For the stories behind these lessons, check out my book!
I turned 31 last year, and it's now been over a decade since my first backpacking trip. After that adventure in Costa Rica I was hooked on traveling. On exploring. On challenging myself in new and unfamiliar ways. I've had some pretty incredible experience (and some less incredible ones) during that time, and I consider myself SO fortunate to have had the chance to wander this world that we live on.
During these travels I've also had the opportunity to learn some valuable lessons, lessons about myself, about the world, and about the art of travelling. They are the most valuable things I could tell anyone who is thinking of making travel a larger part of their life.
Welcome to my lessons learned abroad.
This lesson gets lost amongst the incessant YOLOing we see everyday on social media. It seems like everyone and their dog should be quitting their jobs to travel...but that really isn't feasible for most (or advisable). The overwhelming majority of the world doesn't have the luxury of traveling, and while travel doesn't have to be anything expensive it nevertheless is unattainable for a lot of people. If you have the luxury of packing a bag and going somewhere new, be thankful — it's something most of the world can't do. (especailly people of colour!).
2. You need to take risks.
If you're like me you like things that are safe and secure and reliable. Which is great — that's how our species has survived so long. But every now and then you need to break out of that shell and do something new and exciting. We grow the most when we are challenged, when we are forced outside of our comfort zones...so take a risk! Do something new and challenge yourself. Just don't be an idiot about it — you need to make sure to live to tell the tale!
3. Your morals have to travel with you.
Travel is a way to reinvent yourself. In a new country, you can be a new you; you have the absolute freedom to embrace new aspects of yourself, elements you might not have been able to embrace at home. That being said, while traveling can help us grow and change you can't just hit the road with your morals left behind. Sure, try new things in new countries but don't forget you are a guest in someone else's land. In short, don't be a jerk.
4. Sturdy socks should not be overlooked.
Never underestimate the value of a clean, durable sock. I'm not even kidding.
5. Don't cheap out on your bag — it's your home
Whether you're on the road for a week or a year, your bag is essentially your home. Within it's crowded (and odorous) confines will be all the crap YOU need to make your life manageable. Your bag is an investment, so don't be cheap! When it comes to bags, you get what you pay for. Buy one that will survive your adventures, and never buy a bag you haven't tried on!
6. Being considerate goes a long way.
When you are in a foreign country, being kind and polite is a responsibility. They are a currency, a passport to a better, kinder world. Never leave home without your manners (can you tell I'm Canadian?). It may not always be easy to keep a smile on your face but it will make the lives of everyone around you better, in turn improving your very situation, too. When problems arise, when complications spew chaos all over your plans, a smile on your face is the first step to getting over it. So fake it til you make it, friends!
As for hostel etiquette: it's important. Everyone hates the person who turns the lights on in the middle of the night in a hostel. Everyone hates the person who wakes up at 5am to pack their bag instead of doing it the night before. Everyone hates the dude who wakes everyone up by getting arrested (ok, maybe that one is less common). Regardless, don't be that person. Think about the needs of those around you. Hostels are a community space and this means you'll need to be considerate.
7. The world is scary. It is also amazing.
Pickpocketing. Robbery. Kidnapping. Terrorism. Plane crashes. Natural disasters. The minute you start talking about wanting to travel there will likely be some Negative Nancy to pop up and tell you that the world is a scary place. And they aren't wrong. But they aren't right either.
There are certainly parts of the world that you might want to avoid, but for the most part the world is a pretty safe place. The majority of the people out there are decent. In my experience, they are more likely to help you than harm you. Obviously, you need to be aware of your environment and take reasonable precautions...but you needn't worry too much. You're WAY more likely to die en route to the airport than during your travels. (...too much?)
8. Listening to people shit — and people listening to you shit — isn't the end of the world.
When you're travelling on a budget chances are you will be staying in hostels and guesthouses. This means you'll always be in close proximity to people. THIS means that people will hear you go to the bathroom — and you'll get to hear them, too. Get over it. 60% of the world still lives without toilets so just do your business and be thankful people aren't watching (and if they are, well, you'll survive). Embrace using a squat toilet. Embrace shitting in the woods. Get over the fact that people will hear or see or smell your dirty work. Who cares? We're all just animals. Shrug it off, wash your hands, and get back out there!
9. You need to be attentive.
I get lost all the time when I travel, and it usually happens when I've stopped being attentive. In a foreign country where you are not familiar with everything, details matter. Access to a map on your phone is one thing, but you also need to be able to function without it. So pay attention.
More than that, people who pay attention are much less likely to get robbed. Be aware of your surroundings and safe yourself some trouble.
