A year in Germany. 32 cities, 11 countries. 57 trains and 18 planes. Here's what I've learned after a well-traveled year.
Lists, lists, and more lists. Have a list of things to pack. As someone who's taken fifteen overnight trips this year, make a list even when you think you've got a pretty stable mental list. Have a list of places to eat or things to buy. And most importantly, have a list of things to see, places to go. Sites like Wiki Travel or Trip Advisor are good. But, I really recommend:
Guide books. I prefer the Lonely Planet series but Rick Steves has excellent walking tours and more detail. These books can be expensive but a lot of them are free via Kindle Unlimited. Benefits of the Kindle versions: weightless! No room! For example, I currently have four - one for France, one for Germany, one for Italy, and one for London. I can be on the train to Paris, my France guidebook ready to go, but be reading up on Berlin via my German guidebook for next weekend. What's not so great about the Kindle versions - the maps. The latest version of Kindle has improved browsing functionality but the maps still aren't great. There's no way to mark the map itself as it's just an image. And Kindle doesn't offer much for zooming capabilities. Another pro for Kindle: bookmarking. You can bookmark the entire map or areas of interest. Another con: you're stuck with your device. Phone dies after too many pictures or struggling to find WiFi? Too bad, you're without a guide book (and a camera and half a dozen other terrible things). But get a guide book. You'll research the different buildings of London, only to forget which one is which and you don't have WiFi, so you can't go back to the Wiki travel. But you have your book!
Now that you have your list of things to see? Great. Now prioritize because...
Be flexible. You want to be able to take the time and enjoy the sites. Don't feel rushed to mark everything off your list. Identify the things you really want to see and the ones that would be nice to see. Respond and plan accordingly. But don't plan too much. Maybe you'll spend an hour in the Van Gogh museum or maybe you'll spend three. Maybe the line at the Anne Frank house will be two hours, maybe four. Or maybe you time it just right and you're in within the hour. Prioritize and be open to changes in schedule. Also, assess frequently. Waiting for your metro stop? Get out the list, see what you might need to move around based on what you have already crossed off and what's still on the list.
Planning. You've got your prioritized list. Great, now get a map. Maybe you think you know the city or that the image in your guidebook is enough. It probably won't be. Get a map. Mark all the things you want to see. Consult it often. A map of the public transit is also going to be super helpful. Also helpful: knowing hours. Add opening hours to your list. You have your priorities, but also think of the crowds. Visiting Notre Dame when it opens and visiting Notre Dame at one in the afternoon are completely different experiences, trust me.
When making that list with the hours, also check out the reviews in your guidebook or Wiki Travel. Some places are a lot easier to see with a tour. Viator has great options for almost any site. Eagle's Nest? So much easier via tour. La Sagrada Familiar? Quicker with a tour, but I also got so much more out of the experience with her insight.
What to pack. That packing list. Here is what you'll need: comfortable shoes. This is serious. No flip flops. No heels. Comfortable shoes! Cloth shopping bag. Not all places will provide bags. And who knows when you'll need one. Example: on a recent trip to Italy, the weather was all over the place. I needed a jacket in the morning and evening, but not the rest of the day. After about ten minutes of carrying it, the bag came out and the jacket went in. Much more portable. Sunglasses, umbrella. Of these, get something compact. Crossbody bag. Avoid pick pockets. If you have to have a backpack, you may want to occasionally wear it on your front so you can monitor it. Scarf. Scarves are the best - you can wrap it around you if you're cold, soak it in water if you're hot. Also, really useful for visiting religious sites that require certain areas to be covered up or if you need something to put between you and your seat.
Finally, in addition to the be flexible, have a good attitude. Be smart and cognizant of your surroundings, especially when you travel alone. I never felt unsafe but it's important to always be cautious and use common sense. Be careful of who you interact with. That being said, one of my favorite things about traveling, especially when I traveled alone, was interacting with other travelers. Having lunch at the Museum d’Orsay in Paris, to discover the woman sitting next to me was from Iowa and spending the meal chatting about living abroad; sharing sight tips with fellow travelers on the metro; discovering a guy on my tour in Berlin was going to Vienna the following week, a city I had just visited, and giving him museum recommendations; chatting with a British couple at lunch in the market in Valencia on the day of the Brexit vote about American and British politics. So be friendly, your fellow travelers can be your favorite memories and your best resources, but be cautious. Don’t give away too much information. I made it a year without anything getting stolen or any unwanted or dangerous interactions. Just be careful.
Be open-minded. Try the local food, check out that city or museum you didn't think you would like. Have fun!