After many years wandering the world, I believe I have learnt a lot. From simple tips to make the journey easier, to life changing lessons. So I decided to share what traveling to 50+ countries has taught me.
I poured my heart into this post. It’s quite personal, but I hope it’ll help other travelers to feel more comfortable, and to see they’re not alone with some things they might be going through.
So here you have it, 20+ travel lessons from a self-proclaimed citizen of the world.
One of my best friends called me a “communist hippie”. I’m pretty sure she meant it as an insult, but I took it as a fantastic way to describe me. It has absolutely nothing to do with political affiliations, it was about my world views. I was making a point about how important it is to travel. How people’s minds open after immersing in a different culture. How borders are not real, but a man-made way to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’. How there’s only one human race, and meeting people from all over the world help us to see how true that is through accentuating our similarities and diminishing our differences.
As I was making my point, I started to reflect on all the incredible lessons I’ve learnt while traveling, from life changing realizations, to practical resources I think every traveler should know. That’s how this post started being drafted. It turned out to be 20+ travel lessons that traveling to 50+ countries has taught me.
I wonder now what I’ll learn by the time I reach a hundred. Stay tuned, I’m on it!
What traveling has taught me: Life lessons
Traveling is the best way of learning
I started with the cheesiest one, but it’s absolutely true. Hear me out. I have a formal education from a fancy school. My degrees looked really nice hanging on the wall. I worked for years as a legal adviser and a University professor. I still work on research on my field. So I know it sounds odd, coming from me, that traveling can teach you more than school. But I truly believe it.
When you experience a different culture, your mind opens. Learning about history and traditions makes you appreciate the differences, but mostly, it makes you see that all humans are fundamentally the same, no matter where you grew up, which religion you believe in (or don’t believe), or which language you speak.
That’s why I don’t like borders. They’re one of the most hurtful things mankind ever created. They force us to see at other humans as ‘them’ and not ‘us’. They accentuate difference that don’t really exist. Different cultures don’t need an imaginary line in a map to thrive. In most cases, actually, these lines have hurt much more than helped. Different ethnicities thrown together for no reason, or the same tribe cut in half.
The imaginary lines the West drew in the map of the Middle East are a main reason for the permanent crisis of the region. Same goes for Northern Africa. Have you ever seen how perfect the lines are? A straight line going from north to south or from east to west, without caring about what is there in real life. Without looking at what nature has to say. With one ruler over everything and everyone that happened to be within the drawing, even if there’s no legitimate representation. Different religions and faiths under a government that only upholds one. People forced to leave their ancestors’ land to join their family on the other side of the line.
You can be an expert on theory of Human Rights, but you will understand the real significance of the concept when you go around the world meeting people. Then the cause becomes more personal than it could have ever been before. This is the case for me. I’ve worked on Human Rights from the moment I graduated Law School, but it wasn’t until I saw some of the realities I’ve read about that it hit me. We need to change mentalities for the world to be a better place, we need to leave our selfishness behind.
What you’ll learn better on the road than in any classroom is to understand your own background. There’re countries where you grow up hearing that there’s no place on earth that could be better. In others you might hear that everywhere else is better. The truth is probably in the middle. You’ll appreciate the wonders of your country more when I see others, and you’ll be more critical on the things that can be improve through other examples.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries”–Aldous Huxley
Age is not important, although your travel style might change over time
I’m often the oldest person in a hostel, or among the youngest in a hotel. That’s one of the main changes I noticed when I turned thirty.
In my twenties I’d spent the nights drinking and dancing, and waking up early next day to explore, while now I just can’t, regardless of whether I want to or not. If I stay up late, or a drink a bit too much, then next day I’m dead. So instead of drink my weight in rum/vodka/(insert local drink here), I settle for a glass of wine, and I head to bed while it’s still today.
I also had the habit of going straight from the airport to the office, to use every single minute of my vacation time traveling. Well, in all honesty, if I still had an office job, I’d be pulling this off. Never mind.
