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How and Why I Travel (Part II of II)

How and Why I Travel (Part II of II)

Part I Is Here

Question MarksPeople often ask me how I am able to travel so often and to so many places. For a long time I didn’t know how to answer the question, because for me travel is as natural as any other part of life. Over time I’ve gradually learned that someone asking me how I travel is usually asking a more specific question.

That question is usually one of these:

  • How can you afford to travel?
  • How can you take so much time to travel?
  • How do you choose where to go and plan your trips?
  • How do you get visas, meet people, arrange where to stay, or any other logistical question that deals with practical details.

I’ll answer each of these questions in more detail in the future, but for now the short answers are below. Each of the answers are related. I travel because I want to, because it’s what I value, and because I’ve deliberately structured my life around it. That’s the simple answer to most questions about why I do what I do.

To break it down a bit, here’s a more detailed explanation:

  • How can you afford to travel?

The short answer is that I have no debt and I travel very modestly, usually with Round-the-World tickets that cut my average flight cost to about $300. I stay in hostels and guesthouses for about $15-30 a night, and sometimes with people for free.

I don’t take any checked luggage with me, so I’m not usually tempted to buy anything while I’m traveling except food. I do bring several books with me and slowly give them away as I finish them, thus freeing a small amount of space in my bag for new stuff.

Of course, just because it’s relatively cheap doesn’t mean it doesn’t cost money. Travel does become expensive, especially when you go off the beaten path. Visas to developing countries are sometimes $100 or more, and lots of other expenses usually cost more too.

I support myself through small business work that I have done in various forms since 1999. I’ve done everything from Google Adwords consulting to web site design, and I’ve been working on building a small publishing group since 2006. It’s not making me a millionaire by any standard, but it pays the bills and allows me a great deal of flexibility.

  • How can you take so much time to travel?

I try to structure my life around my trips. I plan to be away in 2-3 week periods, and then I just go.

The emergency travel check-list for me is pretty short:

• Do I have my Passport?
• Do I have my Plane Tickets or e-ticket printouts?
• Do I have enough Money? (I usually travel with a lot of cash to be safe.)
• Do I have my Credit Cards?
• Do I have my Journal?

Technically, that’s all I need. The secondary list is also important:

• Laptop
• iPod
• Running Shoes
• Contact Solution
• Anti-Malarial Drugs
• and this list goes on for a while…

But the point is that you really need a lot less than you think. I’ve never found myself in desperate need of something that I forgot to bring from home.

  • How do you choose where to go for your trips?

It depends. Over the long-term, I’m trying to go pretty much everywhere, so I find myself getting more systematic as time goes by. But for the past two years, it’s been more a question of going wherever I think would be cool to visit.

For example:

I went to Jordan for my first trip to the Middle East. It seemed like it would make a good introduction, and it did.

I went to each Balkan country because I was interested in Sarajevo and Belgrade, and a lot of fun places happened to be in the region.

I went to Burma because I was interested in the social fabric of an oppressed Asian country.

I went to Romania because it was the only place in Eastern Europe I could get a Delta awards ticket.

I went to Uganda and Tanzania because I hadn’t ever been in East Africa.

I went to Luxembourg because it was close to Brussels and I felt bad about missing it on previous stopovers in Belgium.

In other words, there hasn’t been a real pattern until now. I’ve just gone where I wanted to, and not stressed over the details.

  • What about logistics?

I have no great system for dealing with travel logistics. A lot of things can be handled along the way, including things like not having a visa when you are supposed to, not having any idea of where to stay, etc. But I do also plan a fair amount for most trips.

Visas
If I really need them in advance, I get my visas from VisaHQ.com. I hate paying fees for things like that, but I also don’t like the idea of sending my passport off to the consulate of Tajikistan or Burundi or wherever. I also don’t like the threat of being denied boarding for a flight somewhere because I don’t have the right piece of paper in my passport.

(I’ve seen this happen many, many times to people on flights to Africa from Europe. It’s not a good situation, especially when you consider that most African countries don’t exactly have embassies all over the place.)

When in doubt, therefore, I send my passport to the service in D.C., which takes it to the embassy or consulate in person.

Lonely Planet

I have a love/hate relationship with travel books such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. It’s true that you end up going to the same places that everyone else does when you rely too much on the books, but on the other hand, it’s hard to get reliable info for a lot of places in the world. I usually buy the better-reviewed one for a major region, then tear out the sections I want to take with me for reference.

