5 Lessons from a Half a Life of Travel

TRAVEL LESSONS - 1 (1)It’s official. I’ve now been traveling over half of my life. And I don’t regret it for one minute.

Now that I’m twice as wise as I was when I got my first passport stamp on 01/26/93, I thought I’d share a few of the hundreds of lessons I’ve learned from 23 years on the road. Be warned, these aren’t the normal things people tell you on travel blogs.

1. Travel Will Not Help You Find Yourself

You can read Eat, Pray, Love as many times you want, and wish upon a star that getting on airplane to a distant land is going to unravel all your emotional baggage, solve your life problem, and reveal who you truly are inside, but this is fiction. YOU are not lost, and you will not find yourself by traveling.

In 23 years of travel, I didn’t find myself at all. I became myself. Travel, like any other life journey, will press you and shape you, make you uncomfortable, and open your eyes to new things that will change the way you think about the world and perhaps even your place in it.

Of course, you will definitely get actually lost at some point, but even then you won’t find yourself. Hopefully you’ll find where you were meant to be, or enjoy the discovery you didn’t mean to have.
2. There is No Such Thing as “Location Independent”

In the past few years the concept of being “location independent” is the trendy new terminology in the travel scene. This is a fancy way to say quit your office job and apartment, and “live and work on the road.” As a way of life, there is merit in modern day long-term wandering, but as a self proclaimed title, this is nonsense.

None of us are ever independent—especially as travelers. We are always interdependent on whatever place we find ourselves in and on whichever people we find ourselves among. You are always somewhere even if you don’t have a fixed address or a permanent cell phone number. (I mean, you do need an address after all to register for your points and miles earning credit cards to fund all this travel).

Call yourself whatever you want right now and #hashtag the hell out of it until it stops trending, but remember you can’t go everywhere without being anywhere. And after a half life of traveling, you may very well wish you had nourished some roots along the way.

3. The More You Learn, the Less You Know

Travel teaches you a lot, but it isn’t like school. The lessons you learn on the road are not cumulative. They are actually kind of reverse cumulative (if that’s a thing).

For example, you plan a trip to Italy and read all the books in preparation to learn as much as you can about the history, language, people, and culture. Even if you learn a lot in advance, when you get there  you realize that you know very little. Then you stay for a few months or even a few years, and you realize that even though your knowledge has increased exponentially, you truly understand that you aren’t an expert on Italy at all.

The more you you’ve been exposed to, the greater your understanding becomes that you know very little. After nearly a quarter century and the memory erasing effects of chronic jetlag, I’m pretty sure I now know nothing. Thank God for Google.

4. The World, Like You, is in a Constant State of Change

It’s a fact, I look absolutely nothing today like I did in my first passport picture in 1992. I have changed not only in how I look, but also in how I act and think, and how I see the world.

Guess what, the world has also changed a lot in in the past couple decades.

Since I first started traveling, I’ve been to Thailand more than 100 times. (In addition to being obsessed with Thai food, I also have lived and worked there for extended periods of time). You know what? The Thailand of 2016 looks very little like the Thailand of 1997. The country is never the same twice. There is always something new to be discovered. And I’ll keep going back every chance I get.

I’ve traveled to a number of countries with my friend Chris who has been to every UN recognized country in the world (that’s 193 of them if you’re wondering), and even he has barely scratched the surface of the globe (he also knows very little-see point 3).

My friend Lisa has a pet peeve about people who talk about “doing” countries. I like to say, “Oh, we did Colombia for Christmas,” because the thought of “doing” a country, and checking an entire nation and people group off your bucket list makes her crazy.

No matter how you personally feel about this terminology, countries aren’t something that you “Do”. They are art, life, and culture in motion. You can only experience a place in its present moment. Some countries you may go back to experience again, the others will keep right on changing after you’ve graced them with your presence and departed. They aren’t waiting for you to return to continue their progress.

Keep count of your countries, continent, and passport stamps however you like (and enjoy counting—it’s fun). But remember that you’ll never be done. The world is on constant refill. There will always be more to experience.

5. You CAN Start Any Time You Want

The pictures in my series of expired passports prove it. I’m not the young backpacker I was in 1993. I know less, I care more, and I like to shower when I travel (even on an airplane sometimes). Sometimes I have the fleeting thought—“Maybe you’re too old for this, maybe you should finally settle down.” And then I snap back into reality and remember this truth: There are NO age limits to travel. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m still just getting started.

 When I climbed Kilimanjaro, I distinctly remember my guide telling the story of a 80+ year old woman he led to the summit a year before. Maybe he was telling that story to encourage us up the mountain on our 6th day of trekking in hail, but nevertheless, I hope in another 23 years, I’ll be that grandma training for Everest.

