What I’ve Learned from Traveling to 25 Countries

With 25 countries and nearly 25 years under my belt, I have a few loosely spun travel philosophies that undergird any trip I take. Of course, each person is different—everyone has different tastes, priorities, expectations, and personalities. Nonetheless, I truly believe this set of broad travel 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 on, take it in stride and apply what works for you!

What I’ve learned from traveling to 25 countries:

 

  1. Be flexible

Travel is unpredictable. Trains get cancelled, flights get missed, things get stolen or lost—that’s just the nature of the beast. 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, but we also brainstormed alternatives like taking off 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. Nothing is the end of the world.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru: totally worth the extra problem-solving it took to get there

 

 

  1. Drop your expectations

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 expectations so narrow that any experience other than the plot of Chocolat will have you disappointed. G. K. Chesterton had a great quote (though maybe not the most gender inclusive): “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” 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.

Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech, Morocco: sometimes the spontaneous moments are the best, like when I got pulled into this circle in the Jemaa el-Fna

 

  1. Indulge in photos/selfies, but not at the expense of your experience

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 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. 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, then stuff my camera away so I can also appreciate the moment without the lens.

Eiffel Tower, France
Eiffel Tower, France: I had to stand there in the cold like a fool trying to get this selfie, but look at that sky!

 

 

  1. Try food you would never eat at home

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 visiting 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!

Fermented Crab in Korea, shell and all!
Fermented Crab in Korea, shell and all

 

  1. Don’t break the bank: use services like CouchSurfing to save $$$

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, 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 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.

Our CouchSurfing host, Federico, showing us absinthe rituals in the oldest bar in Barcelona
Our CouchSurfing host, Federico, showing us absinthe rituals in the oldest bar in Barcelona

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.

 

  1. Don’t do only touristy things

You’re not getting a full flavor of a new place if you’re only visiting 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. 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 a less popular park! 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 marinade in a sea of waygooks your whole trip for that reason.

Monkeys in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka: we may not have seen any leopards, but we definitely saw monkeys!

 

  1. BUT, don’t dismiss all touristy things

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: 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. 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 maneuvers (time to visit, locations to scope) to approach those touristy sites.

Having a rosary blessed by Pope Francis in the Vatican on Easter
Having a rosary blessed by Pope Francis in the Vatican on Easter: very very touristy, and very VERY worth it

 

  1. Be uncomfortable

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). In the words of Paul Theroux, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”

Lyon Light Festival, France
Lyon Light Festival, France: totally worth staying out all night in the winter cold

 

  1. Explore on your own

Exploring a new place on your own can be such an invigorating and confidence-building experience. 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 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 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!

Paris, France
Paris, France: Wandering around a new city on your own is easy in a magical place like Paris!

 

  1. The journey is the destination

Yes, this might be one of the most overused phrases among travelers, but clichés can have honest roots. 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 experience as a whole. I have fond memories from Sri Lanka, bouncing from Colombo to Anuradhapura to Dambulla and Sigirya 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 to make it 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.

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka: Standing on the train through tea country was a scenic and cultural experience all on its own

 

 

You know you’re a travel junkie when even thinking about trips you might take 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. 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!

 

What I've Learned From Traveling to 25 Countries

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  1. 25 Countries.. Simply WoW!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post. The first time I went travelling by myself I’d planned every hostel, every night’s accommodation and researched all the trains and buses to get me from Singapore to Bangkok in three weeks only for me to meet a group of people on the first day so all my plans (happily) went out the window and then I had my appendix out nine days into the trip in Phuket! I stayed out for three and a half months going to Australia and New Zealand too and had the best time ever. So many wonderful things will happen when you travel, I love it!
    Katie
    TheEclecticity.org

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a fabulous experience, Katie! Thanks for sharing your story, we love meeting like-minded people. By the way, let us know if you’d ever be interested in receiving a guest post for your blog! (or even vice versa, because even though we’re just getting started on wordpress, we have a pretty good following on tumblr!)

      Like

  3. So true. Loved the part about expectations. Always turns out better than what I’ve planned. And the relationships.. Nothing like making new friends

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is such a great post! As a frequent traveler, I will definitely be referring to this in the future! xo – http://www.thegramercyfox.com

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice!! I could relate myself to this! Nice post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Wanderlust and Wonderment and commented:
    These tips are great and worth remembering!

    Like

  7. Love this list! Still learning to master that balance of doing touristy/non-touristy things. So many great insights…can’t wait to read more!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love this! So true!

