Illustration by Leanna

I feel like I am always giving you guys a road map for how to do the exact opposite of what your parents tell you to do. Today is no different, but I really, REALLY want to stress the importance of safety in everything I am about to say, because I basically want to give you some tips for how to skip school properly and have an amazing time on a limited budget, but I also want you to stay safe and alive and all that stuff, so you can do all of the incredible things I know you are going to do during your time on earth.

There is definitely a right and wrong way to do what I’m about to tell you about. If you do it the right way, you’ll have so much fun, epic stories to talk about when you’re old and gray, and good souvenirs; and your parents will never know you were absent from school. I spent most of my senior year of high school on a couch watching Jerry Springer with my friend Jayne, eating ice cream for breakfast at diners across the state, or roaming around NYC looking for awesome shoes, and my family was none the wiser. However: if you do it the wrong way, you’ll probably be in trouble, you’ll definitely be grounded, and you might be kidnapped or something. If you can’t navigate your way out of a paper bag, definitely don’t try any of this! Also, if you’re failing school and/or have terrible grades you should probably put this off until you get steady.

I started traveling by myself when I was 13. I wasn’t hopping on planes or hitchhiking across the country—I was just taking the bus to the mall. I grew up in New York, but the best mall was in New Jersey. At the time, a 45-minute bus ride to a mall in another state felt like a journey of 1000 miles, due largely to the fact that I was finally able to travel alone. It is pretty common for parents to freak out about kids who want to go places by themselves, but mine trusted me to give it a shot. They probably didn’t know I would soon take advantage of their trust and generosity by using my new public-transportation skills to start skipping school, but I sort of couldn’t resist—it was like giving a convicted car thief a job as a valet. I had two after-school jobs in high school, which I used to pay for my car and all of my music and clothes, so I didn’t need to rely on the parentals for any sort of cash. Having your own money makes it MUCH easier to skip, but I’m going to give you some tips to help you out on a small budget.

Tip #1: Transportation

I’m going to assume you already know how to navigate your school’s attendance system and dodge your parents (or at least enough not to get a phone call home about your absence), so the first part of planning to get out of town is actually getting out of town. This sounds like a no-brainer, but if you’re planning to skip school all day, you’ll want to decrease your chances of being spotted by your soccer coach or your actual family members. Also, as with all journeys, literal or philosophical, you have to figure out where you want to go, and how much it will cost to get there. The tips I’m about to give you on how to spend money will not include your travel costs, so it’s important to figure those out first. How are you getting where you want to go—train, bus, older sibling giving you a ride and exchanging gas money for not ratting you out? You need to know exactly how much your transportation is going to cost. If you’re taking a train or bus, can you pay once you’re on board, or do you have to buy a ticket at the station? Find out, because this can be a time-saving measure. (You can usually find this information online, or by calling customer service. If you share a family computer, do this at school or a friend’s house, or at least be sure to erase your browsing history.) When you get your tickets, be sure to buy round-trip fare so that you don’t have to scurry around looking for a ticket machine or waiting in a line five miles long when it’s time to come home. Also, buying round-trip is usually a little bit cheaper. Hang on to your tickets—they’re generally nonrefundable, so if you lose them you have to pay the full fare all over again. Put them safely on an inside pocket of your bag as soon as you get them.

Be sure you know the bus/train/road route; this can be helpful when you get on a bus/train going the wrong way (ahem) or for planning on when you should start gathering your things and getting ready to go home. If your destination is the last stop, you’ll be fine—the conductor will usually make an announcement saying “last stop” pretty loudly. But if you’re getting off anywhere in between (as most of you will be), stay alert.

Also, stay awake. If you’re sleepy and just can’t help it, set an alarm on your phone or watch to wake you up at least 20 minutes before you’re supposed to arrive; you’ll need time to get yourself together and get your bearings, and no one wants to get off of a bus with drool crusted on their face. Be sure to wrap the handles of your bag around your wrist/arm and tuck your bag under your arm, cradle it in your lap, or use it as a pillow so it doesn’t get stolen. Don’t leave pockets open if you’re facing the aisle—anyone can reach over and grab a phone from your hoodie if it’s dangling over the rail. Actually, don’t put anything in your pockets while you’re on the bus/train unless they are the pockets of your jeans and you’ll be sitting on them. Before you get off the bus/train, transfer that stuff to your front pockets and/or your bag.

For the return trip home, you should know where the bus/train is leaving from. I would ultimately panic at the end of every skipped day when it came time to find my gate at the Port Authority; it was never in the same spot, and it was always on the third or fourth level of the building, making it harder to get to in a pinch. Save yourself the terror of watching the last bus/train pull away from you by planning which bus/train you want to be on (look at the schedule in advance), and asking what gate it will be departing from at the information desk when you arrive. You probably still want to plan on getting to the station a little bit before your train leaves just in case they change the track or gate anyway.

Tip #2: What to Bring

If your whole deal is skipping when you’re supposed to be at school, you’ll probably have to use your school bag—nothing sends up alarms quicker than your changing your routine and leaving the house with a duffel bag in place of a knapsack. If you can successfully switch bags without anyone’s noticing or commenting on it, be sure to bring one that’s comfortable enough to wear all day, and not too big. You don’t want a lot of pockets and zippers on it; you’ll probably be digging around in it all day and want to stay loose. Have a dedicated interior pocket for your phone and wallet (pickpocket prevention), and enough room on the inside for anything you want to purchase or bring with you.

Food can get expensive, and you’ll probably want to save your limited funds for other stuff, so bring snacks. It’s a good way to keep yourself fueled while you save your money for records and clothes. Pack a sandwich, fill snack baggies with cookies and crackers, put some granola bars in your bag—you’re looking for things that will keep you full but will also travel well and not get smooshed in the bottom of your bag. If anyone gets suspicious, just tell them you’re packing a lunch for tomorrow…which you are. And bring a refillable water bottle—no need to pay $2 or $3 a pop to stay hydrated.

Important: bring a map of the place you’re going! You can print these out from various sites on the internet, or, if you have a smartphone, use a number of different apps. Sometimes you can grab maps for free at train stations and bus-terminal information booths. Things to mark on your map before you go: museums and libraries (see tip #3), the bus/train station address, police stations (see tip #4), and anything cool you definitely want to see. This helps you figure out how far apart things are, and prioritize your day.

Check the weather. It’s always nice to go to the city on a sunny day, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. See if you’ll need to bring an umbrella, warm gloves, an extra scarf, etc. Also, wear comfortable shoes. If you’re running for a bus (see above) or walking around all day, you will want to be cozy. This is probably not the day to break in your new cute heels.

Tip #3: How to Spend Your Money

For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to use a budget of $25, since most of us can eventually get there by saving allowance, budgeting from our jobs, or praying we get birthday money.

If you’re going to a big city, you have the option to either walk or use the subway system. While you can usually buy a daily rail pass of some sort, you’ll have more fun if you walk. It keeps you above ground, out of the confusion of which train to hop on, and opens up the opportunity to find more spontaneous fun stuff to do. Since you’re not going to be in the city for too long, I suggest walking around. It keeps you closer to the bus/train station, too, so it’s easier to get back. Save the subways for when you’re in a larger group, or for when you have more familiarity with the city. Use your map, and avoid shady-looking alleys and desolate spaces.

Cost: $0 (daily rail pass approx. $7, optional)