Photography has allowed us to share our many adventures with you visually, but more difficult to convey are the traveling lessons we’ve learned throughout.
We are extremely careful when it comes to advice, even when it is directly requested. One of the first lessons every traveler learns is that the way it looks, feels, and often smells is different for everyone. In other words, our experiences, positive and negative, may differ wildly from yours!
However, we also recognize that there is certainly value to sharing our experience so that you don’t have to learn the hard lessons… well, the hard way!
Below is a collection of musings, quotes, stories, and of course, photos. We hope to reveal some of the most important travel lessons we have learned in a decade of full-time exploration.
Lessons for the First-Time Traveler
As with most things in life, the first step is always the most difficult (and the scariest!). Aspiring travelers often fantasize of exotic places and crazy travel stories, but are too paralyzed by common fears to make it a reality. Fears like personal safety, travel expense, obligations at home, and an embedded, subconscious fear of the unknown that will manifest as any number of excuses.
Below are the traveling lessons we all eventually learn that may help the aspiring explorer take that first trip!
There is no “right time” to travel
…Or, for the optimists perhaps, it is ALWAYS the “right time”!
Most people talk about travel like they talk about wealth. “Someday I’ll have it”, they say, just hoping that life will naturally provide it.
The harsh truth is that someday never comes, but today is already here!
Both Sophie and I began our travels by “booking it” spontaneously. For Sophie, that was a one-way plane ticket to India, by herself! For me, that was putting in 90-day notice at a high-paying job in luxury hotels while looking for a used vehicle I would go on to live out of.
True Traveling Lesson: If you want something in life, you cannot wait for the right time. Commit to that goal, then force yourself to take that first massive leap! Book that flight!
There is no “right way” to travel
Once again, perhaps the optimists would say instead that there is no wrong way to travel!
The reward of travel is different for every person, and for every trip… and don’t let the backpacker with 14 arm bands and dreads tell you otherwise! Plenty of travel snobs will have opinions on what “real” travel looks like. The truth is that there is no such thing.
It is important to think about WHY you want to travel. If it is for relaxation and recreation, the WHERE and the HOW will look very different from someone who wants to challenge their comfort zones. It will also look different from how Sophie and I, for example, tend to travel, which is with nature and photography in mind.
True Traveling Lesson: The only “wrong way” to travel is by not aligning your journey’s WHY with the WHERE and HOW.
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Less is more when traveling
Whether we are discussing baggage, expectations, or even planning, less is almost always more in the life of a traveler!
- Less baggage = More mobility
- Less expectation = More fulfillment
- Less planning = More opportunity
The first lesson we almost all learn the hard way is to keep our bags light! It is very normal to try and pack everything we could possibly need. In the end, this is extra weight and bulk that adds up in terms of cost and mobility.
Try scootering around SE Asia with 3 bags on your back, or paying 3x the cost in baggage fees for your short flight, and you’ll quickly learn this lesson!
More important than minimizing your baggage is trying to minimize your expectations. This is equally true with anything in life! If we expect something to be a certain way, we see it for what we think it should be instead of what it is. It also creates too much opportunity for disappointment.
Along these same lines, too much planning leads to missed opportunities. There is something called “the magic of the road” that every traveler knows. This occurs when you remain open to fate and discover that once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and lifelong friends just keeping falling into your lap as a result!
Too rigid of a schedule will also inevitably force you to learn “the leaving pangs”. This sharp pain occurs when having to leave a place or a person you are not ready to say goodbye to simply because your itinerary says so.
True Traveling Lesson: The less we carry with us, the more free we are.
The world is (mostly) safe
While finances have proven to be the biggest barrier for most would-be travelers, safety is certainly #2 on that list. There is a common misconception that travel is dangerous outside of resorts.
Now, of course, some places have higher crime rates than others and it may be worth avoiding those places. However, the fear of the unknown usually causes people to have an exaggerated fear of travel to new places.
