15 lessons I’ve learned traveling the world

A year and a half ago, my family and I sold our stuff, said goodbye to our conventional life in Vancouver, and hit the road.

We bought a not-very-gently-used camper in Amsterdam and spent the next year sputtering around Europe and Turkey. It was a marvelous experience, the best thing we’ve done in our lives.

During that time we became so enchanted with our new nomadic lifestyle, that we decided to keep the adventure going. After selling the camper this summer, we moved to Mexico for Spanish immersion. That’s where we are now.

It’s been a life-changing 18 months. We’ve all learned so much, about ourselves, about the world, and about life. In my mind, these are the lessons that stand out the most.

Travel lesson #1: Start!

What’s the single most important lesson I’ve learned? If you want to do something, then stop dreaming and start doing it.

Even if you don’t have the whole thing mapped out. Just start walking the path you want to be on. Eventually the next steps will become clear. Problems will resolve themselves as you go.

Action begets action.

When we started traveling we didn’t have all or even most of the details worked out. It was really messy. Type-A planner folks would have been horrified.

All we did know was that our daughter was already nine, we wanted to travel with her, and if we waited much longer, we’d miss our window.

So one day we bought a motorhome online through a Dutch dealer and booked three non-refundable tickets on a dog-friendly flight to Amsterdam.

And that was that. We had abut two months until our flight took off to iron out the pesky details. Like getting rid of all our stuff. Selling our car. Finding international health insurance. Figuring out what paperwork our Jack Russell Terrier, Archie, needed to come to Europe. Deciding which countries to visit. Discovering how to deal with Europe’s challenging Schengen-visa restrictions (3 months in, 3 months out). To name just a few.

So we did the best we could, and then left anyway. Even with a third of our to-do list undone.

The hardest part, by far, was forcing ourselves out the door. Once we did that, everything worked itself out.

Your dream life won’t magically materialize while you’re sitting on your couch over-thinking the details. Go start it. Walk out the door. You will make mistakes. Things will get messy. But your life will become awesome.

Travel lesson #2: You do NOT need to be rich to travel full time.

“Oh, we’d love to travel, but we’re not that rich.”

People tell me this (or some version of it) all the time, and it drives me batty. Besides being pretty rude and presumptuous, it’s wrong. But you know what? I used to think the same thing.

Guess what. You do NOT need to be rich to travel full time!

What you DO need, I have learned, is portable income or better yet passive income — preferably in a 1st-world currency.

You also need determination. Creative thinking. An entrepreneurial spirit. Common-sense money-management practices, like not spending your money on crap or incurring debt. That’s what it takes. Not a lottery win or a trust fund.

We are not by rich (by North American standards anyway), but we have created a life I never thought possible by earning 1st world dollars and living simply, often in cheaper 2nd-world countries.

Travel lesson #3: Don’t buy stuff.

Being nomadic has taught me not to want stuff. Well, except for photo gear or anything sold at the Apple store.

Local crafts, clothing, artwork, jewelry, souvenirs, mementos, decorative items for our current “home.” You name it, I genuinely don’t want it. I have learned to measure my life not in things, but in experiences.

Whether you’re traveling, planning to travel, or growing roots, buying unnecessary stuff drains your finances and weighs you down in every possible way.

Travel lesson #4: Develop a personal uniform.

I wear the same couple of outfits all the time.

Actually calling them “outfits” might be coming at it a bit too strong. I own a few pieces of clothing, all interchangeable or coordinating. Throw in a scarf or two and voila! My wardrobe is complete. This keeps things simple. Laundry is easy, my stuff doesn’t take up much space and I don’t have to think too hard when I get dressed in the morning. No brainer.

Travel lesson #5: Just say no.

One of the best things I’ve learned traveling is how to say no, firmly and directly, without feeling rude or weird about it.

To vendors trying to overcharge me. To Turks trying to sell me carpets. To Thai cabbies who can get me a good deal if we stop by their brother’s suit store. To scammers trying to distract me so they can pick my pocket. To tour operators. To tuk tuk drivers vying for my business. To the aggressive sellers of tchotchkies who plague famous landmarks eerywhere.

This is not a skill I learned growing up (classic conflict avoider, thank you very much), so learning to say no without guilt has been very freeing.

Travel lesson #6: International travel is the best diet in the world

It’s SO much easier to live a healthy lifestyle outside of the US and Canada.

Whole foods are served in smaller portions. We do much more walking and biking. Food seems to be higher quality (less processed) and fresher. Even if I’m shopping in the big French hypermarches, which stock every gourmet goodness under the sun, I still eat less because the food seems more satisfying.