Traveling doesn’t care if you’re young or old. Families are traveling long term, empty nesters are spending their retirement on the road, heck, even elderly ladies have traded in knitting for mountain climbing.

The world is more accessible now than ever before. You don’t need any special skills to get on an airplane. The cost of international travel is no longer prohibitive. In fact, the airlines and credit card companies have made it easier than ever in history to fly for nearly free.

If you want to travel—be it a single getaway to a destination you’ve been dreaming about or selling all you have and trading in your 9-5 for a life of living and working on the road—it is possible.

What are you waiting for? Get out there: Find yourself, be location independent, master the world, and do as many countries as possible.

Or maybe just enjoy the journey, love the people you meet, and try to learn as much as you can along the way. You and the world will be much better because of it.

Onward.

 

Get a Head Start on Free Travel in 2016

Another year is wrapping up. If you’re anything like me, you’ve already probably started dreaming of all the adventures ahead in 2016.

I’ve got Bhutan, Tibet, Israel, and Italy on my list for next year, and I hope to finish up visiting the rest of the states that have eluded me for many years (Oklahoma, North & South Dakota, and Montana). 

What’s on your dream travel list? 

If you’re looking to get a head start on travel for 2016, you will want to check out these resources that I’ve been working on this year. Using points and miles is how I travel all over the world every year for nearly free, and everyone (including YOU) can do it if by spending a little bit of time to learn the tricks.

Each of these tools will help you master the art of using points and miles and help you turn your travel dreams into reality.

Upgrade Unlocked

Upgrade Unlocked: The Unconventional Guide to Luxury Travel on a BudgetIf your learning style is the written word, Upgrade Unlocked is a downloadable guide with an online toolbox of resources that will teach you how to build a strategy to earn and redeem points for luxury travel including flight and hotel upgrades. Send it to your kindle, tablet, or print it out on paper! Also, if you don’t want to fly First Class because you really like the middle seat, don’t worry–the principles in this guide will also help you get free coach tickets

 

Travel Hacking Cartel 

If you waTravelHackingCartel_Logont to make sure you take advantage of all the points and miles deals out there, but you don’t want to take the time to figure it all out yourself, the Travel Hacking Cartel is a monthly subscription service that curates all the best travel information out there and delivers it straight into your inbox. You get all the information you need to earn tens of thousands of points and miles without having to think about it! Plus, if you sign up for the Cartel’s First Class service, you can use the Cartel Concierge service that will help you figure out how to use the miles you have to take the trip you want.

Make Your Dream Trip a Reality CreativeLive Course

If you like step-by-step instruction, the Make Your Dream Trip a Reality course from CreativeLive teaches you how pick your dream destination, and then make your strategy to earn and redeem your points and miles to get there and stay there for free! The course is 30 short video lessons that cover everything from earning massive miles from online shopping (no flying required), to tips for getting into airline lounges and landing upgrades.

7 Lessons from 7 Continents: Asia + Worldview

A single phrase, commonly heard across Southeast Asia, sums up the biggest lesson that six years on this continent taught me: “Same, same, but different.” 

After my first dream trip to Europe and the consequential discovery of travel’s possibility, it didn’t take me long to figure out how to venture even further afield. Within a few months I had signed up for a summer exchange program in China.

At 19, I’d not yet been anywhere in the “developing” world, I’d never heard the phrase “culture shock”, and I had no idea at all what to expect in China in 1994 (way before the Olympics and Starbucks came to Beijing). To say I was fresh-faced and unprepared is an understatement. 

My very first memory in Asia was the van ride from the airport to the town where I’d be spending the summer. For the first hours we made our way through endless rice fields across the rural countryside. I stared out the window in amazement spotting farmers in bamboo hats and water buffalo.  It was all one big, wondrous moving picture.  And then it got dark.

The sun set, the sky turned black, and we kept driving into the night. Oddly, however, the driver didn’t turn on the headlights. We were flying through the streets into the pitch black, and every minute or two the driver would honk the horn to let people (and presumably the water buffalo) know he was on the road.

Every few minutes he’d flash the hi-beams to make sure the road was clear ahead, but apart from those split seconds, the stars and moon were our only light. I shut my eyes and prayed that we get there alive, and chalked this up as kind of dangerous—and insane.

In the next days, I quickly realized that most things I would experience on my first trip to China felt insane to me. The things I was served for dinner—what? The hole in the ground that was the toilet—no way! The way everyone spit on the ground in public—eew! The number of students crammed into a dorm—how do they live like this? And the endless search and bargain for every day necessities—really? Where is the mall?

