May 6, 2013

Lessons Learned from 11 Years of Travel

Lessons from Everywhere

Last weekend I had the honor of speaking to 600 people at Frequent Traveler University, a conference devoted to the world of points and miles.

A longtime friend, Gary Leff, asked me to share a few lessons from the 11-year journey to every country that just wrapped up a few weeks ago in Norway. What have I learned?

Good question. I thought about it for a while and here are some of the highlights I came up with.

***

Lesson #1: Miles are for spending! (Life, too.)

I’ve been all over the world for free or almost free thanks to Frequent Flyer Miles, but they don’t do anyone any good if they are left unused.

Miles are a depreciating currency. A block of miles or points acts as a tool that allows you to experience things that would otherwise be difficult, expensive, or unobtainable—but miles and points have no value on their own.

If you have miles, or money, or the most valuable asset of all—time—put it to good use. Spend it!

(I wrote about this lesson previously in Life Is for Spending.)

Lesson #2. If you can figure out all of the costs of a goal, it becomes much easier.

Having a structure helped me as the quest became more difficult over time. Knowing how many countries existed in what regions and what the visa laws were for each country and what the likely obstacles would be and so on… all of these things were benefits that made the whole project much easier.

Going from 50 to 100 countries cost me approximately $30,000. Once I realized that it wouldn’t be terribly expensive, at least when spread out over a number of years, I was eager to commit to the goal.

Far from feeling restrictive, the more I created structure around the process of continuous travel, the more feasible the goal became.

(I wrote about this lesson previously in The Tower manifesto.)

LESSON #3: With experience comes confidence.

I didn’t just say “I’m going to visit every country” before I had been anywhere at all. I first lived overseas for four years, and then I traveled for a long time just because I loved travel.

After I had been to 50 countries, I thought, maybe I can get to 100. And then as I grew closer to that goal, that’s when I thought, well, 100 isn’t good enough. Why not go everywhere?

Sometimes I hear from people who haven’t traveled much, and they write in to ask questions about visiting Europe, Asia, or North America for the first time. They always feel like they have to apologize or produce some kind of disclaimer: “I know this is no big deal compared to what you do all the time…”

I always say: “No, it’s great that you’re doing that!” When you begin to travel for the first time, it IS a big deal. And then, the more you travel, the more comfortable you’ll feel traveling.

I recently wrote down a list of all my travel mistakes and realized I had actually made more mistakes toward the end of the journey than in the beginning. As I grew confident, I stopped double-checking everything. I often confused the dates of travel and on one particular challenging occasion in the Seychelles, the departure time of an international flight.

Yet by then I had learned that even when something went wrong, it was probably going to be OK in the end.

(I wrote about part of this lesson previously in Kind of a Big Deal.)

LESSON #4: There is almost always more than one way to accomplish something.

Gary recently wrote a post called Hang Up, Call Again. His premise is that whenever you don’t like the answer you receive from an airline rep, you should simply hang up the phone, call again, and ask someone else.

This is great advice! And it’s not only good for dealing with airlines. When you don’t like the answer you receive in life, you should hang up and call again.

I skipped two years of college with this rule.

I went to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia without a visa (and Eritrea too, although that one was admittedly more problematic).

I’ve rerouted and changed many tickets that are supposedly non-changeable. One time in Bangkok I skipped the immigration line and self-immigrated, saving two hours and then sorting it out on my way to the next destination.

I’m not recommending you skip immigration or crash-land in interesting places around the world, but the point is that there’s usually more than one way to accomplish something.

LESSON #5: Use the $10 Rule to avoid insanity.

I’m a very frugal person by nature. Part of what drew me to the world of miles and points was because it allowed me to experience things I wouldn’t otherwise pay for.

Frugality is a good value if you’re trying to get out of debt, but if you find yourself walking up and down the same street for an hour with your bags in the rain because you don’t want to spend $8 for a taxi, perhaps you should rethink your priorities.

If you decide not to eat in airports because the sandwich is too expensive, and then you’re tired and lethargic for the rest of the day, you have no one to blame but yourself.

After too many experiences walking in the rain or going hungry from not buying the sandwich, I made a rule that while traveling I would always pay $10 or less for something that improved my life, without thinking much about the decision. It made my traveling life much better.

LESSON #6: You should decide for yourself what you like.

