Last week, I hit a milestone. I turned 30! A new decade!
Usually, around this time, I take off for a big trip to celebrate. First, it was to Hong Kong. Then to Japan and then last year to Berlin to see some dear friends. This year? Not so much. I’ve already adventured back to Japan and to South Korea for a month earlier this year and was in India not too long ago. So instead, I celebrated with friends and family, enjoying this unseasonably warm fall that we’re having here in Vancouver.
That said, after traveling to 28 countries in my 30 years of life (my goal was 30 in 30, but alas I’m just short of that), I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. And so to celebrate, here are a few life and travel lessons learned along the way. Some are practical. Others are more about personal growth and learning. But all are things I learned because I traveled.
1. Pack less than you think you’ll need
This is something I’m still working on, but I always tend to over pack. I’m getting better about the overall quantity of things, but I still end up bringing things on trips that I don’t wear or don’t end up using. As someone who usually flies carry on only, that’s valuable space that I could be using for food souvenirs!
2. Know when you change time zones when traveling over land
Especially when you’re attending important events. Like a wedding. It can be so easy to forget that you’re changing time zones especially when you’re traveling overland like I did in Romania. Now it’s a funny story, but you bet the bride wasn’t pleased by our delayed arrival to the festivities.
3. Get a debit card and pin that works overseas
Having access to extra and emergency money is a must. This way you don’t have to carry copious amounts of cash. Often the exchange rate using your debit card is a lot better than whatever exchange rate a money exchange can provide you. Plus, you can have access to funds in case of an emergency. You never know when you’ll need it. Also, make sure your pin is of the length that works abroad. For the longest time my pin had 5 numbers but most ATMs overseas only accept pins that are of 5 or 6 numbers in length. I was left scrambling for cash in Hong Kong but thank goodness for better-prepared friends who were able to lend me some.
4. Try to arrive in a new place in daylight
This helps you get oriented quickly and it’s so much easier to read that street sign when it is light out. I find new places to seem so much friendlier when I arrive during the daylight.
5. Always pack a scarf
Accessory. Extra warmth when it’s chilly out. Shawl to cover your shoulders or head when visiting a religious landmark. A blanket on the plane. There are so many ways you can use a scarf.
6. Aim to get to your hostel just as check-in opens
Especially if you’re staying in a dorm room. This way you get your pick of all available bed in your room. Whether you prefer the top or bottom bunk, at least you have the choice. And in scenarios where you get assigned a bed, by getting there early you can request the bunk of your preference.
7. Check it’s the correct train before you hop on
One mistake I’ll never make again. In Europe especially, be sure to look up at the sign to make sure the train you’re getting on is the train you’re trying to get on in the first place. Early on in my travel days I was aiming to go to Brussels but I got on the wrong train and ended up on an express train headed to Paris. Not necessarily a bad thing right? But that definitely wasn’t my intention at all. Thankfully the train had one stop before it hit Paris. Brussels South. It wasn’t the train station we wanted to be at but at least it was in the right city!
8. Go on a free walking tour when you first arrive in a new place
And make sure you actually tip properly. Whether you love or hate these tours, I find them to be incredibly useful to get oriented in a new place. I enjoy getting a basic overview of the place’s history and of the possible things to see and do. You visit a number of the major sites and it helps me plan which places are worth returning to on my own and which ones I can skip.
9. Roll your clothing & use those packing cubes
I feel like you read this tip everywhere but that’s because it actually works. I went a long time without packing cubes, but now that I use them regularly, I don’t think I can go back to not using them. Especially when using a backpack. It just makes it so much easier to organize and repack without causing a huge mess.
10. You’ll eventually lose something
No matter how organized you think you are with your packing cubes, eventually one day, you’re going to lose something. Or if you’re me, you’re going to lose a lot of somethings. From a Kindle to a phone to $200 USD (maybe it was stolen I don’t know – my wallet just disappeared), it seems with every trip I end up misplacing a big ticket item. I’m still working on minimizing the things I bring with me so I stop losing them!
