Six months ago I left for New York City, visited some friends and began my trip around the world. My first stop was in Israel and my last stop before returning to Florida for a bit was Arizona. In between, I visited 17 other countries, stayed in 64 different beds, took 24 flights, used 12 currencies and have taken about 10,000 photos.
While I can’t say I am a completely different person after this trip, I did take away so many different things from this experience and learned so much that I can apply to travel, work or just life in general.
You don’t Need A lot
I traveled for six months with a rolling carry-on and a daypack. While I sometimes got bored, and picked up a few things along the way, I never felt like I needed more than I had. Would I have liked a few different things? Sure. Did I need them? Not really (except for maybe a pair of waterproof boots in Iceland!).
Since I’ve returned to Florida, I am still wearing many of the same things I’ve worn for the past few months – guess I’ve gotten comfortable with them. I’ve also cleaned out my closet (which I had gone through a month or so before I left) and gave away two more bags of stuff. We get so focused on things, but there’s only so many things you can actually use!
You Be You
Do your research. Ask for advice. But at the end of the day, you know yourself better than anyone else. You know the types of places you like to visit, the food you like to eat and what types of risks you are comfortable taking.
Someone hated Paris and thought the French were rude? There will be 10 others who will tell you they had a great time. If you like cities, architecture, food, art and fashion, check out Paris for yourself. If you don’t like these types of things, maybe you should skip it. If you go, travel with an open mind, some patience, some merci and enjoy!
Food is part of the journey, and trying local delicacies can be part of the fun. But if you have a weak stomach and the thought of eating bugs, duck or even sushi makes you worry you’ll be spending the next few days in the loo, skip it. It’s not worth the worry or the aftermath. Try to find one or two local things you think you will enjoy and start there. If you’re feeling a bit brave – and don’t have a long bus ride, flight or train the next day – try something else.
As far as safety is concerned, everyone has their own standards – and you have to make sure you’ll be comfortable. I read questions on countless travel forums asking if a destination is safe and the responses will range from, “I don’t know what anyone’s talking about, I went there and no one robbed/mugged/touched me,” to “I was assaulted and robbed,” to “It was fine.” Bottom line is, you need to know what you feel comfortable with and what risks are associated. The US State Department and other countries’ governments update travel warnings on their websites. Several of the countries I visited had warnings (Israel, Jordan, Europe), but I felt comfortable going there. But there were others that I wasn’t so sure of, especially as a solo, female traveler. (Turkey before the visa ban, Egypt and Myanmar). Make sure you are comfortable and confident before going anywhere and be smart about your travel.
Go With the Flow
When I started this trip, I plotted a perfect six months in an excel spreadsheet. It was like putting puzzle pieces together. If I go here first, it makes sense to go there next. It was beautiful. It was color-coded. It changed before I left the US!
I’m not saying to not make a plan – those who know me know that planning is one of my favorite activities. It will just be easier if you can go with the flow. I learned a lot from this trip that I think will help as I go back to work, but in this area, I was able to take what I do at work and transfer it to travel. If you’ve been working on something for weeks, but the CEO all of a sudden decides he or she wants to go in a different direction? Well, you pivot and you do it quickly and you do it well!
Someone wants to meet you in Dublin, but you’re currently in Malta? Do you want to meet them? Do you want to go to Dublin? Can you get to Dublin without an insane stretch of super-expensive travel? Go for it. Who cares if it’s not in a straight line!
I’ve started embracing making last minute plans, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It gets easier as you go (and easier when not in high season) as you are more experienced, less nervous about finding a place and more willing to see the path that life is taking you.
Make Things Easy When You Can
Travel is not easy or glamorous. The payoff is great, but sometimes getting there is less than stellar. Sometimes you’ll have to travel for 20 hours to get where you want to go – but try to make that the exception, not the rule.
I try to use public transportation to get to and from the airport if possible. But if public transportation will take you way longer than a taxi (and the taxi isn’t super-expensive), sometimes it’s OK to splurge. Even with small bags, it’s nice to not have to worry about stairs and people staring!
If you can’t get there direct, see if it makes sense to check out a different city on the way. I decided to go to Puglia after Morocco. Traveling from Essouria, I had some time constraints as it was an almost 3 hour drive to the Marakkech airport… and there were no direct flights to Puglia. I decided to fly into Rome, which I had already visited several times, and spend two nights there before raking a train to Puglia. By not having to explore something completely new, I was able to relax a bit (and eat gelato!).
Another way you can make things easier is to stay at or near the airport for quick city visits or transfers. Many airports have public transportation into the main attractions and you don’t have to worry about transporting luggage to and from in a quick period of time.
Adjusting to Constant Change
Change isn’t always easy, and when you’re changing location and lodging regularly, you might get a bit stressed. Whenever I arrived in a new place, I had a bit of anxiety,” Wait, I need to figure this all out again (food, transportation, sightseeing).” After the first few weeks, I realized the trend, so I learned how to deal with it. I usually took that first afternoon/evening in the new place and started looking at maps, finding places I wanted to see or where I wanted to eat. The next day, I was ready to explore and by day three I felt like a local (or at least comfortable).