Everything was different, I was overwhelmed, and my western mindset immediately went into overdrive considering how I could fix all of these obviously broken things.

As a new traveler, I had not yet acquired the skill to see “same, same but different”, in what appeared to be a total logic free zone.

I didn’t master this skill on that trip to China. In fact, I can’t even say that I’m always able to maintain this perspective after having lived on the continent for many years.

But Asia has taught me a few lessons about viewing the world through the wisdom of eyes that strive to recognize the same and appreciate the different.

1. Look at the intention rather than the action

While I’ll never be a fan of driving across rural China (or anywhere else) in the pitch dark without headlights, it turns out the driver had a reason.

Headlights in rural China in 1994 were very difficult to replace. By using his light sparingly and relying on his knowledge of the road, the driver was ensuring that he’d have some light long term. His intention was to drive safely–even when it felt like the most dangerous thing in the world to me.

When we’re new to a culture (or even a confusing situation in our own culture), there are always things happening behind the scenes we aren’t seeing. Rather than observing actions we don’t understand and immediately filing them under “These People Are Nuts,” ask some questions, discover the intention. You’ll be able to respond with understanding rather than react in frustration.

2. Compare to learn, not to teach

It is not our job to fix everything that appears to be broken. In fact, everything we think is broken, is not. It’s amazing what we’ll learn by approaching situations in life and travel as students rather than know-it-all’s.

Worldview operates similarly to two people in their early years of marriage—we all think we’re the one who is right in most situations, and that life would function better if the other person would just adapt and do things our way. 

What if we compared cultures and points of view in search of good instead of gaps? We’d probably recognize a lot of what make us the same, same- the need for love, family, opportunity, acceptance, well-being, and dignity.

I’m pretty sure we’d make all of our worlds better.

3.  Be open to view your own world as an outsider

My first year in Asia, I spent a lot of energy fixating on all the things that were different and unusual to me. It wasn’t until I had been living there for a while that I finally realized that most people around me thought I was actually the most different and unusual one.

The ability to see yourself and view your own world through the eyes of others is eye opening. You may actually realize that many of the things you do may not actually make sense.

If you’re new to this concept and want to practice seeing your own world from an outside perspective, start a conversation with a taxi driver.  By some strange universal law, most subjects that are taboo at dinner tables around the world are completely appropriate in taxis—politics, religion, relationships, and everything the driver believes is wrong with your country.

I used to think it was only other countries that were absolutely bizarre, and now I’m beyond convinced that the U.S. is pretty bizarre in its own right. (If you don’t believe me, take an afternoon off of work and watch some American Reality TV).

Being able to view your own world through the objective outlook of another is a powerful tool in relationship building. It’s as powerful as learning to laugh at yourself.

Asia challenged me with a little humility and a lot of frustration, but eventually showed me that our one world wouldn’t be nearly as amazing or colorful without so many different world views to keep things interesting. Learning to reconcile the different as different changed me. 

I wish you the same, same. 

PS.  Don’t forget to check out the lessons I learned on the other 6 continents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Happens in Vegas can Change Your World

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but that’s not always true. Sometimes what happens in Vegas changes your whole world.

I don’t come to Las Vegas often. Today I’m here because an 18 hour stopover saved me 400$ on a plane ticket. Two years ago I came on a travel hacking adventure to see how many different hotels I could stay at in a long weekend, and 18 years ago I made a trip to Vegas that changed my life. 

Walking down the street today, I was thinking about that first trip I took to Vegas, and what I could share if I wrote a story about it. The first lesson that popped into my head was the familiar quote–“Leap and the net will appear.” 

“That’s so cliché, and you’re supposed to be writing your 7 Lessons from 7 Continents story this week, not a nearly two-decade-old story about Vegas,” the critic and control freak inside my head said. 

And just as I had this thought, a person dressed in a Spiderman costume leaped out in front of me from behind a building. Although Spiderman is more about webs than nets, I took that as a confirmation from the universe that this week you are supposed to be hearing the lesson of how Las Vegas taught me to leap into the unknown world of my dreams.

My first trip to Vegas was in 1997. I was a budding account executive at a high tech PR agency and visiting Sin City to manage media interviews at my very first big tradeshow. Even though I secretly hated many parts of my first real job and had been actively exploring other opportunities, I’d prepared for the show for months and was excited to go. And then unexpectedly, five days before I left for Vegas, I got offered my first international job in Thailand. And they needed me to be there to start in exactly four weeks.

I was in a conundrum. I knew if I quit my job, I’d miss out on the career opportunity of managing the project in Vegas. If I said no to the opportunity to go to Asia, I knew I’d always regret it.  So, I decided to contrive a plan to do both.