11. Keep your distance from monkeys
So many people have warned me about these critters, but I was always indifferent to them. I’ve seen monkeys in Hong Kong and Japan and came out of the experience unscathed. It wasn’t until India that jaded me to these urban dwellers. I didn’t see it until it was too late. While wandering the streets of Vrindavan with my guide, a monkey jumped on me, flying across my face, taking my glasses hostage. My guide had warned us to hold only our glasses and our hats because these thieves were abundant. This particular monkey was far away and I had already walked past him when he made me the mark. Of course I shrieked and my guide was able to get my glasses back from a local boy who had given the monkey a juice box to drop my glasses. My guide suspects it was a scam to get money on the part of the boy, but my guide only paid the nearby shopkeeper that provided to juice box for the monkey. Either way, keep your distance!
12. Self guided > tours
I’ve gone on group tours. I’ve traveled on my own. I’ve gone on private tours. And I vastly prefer doing it myself. I find tours to be way too rushed and I like being able to set my own itinerary. However they do make it easy when you don’t want to plan or the language barrier makes it difficult. Private tours are a happy medium between the two. I had my first private tour experience when in India and quite enjoyed it. We had the flexibility to change it up as needed, plus the experience of having someone explain the history behind important buildings and answer all our silly questions. However, it can be quite expensive to do regularly. Despite all that, if I have a choice, I definitely prefer to figure it out myself. So much more fun that way!
13. Getting up early is always worth it
Whether it’s to see the Taj Mahal or wander the bamboo forest of Kyoto, I have never regretted waking up early to see something that is usually overrun with tourists. Sure when the alarm first goes off you’re wondering why you’re doing this to yourself, but once you’re there and you’re smelling the fresh air sans other tourists, it’s so worth it. Plus, you can always take a nap later!
14. My eye are bigger than my stomach
I love food and it’s one of the reasons why I enjoy traveling so much. There is always something new and different to taste when you’re traveling, but my problem is my gluttonous self wants to try it all and my stomach just isn’t up to the challenge. It’s great when I’m traveling with a friend or my partner and we can share plates of food and try everything, but lately I’ve been off adventuring on my own which really limits my tasting abilities! Regardless, trying new foods and flavours is still definitely one of my favourite reasons to travel and I’ll continue to over order in my attempt to taste the world.
15. You become more connected to the world
Traveling has allowed me the opportunity to learn in depth about cultures from around the world and see how the people live from day to day. You meet people, you hear their stories, you connect. Whenever I hear or read about things in the news affecting regions I’ve visited, it makes it so much more real. In today’s crazy world, this is definitely something we need more of.
16. Every culture is so different and it’s wonderful
Why do the Japanese slurp their noodle soups? (It shows you’re enjoying your meal and enhances the flavour) How many times do you kiss the cheeks of your friends and family in France? (It depends on where you’re from!) Do Canadians really say sorry for everything? (Yes, yes we really do). All these cultural oddities make traveling so fascinating and interesting. You learn how people approach different situations and can perhaps learn a new method of doing something that you may not have thought of before.
17. No matter how far you go, people are the same all around the world.
Culturally we may be different, but no matter where you are in the world, people just want the same things. Something to do, someone to love, something to look forward to. They’re after happiness, community, and being able to be themselves.
18. Backup your photos
Generally, I don’t purchase souvenirs when I’m traveling meaning my main souvenirs are the photos that I take on my trips. I always make a point of backing up my images as I go whether it’s to a computer if I have one or to the cloud. I’ve been burned too many times and I’m really neurotic about make sure I have a backup and a backup of my backup. In doing so, if the worst happens and your SD card is corrupt or you lose it entirely, you’re not losing all of your images, but just the ones you hadn’t backed up yet. Plus, this blog kind of serves as a third backup as well!
19. Living within my means
When I moved abroad to Budapest, my goal was to not dip into my savings while I was there. I could use it to supplement my travels around Europe (otherwise I wouldn’t be able to travel as much as I did on a Hungarian salary), but my living and day to day expenses were to come from my Hungarian salary. This resulted in a massively reduced amount of disposable income as I struggled to learn how to use a new currency and to adjust my expectations of purchasing power. However, now over 5 years later, I’m so glad I learned those lessons. People ask me how I’m still able to travel so much despite still enjoying the joys of life and buying an apartment this year. It’s all because I’ve learned to live within my means and I’ve learned how to not spend frivolously.
20. Travel solo at least once
Travel with friends is great. Travel with your partner is even better, but travel on your own is liberating. I started small. A couple days here or there. In Chicago. In Hamburg. And then worked my way up to a month solo in Japan earlier this year. There is nothing better than waking up and deciding on what to do based on what you WANT to do.
