Long-term travel is undisputedly one of the most life-changing things you can do – and once that travel bug has bitten, there’s no antidote. Nothing beats the thrill of packing your bags and stepping out of your front door knowing you won’t be back for several weeks, months or even years!
When you return you’ll have a bag full of souvenirs (and usually sand), a mind full of amazing memories and most importantly – aside from a great tan, of course – an arsenal of valuable life skills. Here are some of the key lessons you’ll learn on the road.
Expect the unexpected
You plan and plan, and then everything gets turned on its head. Perhaps your flight gets cancelled so you miss that event you were so excited about. Maybe you get food poisoning and spend a week in bed instead of exploring a city you’ve been dreaming about since you were a kid; your luggage gets lost; your wallet gets stolen. You can’t control every situation on the road, so take a beat, deal with any incidents calmly and try to go with the flow. Remember, unexpected circumstances can lead to unexpected adventures.
Where you can, build in a few safety nets. Stock up on medication and first-aid supplies (looking for a chemist at an ungodly hour is never fun), pack a spare set of clothes in your hand luggage, keep some emergency money or a spare credit card stashed in a secret place and always have travel insurance.
Lessons from the road: I arrived in Ecuador with a day to spare before hopping on a cruise – unfortunately my luggage wasn’t so punctual and didn’t arrive until three days later. Thankfully my travel insurance allowed me to pick up some essentials in the meantime, but I’d have been a lot less stressed had I packed an extra set of clothes in my cabin bag.
Patience is a virtue
After a long flight you land in a city and have to work it all out again. Where’s the train station? Does Uber work here? Is there a cash machine close by? What’s the exchange rate? Where can I buy groceries? It may seem tedious, but remember that you are in a new and exotic place and if everything were the same then you wouldn’t be travelling. Life is about new adventures, so tackle the new – even if it doesn’t seem that exciting – in a positive way.
Long layovers, overnight buses and time spent pacing terminals watching the minutes tick by will test anyone’s patience. Create your own boredom-busting survival kit – load up that e-reader with books, download your favourite movies or bring a sketch pad – and you’ll breeze through those empty hours like a pro.
Lessons from the road: I always take a moment to just breathe when arriving in a new destination. When lining up to get money or purchase a train ticket I consciously don’t fret about getting to my accommodation, instead using the time to people watch.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
The excitement and challenges of long-term travel can be overwhelming at times. You get lost or lose a favourite belonging, or miss your entry time for a sold-out exhibit. Don’t be afraid to approach locals and ask for help – after all, they know their home city better than you do.
Ask the bartender what his favourite cocktail is and you might learn about a special local ingredient; query directions with the hotel concierge and you might walk away with an full-day insider itinerary. When you’re trying to find your feet, it’s far more fulfilling to put down the smartphone and speak to the locals instead.
Lessons from the road: After some reluctance I approached a friendly looking woman in a cafe and asked for directions to a shopping street in Estonia. She was going there anyway so we walked together, and by the time we arrived I’d made a new friend.
Sharing is caring
Whether you’re travelling solo or with friends, for a long weekend or several months, no one is immune to feeling a little bit lonely or homesick from time to time. Keep that in mind when you come across other adventurous souls like yourself. If you’re staying at a hostel and cooking up a feast (or instant noodles, we won’t judge) share it around.
If you’re heading out for a night of shenanigans see if anyone else wants to come along. The friends you make on the road are as much a part of your travel memories as the destination itself. And you never know, the quietest traveller may be your ticket to an amazing night out or an incredible adventure – they’re just waiting for you to break the ice.
Lessons from the road: While staying in a hostel in Los Angeles I made friends with a few other women over a shared joke. Three days later we were pooling our money together to hire a car for a mini road trip!
Stick to your guns
If you’ve only got one day in a destination and you’re set on seeing a specific sight but your travelling companions have other ideas in mind, stick to your guns. You never know when you’ll be back and travelling is (sometimes) about doing what you want when you want. Don’t be afraid to split up for a day. Not only is it healthy to have some time apart, you’ll relish coming together at the end of the day and swapping stories of your respective adventures.
Lessons from the road: I was exploring Agra in India with my new boyfriend (now husband) and he was carrying around expensive camera equipment. Unfortunately he wasn’t allowed to take it into the Taj Mahal, so instead of leaving the gear in a locker we decided to give the Taj Mahal a miss. In hindsight I should have gone in on my own and met up with him later.
Put down your roots
Well, just shallow ones. Being on the road is all about moving, but if you can, plan to spend longer stretches in a couple of destinations. If you hang around for longer than a few days you get a better feel for what life is like wherever you are. Even smaller locations, be it beachside villages or country towns, have lots to see and do far beyond the sights you’ve read about online.
Sometimes in these smaller destinations, the tourists all leave come nightfall and you’re left to amble around with the locals – often a travel highlight of the holiday.
Lessons from the road: I make a habit of staying in any city for at least two nights where possible. I’ve done the ‘London one night, Paris the next’ schedule and found myself rushed, missing out on sights and completely worn out.
Make time for Zen
Travelling for long periods of time is the best because, well, you’re living a holiday! That said, running around ticking off sights can get a little exhausting. If you’ve got a whirlwind road trip planned or you’re jumping countries for weeks on end, make sure you schedule days off to just veg out.
Load up your tablet with movies, make sure your e-reader has some decent books and just chill-out. One day off from ‘travel’ and you will feel refreshed and ready to tackle whatever is next on the agenda.
Lessons from the road: After months on the road I finally caved in and took a veg day in Montreal, Canada. I watched a few movies on my laptop and lazed around in the hostel common room chatting to people about nothing in particular. By day’s end I felt reinvigorated and ended up planning the next week on recommendations from the guests I had chatted to during the day.