The most drastic change, though, is the perception of others. In my twenties no one judged me for my drive to travel. Today I get asked about when I’m going to settle down and have kids all.the.freaking.time! I’m never sure how to explain myself without hurting their life choices, but it’s quite simple: we’re different people and what we want out of life is different too. The feeling of being on the road, instead of being taking care another human, makes me happy. My priorities are certainly different from people my age, but I’ve learnt that, as I don’t judge them for their life choices, I won’t let them judge me for mine.
Leave your ego behind and accept that not everyone will see traveling the way you do
Sightseeing is a nice part of traveling, but Paris is more than the Eiffel Tower, and London is more than the Big Ben. As much as we all want the photo with the famous landmarks, I want to encourage people to go off the beaten path, to meet locals, to try typical cuisine, to learn the place’s history to understand its present. Break free from the mind numbing big guided tours, where you take the photo you’re told to get, followed by a lunch at a tourist trap. Instead I’d recommend walking around on your own, heading to that little street that caught your eye for no reason, talking to the old man sitting in the park. That’s how you’ll make real memories.
With that said, I know that for lots of people having to deal with another culture, language and currency is a cause of anxiety. I know that for them booking a tour is already getting out of their comfort zone. I know that having a passport full of stamps is not everyone’s dream.
I also learnt about how privileged I am. I’m not sure if it’s the color of my skin, the passport I hold, or my English without an accent, but I’ve been lucky enough to have people opened their home to me, I’ve been invited to weddings on the road, I’ve been stopped in the street to chat and even because people want to take a photo with me. But I’ve met way too many people that have lived the opposite. They have been discriminated against, they have struggled and suffered. Obviously their take on traveling is different than mine. I wholeheartedly wish they didn’t have to go through all of that, but I’ve learnt to accept that there’re many reasons for people to see traveling differently than I do.
As for the ones that don’t like traveling, as I don’t want them telling me to settle down, I can’t force them to travel. Simple.
Most people don’t care about your travels. And that’s OK
General conceptions of a successful life don’t involve traveling beyond the occasional vacation. So most people can’t relate when you try to explain how seeing the world is more important than stability to you. And that’s fair. I don’t get how a new car could be better than going somewhere new.
Every single trip, in one way or another, has changed me. I always learn something about the world or about myself, so I’m always adapting, at least a little. And I’m eager for my loved ones to see how I’m developing. Seriously, today’s me is completely different than 5 years ago me, and I’m sure I’ll be quite different in another 5 years. So how could my family and friends don’t want to hear about the stories that made me who I am today? Well, they don’t. Life continued for them while I was away, and they can’t relate to what I’m feeling.
So don’t be down if you spent time abroad and when you get back home the conversation about your whole lifechanging experience lasts 10 minutes. People will want to talk about the things that interests them, and if traveling is not on the list, then let them be. I’m sure you don’t want to hear about their boring jobs for more than 10 minutes either (I know it sounds like an appalling comparison, but –I’m sorry to say– it’s quite accurate).
Don’t let others define how and why you travel
Personally, I don’t like it when people tell me they “did” a country when they spent half a day in one city. It feels like cheating. How much of Italy could you have experienced if all you got was a photo with the Colosseum? But even if you’re that sort of traveler, the important thing is that you’re traveling! Do you feel like you need a month to actually see a place? Are you ok with passing by and only seeing the landmarks? Do whatever makes you happy, not what others expect.
Same goes for accommodation. I don’t enjoy staying at hotels because I feel like I’m in a bubble, away from the culture I’m trying to immerse myself into. I like hostels because you meet more people, locals and other travelers. I love Couchsurfing because you actually get to experience life as a local. But staying with strangers can be rough. Think smells and snores. So sometimes, in the middle of the night, I envy those who are comfortably sleeping in their hotel rooms (and every now and then I book one too). Thing is, everyone makes choices according to what they want and like, and no one else should preach to have the right way of doing it.
Travel for yourself, not for validation. I’ve read all sort of stories about people selling all their stuff and hitting the road, only to realize it wasn’t really what they wanted –even saying that they knew they didn’t want to do it, but it was “the thing to do, because everyone else does it”.
I’m the best version of myself when I travel: I’m more open minded, I’m more willing to try new things, I’m happier to meet new people, I’m eager to learn. But I also love to go back home to my boyfriend, and I’m grateful to shower without flipflops. I would never let another traveler make me feel like a worse one because home is also great!
