50 Lessons I’ve Learned After 5 Years of Traveling

50 Lessons I’ve Learned After 5 Years of Traveling

This week marks the fifth year of my travels. 60 months. 261 weeks. 1,826 days. It feels like a lifetime ago since I bought that one way ticket to Australia, and if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same.

Sure, I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve made some big ones! But that’s how we learn. I’d wish I could say I’ve learned one thing every month, but let’s be honest—I’m too stubborn for that. So I’m going to give myself some leeway.

After five years of traveling, these are 50 of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

1. Count your dollars, but don’t pinch your pennies

Don’t get caught up in the nickels and dimes. You won’t enjoy your travels if every single purchase is calculated. I always search for deals on bigger purchases, but I try not to sweat a dollar or two.

2. Throw out what you don’t need

There’s something to be said for simplicity. There’s a lot you have that you probably don’t need. Look at the items that you rarely use and get rid of them. I threw out my North Face jacket on my first day in Cartagena, Colombia. In this way I always travel light with just two small bags.

3. Carry a water purification system

Bottled water is expensive, and it adds up. If you’re drinking two liters per day (which you really should be!), you’re looking at saving at least $60 per month. Try the SteriPen to sterilize all your drinking water.

4. Spend more time in fewer places

I see many travelers powering through whole countries in less than a week. I’ve done it myself, but have learned that it’s no way to get to know a place. The number of places I’ve visited may not be as high, but I truly believe my experiences are richer.

5. Trust your gut

My gut always tells the truth. If you’ve got a bad feeling about something, trust it. Opting out of something isn’t going to ruin your day, but opting in somehow could.

6. Invest in quality gear

That $30 rucksack from China may do the trick, but it’s not going to do it well. You’re better off paying in dollars ahead of time than paying the price metaphorically later down the line. Not sure what to get? Here’s what I recommend.

7. Do everything that scares you

You’re not traveling to stay within your comfort zone, so if something scares you, make a point to do it. Whether it’s jumping off a bridge or eating a new dish, you’ll regret not doing it later down the line.

8. Don’t overplan

I rarely plan anything. I’ve found that if I get caught up in the details of my trip, I stress out. If you try too hard to force plans, they won’t work out. Just let them happen, and you’ll enjoy the journey a lot more.

9. Always keep a backup

It’s easy for things to get broken or go missing during your travels. My data is the most important thing I own, and I simply wouldn’t be able to recover if I lost it all. Make sure you’re backing up to an external hard drive and to the cloud. I recommend Backblaze.

10. Wake up early

There’s just something about a new town in the morning, when it comes alive and the streets begin to fill with people. You get a taste of the local life, and the best photos are always taken just after the sun comes up!

Yellow River, Kakadu National Park, Australia

Year 1: Sunrise on the Yellow River in Kakadu National Park, Australia

11. Carry a decoy wallet

Keep a ratty old wallet in your back pocket with an expired license, an old credit card or two, and $20 in cash. If you become the target of theft, your real license, activated credit cards, and larger cash stash will remain safe.

12. Lie in hammocks

They are the most comfortable and relaxing places to be. If you see a hammock, lie in it. If only for five minutes, I promise you won’t regret it.

13. Always get health insurance

Especially after finding out I needed major surgery (while I was in China, no less!), I always recommend getting health insurance. I was saved from an $8,000 bill which, obviously, was completely unexpected.

It doesn’t cost much up front, and since the risk of something going wrong is always higher when you’re abroad, I recommend World Nomads for complete travel and health coverage.

14. Make a fool of yourself

Because who cares!? Have a good time, and don’t take yourself too seriously. You may never see these people again, so any potential “damage” to your reputation stays safe.

15. Go broke

Don’t be a bum, but it’s worth going broke (or nearly broke) at least once. The lessons you will learn are invaluable.

16. Skip your Lonely Planet—talk to bartenders and taxi drivers

No, your guidebooks don’t know the best places to go. Bartenders and taxi drivers have their ear to the ground and always know what’s happening around town. Talk to them about where to go or what to see, and you can trust that you’re being given good advice.

17. There’s nothing wrong with going to bed early

Go to bed early and wake up early. Sometimes it can feel like a waste of a night, but it gives you all of the following day. Stock up on movies and fill up that Kindle—you’ll have lots of downtime to relax and power through your shows and books.

18. Visit restaurants for lunch, not dinner

If there’s a restaurant you’re dying to try, save your money by going there for lunch instead of dinner. Dinner is always more expensive.

19. Talk to that girl (or boy), even if you don’t speak the language

It’s always worth it—they’ll think it’s cute that you’re trying, and hey, you never know until you try!

