Thinking about traveling abroad and not sure where to start?

It’s an itch. Once you hear the stories from your friends traveling away from home, see the photos on Instagram of beautiful places to visit, and watch the videos on YouTube of adventurous people living nomadic lifestyles; the itch gets itchier. I’ve found that whenever I ask people the question “if you could do anything you want in life, and money, time, and expectations weren’t an issue; what would you do?”, I usually have to follow up with “and traveling doesn’t count as an answer” because that is the most common response. Side-note: I say that last part because the purpose of that question is meant for a deeper individualistic response than traveling.

Now not everyone is the type to leave their job, family, friends and comfort zone to travel for an extended period of time; but for those who are thinking of doing such a thing, or are just looking to take a short breather from the routine of life for a few weeks, the first step is not always so clear. As a person who has left his job in corporate America to explore firsthand the history and complex current events of the Middle East, I can relate. 

As such, I would like to lay out here a list of 5 considerations that you may find helpful in preparation for your travels.

1. Purpose or Pleasure?

The two are not mutually exclusive, but I think one of the first things to consider when planning to travel for more than a few days is to define the purpose of your travel. 

Is it merely for pleasure and getting away to refresh? Is it to learn something new (i.e., how to make hummus and falafel, dance salsa, pray more fervently, etc)? Is it to get involved with an organization at the local level and contribute to the surrounding community?

Knowing the reason for your itch will help you choose where and how to scratch it, and hence get more bang for your buck and experience.

After all, these days traveling ain’t cheap…right?

2. Expenses vs. Expensive

A common view people have about traveling is that it’s an expensive endeavor. It can be, and yet it doesn’t have to be, but it will depend on your plans and how you approach it. As I write this, you can fly from places like Germany to Israel for roughly $170 USD; from America to Thailand for $550 USD, and from South America to Russia for $860 USD. Those figures are just a portion of the amount of money the average American receives as a tax refund (I’ll save you clicking the link: $2860).

You may say, “yeah that’s nice, that’s more money than I have to dispose of.” While priorities like paying off debt are of course reasonable, a response to that is two fold. 

First, what you mean to say is that’s more cash than you have to dispose of. We haven’t talked yet about the different travel rewards credit cards that you can open responsibly and spend a certain amount by a certain time to win bonus miles or points which will reduce (or eliminate) your ticket expense. We haven’t talked yet about your current spending habits like $5 daily coffees, $15 weekly movie tickets, or $100 weekend dinners, club fees, and drinks with friends, that when discontinued or reduced, can add up to a nice pile of savings for use. We haven’t talked about inviting friends into the mix of pursuing these two example strategies and pooling your money together to enjoy a new adventure as a group.

And secondly, because most people get stuck on the first financial requirement of actually getting to the desired destination, they don’t also consider the potential savings in using their USD abroad on a day to day basis. From 2011 to 2014 the U.S Dollar has increased 9% versus the index of other major world currencies. In the past two years, it’s been 20%. That means you are literally getting more bang for your buck. Buying an orange in Colombia is substantially cheaper than buying an orange in the U.S. (and is healthier and juicer arguably). One of the supervisors at my old job told me he got a fully tailored suit in Thailand for $160, which would have easily cost $500+ in America given the brand. This isn’t a guarantee that you can live like a king or queen abroad, but I’ve heard many experiences of travelers getting away with spending less than $100 a day for food, transportation, and a decent place to stay. Currently, I get away with around $70 a day for the necessaties mentioned previously.

Now there’s obviously more variables, like personal financial burdens and booking tours that are more-often-than-not expensive, but my point here is that although you can’t escape expenses, traveling does not have to be out of the question expensive. With the right planning and strategies you can book a trip somewhere in no time.

3. Fail to plan, plan to fail

It’s an old saying but it has merit. Traveling takes planning, whether that be setting specific day by day itineraries or setting general boundaries and timelines of places to be and things to do (personally, I prefer the latter and leaving room for spontaneity). 

Planning not only encompasses what you will see and do at your destination, but what you will bring and when you will go. 