Traveling solo is wonderful, but it can be hard
Are you going alone? Isn’t it dangerous? Why would you want to go there? Won’t you get bored? Wouldn’t it be easier if you were going with a man?
Do guys get any of these questions? Ugh!
I love to travel on my own. I’m not as sociable as I come across, so facing a new country alone made me get out of my comfort zone and start talking to strangers. And it has been amazing. After making many many new friends from all over the world, I’m glad I took that first terrifying step (my first solo trip was to Italy, and I couldn’t have picked a better destination).
I’m lucky, though. My boyfriend is a wonderful man, always encouraging me to follow my passion, even though he’s not into traveling. I know it must be quite hard for him sometimes, especially when I tell him that I’m going somewhere that’s completely off the beaten path, or that is perceived as not safe. But I know that he’ll trust and support my decisions. To be fair, we met through Couchsurfing, so he knew what he was getting into when we started dating!
Even with hundreds of amazing experiences to back me up, and with a supportive partner, sometimes I struggle. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for those without all the encouragement!
So as much as I advocate for solo female travel, I also think you need to start gradually, to countries that are easy to handle first, and slowly move to more complicated destinations. Your skin will get tougher and you’ll learn how to handle situations that are bound to happen (because, sadly, there’re assholes everywhere!).
“Being single, married or anywhere in-between should have no bearing on whether or not we pursue the things that make us happy”–Ali Wunderman
Traveling is only glamorous in retrospect
Uncomfortable overnight buses or trains. Countless hours at airports. Dealing with people at border control that seems to have only one job in the world: to make your life miserable. Carrying your whole life in your back. Sleeping in a room full of snoring, smelly people. I could go on and on.
But when you look back, you don’t think of the dirty toilet you had to deal with, or the pain in your feet after walking forever. You just see the positive side, because that’s why we travel.
Traveling has another ugly side: when you’re on the road you miss “real life”. I know, it might be that we’re traveling to escape from it, but in the process we miss seeing our nieces and nephews grow up, we skip weddings and birthdays, we become strangers to our families, and we lose some friendships.
We also close up to our loved ones. They expect instagrammable pictures and magical stories of exotic lands, so they can justify our absence. This means that when we’re struggling, we have no one to talk to. You don’t want to call home sounded defeated, regardless if it’s because you’re tired, sad, frustrated, bored, or simply because you miss what you left behind. You have to be a hero, a fearless traveler. And that can make you feel really lonely.
We all have been there. So find someone to talk to –whether it’s from home or a new friend on the road. Don’t be afraid to feel how you feel. Remember than in retrospect, your trip will be amazing anyways, so try to make it great while you’re at it too.
Appreciate the little things, be humble…
I always had a roof above my head and food on my table. So I never got to appreciate all the luxuries of my life. They were always there, so I took them for granted. But when you have access to only cold water or to no showers at all, your next hot one feels like the best thing ever! When you live for days on end eating bread, a hearty home-cooked meal is heaven.
A lot of the things that for us –privileged people– are a given, for most people around the world are a dream. Remember that every time you’re complaining because you can’t get something you want.
Just the fact that we’re privileged enough to be able to travel is something to be grateful about. And we should feel grateful every day.
…And let go of the things that don’t matter
Freshly clean clothes? Make up? Combed hair? Come on! No epic adventure is lived in heels!
On the road I’m a hippie. And I couldn’t be happier! All I need for a trip fits in a 38 liters backpack. And although sometimes I envy the gorgeous posed photos I see on social media, I think that I’m showing my own journey in a more real way, which probably will inspire more people to go out there themselves.
What traveling has taught me: Practical lessons
If you truly love to travel, you need to be sustainable
I ramble quite often about sustainability because it’s a matter that concerns me greatly. And I believe it should be on the top of the priorities of every traveler. It makes no sense that you want to see the world if you don’t care about it. That means that you need to take positive actions into making it a better place, or, at the very least, not damage it more.