We spent a few months in Vancouver this summer, and I really struggled with the grocery shopping. Food tended to be more expensive but of lower quality and little flavor, even the “organic” stuff in fancy markets.

I tend to put on about 15 pounds back in Canada or the US, but fortunately the weight immediately melts away when we leave the continent. Hey, we’ve been in Mexico for a month and a half, and I’m down three belt notches already.

Travel lesson #7: Don’t believe the media (and while I’m at it, careful with the travel porn)

This is a biggie. To the hear the national media tell it, only people with a death wish should even think about coming to Mexico. But that hasn’t been our experience at all. On the contrary, the Mexican people have been some of the warmest we’ve ever encountered. Even the automatic-weapon toting police.

We’re not naive. Is cartel violence a problem here? Obviously. But it’s focused on specific locations and specific occupations. We don’t buy, sell or use drugs. We don’t hang out in dangerous neighborhoods. So far our time in Mexico has been a joy. I feel genuinely sorry for Americans (and Canadians) who are afraid to drive down and meet their neighbors south of the border.

Did you know that many of the riots and protests you see on the news are often minor events that take up less than a square block? For example, the “riots” that were supposedly engulfing Athens when we were there last year. Hmm, you’d think we’d have noticed something like that.

But images of people shopping for groceries or taking their kids to school don’t keep American eyeballs glued to their screens, do they.

Fear does. Images of violence do. Images of disaster. Of mayhem. And it all makes big profits for the media.

Listen to the news regularly and you’ll be too scared to step out of your own front door. So do yourself a massive favor. Turn off the TV and get on a plane bound for somewhere you’re not “supposed” to go.

This same lesson applies to blogs, magazines, and travel forums.

We all love the beautiful photos and amazing stories, right? And by all means, use them for inspiration. I certainly do. But don’t believe everything you read.

Travel articles are often written by people who haven’t spent much time in a place, by people who have different opinions from yours, or people who are painting a picture to suit their own needs. So go ahead and enjoy all that travel porn, but recognize it for what it is, and check the facts before you make plans.

Travel lesson #8: Be brave

Travel has taught me to be brave.

When I was young I was painfully, horribly shy. Talking to strangers or groups was difficult for me. I avoided activities that involved being watched by anyone. When I went away to camp, if I accidentally showed up three minutes late for dinner, I’d skip it altogether and spend the night with a rumbly tummy rather than walking in and having someone, gasp, glance at me! In college (when I could get away with it) I transferred out of classes that required oral presentations. It was both awful and silly. I was a total scaredy cat.

Thankfully, in my 20s, I began to outgrow this.

But travel has been the final nail on that coffin. Now I can approach a group of strangers who don’t understand a word I say and pantomime pretty much anything in order to get what I want.

  • Getting that Vietnamese vendor to make me the same noodle dish I saw her hand some guy the day before.
  • Plunging into a crowded Spanish tapas bar and doing whatever it took to get a plate of that enticing smoked tuna.
  • Making the Bulgarian mechanic understand that the rig needed a new water pump even though it refused to leak when he was looking.
  • Convincing the unamused, machine-gun toting Greek border guard that I was right and he was wrong about our dog’s paperwork.
  • Miming our lunch order in front of  shocked (and smiling) onlookers in a crowded cafe in downtown Belgrade.

Now it’s all part of the fun.

Travel forces you to be brave on a regular basis.

Travel lesson #9: People are basically good.

Most people are sympathetic and want to help. They are thrilled you’re visiting their country. (Yes, even the French.)

I’ve come to realize that it’s no big deal to be started at by a group of people who look different from me. At one time that would have freaked me out. Maybe seemed a little menacing. But I’ve learned that when people are looking at me (if they even are…half the time they’re looking at their friend behind me across the road) it’s out of curiosity. The same reason I’m looking at them.

The more we travel, the more I realize people are pretty much the same everywhere. They tend to want the same things the world over. To earn a living. To live in safety. To get an education for their kids. To share a laugh with friends.

Most people are decent and kind.

  • The young mom who ran the convenience store at the end of our street in Fethiye and always waited patiently for Scout to pay with all her small change.
  • The awesome exchange students we met on a Turkish ferry.
  • The friendly Bulgarian kids working at McDonalds.
  • Our Turkish friend Inci and her lovely family who were so kind to us when we stayed with them.
  • The English family we met in Athens and then made a special trip to come visit us again at Versailles.
  • The super-nice mechanics at that Swiss Fiat dealership in the middle of the Alps who saved out bacon when our wheel blew up.
  • The Thai mom who picked us up in her car when we were obviously lost (and wearing ludicrous straw hats) and drove us where we needed to go.
  • The taco lady up the street who doesn’t up-charge us even though she clearly has SO much less than we do and could easily tack a few pesos on the bill.
  • The Paris (yes, PARIS) cabbie who, when I got lost years ago, spent an hour helping me find the right hotel, and then refused to take any money at all.

