The Truths of Long-Term Travel

The First Sunset of 2014

Having been away for two and a half years now, I can tell you that traveling is not always one big happy holiday. Like any other life path you choose, it has its ups and downs, pros and cons, highs and lows. After a while there are certain things I’ve grown to love and hate about about traveling. Here are some of my observations:

1. It’s about the people, not the place.
When I first started traveling, the most exciting part of the journey to me was seeing new places, discovering new cities, and exploring beautiful landscapes. But the truth is, travel is all about the people you meet. I’ve been to some really dirty, ugly, and otherwise fairly mundane places, but still had a great time because I was with great people. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you’re with the right people.

2. You get tired of seeing the same things.
After a while, everything appears to be the same–another church, another waterfall, another beach, another city, another museum. Over time, travel becomes less of a novelty that it once had when you first set out on the road. You start feeling numb and less impressed with seeing things like the way you used to. There are times when I do get bored seeing the same things everyday.

Luckily there are still those gems you find that will always take your breath away, no matter how many times you come back. This is also why meeting new people is the best part of travel, because there are always interesting and unique souls to meet!

3. Your taste for food changes.
Growing up where I did in America, I was lucky enough to be exposed at a younger age to a variety of different cuisines (currently craving my favorite Thai place back home at the moment!). I think this gave me the extra little push when I started traveling to be more curious and open to trying new foods everywhere I went. Once you start exposing yourself to new foods, you can appreciate (or not appreciate) new flavors and tastes. After a while your palate adjusts and that can even change your eating habits. Things that I would have never have eaten, are now things I love. On the contrary, things that I used to like back home, I can barely stand anymore (looking at you McD’s). You’ll never know if you like something unless you try!

4. The connections you make with new people on the road can be powerful.
When you’re on the road, meeting new people is inevitable (unless you’re some kind of hermit that lives under a rock). Every now and then there will be those days where your friends (even people you just met) will invite you to go on spontaneous, unplanned adventures, and to be honest, those where some my happiest and most vivid memories.  It’s what travel is all about–connecting with people through shared experiences. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of my friends I’ve made abroad and every time we see each other, no matter how long its been, we can always pick things up from where we left off because we can always go back to that amazing time we spent together.

5. It pays to go one way when the crowds go the other.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s fun to go out and do “touristy” things (they’re touristy for a reason after all, right?). But sometimes it’s really worth going against the grain and taking the path less taken. Walk away from the long lines. Go down that empty path. Take the time to find what’s around the next street corner. You might not find anything special at all, or you might find something totally worth discovering–a hidden waterfall, a hip cafe, a secret beach, a local neighborhood event. It’s amazing what you’ll find when you go off the beaten path sometimes!

6. It can be exhausting.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after traveling so long is that you get tired of it sometimes. It gets exhausting constantly researching about where you are and where you’re going, figuring out how you’ll get there, finding ways to be frugal so you can stay on budget, being confronted with language barriers, constantly packing and unpacking your bag, the long bus rides…in general always having to be in “on the go” mode. After a while, you get burnt out and have to take a few rest days. There are some days where I just want to stop everything and do nothing for a week.

7. You still have responsibilities.
Some people have this notion that people who travel long term are free from responsibility. Carrying everything I own in just a backpack, it’s true I may not have much to look after. I may not have a car or a house, but I still have other things to tend to. I had a couple jobs and worked for most of the time I’ve been abroad to fund my travels. I still pay for insurance. I still have student loans I’m paying off. Traveling doesn’t get you off the hook for everything!

8. It’s not always so glamorous.
Traveling isn’t always as glamorous as the magazines and TV shows make it seem. I’ve spent way too many times being in a rush to catch a bus, I’ve had flights canceled, I’ve had all my belongings get soaked after being trapped in a massive downpour, spent long sleepless nights on airport floors, sweated like a dog for weeks in a station wagon with no AC while driving through the Outback, witnessed poverty, spent time in places that didn’t have the luxury of electricity and hot water, been so sick I was bedridden for days…these are just a few of the times when things just didn’t go right. No trip will ever be perfect, you can learn a lot from misadventures and mishaps. They also make for good stories and something you can laugh about later on!