I’m not an argumentative person and I don’t like to debate. There’s one thing that annoys me, though—people who say that “you’re doing it wrong.” When it comes to travel, you’re not doing it wrong just because it’s not their way!

You can spend as much or as little time as you like in any particular place. You can stay at a hotel instead of a hostel if you want. Should you even decide to change your mind about something at some point, feel free.

For years I carried a camera and took photos because I thought it was supposed to do as opposed to something I enjoyed. I wasn’t good at taking pictures. Plenty of other people have that department covered—see Thomas, Tera, Stephanie, and many AONC readers—but it’s not my thing.

For me, when I stopped taking pictures, I enjoyed myself much more.

LESSON #7: People are NOT the same all over the world.

Sometimes you hear an observation that people everywhere are all the same, and I think this is a very superficial comment. People aren’t the same, and that’s good!

The differences are what is interesting about the world and about travel.

Different cultures have different values and different ways of thinking about life. Before I went to Jordan, I had never spent much time in a country where Islam was the most common religion. I went away with much more respect and understanding than I had before.

The same was true for me all over the world. In Bhutan I learned about Buddhism from the source, in India I talked with Hindus and Sikhs, and these are just a few examples.

Around the world, most people are good. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same, and that’s OK.

LESSON #8: In some ways, the world is rapidly changing… but in others it’s not.

I like to tell the story of a friend who visited Afghanistan. In his rural guesthouse, there was no running water, but the WiFi and cell phone service was great. He took a bucket shower while uploading photos to his website.

Elsewhere, there are still plenty of people who live on less than $2 a day, and sometimes even less than $1 a day. Approximately 40% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lacks clean water. Basic healthcare and primary education remain out of reach for most of the people in rural parts of the world.

Therefore, it’s important for those of us who do have not only clean water but also tremendous opportunities to ask what they can do to contribute.

How can you make the world a better place? What can you offer?

LESSON #9: If you have an idea to do something crazy, pay attention!

Once in a while, someone asks if I have any regrets about traveling for so long. The simple answer is no. I don’t regret anything about the journey. If I wasn’t in a particular place for a long time, I can always go back to see places I appreciated and wanted to learn more about.

That’s what I did last week with Istanbul—after the Frequent Traveler University event last weekend, I hopped over to Turkey for a few days of revisiting a culture I wanted to learn more about.

There is just one thing I think of when I think about regrets. Years ago, when I first had the idea to “go everywhere,” it stuck with me. I wasn’t necessarily committed to it right from the beginning, but as soon as I had the idea, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try.

Years later, I can say with confidence: this was a great idea! I’m so glad I followed through!

My advice to you, if you care about such a thing, it to think carefully about things you’d like to do.

While writing of The $100 Startup, I heard over and over that people who started a small business were primarily motivated by freedom. They said things like:

“I wanted more ownership of my life, more independence. I wanted to make my own choices.”

After they took action on an idea and started their project, they said things like:

“I’m so glad I pursued this idea. I’m so glad I didn’t just think about it and then decide not to.”

It’s great that there is so much possibility in the world. All of us have remarkable opportunities that are somewhat new—the ability to see the world, sometimes over and over, the ability to determine the course of our own future.

Let’s use it well. Let’s not waste these opportunities. Let’s live actively and seek to engage wherever we can.

***

I had a fun time in Virginia with Gary and his merry crew of travel hackers.

If you’re interested in Frequent Traveler University, they’re doing another event later this year in Tampa. Don’t hesitate to check it out!

What about you—what have you learned from travel?

Feel free to share with others in the comments.

###

Image: Cath

Comment on this article

48 Responses to “Lessons Learned from 11 Years of Travel”

  1. Travelling is an absolute necessity to open + expand my mind to new ways of seing & experiencing life and especially to get out of my own little world…

    Travelling is truly inspirational for me and reading about your travels Chris has been a delight.

    XO

  2. One of the things I learned travelling overseas was to visit a local grocery store (or market) early in the visit. It’s a wonderful way to not only immerse yourself in a culture, but learn about food and how’s it’s prepared/produced. Food is such a major part of every culture it can give you a way to interact with real people and not just tourists.

  3. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for this. I particularly like: LESSON #7: People are NOT the same all over the world. The more I travel, the more open I am to other people’s points of view, and the less inclined I am to think I’m “the last Coke in the dessert” (as my Mom says). If more people had the opportunity (and sometimes the desire) to travel, tolerance would be a lot more wide-spread.
    Regards from Mallorca, Spain.