Hey, even the bank guards with big scary guns are usually pretty nice. Seriously, at first it was kind of shocking in countries like Mexico and Turkey and Costa Rica to see Kevlar-covered bank guards, police and military folks strolling around with weapons that could blow you in half. But you get used to it. Smile and they usually smile back.

Well, except for those Turkish government guys when we did a U-turn in their driveway…

Take the guard outside our bank here in Chapala for example. He always opens the door for me. Isn’t that nice of him? These days I barely even notice his sawed-off shotgun with barrels the size of toilet-paper tubes.

People everywhere, just living their lives. Most are kind. A few aren’t, but whatever. I love meeting them all.

 

You don’t know what you don’t know until you get out in the world and mix it up a bit. You might be a bit more prejudiced and closed-minded than you think, so it’s important to get out there. You’ll discover that most people are pretty cool if you take time to get to know them a bit.

Travel lesson #10: Expensive isn’t better

Some of our most memorable travel experiences have been the free or cheap ones.

These are the things we remember most.

Besides, everyone knows that most street-vendor food will beat the pants off anything you can buy in a mid-priced restaurant.

In fact, spending too much money usually shields you from regular life and regular folks. This is bad.

Travel lesson #11: Travel is the best education in the world

My daughter studies algebra, science, geography, history, writing, and a host of other things. But travel gives these these things context. It gives them breath and life.

Take World War II, for example. I studied it in school, like you probably did. I slogged through textbooks, watched some movies, penned an essay or two, took a few tests.

Well, Scout’s read about World War II too.

But she’s also

  • journaled in Hitler’s bunker
  • searched for shells (both artillery and sea) on the wide D-Day beaches of Normandy
  • romped in bomb craters from allied aircraft strikes
  • stood in American foxholes still visible from the Battle of the Bulge
  • passed through the open bookcase into Anne Frank’s dark and cramped secret annex
  • seen enough 1000-year-old French hedgerows to understand how they helped the Germans and made allied advancement after D-Day a royal pain.
  • visited the rebuilt German Reichstag and stood under its new dome
  • seen Berlin’s shiny newness in the wake of devastating bombing
  • touched the last remnants of the Berlin wall
  • learned about the history of East German escape attempts at the Checkpoint Charlie museum.
  • visited Dachau, where she stood face to face with ovens built to burn people, contemplated torture devices, listened to recordings by traumatized survivors, wandered through the spartan barracks, and gazed up at the gas vents in the infamous shower room.

On this one subject alone, I could list dozens of other things she experienced. It is SO much richer than the education I received, even at my fancy private school.

Also I love how her perspective on travel itself is changing. Like it’s no big deal. When I asked Scout how she wanted to celebrate once she becomes proficient in Spanish (a little incentive never hurts), she answered without missing a beat: “I want to visit the Galapagos Islands, head to Argentina to see the Falkland Island, and then hike the Camino de Santiago in Spain.”

I love that answer. It’s big. It’s bold. If I’d asked her that question before we left to travel, she probably just would have asked for ice cream. Now, for Scout, the world is becoming one big playground.

But the value of travel isn’t just the up-close-and-personal time in museums, cathedrals, ruins, battlefields, historical sites, and cultural spots around the world.

Travel has given my daughter invaluable life skills too. Empathy and understanding. The ability to interact confidently with ANYONE. Perspective on how fortunate she really is. Flexibility, patience, resilience. Breakdowns (mechanical, not mental) in the Swiss Alps. Getting the RV getting stuck in the maze of narrow lanes that is old Istanbul. Having all our bags stolen in Costa Rica. Nearly getting locked in a French cemetery overnight alone (sorry baby, my bad).

Scout’s learned to deal with whatever life throws at her.

Travel lesson #12: Multilingualism  matters

A second language isn’t just something to study in school or put on your resume. I’ve learned how much it really matters in the most practical sense. It allows you to connect with new cultures, new people, new cuisines. It’s grass-roots diplomacy at the most basic level.

In our travels through Europe, Turkey, SE Asia, and the Americas, the most fulfilling experiences BY FAR happened in places where we could communicate…Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Turkey and Thailand. And those just happened to be countries where I could speak (to some degree) the local language, at least enough to order in a restaurant, chit chat with a neighbor, or eavesdrop on the bus.