If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at my comprehensive guides on how to be a sustainable traveler:
- The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel
- Sustainable Travel Photography
- Eco-friendly hiking: sustainable tips and packing guide
- Vegan travel: Sustainability and the most veg friendly destinations
Traveling doesn’t need to be expensive
Sure you will have an amazing time if money is not an issue, but for me the best trips tend to be the ones with a small budget. I stay with locals, I eat street food, I explore the place on foot… Nowadays, even if I have more money to spend, I still do those things, because they make me see the place from a different perspective, and they became a defining trait of my travel style.
As for expenses of the trip itself, I book plane/train/bus/boat tickets in advance to get good fares, and I spend the same on food as I would at home, which means I don’t really need much.
As for getting the money to start a trip, I think it’s a matter of priorities. I don’t remember the last time I went shopping just for the sake of it. I almost don’t eat out. I change my phone only if it dies (last time was about 4 years ago). I have quite a minimalistic lifestyle, so the money that I do have goes to traveling. And that’s the secret… not too hard, is it?
If you want to truly immerse yourself in the local culture, you need to learn a bit of the language
Not only you’ll feel more confident (as in you might get rip off less), but you’ll get smiles from tons of people, it’ll be easier to make new friends, and you’ll have an insight you can’t have otherwise.
Go for basics if you’re only staying for a few days, and dig a little bit deeper if you’re staying longer.
Basic words to learn (or have at hand) for any trip:
Yes / No
My name is
What’s your name?
Nice to meet you
If you have an allergy or a dietary restriction, add it too.
Also, numbers from 1 to 10 are super useful.
Another simple thing I’ve learnt is that a smile will get you far. A smile combined with the effort of speaking their language is all you need to make the day of a local.
It’s OK to plan ahead, but leave space to get lost and improvise
I was never good at winging it. I was happy if I had a trip planned to the very last detail. I remember how on my first trip to Paris I packed the days with things to see, and how I ran around places checking them off the list. I only had 2 and a half days and I thought I had to see everything. Huge mistake. I didn’t enjoy the trip at all. I have gorgeous pictures, and I was smiling in them, but I don’t have any amazing memory from that trip. So I decided I needed to change my approach.
I still do a lot of research before a trip. I read about the history and politics of the place. I mark the “must-see” in my map. I ask other travelers for advice on what see, do and eat. But I leave time to get lost. I wander around aimlessly, just following whatever catches my attention. I only look at the map on the last days to make sure I didn’t skip something important.
I also started slow traveling. This means staying in a place for longer, leaving time to experience the local life.
When I went back to Paris it was the opposite experience of that first trip. I stayed for 8 whole days. I had petit déjeuner while doing some people watching at the Île de la Cité. I went for a walk to Belleville, to get the best view of the city from above. I discovered a little wine bar in Montmartre and spent the evening talking about life with the owner. I had the best eclair in the Latin Quarter. I took a macaroon class at Le Marais… All and all, I fell in love with Paris. Now I feel like I’ve experienced the city. And even though I prefer off the beaten path destinations, Paris will always have a tiny bit of my heart.
You’ll often catch yourself planning your next trip… while still in the current one
When you meet other travelers, exchanging stories is a must. And even if you’re traveling when that happens, you can’t stop yourself from being jealous of the stories you hear. So you start thinking about the next destination. I got used to saying “I haven’t been there… yet. But it’s on my list”. Even when it’s a place I’ve visited, I catch myself thinking I should try to go again to explore more.
It’s not that you’re not loving what you’re doing, is that your mind is restless. But fear not, it happens to us all.
Remember it’s ok to dream of all the trips to come, just don’t forget to enjoy the one you’re in.
“Adventure might hurt you, but monotony will kill you!”–Author Unknown
I cannot stress this enough. One of my most useful lessons is that everything you really need fits in your carry on. If something unexpected happens, you can always get what you need at your destination.
You’ll do your pocket, your back and the planet a great favor if you follow this simple advice. It might seem impossible if you’re used to a big suitcase, but you’ll save money, you won’t have to carry unnecessary weight, and you’ll reduce your carbon footprint, so make the effort. After a few trips you’ll master the art of packing smart and efficiently. And you’ll never go back.