  4. Thanks for sharing these, Chris! My favorite ones above are #1 and #9 – Life/miles are for spending, and if you think of something crazy, pay attention – because they’re tied together with the concept of living life fully. This is a big focus for me. (A few years back, I had an epiphany after spending several hours on Farmville – it hit me, what am I DOING? Harvesting fake food in a virtual world instead of living in the real world?! This is crazy! That completely changed my mindset and I haven’t looked back. Since then, I have been actively choosing action, experiences, and adventure, and pursuing some crazy ideas of my own.)

    Related to lesson #7 (people aren’t all the same), I actually have learned through travel both that and it’s opposite – people are wonderfully different everywhere, and I love learning about those differences. But in some ways, people ARE the “same” – no matter how different, there are almost always commonalities such as a desire to love and be loved, a sense of humor, a desire to relate to others, etc. No matter how different, you can usually find something in common with someone else. :)

  5. Thanks for sharing these lessons, Chris!
    I am more of a big picture than details person, but I have learned how important the little things are when preparing for a trip. I have learned the value of packing clothing that can be layered when traveling to an area where I am not accustomed to the climate. I don’t mind sleeping in the car – but when in the middle of nowhere with nothing but lightweight summer clothes and temperatures 10-20 degrees less than anticipated is not so fun. From now on, I will always travel with a space blanket if I think I might end up sleeping outdoors…

  6. I *really* appreciate #9, Chris. I’ve planned to sell my stuff except for a piece of luggage and a carry-on bag, move half way across the country to Portland, Oregon – where I’ve never been and only know Jonathan Mead (paidtoexist.com) – and start my life over, couch surfing/traveling indefinitely, and building my businesses from my laptop.

    I keep getting these “Are you STUPID AND CRAZY?!?” thoughts. I keep replying that, staying here and letting my soul wither a little more each day is what’s crazy and stupid.

    You’re so inspiring and thank you for this post! (hugs!)

  7. Thanks Chris for the wise lesson that offer insights at so many levels.

    In my travels whether to places inside or places in the world, I have learned a few things:
    Now is the best place to experience my travels, not wishes from the past or hopes for the future but now is where the fun is.
    My soul’s voice/intuition is a wonderful travel companion. It guides me towards what will work best, towards the safer route, towards the joy of expanding my heart and my mind.
    If I trust in things working out they do.
    Along the way if I am open I receive many amazing gifts like self-awareness, creative inspiration, new friendships, tasty delights and an endless appreciation for the beauty of nature, of human creation, and the wonder of so many kind and smiling faces.

    Peace to all of you

  8. Chris, this is one of my favorite posts you’ve sent in a while. It has me thinking about so many things… like how much I miss in the moment when I’m focused on “getting a good photo”.

    I guess my biggest lesson in traveling is never assume. Which means that I have to stay very much in the moment and observe. How are other people behaving? Then I can follow suit and adapt to the culture a little better.

    I also recognize that some cultures, like in India, do a lot of bartering. It’s not something I think most Americans are comfortable with (at least I’m not). So if I go back to a country where they do that (and a lot do), I think I’ll practice a bit beforehand.

    And I think the biggest thing, the most reassuring thing I learned on travels is – like you said – most people are good people. I was waiting at a bus terminal in India for a long time and realized I had no idea what bus to get on. I looked like a wreck, too. But a gentleman who spoke English finally helped me out and made sure I got on the right bus. There’s a lot of kindness out there, even when you look (and act) very different than everyone else.

    It makes me feel very grateful… and I want to pass that on.

  9. The old saying ‘life is a journey, not a destination’ is so true. I have been on a journey up the California Coast and around Oregon for the past several months as I create my own spiritual coaching business. I just went to see a documentary “Walking the Camino” about walking from the border of France and Spain to Santiago, Spain on a pilgrimage. I realized this trip has been the same kind of pilgrimage for me and that every day of our life is for self discovery. Staying in one place is a discovery of sameness for me. Traveling is a discovery of this vast and wonderful world, both outside of me and more importantly inside of me.

  10. Just my usual. “God did not make this great big amazing world, for us NOT to see it.” I love to travela and have been blessed to have done quite a bit over these years. I have seen much of the world, but am so looking forward to experiencing so….. much more of it before the Lord calls me home!!!

