Eighteen months (and counting) of full-time international travel has taught us a few things. I’m happy to say that they are mostly positive. We’ve learned about safety, other cultures and the people in them, and ourselves. Here are the top twelve things full-time travel has taught us.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT SAFETY
1. Take Warnings With a Grain of Salt
There will always be people who are quick to tell you how unsafe other countries are. In my experience, these are often people who have never left their own country.
As we were preparing to leave the U.S. and head to Europe, several people pointed out the threat of terrorist attacks. My response was two-fold:
1. Europe may have more terrorist attacks, but they also have fewer mass shootings.
2. The odds of anyone being a victim of either of these situations are incredibly tiny.
Information from the Cato Institute discusses how unlikely it is for someone to die in a terrorist attack. We are talking about odds of 1 in several million. Not even worth thinking about, in my opinion. If you want to worry about something, worry about auto accidents. You are much more likely to die that way.
And if you check out the country information on the U.S. Department of State website, you may walk away feeling that the world is a dangerous place.
Of course, there are countries, cities, and neighborhoods you should avoid. But it really isn’t that scary out there.
In addition to reviewing the Department of State website (with a few grains of salt), we Google the heck out of potential destinations and talk with fellow travelers.
The best protection is your common sense and your “spidey sense.” The biggest danger is probably to ourselves.
If Steve hadn’t been paying attention while we were on a tour bus in Quito, Ecuador, I would very likely not be here writing this. We were on the upper level, and I was facing the back taking photos. I was unaware that we were about to go under a low overpass. We were going fast enough that the impact would have almost certainly killed me.
So my advice is to avoid the dangerous places, enjoy all the others, and for God’s sake, stay seated on the tour bus.
2. Unless They’re About Pickpockets
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, take it seriously!
During our first week in Barcelona, the first city we visited on our journey throughout the world, Steve was pickpocketed.
Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket, it would be safe.
It happened on a crowded Metro car on a Friday afternoon. First, one woman bumped into him. While she was apologizing, another woman bumped him on the other side. They jumped off the car as the doors were closing, taking his passport, forty Euros, and three bank cards with them.
Fortunately, his passport was found, and the 900 Euros worth of shoes the thieves tried to charge was declined by our credit card company. We only lost 40 Euros in cash and had to cancel and replace some bank cards. And because this happened at the beginning of a month-long stay, it didn’t interrupt our plans.
After this, Steve bought a camera bag that he refers to as his purse and his first-ever money belt. We no longer carry all of our bank cards in the same place. The main one goes in the purse/camera bag, and the other two go in the money belt with the passport.
You can read more about that experience, including our difficulty finding an open police station in Pickpocketed in Barcelona.
3. We Are Going to Look Like Tourists
You may have read articles about how to stay safe while traveling. One thing many of them tell you is to try not to look like a tourist. I think this is ridiculous advice because you are going to look like a tourist. The way you look, sound, and walk all give clues that you are not a native.
Not only can people peg you for a tourist, but they can do it quickly. I can’t count the number of times Steve and I have walked into a restaurant and been handed a menu in English before we opened our mouths. Store clerks and museum personnel have also spoken to us in English before we had said a word.
So we will continue to walk down unfamiliar streets with our camera ready, taking in all the new sights and desperately looking for street signs because most people aren’t a threat, and it’s what we do.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE
4. Most People Are Nice (If They Aren’t Driving)
Since we started traveling, we have been amazed at how friendly and helpful most people are. Is it because people outside of the U.S are nicer than those who live there? Or is it because we have slowed down and find ourselves in much more need of help than when we lived in the U.S?
I believe it is the latter. A prime example of this is shopping for medicine. In the U.S., we call in our refill and pick it up when it’s ready. We may or may not have some friendly exchange with the pharmacist and staff. In a country where you aren’t fluent with the language and the names of medicines may be different, making sure you get the right stuff becomes quite the process.
Steve and I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When waiters greet us in restaurants and see that we do not speak the language, they often have a little attitude. Nothing nasty. We just get the feeling that they are thinking, “Oh brother, I have to deal with these foreigners.”
We do our best to be gracious and modest, use the local language as much as possible, and say thank you frequently (also in the local language). Quite often, we leave these restaurants with smiles from staff and sometimes even handshakes and air kisses.
This also happens with other interactions like buying bus tickets. Humility, patience, and gratitude are the keys to receiving great customer service.
5. People in Other Countries Don’t Hate Americans (or America)
Throughout my life, I had heard about how the rest of the world disliked people from the United States and referred to us as Ugly Americans. While preparing for a life of full-time travel, I wondered: would we face animosity overseas?
Even with this uncertainty, I vowed never to hide where I am from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.
My international travel experiences have led me to believe that the Ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support. You can read more about that here.
In 2018 and 2019, Steve and I visited thirteen countries in Europe and Latin America. I never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. In fact, just the opposite. Many people seemed delighted when they heard we were from the U.S. and either shared their wonderful memories of visits there or expressed a desire to visit. That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have negative feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or kept their thought to themselves.
And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American; I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER CULTURES
6. There Will Be Unpleasant Things You Have No Control Over
The streets smell of urine (Paris).
Nose picking is more prevalent than you are used to (Europe and South America).
Protests pop up regularly (Buenos Aires).
An apartment that advertises hot water may only have it in the shower (our apartment in the Galapagos Islands).
We all know that travel means sometimes having to deal with unpleasant and inconvenient situations.