Lodging
Hostels.com usually has at least one low-rent option for most cities I go to. If I head further out, I can arrange that once I’m in-country. Sometimes I just show up and find a place to stay, and I’ve learned that this strategy works better in some places than others. In Bucharest, for example, I had a hard time finding a decent place to stay when I just showed up at the airport, but in Singapore, it wasn’t a problem.

Every 5-7 days when I’m in the developing world, I try to check into a relatively nice hotel. This helps me rest up, get connected to the world through email and Skype, and generally get a good plan in place for the next leg of the journey. I get my hotels through Priceline.com or with Starwood Points that I earn with my credit card spending.

I’ve stayed in some really nice places along the way, although I rarely pay more than $70 a night anywhere. I feel the same way about nice hotels that I do about flying First Class—I’m thrilled when it works out, but then I look around in amazement at the travelers who pay 3-5 times what I do.

***

One of my professors has a deal where he gets $20,000 a year to spend on travel, however he chooses. If I ever decide to get a real job, that will be a perk I spend some time negotiating for. Until then, I’m on my own.

In the meantime, I have no such stipend, a fact that is probably for the better. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a sponsor who wanted to help out, but I also don’t want to get too complacent. Instead, I have to make things happen myself, in whatever way I can.

I read a story a couple years back about another guy who was trying to see much of the world. He was a retired dot-com millionaire, so his approach was different than mine. He spent nearly $1 million on three years of travel, staying at every Ritz Carlton in the world and chartering private planes to take him throughout Africa.

Perhaps I’m prideful, but I think my style is more impressive. I’m out there on my own, no 7 or 8-figure bank account backing me up, no one telling me what to do. One time I took a U.N. military flight from Conakry (Guinea) to Freetown (Sierra Leone) where I was the only passenger, but that’s the closest I’ve come to a chartered plane.

Resourcefulness is a good thing, and I’ve learning to maximize my life to do the things I want to do most of the time. For that, I’m truly grateful.

And that’s pretty much how I travel. How about you?

###

9 Comments

  • Josh says:

    Being an international student with not much time and money devoted to travel, I enjoy traveling for usually 4 days every time I fly from Canada to Brunei for the summer and Brunei to Canada for the fall.

    The usual places of stoppage are Hong Kong and Toronto.

    My best experience so far has been in Hong Kong. Sure they had a bunch of English signs around the city, but I’m sure that wasn’t close enough to get me around. Since I was only staying one night, I took a train out to the city and walked around for miles and miles, and stopped at McDonald’s for dinner. It was a good time. Unfortunately I had no one with me for this experience. But I surely wouldn’t mind doing this type of adventure again, but in a different country, like Korea or something.

  • Hey Chris – Great write-up! I have been living and traveling overseas (i.e. outside the U.S.) for the past 15 years.

    When people ask me, “How do you do it?” I typically reply by stating that you have to make travel a priority. Really, it’s just like anything else in life, if you want success then you have to focus.

    Too, I explain to them that it is okay to start off small going for one or two weeks at a time. For your first trip you do NOT need to abandon all worldly possessions, quit your job, and sell your house in the name travel…

    All the best,
    Mark H.
    Lifestyle Design Consultant

  • James says:

    Your story is inspiring to say the least. These are the questions I silently said to myself when first finding your site.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Chris says:

    Thanks, guys.

    @Josh – I’m looking forward to going to Brunei this summer.

    @Mark – I agree completely. I started small and have slowly scaled up to how I travel now.

    @James – Thanks; it’s always nice to hear feedback.

  • Debbie M says:

    What I like most about travel is seeing different landscapes, plants, and architecture, and there’s an unbelievable amount of that in my own country (US). Also, I have feared not knowing the language or customs of other countries (heck, I feel a bit ignorant about these things in some parts of my own country, too!).

    Yet I have traveled to two countries where English is not the first language. And I did this by visiting friends or relatives who move there. My sister was stationed in Belgium for three years, so I decided I would visit her twice. She took us to a lot of great places in Belgium and also a few great places in Germany. And once we also spent a weekend in Paris with a friend of my boyfriend’s who was there for a job.

    Later, another friend decided to look for a postdoc somewhere interesting and ended up in Switzerland for eight months and wanted visitors. So, I visited there and spent a lot of time in Lausanne, but also took a few day trips to other places in Switzerland and to some places across the lake in France.