  11. Love this. I used to hoard miles, money, time… and then realized how silly all that was. Things have gotten a lot more interesting since! :)

    A big thing I’ve learned from travel is how to relax. To treat wrong turns, shady situations, discomfort, long waits, etc. all as one big adventure. I didn’t used to give myself permission to be wrong, rude, to fail, to not know something, but when you travel, especially to a place you don’t speak much of the language, is that not only are all of these things going to happen, but they are going to happen a lot! And the more I travel and embrace that, the more I do so throughout the rest of my life.

  12. What I learned after just my first visit outside the US (The Netherlads) is that there are different of doing a lot things. I really already knew this but there is nothing like seeing it first hand. You can read, watch, & speak to people from different backgrounds but nothing can replace being there in person.

  13. Great roundup of learning, Chris.

    My #1 travel rule:

    The less you have, the happier you are. Pack light!

    After every trip I unpack immediately and look at what I didn’t use. Usually it’s work stuff I think I’ll squeeze in. Or extra art supplies. This step is vital training in what I really need.

  14. After traveling to other countries, I realized that people are the same (although unique) in the viewpoint that we all have feelings and emotions and experience things in life, yet our differences in culture and other things determines how we experience those things in life. I believe we have so much more in common than we actually think. I wish more people could travel or have an open mind about learning about other people and cultures instead of going off of what we believe they must be like based off of what we see on TV or have been told. While I haven’t been to as many places as I want to go, I hope that my travels continue so that I can experience more of this great big world!

  15. Thanks for these lessons Chris. #2 and #5 I have experienced time and time again. My wife and I were able to do a two week honeymoon in Costa Rica for under $2,000, and we’ll be getting certified to scuba during a 7 day stay Thailand (with a stop in Taiwan) for under $2,000 as well. We would NEVER have done this if we hadn’t sat down and “counted the cost” because it would have been “too expensive” (in time or money). It’s not.
    Similarly, my wife and I are pretty frugal as well, my wife more so (she is a GREAT life companion). That $10 Rule is not something that we’ve ever verbalized, or said, “as long as it’s under $10″, but it’s DEFINITELY something that’s gotten us out of many-a-bind. A subsection of that rule might be “make sure you always have $10/person in the local currency available to you.” I don’t know HOW many trips to the ATM I’ve made that would not have been necessary.
    Thanks again. I love this community!

  16. Ouch, #6 is painful. I could have “improved my life” over and over for less than $10, but chose not to. It wasn’t even that I didn’t have the money, I chose not to spend it. I always thought, “6 months in France living frugally is better than 6 weeks in France living luxuriously.” I still believe that, but I really like your $10 rule.

    #3 is also important to beginning travelers: just take it a step at a time. If you’ve never been anywhere, go somewhere nearby. Then just take a step further each time. As Chris says, you’ll never regret it. If you do, you can stay home next time. ;-)

  17. I’ve learned to be in the moment and that it’s best to travel light physically but also in the head. At the end of the day, traveling takes you back to yourself. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  18. No wrong way to travel. Agree so very much. My travel life (and career) changed immensely when I stopped standing in lines at museums I “had to see” and stopped taking crammed coach day-trips to sights I “had to visit” and instead decided to learn and experience through food culture and cooking.
    What a journey it has been since.
    ~Sage

  19. The $10 rule sounds like a great idea; will try to remember next time I’m on the road! Those things will really make a huge difference.

  20. Brilliant Chris; very inspiring. In particular I love the fact that you have said you have no regrets about travelling the amount and the manner that you have. That alone would have made the entire set of experiences completely worth it – regardless of all the other value that you’ve gained from it (value you seem so adept at extracting!)

    Personally my lessons from travelling are the conventional ones of self-reliance, motivation, dependence etc. but in particular I’ve always loved the simplicity that comes from camping and/or doing some sort of physical challenge whilst travelling. When your life is stripped back to solving problems about what and when to eat, when to rest and when to continue, how to motivate others and keep yourself motivated and similar issues – everything just seems to make sense. Its only temporary of course, but the memories aren’t!

  21. Love this post, Chris! I enjoyed reading your 9 lessons and they helped me rethink some things. I really appreciate how you’re always trying to help people by sharing the ups and downs of your own experiences.