And just the process of learning a language, of having to communicate like a developmentally delayed three-year-old, teaches humility and compassion for others struggling to get by in similar situations. Hey, here’s an idea. How about if politicians in America, a notoriously monolingual country, were required to demonstrate mastery of a second language before being allowed to vote on immigration or education policy? Just a thought…

I’ve always loved studying languages, but over the course of my travels, I’ve learned to take that study more seriously and aim for conversational proficiency as soon as possible.

In this internet age, it’s so easy to learn a language at home. I taught myself passable Thai from our condo in Vancouver. (Though I’ve forgotten most of it now, sadly. Use it or lose it!!!) These days it’s easy to practice with native speakers online. How great is that??!

My advice? Pick a country you’d like to visit and then start learning it’s language today.

Travel lesson #13: Always learn a few words

Even if you’re just passing through a country and won’t be learning the language, it’s important to spend a few minutes with your phrasebook. Arm yourself with the basics: Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me.

One day we were freecamping in Croatia, in a little hole-in-the-wall town near the Serbian border. Walking through a local neighborhood, I came upon a group of teens sitting on the sidewalk, doing nothing much. They eyed me and looked a little…scowly. They made me nervous. I was uncomfortable and seriously considered crossing to the other side of the street.

But then it occurred to me I was being a total idiot. What were they going to do, steal my lunch money? So I kept going, and as I passed, I gave them a wave and said, “Bog.” That’s Croatian for “Hi.”

Their eyes widened and those “tough” kids lit up like five-year-olds on Christmas day. Big grins that started in their hearts and reached their eyes. They waved enthusiastically. “Bog” they all called back. They continued smiling and waving until I turned the corner.

One little word.

I’ll never forget that moment of connection, ever. And it’s a moment that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t spent five minutes with my phrasebook. Now, for the rest of my life, when I think of Croatia, I’ll think of those kids.

Travel lesson #14: Travel is addictive

Daily tasks become new and exciting as you try to get them done in a place with different customs and a different language. Your perspectives are constantly being challenged. Life becomes a constant stream of new people, foods, attitudes, ideas. It’s thrilling. I often experience more new things in one week on the road, then I did in a year at “home.”

Once you trade a life of comfortable complacency for one of personal growth and challenge, there’s no going back.

I’ve learned that going places isn’t a cure for wanting to go places. Going places makes you want to go to EVEN MORE places.

Travel lesson #15: Slower is better

We’ve traveled both ways. Fast, where we moved every couple of days, and slow, where we sat around and grew roots in a place.

Slower travel is always better. Even if you have to take pruning shears to your dream itinerary, do it.

Going slow is much, much cheaper, so you can afford to stay gone longer. It allows you have a deeper, more nuanced experience, and connect with locals. And you’re much less likely to burn out. Besides, if you’re working, you can’t get much done when you’re moving around all the time.

We were moving so fast by the end of our RV trip that Scout was totally burned out by the time we hit Paris. I mean, she was DONE. I know when I’m licked, so I excused her from practically every cultural stop in the city. We saw the Eiffel Tower and wandered around some. But that’s it.

Seriously, why drag her on a forced march and make her loathe Paris?!? I cut Mark loose so he could go overdose on museums and whatnot, while Scout and I spent our days searching for the perfect macron, sitting at cafes sipping €9 hot chocolates, and tossing balls into the Seine for Archie.

So what if she missed most of the famous stuff. Scout’s a traveler now. She’ll see Paris another time.

I hate to alarm you, but there are literally dozens of other lessons I’ve learned on the road. I won’t make you read them all now though. It’s getting late. We’ll cover it another day.

But you’re not off the hook yet! I am part of a wonderful online community of parents raising their kids on the road. It’s the most inspirational group of people ever, all thinking creatively and doing what it takes to show their kids the world.

What lessons have they all learned on the road? Go visit their blogs to find out.

From Bohemian TravelersTravel Lessons: Can You Embrace the Unknown

From the Nomadic Family:  I Know Nothing (and 99 Other Things The Road Has Taught Me) 

From Pearce On Earth:  5 Life Lessons Learned from Traveling

From Travel with Bender: So it’s been 6 Months – You won’t believe what we have learned!

From Life Changing Year:  Life Lessons From The Road – A Little Bit Of Planning Goes A Loooong Way!

From Living Outside of the Box:  6 Life Lessons From the Road (why 6? I have no idea!)

From A King’s Life:  Two things I know for sure

From Flashpacker Family:  Lessons From the Road of Life

From Family on Bikes:  Complaining won’t change a gosh-darn thing

From Family Travel Bucket List: 3 Things We’ve Learned While Living Outside of the USA

From Grow in Grace Life:  By Any Road..Lessons from the Journey

From Our Travel Lifestyle: Travel: Teaching us about ourselves

 

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