I find that doing a walking tour is a great way to orient yourself to a city. It gives you context, history and ideas for more places to visit. Many of these tours are free, or if not, rather inexpensive. It’s a great way to meet people, get some fresh air and learn from a local (on the free tours, remember to tip your guides).
It’s also OK to do things that remind you of home. One of the things that was hardest for me was not having animals around. I managed to visit several cat cafes so I could get my kitty fix. I also managed to meet some deer, goat, dogs and other animals along the way. After spending much time in the Middle East, Morocco and Italy, I was craving a burger. When I got to London, I had probably one of the best burgers ever… or maybe it just felt like it. But it reminded me a bit of home and made me happy.
Kindness is Free
There’s only been one country I’ve visited where I felt that the locals were overly unfriendly (I’ll let you guess where it is). In most places – despite language barriers – people are nice and they try to be helpful.
In Japan, very few locals spoke English, but they were some of the nicest people I’ve met and I always felt welcome. We had to use a lot of gestures and pointing, along with Google translate, but they were kind, as was I, so we made it work.
In Polignano a Mare, I was walking to the train station. I could tell I was close, but wasn’t quite there yet. I must have looked confused because a gentleman saw me, asked (in Italian) if I was heading to the train. I nodded yes, and he pointed me in the right direction. He didn’t have to stop. I didn’t have to listen, but we both did and I made it to the train station a few minutes later. As I was waiting for my train at the station, a woman was having difficulty with the ticket machines. She didn’t know how to use it, nor did she have any coins (the only currency the machine was accepting). Another gentleman helped her with the directions and we both gave her enough coins so that she could get to her destination. Kindness is catchy, pass it on!
Have an Empty Passport
One of the reasons I returned to the US early is because I was running out of passport pages.
If you’re going to be traveling long-term, make sure your passport is empty and that you have extra pages. Although they used to add pages to US Passports, they stopped the practice last year – which makes it a bit more challenging if you run out of pages on the road as I did. When getting your passport, you can request a 52 page version for no additional charge.
If you find yourself out of pages while traveling, make an appointment at a US Embassy or Consulate for an emergency (4 pages, expires in one year, usually delivered same or next day) or regular passport (same as the one in the US, a few weeks needed to deliver abroad) and hope that it’s not a holiday or the burial of a King.
You can also check with the State Department on how many blank pages a country needs for Visas/Stamps. Some just need to be able to stamp, while others need two to four pages!
It’s OK to Go Back
I know there are some people who feel like if they’ve seen a place, they don’t need to go back. I used to feel like that, but then I started going back to places, they became some of my favorite cities and I find new and different things each time I go.
In June I visited Paris for somewhere near the 10th time. I went to many of my favorite places (Jardin du Luxombourg, Eiffel Tower, St. Germain), ate some fabulous macarons and explored for the first time the park that inspired the Highline in New York City. Each time I visit, I see something new. And each time, I want to go back!
Some Places are Better Solo Spots than Others
I found cities like London, Paris and Tokyo very easy to do solo, while other spots such as Malta and Sedona were tougher for me. Some smaller cities (Annecy, Polignano a Mare and Bratislava) were great solo, while others (Calabria, Colmar) were not as experienced with solo travelers.
Also, while this goes back to the You Be You piece of advice, there were some places I was glad to be with friends (Jordan, Morocco, Grand Canyon) and others I decided I’d rather skip than go it alone (Hawaii, Myanmar, Egypt, Turkey). I’m sure there will be plenty who disagree with me, but it comes down to comfort, safety and enjoyment. While somewhere like Hawaii isn’t a place I’d consider unsafe, the activities I wanted to do – hike, volcano, helicopter- are things I’d rather do with someone else. While there are group tours you can take, I prefer planning my own schedule and supplementing with day tours… and some spots its just not that easy to do.
Take a Break
This one was hard for me. I feel like this trip is a huge gift. One that not many people get. So, I wanted to make the most of it. See as much as I could. But while travel is fun, it is also hard work. It’s physical. It’s mental. And sometimes you need a break. If I wasn’t chasing summer, I may have slowed down a bit, but at least I learned that when I hit a wall to just relax for a bit instead of banging my head against it.
Looking back (or forward), I can see the benefit of slow travel – or having a base to travel from. Rent an apartment and visit places for a few days or a week, but have somewhere familiar to go back to and keep a few extra things. In a way, I did that when I visited London, Paris and Rome. I didn’t need to go back — I’ve gotten to the point where I can be a tour guide in these cities, but it’s a bit like coming home to me.
Keep on Traveling
I got back to Florida a week and a half ago, and today I’m off again to London and Portugal before I head back to the US for Thanksgiving. In many ways, it’s been great to be back. I surprised my family, got to see my nieces dance recital, caught up with a few friends, slept and did about seven loads of laundry.
But after staying in one spot for the longest time since April, I’m not sure what to do with myself! I’ve been applying for jobs, but there’s only so many senior Communications positions out there, so as I work on getting some bites, I’ll travel a bit more (and hopefully fit in some interviews along the way).
If you’re not able to travel as soon as you get back, it might be helpful to start planning your next adventure to have something to look forward to and to not feel so grounded. I have a couple of trips in mind and the job search will help determine when I take them. And as my buddy Rick Steves says, “Keep on Traveling!” I’ll add, “Keep on Planning!”