20. Excuses will be your worst enemy

There are so many reasons not to do something. Not enough money, not enough time, too many responsibilities. You need to stop making excuses and take control of your life. If you want to do something, stop messing around and do it already.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Year 2: Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand

21. You are an ambassador for your country

Everywhere that you go, you are an ambassador for your country. Do your best to represent yourself and your people in the most positive way possible. It’s a satisfying feeling to know that I have changed the perspective that many people have of Americans.

22. Stash your money in multiple places

Always keep a couple reserve stashes of cash spread throughout your person and your belongings. I like to keep some money in my shoe, some in my pocket, and some hidden in each of my bags. Plus I carry my decoy wallet if I’m going to be in a busy or crowded place, or somewhere I might be at risk for pickpocketing.

23. Visit all the local events and festivals you can

If there’s any sort of local festival or gathering happening while you’re in town, make sure you’re there. You gain a much deeper insight into the people and culture than by simply visiting the popular attractions. If there’s something big happening, it might be worth adjusting your trip, like the time I stayed in Colombia for Carnival de Barranquilla.

24. Leave your bucket list at home

I don’t like to travel to “do,” but rather to experience. A bucket list never stops growing, and rather than simply just being able to enjoy, you end up operating off of a checklist.

25. Tip appropriately

Research the local tipping customs and follow them. It’s respectful, and it contributes to the economy in a responsible way. If you come from a non-tipping culture, remember that your tip actually pays that person’s wage. If you can’t afford to cover the tip, you shouldn’t be eating or drinking there in the first place.

26. Get lost once a week

It not only helps you to learn your surroundings, but you’ll stumble upon local gems that you otherwise wouldn’t have come across. Plus, getting lost and finding your way again is just plain fun.

27. Keep an open mind

Don’t carry your own judgements into new experiences in new locales. There is often a lot that you don’t know or don’t understand, and your opinion may have been formulated entirely out of context or with a lack of knowledge. If you disagree with something, ask the hard questions, evaluate, and do your research.

28. Vote with your dollar

Especially when you travel, the way you spend your dollars are a direct vote in favor of whatever you’re purchasing. If you ride an elephant, you are voting in favor of animal cruelty. If you buy local, you are supporting the local economy. Which would you prefer?

29. Ride local buses

They’re the best way to catch a glimpse of local life, and you’ll end up seeing some new parts of town that you otherwise wouldn’t have.

30. Pack a good camera

It’s worth it. Your photos and memories are the only thing that will last your lifetime, and five years from now you’re going to wish you had better photos (I sure do). Take some time to research basic photography techniques as well.

Li River, Guilin, China

Year 3: On the Li River in Guilin, China

31. Eat everything in sight

Bugs, stomach, eyeballs, whatever it may be—try it. You might actually like it (or you might throw up), and it makes for a great story down the line. At the end of the day, it’s not going to kill you.

32. Pack extra deodorant

Some countries just don’t carry the one you want. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck with roll-on or spray when all you want is a stick.

33. Have a backup plan

Things will always go wrong. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I didn’t have a backup plan when I got stuck in Colombia, and I sure wish that I did. That being said, if you just put a little faith in the universe, things have a way of working out.

34. Put some faith in the universe

Sometimes you just have to let go of control, and allow things to happen in the way that they will. Travel plans will not always work out, and you have to have faith that, in some strange way, the universe is unfolding in the way it’s supposed to.

35. Get a SIM card on your first day

Having a local number helps immensely, and buying a pre-paid card for data isn’t usually that expensive. With full access to apps like Foursquare and Google Maps, the city is always right in your pocket. I had unlimited 3G data in Vietnam for $7 USD.

36. Take naps

For one simple reason: they’re awesome.

37. Apply value to your time

Finding a good deal is absolutely worthwhile, but spending an hour looking for a $5 savings may not be. Sometimes it’s just easier to pay a little more for the convenience and time savings.

38. Use Tinder to find out what’s going on in a new city

It’s a great way to meet locals and to learn about the best places around town.

39. Wear solid colors

They match better, and your can make more outfits out of fewer pieces of clothing.

40. Learn the local language

A few phrases like “hello” and “thank you” can go a long way. Even more importantly, learn the names for foods and some of the local dishes—you’ll be using them three times a day.

Vieques, Puerto Rico

Year 4: On the Island of Vieques, Puerto Rico

41. Expect the best from people

The world is not out to get you and you are not always in danger. Be smart about your surroundings, but remember that people are generally good and will usually partake in incredible acts of kindness if given the opportunity.

42. Get out of Gringoland—party with the locals!

Going out for the night? Avoid the tourist bars and hit up some of the local spots. You’re guaranteed a more genuine and interesting experience. Some of my best nights out didn’t happen in nightclubs or fancy bars—they took place in local dive bars and pool halls.

