With 25 countries and nearly 25 years under my belt, I have a few loosely spun travel philosophies that undergird any trip I take. And since I learned how to find cheap flights like a pro using Skyscanner, it’s become so much more accessible! Of course, each person is different—everyone has different tastes, priorities, expectations, and personalities. Nonetheless, I truly believe this set of broad traveling rules can enhance anyone’s travel experience, be it a brief foray in a new city or an extended excursion across a fresh continent. Read about what I’ve learned from traveling, take it in stride and apply what works for you!
Note: These photographs were all taken with our Canon Rebel and iPhone 4s, but we have since upgraded to a Canon 80D, DJI Phantom, and iPhone 6s Plus and LOVE it! Read Best Budget Travel Cameras to Improve Your Travel Photography for more info.
- 1 What I’ve learned from traveling to 25 countries:
- 1.1 Be flexible
- 1.2 Drop your expectations
- 1.3 Indulge in photos but not at the expense of your experience
- 1.4 Try food you would never eat at home
- 1.5 Don’t break the bank for accommodation
- 1.6 Don’t do only touristy things
- 1.7 BUT, don’t dismiss all touristy things
- 1.8 Be uncomfortable
- 1.9 Explore on your own
- 1.10 The journey is the destination
- 1.11 This Is What I’ve Learned from Traveling
- 1.12 Like this post?
- 1.13 You Might Also Appreciate…
- 1.14 What have you learned from traveling?
What I’ve learned from traveling to 25 countries:
Number 1 on the list of what I’ve learned from traveling? Travel is unpredictable. Trains get cancelled, flights get missed, things get stolen or lost—that’s just the nature of the beast. Go ahead and check out 9 disasters that can happen while traveling and how to prevent them. A successful traveler has to relinquish some power over their journey to fate, and go with the flow.
Here’s an example.
Our trip to Peru a few years ago was all plotted out—train and bus tickets purchased, hostels booked, etc. But after we had spent a day in Lima and were preparing for our next leg of travel, we learned that protests throughout the entire southern region had halted all bus travel.
We were stranded in Lima and had no foreseeable way of getting to Cusco, and thus to Machu Picchu. In a situation like this, you have to accept and adapt. We ultimately decided to drop an extra $120 on last minute plane tickets to Cusco so we could make it to Machu Picchu (spoiler alert: we ended up having Machu Picchu almost entirely to ourselves), but we also brainstormed alternatives like traveling to the desert and spending the week doing some badass Nazca desert sports.
The last thing to do is panic, because a) that’s counter-productive and b) whatever we would’ve ended up doing, we would’ve been in freaking Peru and it would’ve been amazing. I’ve lost an iPod, cash, what had been my one and only working debit card—and when these things happen, you just have to problem-solve and at a certain point, let it go, or decide to also lose your trip. Learn from it, and move on. Wanna know what I’ve learned from traveling? Nothing is the end of the world.
Want to learn from other travelers?
You’ll want to check out this ultimate list of the Top 200 Travel Books!
Drop your expectations
Here’s a second point of what I’ve learned from traveling: expectations? Drop ’em.
Don’t go to Italy expecting to fall in love with some Roman hottie and get serenaded by the Coliseum (true story, I did once actually get serenaded by the Coliseum—but it wasn’t no Johnny Depp and I wouldn’t bank on it happening again).
What I mean is, don’t set your traveling expectations so narrow that any experience other than the plot of Chocolat will have you disappointed. G. K. Chesterton had a great traveling quote on the matter (though maybe not the most gender inclusive): “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” What I’ve learned from traveling is the point of travel isn’t to gloss over the flesh and spontaneity and realness of a place to a fit a certain mold made before your plane even landed. Do take your experience for what it is—beautiful in its uniqueness, liberating in its shapelessness, and rich in its reality.
Feeling that Fernweh? Learn about this and and more Unusual Travel Words!
And how about what I’ve learned from traveling when it comes to taking pictures?
Oh, selfies. I hate taking them, but always appreciate when, after coming back from a trip and the travel sickness sets in, I can pull up some goofy selfies from traveling to the Acropolis or the Eiffel Tower and relive the memories. Seriously, effing #YOLO. We live in the digital age, when you can literally take thousands of pictures on one little techie SD fleck that will help document and memorialize your trip for years to come, and you’d be silly to not take advantage of that. Check out my guide, Best Budget Travel Cameras to Improve Your Travel Photography, for my recommended affordable cameras to get you started.
BUT, here’s a huge caveat—recognize that standing behind (or in front of?) the camera can inhibit your ability to experience the present if you’re not careful, and even affect your ability to remember the moment in the future. Personally, I take a crap-ton of pictures so I have them to enjoy later and post them on Instagram, then stuff my camera away so I can also appreciate the moment without the lens. And don’t forget to back up your photos!
What I’ve learned from traveling when it comes to food? Take the plunge.