9. You learn to appreciate simple living.
Living out of a backpack for the past two years, you learn what you need to live and you learn what you don’t need, and I’ve come to realize that you don’t really need a whole lot to live off of to be happy. Just ask anyone who has ever been to a third world country–the happiest and most generous people always seem to be those with very little. Life experiences and relationships have become more of a priority for me than chasing money. Needless to say I’ve become a bit of a minimalist since I’ve left home.

10. You learn how to adapt and be flexible.
Whether it’s having your flight cancelled, taking a 15 hour bus journey, your ride breaking down, or being thrown into a new environment where you don’t know the local language or customs, travel teaches you patience. With all the mishaps that inevitably happen at one point or another during a long trip, you just learn to accept change and go with the flow. In the end, you always manage and find your own way to make things work out.

11. You gain a bigger picture of the world.
I grew up in a small, rural town on an island in the northwest corner of the US. For most of my life, that was my world. Excluding Canada, I never traveled internationally until I was 20 years old. When I was 24 I moved abroad to live in New Zealand. Living there gave me the opportunity to meet new people, both locals and fellow travelers from all over the world. Leaving my little corner of the world was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The longer I traveled, the more exposure I gained to new cultures, new ideas, and new beliefs. I was able to see for the first time that there was so much more to the world outside of the little bubble I lived in at home. I saw that the world isn’t as scary of a place as we usually imagine it to be, and there’s so much out there just waiting for you to discover. The following quote by St. Augustine really sums this point up: “The world is like a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”

12. You have to say goodbye. A lot.
Definitely one of the hardest parts about traveling is all the goodbyes you have to make. In the backpacking world, people are constantly flowing in and out of your life. Friendships on the road typically only last a few days, but it’s always a little sad even when you have to say goodbye to people you’ve shared an incredible experience with. As a solo traveler, you arrive in a new place and are forced to meet new people to avoid being a loner. If you’re lucky, you’ll find those special people that you spend a few days with, which might turn into weeks, and sometimes even months, until the day comes when you must part ways. That’s never easy, and the worst part is really the uncertainty of when or if you will ever see them again. It’s a heartbreaking reality.

13. You learn to cherish the small moments.
When we travel we often have a list of big things that we really want to experience. For me it was getting things crossed off of my bucket list. And while achieving those milestones were very memorable and fulfilling, I’ve also learned that small moments matter as well. In fact, some of my favorite memories were the little things that seemed insignificant at the time, but always make me smile whenever I think about them.

14. You learn how to manage money better.
When you’re traveling on a budget, you get creative to find ways to stretch your dollar a little further. Before I started traveling, when I was saving up for my trip, I began to keep track of my expenses. Once I started doing that, I was better able to prioritize spending money on things I actually needed and cutting back on other things that were less important. Now when I travel, I usually have a set daily budget (which changes depending on what country I’m in). I do splurge every now and then (you have to have fun sometimes!), but for the most part I try to stay on budget to ensure that I have enough money to continue traveling.

15. You learn about yourself.
When you spend long hours on trains, buses, and airplanes, you have a lot of time to think. Oftentimes your thoughts become more introspective and you find yourself reflecting on who you are as a person. Now I wouldn’t say I’ve gone and “found myself” on this journey, but I definitely do think I’m a much different person than I was when I first left home. Traveling long term really does shape you. Without the social barriers that you may have had at home, you can really let yourself be who you really are. You become fiercely independent and much more confident. You become more outgoing. You have your beliefs both challenged and affirmed. You face your fears. When you travel you discover things you never knew you were even capable of. It’s liberating.

Long-term travel isn’t for everyone of course, but I believe it’s healthy for people to travel, even if it’s just once in their life. You don’t even have to travel long-term to reap its benefits. Just take a trip somewhere, no matter how long. Go somewhere new. Try something new, meet new people. You might be surprised what you can learn not only about the world, but about yourself.

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6 thoughts on “The Truths of Long-Term Travel

  1. Great post! I had a hunch when I told you how amazing NZ is, and you actually seemed to listen like so few people do, that you’d be the type of person to appreciate it and take it all in the way you have.

  2. Stephen, next time you’re back home please give Tifanie a call. I’d love to meet for coffee to hear your travel thoughts on things I don’t want to ask in this forum.

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