Even in our extensive solo travels before meeting, Sophie and I have both found that the most “dangerous” places we visited meant a high risk of theft. But rarely, if ever, was there a risk to our physical well-being.
Ironically though, I traveled for 6 months in South America and another 6 months in Central America with only one minor incident. Then, on my first night back home in Oregon, my car was broken into and everything was taken.
The truth that inevitably comes to light is that the entire world is mostly safe, but anywhere can be a dangerous place. Disease, crime, accidents, and good old clumsiness will find the unprepared wherever they go!
Just as someone who attempts to climb Everest without training is destined for disaster, someone who attempts to fly into Honduras and hitchhike with a bag full of camera equipment will likely run into trouble. If you are uneducated regarding the risks around you, the whole world is dangerous to you.
However, as long as you have the right preparation, you’ll likely be safe throughout your travels.
True Traveling Lesson: Preparation and education are as important for keeping you safe in life as travel.
Life is expensive, travel is cheap!
*For clarification, this applies primarily to our US/UK/Canada/Aus/NZ reader-base. We understand that, unfortunately, this is not a universal truth.*
One of the most common questions we get asked is how we can afford to travel full-time. It’s funny because one of the first lessons we learned while traveling is that normal life is far more expensive than travel (in many places).
The average American pays $800-$1200/month in rent, $200-$300 in groceries, $70/month for their cell phone, and we haven’t even gotten into gas, insurance, utilities, car/student loans…
All told, most Americans require $2000-$3000 per month for living expenses. That same amount will last you MONTHS in places like SE Asia, Central / South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe.
Of course, you can easily spend double that amount if your purpose for travel is more luxury and relaxation driven. Even then, $3000 per month would have you living like royalty on a beachfront property in plenty of places!
True Traveling Lesson: While finances are almost always pointed to as the barrier to travel, it would be more accurate to say that properly prioritizing finances is the true obstacle. If you have the newest iPhone, you could certainly afford to travel!
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Solo travel is rarely lonely
Another big barrier for many would-be travelers is overcoming the fear of solo travel. This includes physical concerns for safety, as well as emotional concerns of loneliness. But if there is one thing every solo traveler will tell you they learned within days, it is that solo travel is rarely lonely; you are only alone when you want to be.
You will likely have to fly into a major city where the airports exist regardless of where your adventure is beginning. Assuming you book at least one night in a hostel, you will immediately be surrounded by all variety of traveler. If you are going south, I promise there will be others going that way. If you want to explore the city for a few days, I promise you will have company (if you would like it) for that too.
In fact, one of the best parts about solo travel is that you can pick and choose the company you keep! There is never a need to compromise or consider the personal interests of your companion. You are truly free to come and go as you please!
This liberation is one of the best parts about traveling for the first time, especially solo. You can choose to be in the company of an eclectic mix of foreign visitors, surrounded entirely by locals, or even by yourself.
True Traveling Lesson: Solo travelers are only alone when they decide to be.
Travel and vacation are very different
While it is true most vacations require a flight or drive, this is really not the same as “travel”.
Now, a vacation is a valuable thing. The intention of going on vacation is to separate yourself from stress, unwind, and enjoy the world. There is a sense of reward and even a bit of entitlement for most, which is understandable. After all, you’ve been working hard for a long time and this is your rare chance to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
If you think travel is going to relieve you of stress, however, you are sorely mistaken! Where vacation is more closely associated with escape and relaxation, travel is a challenge! It is about breaking comfort zones and surrounding yourself in a new and immersive world.
Travel is about growth and learning. Vacation, on the other hand, is about rest, relaxation, and likely a bit of indulgence.
True traveling lesson: Vacation is a treat; travel is a lifestyle.
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Traveling Lessons That Inspired Personal Growth
Even when the days of backpacks and hostels are largely behind us, there are some lessons travel teaches that permeate the rest of your life.
This section focuses on those principles, concepts, and musings that fundamentally change our entire value systems.