When will you ever be in Thailand being offered water buffalo and water bugs again? Probably never. Take the plunge and eat those silk worms, those raw chicken livers, those curdled pig’s blood cubes. I’ve eaten all those listed above, plus scorpions in China, locusts in Austria, and some other squirmy tasties. Even now, as an English teacher in Korea, I’ll eat blood sausage or raw shrimp if it’s offered to me by my boss—and I’m a person who had been a happy vegetarian for ten years.
Food is so much a part of culture, and you’re missing a huge part of the country you’re traveling to by swearing off foods that make you uncomfortable—and no, this doesn’t only include the, shall we say, “exotic” creepy-crawly variety. Broaden your mind and your taste buds, dear comrade!
Craving some food posts?
What I’ve learned from traveling: there’s more to accommodation than hotels and hostels.
Hostels are the backpacker’s refuge, averaging at around $10/night for a bed in a dorm. But even that can add up during longer trips. Unless I’m on a tight schedule or have a specific hotel in mind, I always look to CouchSurfing to find accommodation. You can meet locals and get a taste of their POV of their region, and, as a plus, you get a free place to crash for the night.
I’ve stayed on couches with Germans for Oktoberfest, dusty floors with art school Parisians, and on comfortable beds with Moroccans—and all have been amazing traveling experiences for different reasons.
The level of interaction you have with your host is something that should be communicated and established from the beginning, as some hosts might expect more or less amounts of time with you, and you’ll want to be matched with someone on the same page.
And for extra brownie points, try to bring a small gift for your host! I once hosted a German when I was living in LA who brought me these badass vintage Oktoberfest beer steins that I cherish to this day, but honestly even something as small as a bar of chocolate would be a thoughtful and appreciative gesture for your host.
And for long-term travel, CouchSurfing isn’t the only option available to you. Fantastic services like WWOOF and workaway sites provide hosting options for travelers with plenty of time but not a whole lotta money who are willing to volunteer at farms/hostels/ranches/etc. in exchange for food and a place to stay. A quick Google search will provide you with thousands of options in thousands of cities—from vineyard work in Tuscany to resort work in Egypt, the possible experiences are endless.
EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES ABROAD
And of course, there are plenty of accessible opportunities for finding employment abroad that will allow you to experience new cultures and places for extended periods of time. We’ve chosen teaching English abroad ourselves, with teaching job opportunities available all over Europe, Asia, and South America. While the requirements vary widely from country to country and school to school, it’s very possible to find positions that require nothing more than a bachelor’s degree for native English speakers, with the perks of free rent, free airfare, and a bonus upon completion of a one-year contract. If teaching isn’t your thing, another fantastic job opportunity for living abroad is working as an Au Pair. Check out this guide to learn more about How to Travel the World as an Au Pair. If teaching English or being an Au Pair don’t sound like your cup of tea, there are tons more ways to earn money on the road, such as editing and proofreading or working at campgrounds.
What I’ve learned from traveling: you’re not getting a full flavor of a new place if you’re only traveling to places jam-packed with other tourists.
Taking a cue from our fellow inhabitants of Korea, Ben and I refer to any foreigner as waygook, and we’re on full alert if we see far too many waygooks around without a local in sight. It’s this waygook-phobia that compelled us to find this incredible Hidden Beach on Jeju Island, South Korea as well as the Secret Beach in Mirissa, Sri Lanka, actually!
In Sri Lanka, for example, we regretted spending some of our limited time doing some of the more touristy things. While beautiful, our safari in Yala National Park (famous for having the highest concentration of leopards in the world) was chock full of tourists who were also on holiday for the New Year—so much so that many of the animals stayed in hiding. Had we known it would be so busy with waygooks, we would’ve chosen traveling to a less popular park! In fact, a few of our favorite experiences from our Sri Lanka trip were visiting a Hindu temple service in Colombo, and exploring the Dambulla Elephant Trash Dump with a local.
Want to learn more about what I learned from traveling in Sri Lanka? Check out our entire Sri Lanka itinerary!
What I’ve learned from traveling is that the promotion of tourism in a place has its pros and cons—while the maintenance and accessibility of a place makes it easier for everyone, you and me included, this ease and commodification of a place can negatively impact your experience (not to mention that of the people who live there). You certainly don’t want to marinate in a sea of waygooks your whole trip for that reason.
When Ben and I were staying in a hostel in Cusco, Peru (one example in which a tight schedule didn’t permit for CouchSurfing), we overheard a girl saying Machu Picchu was over-rated and that she probably wasn’t going to go. To which, the well-organized mind can only say, “Betch, please.”
Here’s the thing: what I’ve learned from traveling is that these places tend to have hype for good reason. Don’t trek to Paris and not go to the Eiffel Tower. Don’t schlep to Beijing and not see the Great Wall. And under no circumstances are you going to knock on the door of Machu Picchu and not enter.
While we loved our local experiences in Sri Lanka, we also adored the more touristy Lion Rock of Sigiriya and Temple of Tooth in Kandy. And the same goes for Vietnam—I loved eating at the local Vietnamese food vendors, but I wouldn’t give up our Sapa Trekking experience in a heartbeat!
