Today marks the official one year anniversary of my flight to India — a flight that kicked off a year-long journey around the world that took me to Asia, Central America, South America and Australia. It’s absolutely been the most exciting year of my life, but it hasn’t come without a lot of lessons, some more personal and some just downright practical for making the most of any trip. I hope that some of these observations will be helpful for your future journeys and may even spark a few insights of your own!
#1: Routine Isn’t Always Lethal
You know that quote you’ve likely seen floating around Instagram or Pinterest? “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine – it’s lethal.” It’s by Paulo Coelho. And while I love Paulo Coehlo, I don’t necessarily agree with him. After one year of having absolutely no routines set for myself (no set wake up time, no particular workout regime or writing schedule, etc) I can honestly say that there’s something to be said for having a little bit of continuity to each day or week. Having routines and schedules in place (no matter where in the world you are) can help you sleep better, reduce overwhelm and increase your feelings of productivity and organization.
The enemy isn’t routine, but rather filling your days with things you dislike — things that you struggle to accomplish because you don’t see the inherent value. So instead, try to add into your schedule more activities that you love (and maybe a few that you don’t love doing in the moment, but improve upon your life in the long run–ie. exercise). Your routine doesn’t have to be your killer.
#2: Most People Just Won’t Get It — And That’s OK
One of the things that’s been the hardest to navigate since I started this journey is trying to explain my life to friends and relatives back home. I’m often met with many questions surrounding my current lifestyle like: What’s my plan? When do I think I’ll settle down? Am I going to find a place to live again now that I’ve “finished” my year of travel? These aren’t all questions I have answers to, but I’ve witnessed a very real gap in the way people are able to comprehend my current lifestyle. I realize the way I’m living is definitely not “normal” on any spectrum of the American standard, but these bewildered reactions I receive make it that much more awesome when I meet people who do get it and are understanding, or are working towards the same location-independent lifestyle.
#3: I Am Much More Capable Than I Ever Imagined
I’ll never forget my nerves when I got on my first solo flight to Tokyo. I would be arriving completely alone and staying for the first couple of days — yep, you guessed it — by myself. Not only was I en route to a destination that didn’t speak English, but I couldn’t even pronounce the letters in the Japanese alphabet. To say I was a little worried about how I would fare in this foreign land is an understatement.
Turns out, within days I was bopping from neighborhood to neighborhood on public transport like a pro, eating my way through every sushi and soba noodle joint solo and gaining more confidence by the day. In the past, I found it easy to rely on others when traveling in groups, especially with those type-A friends who needed to plan every detail by the hour (that is definitely not me). Because of this, I thought for a long time that maybe I wasn’t cut out to go it alone. Wrong. I think you’ll find that if you travel solo you’re capable of so much more than you ever thought possible — and there’s nothing quite like taking an awesome trip AND getting a confidence boost while you’re at it.
#4: The New Frontier of Travel is Below the Surface
When I learned to scuba dive in Indonesia last year, I had an “aha moment.” It clicked for me that I had only been seeing one side of this Earth my entire life. Of course, I had been snorkeling before, but nothing is quite like being completely submerged and at one with the amazing marine life we rarely come into contact with. When 71% of our Earth is covered by water, it’s crazy to think that so many people only explore what’s on land. If you’ve never tried scuba diving, I highly recommend trying it out once just to see if you like it. You might just be surprised like me and fall in love. Extra bonus of diving? The ocean is one tourist attraction that you don’t have to battle hoards of tourists to see!
#5: The Places I Most Enjoy Are Often Out of My Comfort Zone
Don’t get me wrong, some of my all-time favorite destinations are places like Hawaii, London and Australia, but there’s a different feeling that comes over me when I’m visiting destinations that don’t feel like another version of home. India, Cuba, Vietnam — these are some places that immediately come to mind. Getting thrown out of my comfort zone allows me to stay more in tune with the present as there is so much more to navigate, like different customs, languages, safety precautions and ways of expressing oneself.
Traveling to places that feel comfortable for me is like a vacation, while going somewhere completely foreign is where the real growth begins. And as challenging as certain destinations can be (ahem, India you are no walk in the park), in retrospect I often find myself missing that sense of awareness and child-like wonder I felt in those moments where I was equally overwhelmed and in awe of a place.