  22. Those last two paragraphs really stuck out to me. It’s so true. We dwell in possibilities that were unheard of just a few decades ago. It’s mind-blowing! So often (I think about 99% of the time for me) we take our life, our possibilities and our opportunities for granted when they really aren’t. It reminds me of the Einstein quote, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle.” I choose the latter ;) Love you Chris!

  23. I really appreciate rule number five. Added it to my best practice list. Why skimp on improvement when it leads away from misery?

  24. Loved this article, and especially your last two paragraphs about possibilities.

    My best travel experiences have centered around being out-of-context. The traveler is in motion and can stop and enjoy any moment at a whim. This has led to some of the most focused and in depth conversations in my life. You are passing through, with no particular agenda. Somehow that translates to meeting people deeply, cutting through the usual social introductions, and finding a way to communicate who you are, right now. Amazingly liberating. And a great way to get to know people who will be friends forever.

  25. Hi Chris,

    This is great. I almost didn’t read it because I’m getting a bit jaded with all the lessons learned but so glad I did.

    I like the $10 rule because I’m a tight wad too. Sounds like a good way to stay sane :)

  26. Hi Chris,

    Timely post! The one thing I learn’t about travel is we should have never stopped!

    Thankfully my wife and I have got the crazy idea in our heads to go live in Thailand but this time put our efforts into those with the most need; ‘purpose travel’ for more of a better term.

    We have a oneway ticket booked for October. Wish us luck.

  27. I really loved the picture comment, I already feel better about my lack of enthusiasm when it comes to taking pictures. I’m often so consumed with what I’m doing that I forget to capture it on film. I always feel guilty about it, but not anymore ;)

  28. These are good lessons and also to add to my experience as I take on the world. In our part of the worlf having like yours is easy but not impossible.

    I have been following this blog for over two years now and I have learned a lot from here.

  29. Dude you skipped through Bangkok Immigration? Respect. I mean granted, they get really confused with the way all my Thai visas are scattered across my passport and what not…

    Also even as someone that does really like photography, I agree that sometimes it is better to put the camera away and just enjoy the travel as it comes. And in the future when I’m in ‘camera mode,’ I intend to try and be more mindful as I’m taking photos. The anxiety of sorting hundreds of photos kind of negates the fun; especially when 30 would suffice.

  30. Love you learnings list, Chris! Seeing firsthand that there are other ways of looking at the world has made all the difference in my life; I can relate to people much better when I know that my view is not the only right one. The other wonderful thing I learned by travelling is that simple, healthy, fresh food is delicious! From Italy to India, they know what to do with unprocessed ingredients much better than we do.

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  32. You have a great tip to make life easier for frugal people. How about the opposite? Do you have a tip for people who would not even think about the price of an airport sandwich if they are hungry?

  33. Great post Chris! Like you the main thing we learnt about people all around the world is that they are good. My advice is for people to stop watching the negative news about places and go find out for yourself.

  34. May 9, 2013

    Jennifer

    I love how you always come back to ‘Let’s use it well. Let’s not waste these opportunities. Let’s live actively and seek to engage wherever we can.’ – Always spreading such inspirational words. Thank you!

    Last year we drove down to Seattle for a day trip. I thought I knew the city well enough to figure out where to go… I didn’t. I learned to figure out at least a general plan before leaving, to buy a map before leaving and to ask friendly looking people for help (the lady I asked for help worked at Yelp!). Lesson learned!

  35. Thanks for your article! Number nine is one that I can relate to very well right now- “if you think of something crazy, pay attention.” I’m 19 and I am going to Europe for the first time this summer and going alone, for a month. Many people, especially adult male figures in my life, are concerned and think I’m crazy for wanting to go it alone because I am a young girl, but I know the risks and I know how to be careful and frankly, I need to do this- for me. And also for my mom, grandma, and others who keep telling me “I wish I had…” I don’t want to be stuck with that regretful frame of mind later on down the road- my “crazy” idea will become a reality!

  36. The $10 Rule is something people need to think about everywhere. Frugality has to be smart, not just done under the assumption that “saving” money is good. If you spend more hours getting somewhere or doing something just to save a few books, are you really spending your time wisely? Your time has value! Stop working for less than minimum wage and start saving smartly (not at every turn.)

  37. I like the $10 rule. You mentioned two classic examples of stuff I would do to save money.

  38. Thank you immensely for sharing this :)

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  40. We’ve started recently (9 months) our fulltime travel and reading these lessons make it more inspiring. Thanks for sharing Chris.

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