Eat where the locals eat
I learnt to stay away from English menus with photos, and from any eatery or bar close to a landmark. Most likely it’ll be overpriced and of lesser quality food. If you stumble upon a little place where you can only hear the local language, that’s the place you want. If it has a queue to enter, even better.
Remember that food is part of the local culture, so you’ll learn more about the life in the destination if you eat locally.
Keep sustainability in mind too. Locally produced and seasonal food is healthier and fresher, and it doesn’t have the CO2 cost of being moved all over the world. With this you’ll also be helping the local community.
Why would you prefer to go for McDonald when you can have a tasty local meal instead?
The world is kind
We’re so used to hearing bad news, that we think the whole world is inhabited by horrible people. What I’ve learnt is that those are exceptions. Traveling made me believe in the good of humanity.
I have countless examples, everywhere I’ve been, of people being kind: from someone stopping to give me directions on the street to someone spending their day showing me around their city.
The place that was a huge eye opener was Iran. We all have heard the most terrible things about the country, but its people are the most amazing I’ve ever met. I spent a month in Iran full of stories of kindness. I experienced all sorts of Iranian hospitality: from the many amazing people that opened their houses to me, either to lend me a couch for the night, or to have me over for tea or a meal, to the beautiful girl that invited me to her wedding in Kerman, to the family that adopted me in Kurdistan. I have nothing but great things to say about Iranians.
Where you least expect it, I’m sure you’ll encounter a person that will make you regain faith in mankind.
The world is not as scary as people think
Take the leap and book the trip. You’ll be able to see for yourself that there’s not much to worry about. And that the media will say anything to sell, sometimes things that are quite far from the truth.
Media leads us to believe that anything beyond our front yard is terrifying. But often our dream destinations are even safer than our own city!
Get travel insurance, carry a first aid kit and don’t leave your luggage unattended
No point elaborating on this. Nothing happens until it happens. When it does, be prepared.
Check out this post → Travel resources: the best travel tips and tricks
It’s OK not to love a place
You’re expected to tell love stories about every destination you go, like if you didn’t do it right if the place is not your cup of tea. It took me a while to understand that it shouldn’t be like that. You will love some places, and not like others much. There’s nothing wrong with you as a traveler if you don’t like a place.
It’s hard for me to get the Paris syndrome, because I love Paris, but I’d never question why someone simply didn’t feel the vibe I felt. I’m also strong enough to say it when I don’t like a place, knowing it’ll hurt sensibilities… that’s why I started posts stating that the place is not my favorite, and only highlighting what I did like (Azerbaijan and Helsinki, I’m looking at you!).
It’s also OK to go back to a place you love
You always want to go to a new place, yet at the same time you want to go back to all those places you have visited but feel like you haven’t fully explored. I get the feeling. Why “waste” resources revisiting places when there’s so many new ones to see? Well, because traveling is about happiness. If going back to a place you know brings you joy, go for it!
Even though I even lived in London, I’m happy to go back every chance I get. Anybody has a problem with it? Then deal with it, I’ll keep going back!
Western culture is selfish
I’m Chilean, so it might be weird for you –if you’re reading this from Europe or the US– that I call myself Western. But I think the whole American continent is Western, since the concept should be defined culturally, not geographically. Now that we’re on the same page, you’ll get my point.
For most, people are defined by what they have. That’s why consumerism thrives in the West. Visiting other cultures have taught me that material things are just comfort, but they have nothing to do with who you are. We assume that someone else’s problems are just that: someone else’s. Visiting places with a strong sense of community made me realized how individualistic and sad our culture is.
Your world will be rocked, as mine was, when you meet someone that has little, but is happy to split it with you. The less people have, the happier they are to share.
Remember to have fun!
I’ve learnt to let go of my preconceived ideas of what I should and shouldn’t do. My sense of safety has also changed. I’m not saying I’d do anything life threatening, but getting out of my comfort zone has brought me the most fun. I started to evaluate risk on a scale of how good of a story what I’m about to do could be. I started hiking on my own, I climbed active volcanoes, I got my first tattoo abroad, I’ve been alone to places where no one speaks a word of any language I speak… and I’m utterly happy with everything I’ve experienced!
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt”―John Muir
→ Are there any travel lessons you want to share? Tell me in the comments!
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