t look at it as a bad thing, it’s all part of the holiday fun for me!

  15. Haha what a place to go for your first abroad trip, and at Christmas! – lots of money spent!

  16. Great storytelling, you’re hilarious! Loved this post, thanks for sharing!

  17. I love your captions- and I’m not surprised by your carriage experience- those can be shady!

  18. Hilarious…now…I’m sure not as hilarious when you were going through it. I’m impressed that you were able to spend so much time in NYC at all. I go for two days and I’m out of cash and energy. Great story.

  19. Vicki Louise says: Reply

    Great story! I think it’s is these kinds of experiences that turn us into the travelers that we are – are even the people we are. I mean, how many can say they witnessed a drug deal on a carriage ride in NYC!

  20. Amazing story. I was 20 when I went to NY for the first time too. And I stayed in the worst hostel ever! It was going to close just a few days after I went back home, and I was like the only guest there. A really creepy place. But had a great time in NYC 🙂

  21. i remember travelling before the internet – it was SO different! I think it is so much better now. and i also remember going to new york when it was really scary! amazing how much things change

  22. Really enjoyed reading this, sounds like one hell of an adventure!!

  23. Great Story! Really Hilarious! I enjoyed this article a lot! Sounds like Lots of Adventure!

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