#6: Convertible Wheeled Luggage is the Answer
Before I left for my “year of travel,” I did a lot of research. I mean, a LOT. I was obsessive and thorough, poring through every Pinterest article, blog post and travel magazine I could get my hands on. One of the most perplexing topics of interest was what sort of luggage to bring on my adventures. Should I buy wheeled luggage, or a typical backpacker bag rivaling the size of my body? Will I be judged if I show up to a hostel with a “fancy” roller suitcase? What bag won’t incur me millions of dollars in overweight baggage fees? Will any bag be capable of fitting my whole life into it? Do you think I was overly stressed about all this? Ok, likely yes. But I didn’t want to choose the wrong bag and then be stuck with it for months on end regretting my decision.
So I’m going to make this easy for you. If you’re planning to travel long-term and contemplating any of the same questions that I was, here’s my personal answer. It’s called a wheeled convertible backpack and REI makes an awesome option called the Stratocruiser, which I happily used all year. This bag wheels but has hidden straps that can convert to a backpack if need be, although I can count the times I had to use it as such on one hand. I mostly wheeled it everywhere (who wants unnecessary back pain??), and it fit most everything I needed for months on end. *Note: I also travel with a tech backpack, plus a tote bag that holds in-flight essentials and valuables I don’t want to check.
#7: Just Because You’re Away Doesn’t Mean Your Problems Disappear
One thing that’s changed since I’ve been away is that I’ve had to deal with other people’s problems a lot less. I love my friends and I’m always there to be a listening ear for them, but I guess there’s something about being physically distant that makes me a less desirable candidate for friends to lament their day-to-day problems with. But here’s something that hasn’t changed — and that’s my own problems. Yes, there are times when you might be exploring the markets of Istanbul or munching a macaron in Paris instead of sitting at your office desk, but the real issues below the surface? Those don’t disappear just because you’ve changed country codes. So if you sense yourself longing for an adventure because you need to escape reality, know that reality will barge right back on in when your trip is over (or sooner). It isn’t travel’s responsibility to fix your problems, it’s yours.
#8: Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute to Book Flights
I know what you’re thinking…this is like rule #1 in the book of travel. Well, after getting used to being on the road with no set itinerary for awhile, let’s just say I was getting a bit too comfortable booking things last minute — flights included. It was coming up on the time when I needed to book a roundtrip flight to Singapore from Bali or else I’d risk over staying my visa, and I was feeling indecisive about my plans. Instead of just booking it (the flight is known as the cheapest for visa runs and typically costs approximately $130), I waited until the last minute and ended up spending over $300, which was one of my most expensive flights of the year. Lesson learned.
#9: Expectations are the Killer of a Great Trip
While it’s great to get excited about an upcoming trip and relish in the anticipation, I try to avoid turning that excitement into expectation. Far too often in my travels I’ve found that those bucket list destinations, while still incredible and worth doing, come with their downsides. These places are popular for a reason, right? Which means the territory probably comes with a lot of crowds, commercialism, fighting to get “that perfect shot” or maybe even waiting in line for it. Plus, many photos you see of a popular global tourist attraction are just from one angle or perspective and leave out a ton of context. Just remember, what you see on Instagram isn’t the whole picture, and if a fast food chain ends up being next door to that World Wonder you’ve been waiting your whole life to see, don’t let it ruin your experience.
#10: Learning a New Language Can Actually Be Fun
I was never a natural language learner back in school when I took French for five years and to be quite honest, I often felt embarrassed and shy to speak in front of the class in my jumbled fake French accent. Until I started traveling in Central and South America this past year, I really had zero interest in taking up a second language.
As soon as I got to Cuba, however, something clicked for me. I was traveling with a couple friends who could hold a conversation in Spanish (albeit a very basic one), and I was jealous. In a country where English is not widely spoken, I so desperately wanted to know everything they were discussing with our host families, waiters at restaurants and salsa instructors. I wanted to be able to confidently order my ropa vieja and eloquently argue with taxi drivers who were trying to take advantage of us. So I immediately downloaded the Duolingo app and my Spanish improved over the course of about two months, but I still have a long way to go. What I’m most excited about is that this experience opened me up to the possibility of immersing myself more in Latin cultures. Who knows, maybe a long-term South American stint and Spanish lessons are in the foreseeable future!
#11: Solo Travel Isn’t the Holy Grail
I read a lot of blog posts and stories about solo travel before embarking on my own such adventure, and felt this overwhelming sense that there were a lot more female travelers praising the virtues of solo travel as opposed to traveling with a friend, partner or group. These stories definitely helped me to gain a sense of confidence and community in my impending adventure, but after traveling in nine different countries alone last year, I have to be honest and say that I don’t think going solo trumps all other forms of travel like some will tell you.
