Aspire to travel the world? Read this before you go

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Nothing changes you like travel does.

I know, because after 26 years of suburban stability, I recently sold my house, pulled up my stakes and hit the road. I’m a different person because of it.

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A new survey reveals the transformative power of travel. More than 10 percent of respondents said a first-time travel experience led them to switch careers or change a relationship. And 21 percent decided to move somewhere completely different as a result of traveling.

So if you’ve never really made it past that summer week in an Ocean City, Md., condo, or a camping trip to Shenandoah National Park, this story’s for you. It’s the one I wish I’d read before I became a global nomad.

Prepare for change: Whether you’re starting a job that lets you travel for business or becoming a post-retirement vagabond, constant travel changes you. You’ll become part of a fraternity of frequent travelers whose perspectives have been shifted by new places and people. You’ll be less afraid to embrace new ideas or cultures or to try new things. Either you’ll learn to live with the vagaries of life on the road or you’ll go mad. I’ve seen that happen. So my first piece of advice: Be flexible. Because if you aren’t, this won’t work.

Find an adviser: Whether you work with a corporate travel manager, a travel agent or someone who just understands travel, you’ll want someone you can turn to. “Invariably, problems can be avoided by booking with a travel professional,” says Arnt Pederson, the chief executive of Accent Travel International, a travel agency in Minneapolis. He’s right. Almost every day, I see situations where having a knowledgeable adviser could have prevented a misunderstanding, a lost reservation or an intractable problem. And while using a travel agent may add a little to your cost, in terms of booking fees, it can really pay off when you find yourself stuck at the airport with only the floor to sleep on. I’ve been there, and fortunately, I was saved by an agent.

Mind your manners: Proper etiquette will keep you out of trouble while you’re on the road, and I don’t just mean using “please” and “thank you.” I’m talking about cultural sensitivity, something that might not be entirely intuitive. Take the handshake, for example. You probably knew that neglecting to shake someone’s hand is considered rude. But did you also know that Western and Eastern Europeans shake hands again when they part and that you should always remove your gloves before shaking? “Also, a woman initiates a handshake with a man in all European countries,” says Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Washington. That’s a lot to remember.

Plan ahead: The most experienced travelers never wing it. They think about each trip and plan each segment, often in painstaking detail. And if you spend a little time talking to them, they’ll tell you about the “kit” — a collection of must-have items they bring on each adventure. Orlando-based event planner Jamie O’Donnell never goes on a car trip without a phone charger or access to a GPS-enabled device for directions, plus the latest version of Waze, an app for road conditions and directions. “It will significantly reduce your stress levels,” she says. To that, I would add carrying a spare charger and using it in your hotel room or vacation rental. That way, you’ll never find yourself in the car with a lifeless phone, screaming, “Where’s the charger?”

Know the rules: Travel rules are a little wacky, so take some time to get familiar with them. Airline contracts are among the strangest and most counterintuitive. For example, did you know it often costs less to buy a round-trip ticket than a one-way ticket? Or that if you miss one leg of your flight, your airline will cancel the rest of your reservation without offering a refund? If you’re traveling for business, you have an extra layer of absurdity — your corporate travel policy. “Know your company’s travel policy,” advises Evan Konwiser, a vice president for American Express Global Business Travel. “It might sound tedious, but the best way to make the most of your travel is understanding what you can and can’t do.”

Avoid bad habits: Travel can be fun and exciting, but it can also turn you into an entitled and insufferable card-carrying frequent flier. Resist that temptation. I’ve spoken with countless travelers who regret the habits they picked up along the way. One of the most memorable conversations was with Bob McIntyre, a retired business traveler from San Antonio, who described himself as “a former loyalty program addict.” Points are a natural byproduct of travel and can be redeemed for even more travel. But you’re easily seduced into taking a darker path that tempts you to manipulate the system, using manufactured spending to earn even more “free” trips.

Try to relax: A majority of travelers in the survey (61 percent) admitted that any nervousness they felt before they departed was unnecessary. It’s true: In my experience, the jitters you feel before a trip are completely unfounded.

Even so, not everyone is suited for a life on the road. Travel has the power to alter the course of your life for better or worse, and as someone whose life has been transformed by travel, I would urge you to consider that carefully before you go. I now find experiences are far more important than material things. The people in my life are more valuable than my possessions. And the here-and-now is worth more than what might come next. That’s the transformational power of travel.

And it’s a warning, too. Because once you’ve experienced it, you may never want to come back.

2 thoughts on “Aspire to travel the world? Read this before you go

  1. Oh-so-true! It is not a vacation: it is a way of life. We traveled from our home base in Rome 50% of the time and got itchy feet when we were in base camp too long. It was so great jumping on a train to “almost” anywhere in Europe. We learned to love just being somewhere, not necessarily doing sightseeing 10 hours a day.

    After moving back to reality in the U.S., we were barely settled in our new home on the Oregon Coast when Europe beckoned. We are in final three weeks of a two-month Grand Tour, revisiting old favorites and discovering new ones. We love the different approaches to shopping, food preparation, public transportation, and a non-car lifestyle. As we move across the Continent the differences and similarities intrigue and amuse us. We do things well in the U.S., but “our way” is not the only way, nor necessarily the best way.

    I do not think I could give up having a home to return to, but long trips are quite wonderful and we hope we can do this kind of escape annually for a very long time.

  2. Love this article! And it’s very pertinent to me right now. My husband and I are one year away from beginning an adventure we’ve been planning for 30 years: we are both retiring from our jobs, and will move onto our 44-ft sailboat and hit the high seas. We plan on doing this for at least 5 years. We will start off in the Sea of Cortez for at least a year, then cross the Pacific to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, and eventually get to Australia. Where we will go from there is still undecided. But it will take us at least 3 to 4 years before we get to Australia, so we’ll decide what’s next then.

    This is rather different from what you’ve done, Christopher – it’s both simpler and more complex. Simpler in that we’ll be living very close to nature, spending most of our time anchored in remote fishing villages or tropical islands, with the occasional trip back to a major port or marina for re-provisioning. We also won’t be dealing with complicated itineraries, flights, airports, hotels, etc. Think of it as RV’ers, except on the water…we travel in our home.

    But more complex because, well, sailing the high seas is hard! Obviously we have to be skilled sailors, plus we need to have a solid grasp of weather forecasting. We need to understand tides, currents, wind patterns, and seasonal changes so we know where we can sail to from where we are, and what part of the year is best to make that crossing. Boats also need constant maintenance, so we both need to know how to fix things, as well as preventative maintenance.

    But like you we’ll need to be cognizant of local customs and cultures. For example, there are many islands in the South Pacific where the families make their living off the cruisers. The custom is, you radio ahead to the boats current there to ask what the families need…bags of rice, paper products, whatever. You are then expected to donate this to the local families, and in return they will happily host beach bbq’s for the boats currently at anchor there. This is just one example – we still have so much to learn.,

    Fortunately there is a huge community of sailors who have done this, or are doing it now. We have a strong online presence, and I am reading, asking questions, and learning all I can from them.

    Regarding how it changes you – that’s the part I’m looking forward to the most. I hear other cruisers come back and tell me that the shift within them was monumental. Material belongings cease to matter – family, friendships, experiences, and living harmoniously with nature become paramount. I remember one cruiser telling me that, after spending two years on their boat in the South Pacific, they flew back to the US for a wedding…and the first time she walked into a grocery store, she burst into tears at how overwhelming that was. I actually crave those changes.

    Anyway, long comment here – just wanted to say thank you for this article and these tips. I would love to hear more of how your long-term travels have changed you.

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