Every now and then I feel the need to share some words of travel advice that go above and beyond the typical “Stay at this hotel,” or “Be sure to take this walking tour.” Travel is made up of those components, no doubt there, but travel when looked at holistically is so much more. More than 1 billion people around the world experience the act of travel every year. It in large part defines a tremendous swathe of the world and its effects are wide ranging. No matter your background or point of view though, there are some universalities that bind us all, effects and benefits from the travel experience that touch everyone no matter who they are. I decided to highlight a few of my favorites here today and while I know it’s extremely dangerous to use a qualifier such as “Universal” in the title, I think for the most part that it holds true.
Travel isn’t scary
There is a popular misconception that travel is dangerous or scary or both, but thankfully that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think some folks have a natural inclination to distrust anything foreign, and every news story about any issue, no matter how trivial, only feeds into that false mythology. With some notable exceptions – war torn areas, North Korea and so on – the world is on the whole a fairly safe place. Does that mean you should travel carefree? No, you always need to take precautions to both protect your money and things, as well as yourself. Basic common sense should help though, and as long as you aren’t overly foolish you should be fine. Regardless, you should never let a false threat (real ones are ok) of danger stop you from traveling. The fact is that in many cases where we live is more dangerous than the places we want to visit. I’ve traveled all around the world many times but the only time I’ve been pickpocketed was right here in the U.S. So no, the world is on the whole NOT a dangerous place and you should start seeing it as soon as possible.
As a kid I remember being frustrated because I knew no matter how much I studied and learned that I would never be able to consume all available knowledge. Yeah, I was a fun kid, but that same intellectual curiosity has helped me countless times in my life and is, I think, a defining characteristic of most travelers. We want to explore and see the world not just to dip our toes in the warm waters of the Caribbean or to see famous buildings we’ve heard about all our lives – we also desperately want to learn. We visit museums, historical sites and take more tours than we can count. Why do we do this, except to broaden our horizons and learn about disparate places around the world? There are some people of course who could care less about such things, and I honestly don’t understand why they even leave home. The world may seem smaller than ever, but in all reality it’s an immense place and even those who think they have seen it all, have only hit upon a small slice of the centuries of human and natural history available to us. Having a certain level of intellectual curiosity is vital to any good traveler and those who pursue these educational exploits greatly improve their own personal travel experiences. By learning the histories of different places, we also deepen our own personal understanding of them, creating not only cultural empathy but also a great bond and connection with those places. So it’s not just a nerdy way to increase our chances of performing well on “Jeopardy!” it’s vital if we really want to maximize our travel experiences.
Popular sites & why everyone is a tourist
I’ve said this before, I’m saying this now and I will most likely say it again – don’t be afraid to be a corny tourist. None of us are Anthony Bourdain or Rick Steves and we shouldn’t try to be. We’re on vacation, traveling and we need to make sure we enjoy the experience. This means that it is in fact OK to be a camera toting, crepe eating, Colosseum visiting tourist. Don’t let the hipsters and egocentric travelers tell you to always get off the beaten path and to only go local. Sure, this is good once in a while, but on the whole don’t be afraid to embrace your inner tourist. There’s a reason why everyone who visits Paris goes to the Eiffel Tower, in London Westminster Abbey and in Rome the Forum. They’re awesome! They have always been awesome, they will always be awesome and you should see them. Unless you have physically relocated to a new country or city you are by definition a tourist when you travel. That’s ok! I hate that the word tourist has such a bad connotation nowadays, but it’s a badge of honor and not a scarlet letter. So ignore those naysayers and instead go, see the famous sites and enjoy yourself.
People are nice
This took me a while to learn, but the fact is that almost everyone everywhere is a good person. No matter our backgrounds or life stories, we all tend to want the same things from life. We want to be happy, we want friends and family and we want them to be happy as well. What this means in actual practice will vary, but they are very basic human emotions that we all share. Perhaps it’s because of this that 99.9% of the world’s population is comprised of good, kind-hearted people. Yes, bad people exist and they cause misery for many, but those very few individuals are not a reason to avoid traveling. Just as the world is not the dangerous place that the news would have us believe, nor is it full of rude and inconsiderate people. My travels are full of examples when complete strangers have dramatically impacted my travel experience for the better. This has meant everything from simple help with a map to inviting me to dine with them, to share their lives on meaningful levels. No matter how these strangers decided to interact with me, it was always positive. So go out, meet new people and surprise yourself at the world of opportunity that will open up as a result.
