Aspire to travel the world? Read this before you go

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By Christopher Elliott

Nothing changes you like travel. 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.

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. (Related: My online travel agency never sent me a confirmation. Do I still have to pay?)

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. (Here is my ultimate guide to finding a travel advisor).

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. (Related: Air travel sure has changed — but you ain’t seen nothing yet!)

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?” (Related: Do you need to pack your own pillow when you travel?)

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.” And know the travel secrets.

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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. My advocacy team and I have 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. (Related: This is not a travel blog, it’s a …)

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. (Related: A San Antonio river adventure your family will never forget.)

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. (Related: What Pope Francis’ visit means to Philadelphia – and religious tourism.)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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