Experiences are better than things
You will never find yourself telling stories of that once-shiny iPhone or that great jacket you used to love. The things we look back on with pride, joy, embarrassment perhaps, and nostalgia are never “things” at all; they are experiences.
As the thread that ties us to societal norms begins to loosen, we discover that no one cares about our status symbols or our business cards. It is the memories and relationships we learn to cherish above all else.
Do you remember what you got for your 10th birthday? Most of us don’t… in fact, I don’t remember very many gifts at all. However, I will always remember spending my birthday Dining in the Dark in downtown Singapore.
I will never forget our 6 month anniversary dining in an Indonesian jungle bungalow, nor our two-year anniversary tending to elephants at a sanctuary in Thailand.
Likewise, I remember every person I was with when I watched a volcano erupt, despite having known each of them for only 1 day.
True Traveling Lesson: The most valuables things in this world are intangible.
There is no “best”, only “best fit”
This section was originally going to be titled something along the lines of “appreciating every culture”. However, the truth is that sometimes a place or a culture or a cuisine just doesn’t agree with you.
While we wholly believe in respecting others and their cultures, the true lesson that travel teaches us is that not every culture, nor every country, is going to suit our personal tastes. However, it may well be the only place many others would ever want to call home!
As you become familiar with the endless cultural varieties of the planet, there is no choice but to recognize how different the world looks to each of us. And as foreign as it can indeed feel at times, you will likely also realize that we are more similar than different when it comes to our humanity.
Likewise, one person (me!) may live for the mountains and get bored rather quickly spending all day on a beach. While another (like Sophie!) would never get tired of the ocean!
True Traveling Lesson: Bests or favorites are such personal things. Whether it is landscapes, cultures, food, or anything else in this world, there is no such thing as “the best”. What we really mean is “my favorite!”
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Appreciation comes from perspective
Perhaps the most powerful traveling lesson I have learned is that gratitude comes from perspective.
A hot shower was something I took twice a day growing up in a middle-class home. Water was always abundant in Oregon and heating it was no problem. After backpacking third world countries, traveling through remote areas and living out of vehicles for years, I can tell you that I never take a hot shower for granted anymore. Every single one is a miniature ceremony!
Similarly, the lakes, mountains and trees were just “Oregon”… just “home”. It was only after exploring so much of the world that I learned to appreciate the beauty of my own backyard.
Can you relate?
True Traveling Lesson: The more we travel, the more perspective we gain. With new perspective comes new appreciation for all the people, places, and things that once felt normal.
Empathy is stronger than judgement
Every traveler inevitably reaches the same realization that people are mostly good wherever you go. “Goodness”, in measures such as generosity and kindness, are found in most people and most places we go.
In the beginning, it is so easy to resort to anger and judgement when your laptop goes missing. It is too easy to forget that your laptop was stolen to provide food for loved ones, not to cause you harm.
Somehow, travel always eventually has a way of teaching us to empathize. As we become immersed in unique cultures and circumstances, we cannot help but observe cultural differences and challenging economic conditions. We cannot help but become compassionate.
True Travel Lesson: Little by little, we lose the ability (or perhaps the desire) to judge those as we have now walked some miles in their shoes.
A smile is universal
Language can be a barrier to sophisticated communication, but it is amazing how far we can get in this world with body language. You could be in Papua New Guinea with an indigenous tribe who has never encountered a tourist before and still connect through a smile.
Of course, practicing your charade skills can also come in handy!
P.S. No matter where you go in this world, take the time to learn “Hello”, “Please”, and “Thank You” in the native language. You may be shocked to discover how far the ability to smile, point, and say “thank you” will get you.
True Travel Lesson: In life and in travel, a smile is often all you need.
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Hard-Learned Traveling Lessons
Not all the traveling lessons we learn come gently! Whenever deviating from our routines and cultural norms so drastically, it is inevitable that we will encounter some friction and growing pains.
Below are the most important but challenging lessons that only travel can teach.
Culture shock is very real
Both Sophie and I learned this important lesson the first 2 weeks of our first big solo backpacking adventures (we were not together at the time).