Here’s what happened and the lessons of leaping that I learned from the process: 

1. Accept the Offer

Staying at the agency was easy to envision and it was a safe career path. Going to Thailand was a whole sea of mystery, but I was enticed by the adventure and the possibility. I had no idea what to do, so I said YES.

I’m not advocating for leaping blindly into everything that comes you way, but sometimes you have to start with the yes even when you don’t understand every detail that comes with an offer. Some people like to wait until they have all of their ducks in a row before taking action, but if you’re waiting on the ducks to sort themselves out, it is never going to happen. I’m certainly not an ornithologist, but I’ve never once seen a flock of ducks waddling around in a line. Listen to your gut and say, “hell, yes!” when the offer you’ve been day-dreaming about in your cubicle knocks on your door. Only dead ducks hang out in rows. 

2. Put Things in Motion

Remember our lesson on the laws of physics and the laws of possibility? You need an action to get the process going.

I accepted the job in Thailand, and I got on the plane to Vegas. I was in motion. I needed to finish my project well, and find a way to be in Asia in four weeks.

I spent the next four days in the Las Vegas Convention Center managing media interviews and sneaking away to use the payphone in the hallway every time I had a break. I studied airline listings in the yellow pages, dialed the toll-free numbers for international reservations agents, and put tickets on hold until I had figured out the best and cheapest ways to get to Bangkok. 

In the unassuming lobby of the convention center, surrounded by swarms of corporate conference attendees labeled with large-font name badges, I successfully arranged my escape plan. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. My colleagues thought I really loved Vegas.

3. Pull the Trigger

Once you’re in motion, it’s much easier to gain the speed you need to do the more difficult tasks.

I returned from Las Vegas with a successful media trip under my belt and a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia in my pocket with a departure date just 16 days away. Since I had to give two weeks notice at my job, I had no choice but to walk straight into my boss’ office and let him know that I was leaving.

My immediate supervisor was amazing and told me to follow my dreams. The boss who ran the agency, however, told me in a few words that he wasn’t surprised at all, and I didn’t have what it takes to be successful in the field of PR and communications. I was too young and polite to tell him to F*&@ off, but I knew at this moment that I was making the right play, and that saying yes to this opportunity would be one of the most important decisions I’d ever make for my long-term career success. 

4. Dance

After you pull the trigger, you’ve got to jump all in. It’s like dancing, once you’ve taken a step away from the security of watching from the sidelines, you’ve got to give it all you’ve got—even if you’re worried about looking a fool. You have more to gain than you have to loose.

The 16 days between quitting my job and packing up my life to move to Thailand were a blur, but one moment remains crystal clear. As I waved goodbye to my friends in the airport and turned to walk down the jetway, I remember in slow motion taking the step over the threshold between the airport and onto the plane. 

“What if this is the biggest mistake of my life,” the scared part of me hesitated in that split second.

“The worst case scenario is that you absolutely hate it, and then you buy a ticket and fly home,” the brave and more rational part of me responded.

That step onto the plane was an important one, and the next years included a lot more steps forward, sideways and backwards—all part of the dance.

I’ve done more than my share of tripping and stepping on peoples’ toes in the last 18 years, but not a single part of me regrets jumping into the unknown and the path that my leap landed me upon. Life is less risky if you stand still, but you’ll never live your dreams if you aren’t willing to fumble around on the dance floor.

Your story probably won’t contain a payphone, convention center hallway, or even a big fat book of yellow pages, but I’m sure it will contain conundrums, controversy and courage. I wish you well as you take your leap, and promise from the other side that you most certainly won’t regret it.

Viva Las Vegas.

 

 

7 Lessons from 7 Continents: Europe + Possibility

I didn’t grow up traveling. In fact, I didn’t even grow up believing that international travel was an option for me. 

The family of my childhood defined travel as road-tripping from Pennsylvania to Florida twice a year. Our “vacation” ritual including driving down the I-95 corridor, sitting on the beach, and stopping by Disney World to have breakfast with Mickey Mouse.

Each year when we made the pilgrimage to the sunshine state, my highlight was getting to ride “It’s a Small World”, my favorite Magic Kingdom ride, over and over again. It was as if somewhere deep in my DNA I already knew that my soul was destined for something bigger than the Eastern Seaboard.

As I grew older, I knew the world was out there, but it never felt accessible. As a student of French in high school, I used to think, “If I could only get to Paris once before I die, my life will be complete.”

Travel was in my heart, but it wasn’t in my practice. 

As a sophomore in college, I got my chance and set out on what I believed at the time was going to be my once in a lifetime adventure of studying and traveling in Europe. I was young and impressionable, but I had no idea how much this trip was going to change my whole perspective on the world.