    Both times I spent some time working on learning the main language of the area I was visiting, and although I certainly could never talk to anyone,* I could at least pronounce things that I was reading semi-properly and I could talk about numbers and money and find exits. Also, both of the countries I visited had loads of English-speakers everywhere I went. And my hosts in Switzerland knew French.

    *I once successfully ordered, received, and paid for a jellyroll all in German. That’s my greatest victory: an entire conversation in a foreign language!

    Another idea I would go for is to accompany friends on their trips. Some people love a certain country and go often; some people have family in another country and go often.

    Most people like this have trouble finding someone to accompany them because everyone thinks it’s too expensive. But you can totally save up for such a trip. I save $200/month for expensive things (trips, computers, furniture), and I can easily travel somewhere once or twice a year. If I always went abroad, I could easy afford that once every other year. By “easily” I mean that I can travel and also have money in that fund leftover for other things I want.

    I think I’ve covered most of the questions you listed! How I find time is I save up vacation time. I get almost three weeks a year and I like to take one-week vacations. When I am going abroad, I take two-week vacations, so I can afford vacation time at about the same rate as I can afford to spend the money.

  • Graham says:

    Hi Chris,

    So glad I found your blog (from a link on Pick the Brain) – have enjoyed what I’ve read so far, particularly your likemindedness with travel.

    I love the idea of nonconformity in travel, among other things. One strategy I use is to read a guidebook to learn where everyone else goes. Then, with the help of maps, I work out where everyone else is NOT going … and I go there. Of course I go to popular places too, but by going out of my way to visit places of little interest to tourists, or just not being promoted, I’ve found some real gems.

    Another technique I apply to places I travel in regularly is to mark my routes travelled and places visited on a map. I use pale or greyscale copies of maps, so that lines drawn by marker pens stand out clearly. The aim, over the long term, is to explore thoroughly and methodically so that eventually every road and location on the map is marked off.

    I’ve done this for my home state of Western Australia, and my other favourites – Tasmania and New Zealand. If planning a trip to somewhere I’ve been, I’ll ensure that as much of the route as possible is over a line I haven’t yet marked on my maps. It’s a variation on “going everywhere” … instead of visiting every country, I’m trying to visit every possible part of a few well-loved regions within my reach.

    I do nearly all of my travelling by myself too, and I love it!

  • Janet says:

    Hi Chris,
    When I first started traveling I was trying to visit as many countries as possible. Now I prefer staying in one place and really getting to know a country. However I am sure you are enjoying your quest.

    By the way you can easily and safely visit Khartoum (stay at the Acropole Hotel) to add Sudan to your list. I was there for six months in 2004 and although I would not recommend Khartoum as a favorite city it was certainly safe for a traveler and I don’t think things have changed much since then. Of course I would not recommend going to Darfur or any of the southern states as a private traveler.

    Have fun with your travels.

  • Mireia says:

    Wooowww!!april 18th and today is april 21st….maybe it’s a signal but I’m so happy to found this blog. I started checking the last posts but I really wanted to know WHY and HOW you are discovering every beautiful country.

    I love to travel. If I could choose only one desire of a magic lamp, I’d ask for learning from every culture in the world and understand that ideas, that actions…When I joined college, (and i didn’t like my major) I joined AIESEC, AIESEC opened me a world of opportunities (I guess every international organization which helps you to meet people and travel) and since them, I’ve visiting a lot of places.

    As you have had notices, at the beginning you never know how and what you are gonna do, but with time and practise, you are becomming an expert in travels. I’m gonna follow you (throught my google reader and twitter) and I’d love to meet you one day (you see, my desire in the lamp).

    About my “how I travel” : look the best fare throught momondo.com (I find everything on there) and I do couchsurfing almost all my time (realize that it’s almost because you also need to rest your mind and think about what’s happening aroud.
    I try to use publlic transportation or ways of ridesharing. Roads are amazing everywhere you go.

    You made me think about redesigning my blog and start writting again. I’m not a professional of writting, neither of taking pictures, but it’s always good to write down the feelings with that contrasts, that cultures and share it with the people who love you or just need more magic in life with sentences of this world

    Love and peace!

    Mireia
    from Barcelona

  • Spot on with this write-up, I seriously feel this site needs much more
    attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for
    the info!

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