Our worst experience during these last two years was being delayed for 16 hours because of a protest. We were on a bus tour in Southern Peru when this happened. Fortunately, we did not have any pressing plans since we were scheduled to spend several days in the next town before heading to Machu Picchu. Many people on our bus were not that lucky since their tighter schedules meant they missed some highly anticipated and costly experiences.
I have shared the details of that experience in Stranded on the Road in Peru.
The best thing you can do is realize that you have no control over these events, although travel insurance and credit card benefits may ease some of the financial pain.
Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes a darn good story.
7. Using A New Language Will Feel Awkward
It’s one thing to sit at home going through your Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. It’s quite another to go out and speak that language to a native speaker.
Some things start to come naturally, like please and thank you. But I often find myself missing a few words to complete a sentence.
One trick is to use an online translator to learn the sentence before you start a transaction. Sometimes you will have to resort to using the online translator as you are completing the transaction. That’s OK too.
We have found everyone to be very patient while communicating with us. If anything, I am the one who tends to get impatient when I say a simple sentence, I am confident I am using the right words and a reasonable approximation of the pronunciation, and I am not being understood. UGH. I have to try very hard to hide my frustration.
8. People In Other Countries Don’t Eat At “Normal” Times
The first city we visited was Barcelona. We arrived on a Sunday morning. After we got settled into our Airbnb, we went looking for a restaurant and grocery store. As we passed place after closed up place, we became concerned that we would not find food. “We’re going to starve to death,” we cried.
We eventually found a small store that was open so we could at least get the basics. That experience led to one of our travel rules: never go to a new city on a Sunday.
It is not uncommon for restaurants in Latin America to close from mid-afternoon until 8 or 9 p.m. when they open for dinner. We found this to be widespread in Cordoba, Argentina. We adapted by eating lunch at the restaurants we were interested in and having a light dinner at home.
When we visited the tiny hamlet of La Cumbrecita in Argentina, we stayed at a hotel that provided dinner. We were not thrilled when we checked in and were told that dinner would be served at 9 p.m. Even so, we accepted this and were quite amused when at 9 on the dot, a cowbell was rung to let the guests know that dinner was now served.
I have occasionally seen articles written by visitors to the U.S. that have pointed out that portion sizes there are too large. Guess what. Portion sizes have been large everywhere we have visited in Europe and Latin America.
9. Tipping Customs Vary
You get the bill at the first restaurant you’re visiting in a new city. Now, what about the tip?
A quick Google search can tell you if it is customary to tip and how much. You can also gather information about tipping other service providers like taxi drivers.
Beware that in some countries it is common to add the tip or “propina” to the bill. You are free to refuse to pay it but would probably not do that unless the service was truly abysmal.
We ate at one restaurant in Medellin where our waiter disappeared and it took 45 minutes to get our food. We were not happy and would not have paid the propina on the bill, but the manager provided a huge and delicious piece of flan as compensation, so we called it even.
During our travels in Europe and Latin America, we did not eat in any restaurants that would allow us to add the tip to our credit card payment. Therefore it is wise to carry small bills or coins in the local currency.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OURSELVES
10. Mistakes Will Happen
No matter how careful you are, you will make mistakes. I detailed the mistakes we made during our first year of travel in Oops! Did We Do That?
We have done a much better job during our second year. Our first travel mistake didn’t occur until our ninth month of travel. We had booked a flight from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, Argentina. The cost was US$114 for both of us. I was updating our itinerary when I noticed that our flight didn’t leave Buenos Aires at 9:30 am. It left at 9:30 pm!
Steve and I always check with each other before we book anything to ensure the days and times are correct, yet we both missed this.
We could have kept the flight, but it would have left us with a whole day to fill without anyplace to stay or leave our luggage, and we would have arrived at our Airbnb around midnight.
We decided to change our flight. It was easy and worked out well, but ended up costing an additional US$175.
11. Less Really is More
The most sure-fire way to get control of all your stuff is to sell (almost) everything and adopt a nomadic lifestyle.
That pile of papers on your desk that never seems to get smaller? It will be diminished to almost nothing when you cull it every time you change locations (about once a month for us).
The disorganized closet with items you forgot you own? It is easy to keep track of what you have when it all fits into a suitcase or backpack. The downside is that you will be wearing the same things over and over and over and over……
Tired of housework and yard work? It’s easy to keep things neat and organized when you stay in a small apartment. Total cleaning time: less than one hour. Time spent on yard work: 0 hours because – no yard.
Looking back over how much time, money, and effort went into maintaining a suburban lifestyle, I wish we had downsized decades ago.
Do I miss buying cool clothes and awesome shoes? Yes, but not as much as you might think. And I get to play dress-up every December when we return to the U.S. for several weeks.
12. Adaptability and Flexibility Are Indispensable
No apartment will have everything you are used to, no Airbnb host can anticipate your every need, and stores won’t necessarily carry your favorite brands (or maybe not any brand). You will learn to make do on the road.
In every city we visit, we end up buying something we need to make our lives easier. We have bought wheeled shopping carts, plastic pitchers, and a non-slip shower mat, to name a few. We don’t mind leaving these things behind because they are inexpensive.
These lessons can be summed up quite succinctly:
Most places are safe.
Most people are nice.
You will screw up.
Other people will screw things up for you.
You will discover another side of yourself.
And most importantly, you will cherish all of your experiences!
Feature photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash.com