Possibility was biggest lesson I learned during the five months I spent in Europe on my first trip abroad. Getting across the ocean to a place I’d never been was a high hurdle, but once I reached a new continent, being there was easy and the opportunities felt endless.

While I’m not very scientific, one of the laws of physics presented by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687 and memorized by most of us in eighth grade science, teaches this:

A body at rest will remain at rest until an outer force is applied to it to cause motion.

For the first time in my life, this opportunity allowed me to experience what it was like to see travel from the “in motion” perspective, rather than from the sidelines of something I hoped to do someday.

Once I was in the UK, Paris felt possible. Once I was in Paris, Spain and Italy and Austria were all right there too. And if you’re in Austria, why not pop over into Prague?

Law #2: An object in motion remains in motion. 

There’s no way I would have ever even thought to travel from my Alabama college town to Czechoslovakia during the fall of communism as an 18 year old, but once I was already so close, and the possibility was dangled in front of me, it didn’t feel difficult or crazy at all (although I didn’t tell my parents until after I did it).

I had discovered both motion and possibility, and the powerful combination of these forces changed my entire trajectory.

It was a big lesson for me, but the lesson for all of us is this: Whether you travel or not, living in that sweet spot where motion and possibility meet is the key to whatever you want to accomplish.

You want to experience the possibility of the world? It’s not going to happen by sitting on your couch and watching the travel channel. Buy a plane ticket. (Or learn how to go places for free)

You want to experience the freedom and possibility of working for yourself? Change careers? Move to a new place? (Or fill in your own dream here) Whatever desire you have–it isn’t going to happen until you put action into your intention.

Making your dreams come true is a possibility. And once you’ve committed your feet to motion, I’m sure you’ll be surprised how much more in the world is out there beyond what you’ve ever imagined.

It’s a small world after all.

Travel is our Teacher

Travel is a very wise teacher. She has taught me more lessons than all of the combined professors and instructors I’ve sat before in a lifetime of classrooms. 

It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you travel, I can promise that if and when you choose to step out into her school to see the world, you will learn lessons.

When I took my first international trip in 1993, I remember being confronted with a quote which I carefully transcribed into the crisp blank pages of my very first blue and green plaid covered travel journal. It read:

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

It has been 22+ years since I first heard those words, and looking back, it’s crazy to me that travel has officially consumed more than half of my life. While it’s easy to count the countries and continents to which I’ve traveled and to tally the activities that have been struckthrough on my bucket-list, time has taught me that these quantitative metrics will never measure up to the sum of my travel experiences.

I’ve slowed down the pace of my coming-and-goings a little over the past two years while I’ve worked to establish a new homebase for my life. This mostly-staying-still time has been full of gifts—of which two of the biggest have been the mental space to reflect on who I’ve become after two decades on the road, and enough margin in my calendar to dedicate a full 3 weeks to conquer a long-outstanding dream to visit Antarctica, my seventh, and final continent. 

To celebrate this milestone, and to honor my teacher, travel, I’ve compiled a list of the 7 biggest lessons that I’ve learned from traversing each of the 7 continents. Over the next 7 weeks I’ll be sharing these with you, so make sure you stop back.

And just in case you’re a little impatient like me, here’s a sneak preview:             

7 Lessons from 7 Continents 

  1. Europe: Anything is possible
  2. Asia: One world, many worldviews
  3. Africa: Resilience—finding the power to keep going
  4. North America: Love your neighbor—even if you don’t understand them.
  5. South America: Dance like your life depends on it.
  6. Australia:  Rest and retreat
  7. Antarctica: Shut up and listen

Keep your ears and eyes open friends, there is always something to learn.

See you next week!

PS. Do you follow me on instagram? Starting April 1, I’ll be posting a 90 day series of some of my favorite travel photos from around the world. Come over and check it out!

Upgrade Your Bucket List: How to Wander Well

I’ve been traveling the globe for more than 20 years, and one thing hasn’t changed–the constant questions from friends, family and complete strangers about how I do it.

So, here’s some news. I’ve been secretly saving up these questions for 20 years and I finally put them all into a book. It’s called Upgrade Unlocked: The Unconventional Guide to Luxury Travel on a Budget. And it’s all about how to use points and miles to turn once-in-a-lifetime travel dreams into everyday realities.

Check it out here -> www.upgradeunlocked.com

It’s been an exciting adventure to write this over the past 6 months, and my hope is that it will help many more people just like you to have the adventures you dream of!

And to all of you who’ve ever told me that you live vicariously through my travels: It’s your turn.