10. Be frugal, not cheap.
I know you want to get as much bang for your buck (is that even an ok phrase to say?) but there is a fine line between being frugal and cheap. Being frugal means you aim for value. Being cheap means you pinch pennies to the extreme. Don't be cheap.
11. Barter hard, but don't be a jerk.
On that note, you'll always want to make sure you barter hard when traveling to destinations where bartering is the custom. Tourists are regularly charged more than the locals, so be firm with your haggling. That being said, don't go to war over saving a buck. Chances are the person selling the goods needs that dollar more than you do. It's a fine line, so whenever you're in doubt just ask a local (your hostel staff, your Airbnb host, etc.) about the local standards for haggling.
12. Learn how to drive standard.
The overwhelming majority of vehicles in the world are manual (like the beast of a car I rented in Iceland!) Learn to drive stick before you go to save yourself the hassle of learning in a foreign country. Also, only a few countries in the world use miles (I'm looking at you, America) so it won't hurt to learn the metric system while you're at it.
13. Everywhere has something to offer.
Comparison is truly the thief of joy. Try not to compare one destination to another as you'll only end up focusing on the negative aspects. Learn to enjoy each place for what it is. Everywhere has something to offer — it's up to you to find out what.
14. Be patient.
In an interview, I was asked what the most important thing I bring with me travelling is. My answer was — and is — patience. You'll need it constantly, from broken-down buses to crowded marketplaces. You'll need it when your plane is delayed and when you get bed bugs. Nothing is more valuable, so make sure you bring enough!
15. Do research, but not too much.
It never hurts to do some research before you go somewhere...but don't do too much. Part of the charm of going somewhere is to see it with fresh eyes. Some of the best trips I've been on are the ones where I had zero expectations (like Mongolia!). Let yourself be surprised. Put the guidebook down and explore on your own. Let yourself get lost; get off the beaten path to have some truly unique and memorable experiences.
16. Follow your gut — we developed instincts for a reason.
If something doesn't feel right when you're on the road, take note. Our instincts have been honed over hundreds of thousands of years and they exist for a reason. If you're ever in a situation where something feels off, just move on. Maybe it is nothing, maybe it's not. But learn to trust your gut — it might just save you some trouble.
17. Bring a Swiss army knife.
Need to open a can? Need to pop the top of your fifty-cent beer? Need to fend off a jaguar? A Swiss army knife will do it all — and more! Bring one.
18. Always buy travel insurance.
I never travel without insurance, though I hate the entire process. World Nomads is my go-to company (though they have been lackluster in the past). I've heard WAY too many horror stories about people traveling without insurance, getting hurt, and paying out their life savings in medical bills. Don't be stupid — get insurance. Murphy's Law, right?
19. Embrace Couchsurfing.
Sleeping at a stranger's house may seem a bit odd, even questionable, but I can assure you it is THE most interesting way to learn about a new destination. It's also a great way to lower your expenses since it's free! I've met some incredible people all around the globe from Couchsurfing, and truly believe it is a revolutionary way of seeing the world. Couchsurfing will not only give you insider information about your destination but you'll get to connect with another human being on a genuine and intimate level. And the world needs all the connection it can get. I've used to for road trips in the USA and Iceland and met some wonderful people, people who I'm still in touch with to this dayIceland and met some wonderful people, people who I'm still in touch with to this day
20. Write down emergency phrases and EMS numbers before you leave.
I always travel with a journal, and in that journal I write down the emergency service numbers for each country I am visiting. I also write down a few emergency phrases (like “help” or “fire”) in case a problem arises. Since I'm vegan, I also write down a few dietary phrases, as well. While your phone might be able to do this it never hurts to have a hardcopy. Plus, writing it down will ingrain it into your memory a bit better than just googling it.
21. Ears plugs (and an eye mask) are worth their weight in gold.
If you are staying in hostels regularly you will soon learn that ear plugs and an eye mask are indispensable treasures. I'm a very light sleeper, so without them hostels can be unbearable places to sleep. I keep a pair of earplugs on me at all time...because you never know when you'll need a nap.
22. Learn to let go (aka meditate!).
I love a good routine. I love organization and order. I like rhythm and flow and communication. But those are all luxuries the world often doesn't have time for. More often than not, chaos will rule the day so learn to accept the inevitable fact that things will not go according to plan. Learn to adapt. Learn to be calm. Learn to meditate. I promise it will not only improve your travel experiences but it will improve your life as a whole. When the shit hits the fan (and it will!) you need to be able to shrug it off and keep a clear head. It's a skill, one honed with practice...so start practicing!
