Posted: 11/04/19 | November 4th, 2019
As travel blogging, remote work, and social media “influencing” have become more mainstream, more and more people have started to travel the world (and become semi-permanent nomads). There are far more people going off on long trips today than when I started traveling only a little over a decade ago. There’s less pushback today than in yesteryear when you say, “I’m going to travel for a while” instead of going right to college or an office job.
But for all the gains that have been made in terms of making long-term travel more acceptable, it’s still fairly uncommon.
Yes, more people are doing it, but it’s still not huge numbers. A 2017 study from Expedia shows that one-week or two-week trips are the average lengths of time that people spend overseas each year.
Why don’t more people travel long-term?
Not the “ten years a nomad” kind. (Few people are going to do that.) I’m referring to the “just for a few months on the road” kind.
Yes, lack of free time has something to do with it (especially for us Americans!).
So does money.
In the United States, our “vacation culture” also plays a big role in this. (See this post for more on that.)
But I think those are easy go-to excuses people use to hide the real, deeper reason they don’t travel.*
After all, there are plenty of ways to travel cheap if you know where to look for advice, and there are plenty of people who have the time to travel but don’t. Money and time can’t explain it all.
So what are the real reasons that keep people from traveling?
Fear and self-doubt.
Fear of running out of money, being alone, possible danger, getting off the career trek, sick, having no safety net — there’s an endless list of fears people have about travel. It’s scary jumping headfirst into the unknown and leaving your entire life behind, with nothing but a backpack and a dream.
Our comfort zones may make us unhappy or bored at times, but more often than not, they keep us just happy enough to resist change. We may hate our routine, we may complain, we may daydream — but we don’t often change. It’s the devil we know. It’s where we feel safe.
Plus, our DNA tells us to favor safety over risk. Why leave the cave to venture where the monsters live, when we can stay safe inside our shelter and live another day? To go out into the night is to court danger and death. Our primitive brain screams to us: Stay here! This is safety! This is life!
So, while people everywhere might dream of traveling the world, it is only those whose desire is strong enough who head out — and stay out — on the road.
But strong enough to do what?
Strong enough to overcome the instincts — and societal norms — that tell you not to leave your safe harbor.
Strong enough to overcome the fears of people who love you — like my parents, who still to this day email me travel warnings and news of terrorist attacks.
Strong enough to overcome the negativity of those who share your dream — but not your intestinal fortitude.
But most importantly, strong enough to overcome your self-doubt.
The questions people ask me (after “Is it safe?”) are always the same, whether by email or on my book tours:
“Do you meet travelers like myself out there?”
“Do you get lonely?”
“How do you deal with language issues?”
All of these questions share an underlying theme: “I’m worried I don’t have the skills to survive.”
I know this self-doubt all too well.
As I faced the daunting task of turning my travel dreams into a reality back in 2006, I too worried about this. While trudging through the seemingly endless preparations, I discovered a new daily mantra: “Fuck, what am I getting myself into?”
I didn’t so much care about shirking my responsibilities. Bills disappear when you cancel the services that generate them. Car payments go away when you sell your car. And I knew my job at the hospital wasn’t going to be my career, so I had no worries about walking away from it.
What worried me were the personal skills I thought I needed to have to travel — the courage, the ability to go with the flow, the ability to talk to strangers, the confidence, the maturity — and whether or not I had enough of any of them after just two two-week trips over two years to two countries that were full of English-speaking travelers like me.
Yes, I knew that a lot of people travel the world. I had seen hundreds of them in Thailand after all. But unlike those people, I wasn’t “hardened” or “experienced.” Heck, I got scammed three times in one day in Thailand, and in Costa Rica I got lost in a jungle!
I was a sheltered child who had never ventured far beyond his safe harbor. Did I really have what it took?
Fear and self-doubt whispered constantly in my ear.
But, being stubborn and having already committed to doing this trip, I couldn’t turn back.
I daydreamed about the crazy things that would happen to me on the road. I’d make friends from around the world. I’d try adventure activities. I’d hike mountains and sail down exotic rivers. Locals would invite me out for drinks. I’d sip a latte, strike up a conversation with my beautiful waitress, and then the next thing I’d know, we’d be at a wine bar, staring into each other’s eyes.
It was going to be just like those travel articles I’d read, or movies I’d seen and romanticized.
Elsewhere was out there — and it was calling me.
And then, when I was finally out the road, I realized something:
I was not Magellan.
I wasn’t setting sail into the unknown horizon, wondering if I was going to fall off a flat earth.
No, I was walking on well-trod tourist trails. I had guidebooks. If all those backpackers in Thailand could do it, why couldn’t I? If 18-year-olds fresh out of high school could manage a year around the world, so could I. In fact, I had made it through Costa Rica and Thailand. I had made friends there. I had talked to strangers.
And that’s something I tell travelers now.
We aren’t Magellan. We aren’t setting off into the blankness of history to chart new worlds. The next Magellans will colonize the moon. We’re simply getting on an airplane and going where others have gone before.
That’s the difference between the early explorers and what we do: we’re trying to have new experiences and learn about ourselves — but we aren’t uncovering blanks spots on a map. We’re walking in others’ footsteps, and we can be grateful to them even as we blaze new personal trails.
That doesn’t make our journey less special. The world is full of new stories and adventures that are special to us. I didn’t need to discover Thailand to enjoy Thailand — the journey and experience were what mattered.
The hardest part of the journey is the mental preparation. Once you are out of the safe harbor, you will feel the wind in your sails. Action begets action. As the shoreline drifts further away, the wind picks up and carries you like Gulliver to unknown lands. And once you’re out there, your fears fade away as excitement and a sense of adventure take over.
You are too busy having fun to worry about worrying anymore.
If you’re worried about having the skills to travel long-term, don’t. We’re all just figuring it out anyway. No one knows what to do when they step out the door the first time.
And remember: millions have come before you. They made it. They too were strangers in a strange land, without friends, family, or a support system.
There were people and systems out there that helped them along the way.
Those travelers made it.
I made it.
And, I promise, you will make it too.
*Note: I get that not everyone can travel (for other very legitimate reasons), and I don’t mean to imply that travel is for everyone. For more on that, see this post.
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Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
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Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
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