Of course there are the obvious perks: not dealing with anyone else’s expectations, emotions or needs other than your own. There are of course challenges to traveling solo, but in many ways I find it easier. However, when I look back on my most memorable travel experiences, they’re all shared with friends, whether it was running through the town of Sayulita in a torrential rainstorm in search of margaritas, doing yoga on a rooftop in Pushkar, India, or lying silently on the desert ground in Israel below a bed of stars… I don’t think any of these experiences would have had quite the same impact if I’d spent them alone. That isn’t to say that you can’t meet new people while abroad and share memories with new friends, but at the end of the day I think humans are meant to experience connection and bond with others, and travel is one of the best ways to do that.
#12: I’ll Never Regret Waking Up for Sunrise
As much as I would like to be, I’m just not a morning person. I’ll stay up to the wee hours of the night doing the most random things to avoid going to bed, but then when it comes time to wake up I never want to emerge from the covers. Healthy, right? But there’s one thing I never regret waking up for, and that’s sunrise. Especially for those passionate about photography, sunrises will get you better photos than sunset any day because there are simply just less people around to mess up your shot. So next time you’re tempted to hit snooze, force yourself to jump out of bed and just know that an epic memory is potentially in the making.
#13: Always Get Travel Insurance. Always.
Until I decided to travel full-time for a year, I never bought travel insurance. I just viewed it as an upsell and wanted to cut costs as much as possible. However, with a full year of travel ahead and two parents with cancer, I figured it would probably be wise of me to invest in some insurance in case any emergencies were to happen back home. Well, I’m so glad I did because exactly one month into my trip I had to take a one-way flight home from Hong Kong booked four hours in advance that cost me over $1000.
World Nomads not only refunded me for the entire flight, but also for a flight to Thailand and two nights of hotel stays that I was never able to use. World Nomads also allows you to make claims for things like injuries abroad, lost luggage, stolen goods, trip interruptions and more. Travel insurance is a smart thing to have for your next trip and I personally use World Nomads, although there are plenty of other insurance providers out there.
#14: Your Intuition is Your Greatest Guide
Over the years I’ve traveled, I’ve had several situations come up where something I really wanted to do on my trip felt forced, rushed or against my intuition. When you’ve travelled so far to a particular destination, it’s hard to let go of something you’ve been eagerly anticipating or wanting to check off your bucket list, because you don’t know when your next opportunity may be. However, time and time again I’ve found that my gut always knows best.
If something doesn’t feel quite right or safe, listen to what your intuition is telling you. If you’re trying to push yourself but your body is retaliating, pay attention. If you’re trying to force a situation that just doesn’t seem to be working out, don’t fight it. Trust your gut. It won’t lead you astray.
#15: America Has a Long Way to Go
Being an American, you’re brought up to believe that America is the greatest and most powerful country in the world. The land of the free. The place where dreams can become reality. People immigrate here believing they can make a better life for themselves. I’m not saying that isn’t true for some, but after traveling to four different continents last year and discussing important issues with people from all over the world, it’s become very obvious to me that we have a lot of progress to catch up on.
I don’t want to get too political because that’s not what this blog is about, but I think it’s healthy to question if the systems we have in place are working and to look to other countries who are doing it better. Between the debilitating student loans hanging over much of the millennial generation to the expensive price tag of our healthcare system, to the increasingly larger gaps between those struggling to live day to day and those with more money than they could ever know what to do with, we obviously have broken systems that need help.
#16: Travel Only Breeds More Travel
I thought that after a year of traveling non-stop that I’d be exhausted and ready to throw in the towel, or — gasp — “settle down.” And while yes, I am exhausted, and yes I do need a break sometimes, the list of countries and cities and hidden corners around the world calling my name has only grown exponentially. I guess the more you travel, the more you realize how much is out there — and isn’t that a beautiful thing? Travel isn’t just something that I’ll have done in my youth before starting a family and saving for retirement. It will undoubtedly be a huge player in the rest of my life.
#17: The Final Word… Always Check for Bed Bugs
On a practical note for those that don’t want to end up in traveller’s hell, all I have to say is: check the bed for bed bugs when you arrive at any new accommodation. And if you find anything of suspicion, run like mad!