    Like

  9. I’m not easily inspired, but dammit, you’ve inspired me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Travel and Destinations May 5, 2016 — 3:31 am

    Really nice post and thoughts. I like your points on don’t only do touristy things, and about trying different food that you don’t get at home.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thanks for all this advice! Travelling has been on and off recently as my husband (2nd) also loved travelling, but got Alzheimers, which made it a nightmare, and then had to stop, so I’m back to travelling alone again, New York here I come, in 2 weeks time!!

    Like

  12. Peri Dwyer Worrell May 6, 2016 — 8:16 am

    This is beautifully written and reflective. Great quotes you’ve chosen!

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Travel Nurse April May 10, 2016 — 9:26 am

    Keep on traveling!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. A great amount of advice for travelling. Well thought of and put together, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wonderful post!

    Like

  16. Well said! You understand the value of letting the adventure have you!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is so inspiring! I am going to Cambodia in summer, wondering if you’ve been there? If so.. any tips? Thanks! x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, hun! I haven’t made it to Cambodia yet, but Ben has! He suggests that when you go to Angkor Wat (it’s safe to assume you’re going to Angkor Wat, right?), to make sure that you go around and see as many sites at Angkor as you can, not just Angkor Wat. The outlying areas will be less crowded and more peaceful, allowing you to explore the ruins without all the other tourists. You can even rent a bike and go around, or hire a driver to take you to a place further away from the hub of tourists. Also, if you get the chance, try to check out the sunrise at Angkor Wat! Stunning!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks a lot and yes Angkor Wat is on the list, I think it’ s more of what to do in Phnom Penh because we’re flying to the capital. I’ll check out other blogs too tho so thanks again for being so kind x

        Liked by 1 person

  18. I LOVE this list. I agree with everything! Thanks for checking out my blog too. =)

    Like

  19. Thanks for your Like of Black Sea Pilgrim. Interesting to see your posts on Marrakech and Jeju where we have visited in the last year. To me, your recommendation, “Be Flexible” says it all. Cheers.

    Like

  20. ” when these things happen, you just have to problem-solve and at a certain point, let it go ” i.e., life happens, thank you, God.

    ” Nothing is the end of the world. ” …a very profound statement, and yet…

    I adore GK Chesterton, btw. I am also gratified to find I am a traveler and not a tourist; when I took a cruise on a Norwegian cruise ship, I did not anticipate ending up with a delightful relationship with a Norwegian passenger…”rich in its reality.”

    Speaking of photos and selfies, have you ventured over to read my posts Device Protection and No Devices?
    https://theviewfrom5022.com/2016/02/20/device-protection/
    https://theviewfrom5022.com/2016/02/23/no-devices/

    I also love Paul Theroux.

    ” clichés can have honest roots ” that’s why they are cliché…like myth and allegory

    ” There’s nothing like inhaling the breath and sweat of a sardine can bus of locals for a sense of the real. ” wonderful imagery, dear.

    “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.” I will argue with Mark only a bit; I am old, and with the exception of a few highly confining cruises, have not traveled much, and therefore have vegetated in my little corner of the earth (which is now in rural, backwards, upstate South Carolina) but have somehow gained enough wisdom to have put to death much of the prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness I was raised with. In fact, those are the issues I write most about. Blogs like yours (and I am delighted to have found you) lift me out of the ‘hollar’ and transport me. But, I digress…back to your wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you for so many great ideas in this post. I’m going to try them!

    Like

  22. wonderful advice!

    Like

  23. great post, and did not seem too detailed to me (maybe because I love details myself)! 😀 I like your reflections: even though my approach to travelling it very different, I share your philosophy and your inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Great stuff! I completely agree on the technology. Love it but hate it.
    Thank you so much for this post!

    http://www.offbeatpath.net

    Like

  25. i am completely in smitten by your post and your blog…!!!!
    the pictures and the words compliment one another so well, that they flow like ether, through to the readers head and soul….! oh, and the quotes you have used here, they are simply amazing..!
    kudos to the traveler in you..! hoping to read more of your posts, and maybe pick a pointer or two from it!!!
    have a good day! cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Wonderful post and exactly what I needed right now. Am standing here as I write these words with my backpack waiting in the hallway. Only few moments away from starting my trip. Leaving the place I called home for the past 3 months behind me. I will read it again and again. Very well written indeed 😄 Look forward to read more of your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  27. I’m so happy I ended up on this blog! Looking forward to reading more of these xx

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Well written and I so agree with you. Travel is the best experience we can give ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Reblogged this on nishasahonta and commented:
    I should have read this before I came to the US, I’m glad I’ve read it before my other adventures…

    Like

  30. Great advice. Thanks, Ben & Lauren for stopping by!

    Like

  31. I am only three weeks into my trip around the world and so glad that I found this post. Thank you!

    Like

  32. What an informative article! Thank you for putting this together.

    Like

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