I found myself sleeping on a floor in Bogota, Colombia, surrounded by other CouchSurfers who only spoke Spanish. I had never been in a hostel, and I also wanted to experience the country as the locals do.
Due to a lack of preparation and naivety to the difficulty of this challenge, I put myself in a position that immediately overwhelmed me. I couldn’t get a working phone because I didn’t speak enough Spanish, which meant I couldn’t explore very far for fear of getting lost, couldn’t order (or recognize) many foods, and I was getting no sleep on a crowded floor on top of it all.
I found myself depressed, isolated, and ready to go home. In the end though, I ended up staying in Colombia for 6 months! Had I not reached the limit of my visitor visa, I would have stayed another 6!
Once the culture shock wore off and I learned how to navigate my situation, I couldn’t get enough of the Colombian lifestyle and culture.
Sophie has a similar tale of being in India completely by herself and finding it exceptionally challenging. She spent 2 weeks miserable and ready to fly back as well. Then she had the fortune of meeting a couple key friends that she would go on to travel with. These strangers, solo travelers themselves, became lifelong friends and Sophie would go on to have the time of her life exploring India’s rich culture.
During our years, we have also guided numerous friends through similar battles, and it almost always comes in the beginning of their journeys. It is hard to appreciate what culture shock is or how it will look, but throwing yourself out of your comfort zone in such an extreme way presents some very real psychological challenges.
That said, those who persevere inevitably recover and go on to fall utterly in love with travel.
True Traveling Lesson: In life as in travel, leaving your comfort zones will likely lead to great pain and stress, followed by a greater joy than previously possible.
Travel is rarely as glamorous as it looks
Don’t believe a single thing you see on Instagram; travel is certainly a lot of things, but glamorous is rarely one of them.
If you have only ever vacationed and never truly traveled, you are likely seeing it through rose-tinted glasses. The stories you hear and the photos you see are all so amazing, but like an iceberg, you are only seeing the visible 10%.
What lurks beneath the surface are bouts of physical struggle, such as food poisoning, sleep deprivation, and pure fatigue. There are also common emotional challenges, such as loneliness, frustration, and culture shock.
Of course, the majority of the experience is exceptionally rewarding, which is why so many fall in love with the lifestyle. It is a bit like that first day after finally getting back to the gym – every muscle aches, but the satisfaction and reward is so worth it!
True Traveling Lesson: Life on social media is just the highlight reels – it’s not real life.
SOCIAL MEDIA MAY NOT BE REAL LIFE, BUT WE DO POST SOME PRETTY PICTURES THERE SO FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK: We Dream of Travel Facebook Page
The world is not a zoo
Unfortunately, this ultra-critical traveling lesson is one that too many never learn. That is, the world and the people in it are not there for anyone’s personal amusement.
One of the most troubling and common things we see are tourists with big DSLR cameras snapping off photos of people without permission, consideration, or even respect. It seems everyone needs to get that “Nat Geo” shot, which for too many is synonymous with capturing images of the impoverished.
Perhaps we are extra sensitive to this as photographers, but it is a lesson we hope your will heed.
The rule of thumb we follow is “would we be comfortable taking this photograph if we were at home?”. In other words, would you photograph someone’s child playing in the park without their parents’ permission? Would you stare them in the face and photograph them as they rest on their porch?
Similarly, wild animals should never be photo props. You’ll likely come across many places where you can pay a few dollars to snap a photo with a monkey/sloth/parrot/other cute wild animal. These animals have usually been illegally poached and giving money to photograph them only further funds more poaching.
Even the sanctuaries you discover should be researched prior to visiting, as many use the title but are poaching, buying, or breeding animals illegally.
True Traveling Lesson: Respect should be universal.
Your travels should be for YOU
Many travelers will never admit that their primary motivation for going at all is to be recognized as a traveler. They book a trip somewhere seemingly exotic, like Thailand, so they can go buy some elephant pants, attend a full moon party, photograph themselves at an orphanage, and tell everyone back home how amazing the food and experience was… it is a trip they will slip into every dinner conversation for the rest of their lives.