Check your snobbery at the door and strive for balance—mix some of those “touristy” things in with some more local “authentic” experiences. This is where CouchSurfing comes in! Your host can be a great source of information for the best local places to visit in their area, as well as the best traveling maneuvers (time to visit, locations to scope) to approach those touristy sites.
I’ve been lucky to have the chance to stay in some bougie digs (which I most certainly would never turn down), but it’s the bumming vagabondage I remember most. Staying out all winter night curling up next to a friend in Lyon or Picadilly Square waiting for the subways to open because we didn’t book a hostel after the Lyon Light Show or had a long layover in London, a string of hours-long bus and train rides down the spine of Morocco, or through the heart of Sri Lanka, hole-in-the-wall hostels and tick-friendly floor cots in Thai villages, walking in on five Chinese men in a row smoking, squatting, taking a dump, and perusing their phones with the doors open—these are the things I look back on fondly.
Sleepless, delirious, bone-breaking travel with a heavy backpack and cold feet—these are the things that distinguish a traveler from a tourist (as tenuous as these distinctions may always be). This is what I’ve learned from traveling. In the words of Paul Theroux, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”
Exploring a new place on your own can be such an invigorating and confidence-building experience. Don’t believe me? Read this experience of the Accidental Solo Traveller. What I’ve learned from traveling is that familiar people are safety blankets, and can have the effect of insulating you from your unfamiliar environment.
At least once in your life, you should enjoy the companionless wander in a new destination. Take a note from Liberty Hyde Bailey, who wrote, “When the traveler goes alone he gets acquainted with himself.”
Traveling by yourself forces you to take responsibility over yourself and your awareness of your surroundings, as well as your place in it. It’s a wonderful lesson in travel, and in life itself.
One of my favorite stories that highlights this is not my own, but of a friend I studied abroad with in Thailand. It was her first time traveling outside of the states, and the initial culture shock kept her around our classmates. A few weeks in, she decided to explore a local market on her own. She found it to be a liberating experience, unique from her outings with classmates. It dramatically changed her view of Thailand and gave her a sense of confidence that deteriorated any initial hostility she had felt from this unfamiliar country, culture and language. There’s a token of anonymity in traveling to and exploring an entirely new place without any ties back to what you already know, and the self-reliance you have to employ as you feel your way around by yourself is exhilarating and confidence-boosting!
Check out how traveling alone makes you a badass!
Yes, this might be one of the most overused phrases among travelers, but clichés can have honest roots. What I’ve learned from traveling is that whether you’re exploring a single city in a month, or venturing across 10 cities in a week—each step and each moment marks a fundamental stroke in the traveling experience as a whole. There’s perhaps no clearer examples of this philosophy than these most adventurous road trips of all time or this epic 2000 km rickshaw race in India covered by The Broke Backpacker.
And even if you’re not venturing across a subcontinent in a psychedelic rickshaw, this notion that the journey is the destination still rings true. I have fond memories from our non-stop itinerary in Sri Lanka, bouncing from Colombo to Anuradhapura to Dambulla and Sigiriya to Kandy, standing on the train from Kandy to Ella through the tea country for 8 hours, to a few of the wildest bus rides of my life traveling to Tissamaharama, to the longest tuktuk ride of my life to Mirissa, and finally back to the capital at Colombo—all in one week. While I would happily go back to any of these cities for weeks or months and explore every nook and cranny, when seeing such a broad spectrum of the country in such a condensed space of time, every bus ride, every train ride, every attempt to hail a taxi becomes a cultural experience in and of itself. There’s nothing like inhaling the breath and sweat of a sardine can bus of locals for a sense of the real. Even though it’s not something you would see on the cover of a travel brochure, I wouldn’t give up that memory for the world.
Another quintessential embodiment of this is hitchhiking! Though Americans tend to shy away from this tradition, many travelers continue to rely on hitchhiking as a form of transportation and engagement with locals, especially in Europe. I haven’t ever partaken in hitchhiking myself but you can check out these Hitchhiking Tips if this is something that interests you. Just as with Couchsurfing and Airbnb, safety and following your intuition are key!
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
-Robert Louis Stevenson
This Is What I’ve Learned from Traveling
You know you’re a travel junkie when even thinking about traveling in the upcoming years gets you jittery. I took my first international trip to the Philippines when I was still attached at the nip, and now nearly 25 years later I can honestly say, there’s nothing else I’d rather have define my life.
Travel is both humbling and emboldening. It forces you to confront realities about yourself and the context you inhabit that you may not otherwise by privileged to realize—and that’s really the most important rule about travel that should guide you. If nothing else, this is what I’ve learned from traveling.
Take this note from Mark Twain’s lasting vitality, pulled from the pages of Innocents Abroad: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Travel is not merely an escape, but an opportunity to learn. So journey on, rock ‘n’ roam, and get yourself out there!
Need some more wanderlust inspiration? Check out these helpful travel tips!
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What have you learned from traveling?
Share in a comment below!