43. Save your miles

There are so many rewards programs out there, it’s almost foolish not to use them. Whether you’re booking a flight, staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant, buying gas, shopping for holiday presents, or purchasing groceries, make sure you’re earning miles or rewards.

44. Pick the one place you don’t want to go, and go there

If there’s a specific reason you don’t want to go, you’re probably lacking a certain understanding of what makes that place so special. I never wanted to go to China, but after spending time there, it has become one of my favorite countries.

45. It’s okay to splurge

Traveling is exhausting, so treat yo’ self! Pay for some luxury once in a while. You deserve it.

46. Seize every opportunity

If we’re not making the most of every day, then it’s a waste. I hate turning down opportunities, and I try to make the most of every single one I’m provided with. Maybe those opportunities require risks, but the rewards are far greater.

47. Don’t give too much weight to other people’s opinions

You probably don’t know what the context of their opinion is, so don’t give it too much credibility. Go see and do things for yourself and formulate your own. You’ll become a more opinionated person because of it, which, despite some connotations, is not necessarily a bad thing.

48. Slow down

You have time. Seriously, don’t stress yourself out. Take things easy, go sit in a park, read a book. Don’t get caught up in your travels and trying to do something every moment of every day, because you can never appreciate what you’ve done if you don’t take the time to reflect on it.

49. It’s never too late

Just a couple weeks ago I met an English couple named Jim and Jenny, both in their late fifties, who were riding a motorbike from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska—from the bottom of the world to the top. Never give because you think it’s too late. The fact is, it never is.

50. Just go!

If you want to travel, the first step is booking a plane ticket. It’s never the right time, and the circumstances are never perfect. Once the ticket is booked, that’s it–you’re going. And everything else will fall into place. I promise.

Valle de Cocora, Salento, Colombia

Year 5: Valle de Cocora in Salento, Colombia

What’s the number one lesson you’ve learned in your travels?


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48 Responses to 50 Lessons I’ve Learned After 5 Years of Traveling

  1. Shalini May 21, 2016 at 6:21 am #

    All seems to be intresting nd “for sure needed” helpful tips!

  2. Drew January 19, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    Great advice to trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable with your taxi driver then you can call a new one. It’s a lot safer when you put your trust in yourself.

  3. Tom January 13, 2016 at 5:35 am #

    #41 Preach !!

    So many people that I have met both at home and when I’ve been away are so mis-trusting of people and their motives. Admittedly, sometimes they do have exterior motives (I have been on the receiving end) but the majority of times, by trusting people, I’ve ended up with the most incredible ‘luck’.

    This is way i believe in the phrase ‘you make your own luck’.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster January 13, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

      Hell yeah! We make our whole environment. More often than not people are good, and the experiences we walk away with because we trust our instincts are invaluable.

  4. Nikita September 17, 2015 at 11:04 am #

    Wow, so much to learn, I liked your health insurance point the most and the water too. I have learnt a lot during my travel too. Most importantly “Never give up”. My most recent post says about it too. Thanks for sharing , you are a great inspiration :)

  5. @cdntripseeker September 15, 2015 at 12:12 am #

    Well said! I too need to slow down in stay in 1 place longer. And to value my time more!

    Will share!

  6. Brooke of Passport Couture September 11, 2015 at 11:22 am #

    my favorite part was about throwing out the itinerary and bucket list. I have things I want to see, but having it all planned out makes you miss out on so many things! And, the suggestion to ask bartenders and taxi drivers was something I hadn’t considered but makes perfect sense. They see and hear so much information around town!

    • Jeremy Scott Foster September 17, 2015 at 12:52 am #

      A bartender is the most amazing source of local information you’ll ever encounter!

  7. Samantha August 16, 2015 at 10:26 am #

    I love all of these, especially the decoy wallet. My husband has his wallet stolen on our honeymoon of all times. We usually do the spread money around thing, but I like the decoy too. Thanks for all the great tips.

  8. Dhiraj Shenoy August 16, 2015 at 3:01 am #

    Wonderful lessons learnt. Most of the points would make sense to everyone who travels

  9. crazy sexy fun traveler August 5, 2015 at 5:44 pm #

    Awesome things, all of them :) I agree with each and every one!

  10. Cacinda Maloney July 1, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    Ok, now I see this post for 5 years versus 4 years, omg! You are a traveling machine.

  11. simon May 7, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    Excuses ARE indeed your worst enemy! Say ‘yes’ to everything when you travel – well, almost everything ;-)

  12. Tami May 3, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    Thanks for a great post with some sound advice! I love how you advise people to get up early. I’m always amazed that anyone would want to sleep in while traveling. There’s so much to see and do! I actually wrote a blog post about why you should get up early on vacation at http://www.postcardsandpassports.com/ten-reasons-why-you-should-wake-up-early/

  13. Hilary May 3, 2015 at 6:42 pm #

    Really great write up, Jeremy. I’m going to share it! –Happy & Fun travels to you (and thanks for the recommendation to the Adventure Junkies!) – Hilary

  14. Victor April 29, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    Useful tips. I saved them into the Pocket to read later. Thank you.