21. Making friends in hostels is surprisingly easy
New friends I made while at a hostel in Kanazawa, Japan.
While traveling solo you’re not actually alone. I’ve always managed to meet people along the way whether at my hostel or through my Airbnb. As an introvert, I thought this would be tough, but I was able to easily connect with others, especially other solo travelers. They’re in the same boat as you and all they want is a new friend to chat or have an adventure with!
22. Rest days are important
I learned this earlier this year on my month long trip. This was my longest trip away from a home base. I never realized how important that home base was and the ability to nest and not do anything for a couple days. I felt a little guilty and a bit of FOMO when I decided to stay at my hostel and just hang out, but for the long term, it was the right choice. It made me happier. It allowed my body a chance to rest. I could do something that felt like I was at home whether it was laundry, reading a book or binging on the latest Netflix craze.
23. Face your fears head on
I like to say I’m pretty risk adverse, but you wouldn’t really be able to tell based on the things I do. I fear the unknown and I run different scenarios over and over again in my head increasing my anxiety. Travel is constantly keeping me on my toes. There are things you really can’t prepare for until it happens. Travel allows me to practice facing my fears head-on.
At work right now I’ve been thrust into a leadership role that I unknowingly signed up for with more and more responsibility with each passing week it seems. Sure I’m freaking out inside, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw me. Travel gets you in so many unexpected situations where, in order to get out of them, you just have to figure it out. Like earlier this year, I lost my cell phone and with it access to maps and navigation early in my trip. And yet, I still managed to navigate myself to my hostel in a number of cities. Planning. Resourcefulness. Asking for help when needed. Trusting my gut. All got me to where I needed to be. This has given me the confidence in other aspects of my life to use any available resource to me in situations where I have no idea what to do. I trust that I will eventually figure it out.
25. A tightly packed itinerary is no fun
When I first started traveling on my own I would plan every last detail, trying to see everything in a place regardless of how much time I realistically had because I didn’t think I would ever go back. Days would be long as I scrambled to pack it all in. However, over time, I’ve relaxed. I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to see everything in order to have a good time. In fact, long days were more likely to cause me to be cranky and stressed out which isn’t what you should be feeling when you’re traveling! Now, I have a rough plan of how I’d like to spend my days but if I don’t get a chance to see everything, I’m okay with that too.
26. There is joy in spontaneity
Having a plan is nice, but there is so much joy in doing something spontaneously. Maybe you’ve met some people at your hostel and they’re going on some interesting adventure or others invite you for a yummy meal. Maybe you stumbled upon a really awesome beach and all you want to do is hang out by and on the water for the day instead of heading to that museum. I have never been disappointed by saying yes to an adventure and doing something spontaneous. You never know what you might discover
27. If I really love a place, I’ll go back
The more I travel, I’ve come to realize that if I really love a place, I would go back. I did that with Berlin. And with Japan. And I’m sure I’ll go back to other places I loved like Italy or Spain. It’s not really a question of if, but when. I use to have this mentality of not returning to places I’ve been before, but I’ve kind of turned around on that. Why wouldn’t I want to go back if that place made me feel good? Sure, there are so many other new places to visit, but travel isn’t just about ticking off a checklist.
28. Take your time
Slow travel is the best kind of travel. It can be hard when you only have 10 days of vacation a year, but it can be doable. Gone are the days where I’d be rushing from city to city trying to hit as many places as possible. I leave my vacation needing another vacation! I still find it really tempting to over pack my itinerary with destinations, but I’m getting better about slowing down and giving myself more time in a place.
29. Travel is personal
Having said all this, travel is personal. These are the things that I’ve learnt along the way. They may not be things that you learn or even necessary agree with. That’s okay. There is no need to compare my journey and yours. FOMO is real and trying to overcome it is hard. I have to keep on reminding myself that travel is personal and that I should be grateful to have seen as much of the world as I have and to not compare myself to others. As Theodore Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy.
30. I learned how to be me
I think back to my time in Budapest with fond memories, not only because of the huge adventure that it was but also because it allowed me to fully be myself. Starting from scratch with people who didn’t know me was refreshing and liberating. Maybe this would have happened over time anyway, but going abroad definitely helped me be more comfortable in my own skin in front of others.
What are some lessons that you’ve learned from your travels?