23. Pack light.
Learn to get by with less. You don't need an 80L bag full of stuff unless you're heading into the bush or into the arctic. For most backpackers, you can get by with a 40L bag — often less. Packing light means you leave all the unnecessary crap at home. It forces you to prioritize, to reflect on what you NEED to get through the day. Packing less means carrying less, means worrying about less. Leave your baggage — emotional and physical — at home. On the road, less is more.
24. Tourism ruins travel.
Going places ruins places. The more people who travel to a destination the more than destination is changed — usually for the worse. Quiet beaches become bustling parties which in turn get bought up and become exclusive resorts. Amazing wonders of the world become cheap tourist traps churning out crappy trinkets and watered-down experiences. This doesn't mean you should just stay home, but it does mean you need to consider your impact on the places you go. YOU shape the future of travel by what you do, where you go, and how you act. Never forget that.
25. You are probably slightly racist.
When I was in Mexico I thought I got robbed. I couldn't find all my cash and my backpack was open. Of course I got robbed, I thought. I'm in Mexico!
Turns out I was just an forgetful idiot and put my money elsewhere. It also turns out that I had a few racist little thoughts creeping around my brain, products of a privileged life as a white guy from Canada.
Chances are you'll notice a few questionable thoughts floating around your brain when you travel, thoughts based on assumptions that are not rooted in any sort of reality. Don't let those thoughts take hold. The overwhelming majority of people in the world are decent. Don't let your assumptions or preconceptions lead you to think otherwise!
26. Most people are great.
I've stayed with strangers all around the world, thanks to Couchsurfing. They have shown me incredible kindness without even knowing me.
I've been picked up by incredible people while hitchhiking, people who bought me lunch and snacks and took me to meet their very families! Strangers have even taken me for tours around the places they live — just to be nice!
I've gone on road trips with complete strangers.
Deep down, most people are great. No, not great. Amazing. This kindness is found in every country, in every corner of the world. Travelers swear by it, and it is a kindness that has deeply changed my perspective of the world. Embrace it. And be sure to pay it forward.
27. At some point, take a long walk.
Walking breaks life down to the most basic of elements. No fancy transportation methods, no corners to cut. You just carry your possessions and you go. You eat, you sleep, and you hike. That's it. No distractions, no excuses. It's there, on the winding roads and paths, that you learn what you are truly made of. You can't hide from yourself when there is nowhere left to go.
For me, it was walking the Camino Frances (and then the Camino Portugues) that reminded me of the simple, necessary pleasure that walking brings. For others I know it was hiking the Appalachian Trail or walking the Kungsledden in Sweden. Wherever you are, find somewhere to walk to. It's a simple way to connect back to the earth, to ground yourself, and to remind yourself how vast this world truly is.
28. Nobody likes the person who has sex in the dorm.
Seriously. I know it can be tempting, but it's just an awkward situation waiting to happen. Trust me. (your bunk mates will thank you!).
And no, I won't elaborate.
29. Don't underestimate the post-travel blues.
Most people are aware of culture shock, but the real pain is the post-travel blues. Coming home from a trip is almost always more difficult than the culture shock of going somewhere new. You've changed, you've grown...but everything back home seems the same. People have moved on. It's hard to get back into the rhythm of your old life.
It's a common feeling, and one I talk about a lot as the Community Forum Manager for Nomadic Matt. There are tricks to get through it, like watching travel movies or reading travel books, finding other travelers to talk to (like on the forums), or planning future adventures. It takes some getting used to, but just know you're not alone in feeling them.
30. Learn to connect by disconnecting.
Travel is about connecting — with people, with culture, with food. It's about experiencing something new and learning from that. In order to experience that connection deeply you need to be present. You need to set down the guide book, ignore Facebook for a few minutes, and be there. As technology creeps further into our lives this can become tricky. But there is something to be learned from disconnecting. In my experience, it's really only once you've disconnected that you can really connect with where you are.
31. Slow down and enjoy the fucking ride.
Travel isn't a race, and it doesn't matter how many countries you've been to. Travel is about quality, not quantity. So slow down and enjoy the ride. And every time you start to get annoyed or irritated at whatever hiccup the Road throws at you (because it will toss shade and chaos all over your plans as often as it can!) step back and ask yourself this: “Is this going to be a problem in 5 years?” If it is, worry accordingly. If it's not, just fucking relax. You're glued to a watery chunk of rock hurtling the space at mind-boggling speeds. So chill. A little perspective goes a long way.
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Every lesson here was learned the hard way, so I hope this list helps you in your future travels. What lessons have you learned on the road? Share your tips and tricks in the comments!