I will not pretend to be immune to this desire. Image was not my primary motivator for travel, but I remember feeling a very superficial pride in being known in my little hometown as “the guy that’s been everywhere”.
However, one of the most valuable traveling lessons I eventually learned is that your experience, personal growth, and enjoyment are all stifled when you are wrapped up in your image.
If you find yourself buying wristbands for every country you’ve visited, sewing flags onto your backpack, or in any way trying to broadcast your nuanced identity as a cultured, seasoned traveler, it may be time to take a step back and re-evaluate why you are traveling.
True Traveling Lesson: Vanity and approval are the enemies of growth.
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You really can’t go “home” again
This old adage is something we hear all the time. At surface level, it seems simple enough to understand. However, every single traveler will know and feel the true meaning of this only after that first return home.
Whether you are gone for a month or a year, travel will change you. You will come back to this place that felt familiar and it will now feel different. Often, it will feel much, much smaller.
Your friends and family will ask about your adventures with interest, but you will find it difficult to explain how meaningful that time away was. You may notice that you felt more understood by someone you just met in a hostel than by your parents or a friend you’ve known your whole life.
It’s true that “home” itself will slowly change as well; new stores, new neighbors, new restaurants, but it’s YOU that is really changing. That is a good thing, by the way! But it can also be one of the harsher traveling lessons you will learn.
The same can be said for “second homes” that you discover on your journey. That place you meant to spend a weekend but just couldn’t leave for months — the one that felt like a second home and stole your heart — it too will likely not stir up the same nest of butterflies a year or two later when you get back to it! The only constant is change.
True Traveling Lesson: You can walk the same trail, but you can NEVER take the same hike.
Even the busiest hostels can be lonely
As you’ve been reading, not all traveling lessons the road will teach are cheerful ones. Yes, I know we said travel is rarely lonely… and that’s true. However, every traveler who does this long enough will at some point experience an indescribable type of loneliness.
In fact, most will experience it at the very beginning!
It is difficult to suddenly have nothing and no one familiar around you. As humans, we have an inherent need to feel understood. Sometimes, this barrier can be more literal, such as an inability to speak the local language. But sometimes, we are in a crowded hostel full of people and just feel alone.
My guess is that most first-time travelers will face this within the first weeks of their first trip. However, even the most seasoned explorer is likely to forget this lesson and fall into some depressing bouts of loneliness. It is an unexpected, yet normal consequence of seeking something new and foreign.
True Traveling Lesson: We can feel lonely ANYWHERE that we do not feel understood.
“Amazing” is a relative word
Perhaps this is more a reflection of human nature than of travel itself, but it seems a universal lesson learned in traveling. That is, what qualifies as “amazing” is relative to what experiences have preceded the current one.
In the beginning, there is a sort of magic travel dust that coats every sunset, every party, and every relationship with a fairytale glitter. EVERYTHING is “AMAZING”.
The sad part is that we inevitably become desensitized. After 100 sunsets, that plain ol’ blue bird sky just doesn’t feel as amazing. After 100 parties, that one that ended at 1am just doesn’t seem all that memorable. And after watching a volcano erupt before your eyes, that other viewpoint that once seemed “epic” now feels pretty blasé.
One of the traveling lessons we already discussed is how perspective creates appreciation. However, if you are not careful, the opposite can occur. That little waterfall back home seemed amazing until you spent a day at Iguazu Falls, one of the natural Wonders of the World!
The only way to maintain gratitude for the big and small gifts in life is to try to be mindful and check in with yourself from time to time.
True Traveling Lesson: You will rob yourself of joy by comparing each gift to something bigger and better, rather than appreciating it for what it is.
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General Traveling Lessons
This last section contains some other random, common musings we have found most travelers come to believe along the way.