  15. AnnKAddley April 26, 2015 at 11:59 pm #

    Great tips Jeremy,
    It’s awesome to be able to learn from each other adventures. However I know from experience, that no matter how many times someone tells you, it’s only after you have been on the road for a while that you learn to conquer your FOMO, relax and enjoy their travel.

    Ann

    • Jeremy Scott Foster April 29, 2015 at 6:16 am #

      I used to have the worst case of FOMO, but I think I’ve done so much that, at this point, I don’t mind missing out on a few things :-)

  16. Mary @ Green Global Travel April 21, 2015 at 10:32 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Jeremy! Sounds like travel has truly transformed your perspective on life :)

  17. Laura @Travelocafe April 21, 2015 at 8:15 am #

    All are very very good lessons. :)

  18. Fabiana April 20, 2015 at 8:36 pm #

    I completely agree wit all of these but number 4 definitely spoke to me. When I was getting started all I wanted was to go from place to place without really enjoying each of them. It was more about numbers than experiences. I wish I learned this earlier.

  19. Shreya April 16, 2015 at 10:31 pm #

    Inspiring list ahead.. Real life travelling teach us several lessons of our life. I loved the post you crafted and posted.

  20. Zascha April 16, 2015 at 2:39 am #

    Great list. I love reading about what other people have learned along the way as it inspires me a lot.
    Oh, and for some reason, lying in a hammock is something I look forward to the most! :)

  21. Annie Anywhere April 14, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    Thanks for this inspired post! My friend judge me because I go to bed early and wake up early, but they don’t see all the beauty I see. :)

  22. Miriam of Adventurous Miriam April 12, 2015 at 10:51 am #

    Traveling is probably the thing that teaches us most about life and ourselves, and it looks like it has taught you a lot. Good on you, and congrats on making it to year 5!

  23. Susan April 11, 2015 at 10:23 pm #

    I never thought I would ever hear you say go to bed early and get up early.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster April 19, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

      Just because I know it doesn’t mean I always do it ;-) But I have learned that getting up nice and early is the best way to start a day.

  24. Agness April 11, 2015 at 7:22 am #

    Travelling is a very ending lesson of life!! I’m glad you’ve learnt so much on the road. Number 25 and 35 are those lessons I’ve also learnt!! :)

  25. Lucian April 11, 2015 at 2:21 am #

    Great tips you have here! Always having a backup is really important for me – and you should always be ready for things to go completely different than you’ve planned. That’s how things are when you travel and that’s part of the fun. If you don’t let it ruin the experience, at least!

  26. Suze The Luxury Columnist April 10, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

    I really agree with spending more time in fewer places, I’m always trying to pack too much in!

    • Jeremy Scott Foster April 18, 2015 at 11:54 am #

      It can be hard with limited time, but finding that balance is really important.

  27. BellaVidaLetty April 9, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    Nice post. It really inspires one to get traveling.

  28. Karla April 9, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    Those are all great lessons you’ve learned!

    I can certainly relate and understand many of them, particularly getting up before the crowds, getting lost on purpose but doing that which we fear really hit home as I just recently started doing more of that ;)

    Keep having a great time and enjoy what the world has to offer!

    Happy travels :)

  29. Maja April 9, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    We learn a lot during traveling and everyone should have his/her own way of doing it :)

  30. John @ TravelerLife April 9, 2015 at 2:45 am #

    Thanks for all the great insight Jeremy! I especially agree with your final point “Just go!” After stressing out about whether or not I could do some real traveling I recently bought a plane ticket to Europe and am just going to see where the adventure takes me!

    • Jeremy Scott Foster April 18, 2015 at 11:52 am #

      Once you buy that flight, you’re committed to going, and everything else will fall into place.

  31. Gilles Barbier April 8, 2015 at 5:38 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,
    Great post, there is a lot in there and I more or less agree with all your points (I started to list which I fully agree with but it was a least half of it).
    #16 was a bit of a surprise, I have to try this one…
    And for #49, I just took my father to Cambodia (one month) and India (one month): at 77, he loved it, so no, it’s never too late (but it’s better if you start somewhat earlier ;-)
    Cheers, Gilles

    • Jeremy Scott Foster May 11, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

      Yes! Always talk to taxi drivers and bartenders. They will always give you the best advice! Sounds like you and your father are having some amazing adventures. Have fun!

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