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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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
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!