My favorite memories are all travel-related: the sun sizzling into the Egyptian desert, a crystal clear, starry night in the Galapagos Islands, a quaint farmhouse in Italy at dusk.
However, a Hostelworld Global Traveler Report shows that the average American has been to just three nations and roughly 29 percent of Americans have never been abroad. If you fall into one of those categories – and even if you don’t – you should start seeing the world.
For more insights, I talked to serious globetrotters, like Henrik Jeppesen, who has visited every country in the world and is a full-time traveler; Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to visit every country in the world; Chris Guillebeau, a writer and blogger who has also been to every country in the world; and Jeremy Foster, a blogger who has been traveling full-time for six years. I also talked to Savannah Grace, the only woman I could find who’s also trying to see every country (traveling, like everything else, is harder if you’re a woman).
Why should you travel?
If you can find the money, travel opens your eyes to the world beyond where you grew up and went to school, helps create meaningful relationships, teaches you resourcefulness, gives you cool stories to share with friends and future bosses, and is a ton of fun. Grace says you don’t know what’s in your box until you’re outside of it. She didn’t want to leave her life of shopping and boyfriends in a very wealthy neighborhood in Vancouver. Now, she lives in the Netherlands with her parents, is about to marry a man she met in Ghana, and she travels for a living.
Guillebeau highlighted how much you’ll learn about the world and about yourself. “There’s really no downside to investing in yourself through travel, especially when you’re young,” he says. If you’re short on time, just take a short trip. But Foster said that longer trips can be “incredibly eye-opening and downright life-changing.” According to Abbamonte, you can learn more in one year of traveling than in 18 years of school.
If you’re scared, don’t worry. Many of the travelers I talked to were too. Jeppesen used to dislike even traveling to the capital of Denmark, where he’s from.
Where should you go?
Start in your comfort zone, whether that’s trips alone through the United States and Canada or a short European holiday (Grace recommends Belarus). Foster says that Central and South America are a short flight away, cheap, and have good travel infrastructure. But almost everyone I talked to recommended quickly moving on to Asia. Thailand is a cheap and accommodating country for new travelers, and India is a clichéd but very foreign place to jump into.
Later, the experts recommend seeing New Zealand, South Africa, Rwanda, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Austria, and Switzerland for nature. France, Brazil, Thailand, Turkey, and Italy are good for food. (Everyone I talked to said to go to Italy for food.) And St. Petersburg, Paris, Spain, New York, and Italy have great museums.
For more unique places, North Korea is a very interesting country because of how tightly controlled it is, the Galapagos are unique in pristine natural beauty, Uzbekistan is steeped in history, and Mongolia is barren and poor, but the people are incredibly happy.
Eventually, you should be comfortable traveling anywhere. My father, who’s been to about 50 countries for work and pleasure, often says that in the first 25 countries, everything seems different: the people, the places, the food, and the culture. In the next 25, everything seems the same.
What should you pack?
Jeppesen spent six months without a bag, carrying a cell-phone charger, passport, and credit-card in his pocket. (He bought a new set of clothes and washed them at night.) While you don’t have to be that extreme, pack only what’s necessary. Abbamonte says to pack half the clothes and twice the money you think you need. Carry a laptop and phone, if need be. Always try to just have one carry-on bag and your laptop case. Mr. Foster says to pack a portable Bluetooth speaker for quick music in a youth hostel or the beach. For photos, a cellphone camera is enough and carrying an expensive camera will make you likelier to stand out as a tourist.
What are some tips?
Affordability is a prime concern for many American travelers, so I asked how to keep it cheap. Jeppesen said to focus on cheap travel and food, which will be 90 percent of your expenses. Search the Internet for low-cost busses, trains, and airlines that may have long-distance tickets for under $300. Stay in youth hostels. Plan your trip around discounted flights, rather than vacation season. Rent Airbnb and negotiate prices by explaining you’re on a budget. Get food at supermarkets, and never pay for Western food when you’re overseas.
Other tips? Don’t go on tour groups or act like a tourist. Try to understand people. Try to get visas to visit a neighboring country when you land up somewhere. If you want to learn another language, learn French, because it is spoken in more countries than any other language.
For women, Grace says to be aware that cultures are different. Wearing a hijab in much of the Middle East will be a necessity, as will having male escorts. If you want to see the world safely, you have to oblige. She recommends (for both sexes) never to arrive late at night in a new city, if at all possible.
One of the best parts of traveling is that at the end of your adventures, you may find a new appreciation for the United States. Out of all those travel memories, my favorite is returning to San Francisco Airport on a sunny day, landing slowly over the blue water sparkling under the Golden Gate Bridge, walking through a short customs line, and getting told by a TSA officer with a smile, “Welcome back home.”Isvari Mohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @IsvariM.