Depending on the geographic location of your destination and its climate, there will be specific times of the year that are peak travel seasons which will affect your lodging, expenses, and experience. It’s easy and to your benefit to Google “best times to travel to [insert country here]” for suggestions ahead of time. You can visit India from April to May during the off season, but you better be prepared for the 100+ degree humid weather. You can visit Russia in January, but as you may have guessed you may want to pack multiple layers of clothing.

Packing and knowing what to bring is also another challenge. If I can say anything on this particular topic it would be this: less is more. It sounds counter intuitive, and it’s hard to let go of the “I want options” mentality, but trust me and others who make a lifestyle of traveling that it will be to your detriment if you overpack. You ever see those people hauling around three big suitcases at the airport? What are the odds that person is not moving somewhere but rather on vacation, needing to drag those bags everywhere they go, and they don’t even use half of the stuff they packed? Yeah, not fun.

A really great article with good examples of what to pack can be found at here at Nomadic Matt’s website. Ladies, here’s a video of a girl who’s traveling for a year and only has one medium-sized backpack (it can be done). Tailor it to your needs and length of travel, but be savvy about how to stay comfortably dressed, emergency prepared, and technologically equipped to record memories.

4. A privilege not a right

I want you to imagine something. 

You live in a place where your livelihood and identity depends on people visiting your area constantly. Without that traffic, you won’t eat or have a place to sleep. As such you are trained, or learn by observing those who are trained, that you have to be nice to those people visiting your land if you want your business to continue. Nevermind that some of them aren’t looking to talk to you at all, nor are willing to remove their sunglasses to look at you in the eye and share a human moment. Just shut up, keep a happy face on, hope they buy stuff and repeat every single day for the rest of your life.

Does that sound pleasant to you? This is an overgeneralization of course, specifically regarding touristy places, and is not representative of all locals in tourist areas, but my conversations with locals and personal observations give me that mental image. It is a humbling thing to remember that your ability to travel is something that others could only dream of (even with proper planning). 

Not everyone is fond of tourists, and my opinion is that it is because a lot of tourists show up with a snobby mentality of “I paid money to come here and be left alone and enjoy the sights. It’s my right.” No, actually it’s not. The word you’re looking for is privilege. It’s a privilege for you to visit the foreign land of a foreign people and enjoy the foreign delicacies, traditions, and sights that belong to those foreigners. You may be an individualistic American, but most of the rest of the world are social collective societies.

As such, it would be a sign of respect for you to engage with the locals and learn a sentence or two of their language. Even better, venture outside of touristy areas and out into places most foreigners don’t go. It’s amazing how much a person opens up to you when you do something as little as say “hello, how are you?” with sincerity in their own language. Engaging with others is how I’ve been able to sleep at a fire station in Turkey, enter a military base in Colombia, and visit the homes of multiple families in Israel.

5. Reflect before and after your trip is over

Have you ever read the short book called “The Butteryfly Effect” by Andy Andrews? You should. The one sentence synopsis of this very short book is this: everything you do matters. 

This reality is not reserved only for traveling, but given that is the subject here I propose to you that you take one evening before your travels to write on one piece of paper and answer the question I mentioned at the very beginning of this post. Once your travels have come and gone, go back to what you wrote and answer the question again. See if anything changed, either ever so slightly or monumentally. I hold to the view that if you did traveling right (and not just carried your home bubble with you abroad), your perspective and thoughts on what’s important to you will have changed. 

Why? Because as much as we like to think we are our own people with our own ideas and thoughts, this is not exactly true. We are the culmination of all the experiences we’ve had in life, of all the people we’ve met and interacted with, and of all the things we have been taught to belief and or question. The beauty of traveling is that it takes us away from the somewhat homogenous market of life that we participate in everyday, and puts us in a whole new world (que Aladdin music) with new perspectives. As you go out into the world, you are proclaiming a message (whether intentionally or unintentionally), and messages are being proclaimed to you. Those interactions are what shape personal and societal history, and its something that cannot be replicated to its full capacity online. Realize your impact and your environment’s impact on you.

So with that said: determine the purpose, expense, plan, privilege, and reflection of your travels, and enjoy. You, your friends, family, and strangers won’t regret it.