You get what you pay for
Maxims are repeated time and time again for an important reason; they’re true. An important such expression in the travel experience is “You get what you pay for,” a sad fact that many of us forget I think. I could share dozens of examples, but there are two key ones that I think best demonstrate this in the travel context. I’ve seen more complaints about budget airlines like Ryanair than anything else, but what I don’t understand is why. People book flights with ultra-budget carriers understanding, or at least they should understand, that the tickets prices are absurdly low for a reason – they nickel and dime everyone. This isn’t a great secret or an example of airlines gone rogue; it’s their business model. So when you pay $99 each way for a flight to Europe, you better expect a few extra fees along the way. If you want a pleasant, hassle-free experience, then pay more money for a better seat on a better airline. I’m sorry, but you’re not going to get a business class seat on an extreme budget. For most people that’s ok, but if you want a truly fantastic flying experience then you have to be prepared to pay for it. The same holds true for hotels, which leads me to my second example. While AirBnB is more popular than ever, at its heart it’s still part of the sharing economy and as such, there is no standard for quality. Sometimes people luck out and that’s great, but I think it’s ridiculous to complain about lackluster AirBnB accommodations. Aren’t they supposed to be lackluster? That’s the point of getting a cheap room – it’s cheap. Again, if you expect the Presidential Suite at the Ritz-Carlton for an AirBnB price, that’s not going to happen. For me, hotels are extremely important and so it’s one of my big splurges when I travel. Many people aren’t as hung up on hotels as I am, which is fine, but then don’t complain when your budget accommodation is, well, budget.
Travel experiences are couture
One of the words I hate the most is bespoke. I originally hated it because it’s not common in American English and still sounds abrasive and foreign to my ears. But then as I learned what it meant, and saw it more and more often I came to dislike it for its meaning. Bespoke simply means something that is custom made, unique to a particular person. In the travel context it refers to tailor-made experiences, not for the masses. As a luxury traveler, obviously I don’t mind that part but what I mind is the attitude with which it’s sometimes conveyed, as if only certain people are allowed to be privy to the benefits of travel, which simply isn’t the case. To draw an analogy of sorts, in my opinion travel is couture. That is to say that each travel experience is completely unique for the person enjoying it. Sure, I could join a tour group of 20 people and see and do the same things as the rest of them, but for me the experience is individual, as it is for them as well. Assuming this is true, which it is, then every trip we take, no matter who we are or where we go is couture, it is a bespoke experience. I personally wish companies would instead focus on the fact that travel is unique and easily attainable by anyone, even though the manner and style in which we pursue it may be different.
Something will always go wrong
Travel is not a sterile, antiseptic experience. Travel is messy, sometimes difficult and often times really frustrating. I usually highlight the great benefits of travel, of which there are many, but there are pitfalls as well. Don’t be shocked, but things don’t always go as planned. Flights are missed, hotels lose reservations and theft does occur. This doesn’t mean though you should just stay home and be content watching reruns of House Hunters International to get your travel fix. But it does mean that you have to be smart when you travel and plan for the worst, although not expecting it. There are a million articles about how to protect yourself while on the road, but a little common sense goes a long way. And should the worst happen, deal with it but don’t let it define you. I’ve been robbed, nearly arrested and accosted more times than I’d like to admit, but I still pack up my suitcase and travel as often as I can. I realize that travel is one of the most ‘real’ life experiences anyone can have, and with that comes the bad and the good.
Travel should be fun
In spite, or perhaps because of, these more philosophical mutterings, it’s also important to point out that travel is just a whole lot of fun. I have been on hundreds of flights and yet each time when I board a new plane I get excited. The night before a trip I still have trouble sleeping, like a kid on Christmas Eve. The basic joys of travel are still very real for me, and they are sensations that I covet above almost everything else. It’s not just the anticipation of course that’s fun, but almost every aspect of the travel experience, from new hotels to exploring beautiful cities – these are amongst the most joyful moments in my life. However, we tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to enjoy the perfect vacation that we many times become our own worst enemies. Either we overplan to the point of exhaustion, or we stress about details we can’t change. Either way, it’s always refreshing to me to see people out there traveling and having a great time doing it. While sailing on a river cruise, there was an extended family onboard of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins. They were all ages and when I first saw them I groaned because I thought the kids would get bored and start acting up within a couple of days. I was very wrong though and instead of ignoring their kids, the parents engaged them, had fun and by the end of the trip the entire family was about as content as any I have ever seen. It was great to see teens put down their phones to play Scrabble and for their parents to take time showing them around new cities. Travel is a gift, and that family knew how to deliver it – with a smile and a few laughs. When we travel it’s always meant to be fun, so open yourself up and allow for some opportunities to relax, go slow and enjoy the moment.
It’s always worth it
All travel is important, whether you travel 30-minutes away or to the South Pole. Any time we leave home for the sole purpose of exploration, or just enjoying ourselves, we change in ways that may be imperceptible, but which aren’t any less important. I read a criticism of people who decided to embark on study abroad in countries that are similar to their own, targeted towards Americans traveling to the UK during university. I couldn’t stand that criticism when I first read it and now, many months later, it still annoys me to no end. That college kid going to the UK to study may speak the same language and may be familiar with the general culture, but there will be surprises, there will be shocks. More than that, the experience will teach them how to absorb a new culture and to treat it respectfully on the one hand, but also how to actively participate in it. No, he’s not trekking through the jungles of Borneo, but that’s ok. There hasn’t been a trip anywhere in the world where I haven’t learned something. Sometimes it’s about the place, but more often than not it’s about me. Travel is selfish and personal and that’s fine. Those kids studying abroad in the UK will learn self-confidence and tolerance among many other qualities that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. It is an important step, travel, one not to be taken lightly and not one to be looked down upon either.
What other universal truths should be added to this list?