Travel is a great way to learn
Most of us have trouble visualizing where countries lie on a map. Amazingly, we know exactly where it is in relation to other places once we have been there!
Similarly, I learned Spanish faster in 3 months of living in Colombia than I had with 4 semesters of studying it in school.
And how about this – I learned a great deal about Sweden and its culture not from having been there, but from having traveled with two Swedish friends for a month through Panama!
True Travel Lesson: You can read about culture, geography, history and the world in textbooks all day, but nothing will educate you as profoundly as actually traveling.
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Travel is addictive
Let’s first clarify that addictiveness runs a spectrum, and proceed with the understanding that travel is not at the extreme end of that spectrum.
With that said, it is surprising how quickly travel can become part of your internal wiring. Personally, having to go back to work a job after my first 6 month adventure lasted about 2 months before I started having anxiety issues. Being forced to live on a schedule that someone else creates while living in a town where I no longer felt understood had a debilitating effect.
My highest highs were experienced during travels, as were my lowest lows.
There were bouts of crippling depression, despair, hopelessness, and even loneliness… but there were also countless nights that felt like a dream! Swimming in bioluminescent water as each stroke stirred magical blue sparkles and the moon slowly eclipsed… that is something that changes you. Falling in love with people you just met and feeling forever connected… that too changes you.
True Travel Lesson: Travel can be, for many, an addiction in every sense of the word.
Every person is their own adventure
Most people quantify their travel by the countries they’ve visited, or the years they’ve been away. One of the most powerful life lessons that I have learned from traveling is that every single one of us is an adventure!
We all have stories and personalities as unique as any mountain or island or forest we could explore. Every person should resolve to spend at least one night in a hostel. I promise you that every traveler will have as many stories about the people they’ve met as the countries they’ve visited, whether that person was a local or another traveler.
By the way, you don’t have to be somewhere exotic for this to be true. That person sitting alone at your local coffee shop is an adventure, too!
Keep in mind, however, that you won’t enjoy every person you meet just as you won’t enjoy every place you visit.
True Life Lesson: Find the adventure in each other.
THIS VIEWPOINT IS JUST ONE OF THE TOP INSTAGRAM LOCATIONS IN VANG VIENG, LAOS
Spontaneity can become routine
At first thought, routine tends to feel synonymous with stability and predictability. The travel lifestyle, however, provides a powerful contradictory lesson; that an existence devoid of routine can become a routine itself!
While this is certainly something worthy of romanticizing, it can as easily be a blessing as a curse. Going on a walk every morning is a very healthy routine! Ending each day with an entire bottle of whiskey, however, is a very unhealthy routine.
Routines themselves can be good or bad, and what you may find after years of exploring new places, foods, and cultures is that a complete lack of routine is your routine!
What was a particularly fascinating realization was that even a life of spontaneous decisions and constant motion can become stale once it has become “rinse, wash, and repeat”.
True Travel Lesson: Everything in life can become routine… and that can be a good or bad thing!
Memories are rose-tinted
…And that is a GOOD thing!
Our minds do an amazing job of remembering the sunrise we watched, but forgetting the cold and fatigue we persevered to hike there for it.
It will remind you pleasantly of the amazing parties and crazy nights out, but ignore the spells of loneliness experienced just days before.
It will remember the dozens of lifelong friends you made, and forget the guy in the dorm who snored so loud and smelled so bad that you couldn’t sleep for a week!
The memories are there for us when we choose to access them for sure, but they are not how we remember our trips. Somehow, we will always look back with pure joy and nostalgia, even for the hard times.
True Travel Lesson: Even our most challenging times have a way of becoming fond, cherished memories.
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Final Thoughts on our Traveling Lessons Learned
The opportunity for personal growth that comes with a change in perspective and scenery is hard to overstate. It is simply fascinating how seeing the world allows us to truly see ourselves.
The all-time highs come with desperate lows. The nights we will never forget are earned through some of our most challenging days.
Perhaps what is most amazing is that travel has a way of teaching us all the same universal lessons regardless of where we go.
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