As I write this post I am sitting in the Caltrain, passing through various suburbs of the San Francisco Bay peninsula on my way to the city. It’s comforting to be surrounded by so many familiar sites once again.
My wife and I have had quite a journey: 17 countries, dozens of cities, and countless airports/train stations/bus stations. We’ve witnessed both staggeringly beautiful phenomena (Northern Lights in the Yukon Territories) and horrifying moments (a mob beating up some dude in the streets of Istanbul) along the way. Fortunately, my wife and I came out the other end of our trip completely safe and with a lifetime of memories.
I’ve delayed writing this post as long as I could; it’s been taking me a while to process what I’ve learned from this trip. The short answer is: a lot.
I may not be able to cover all the lessons I’ve learned in a single post, but let me share eight things that I discovered from long-term travel:
1. People are generally good
Prior to our trip, my wife and I heard plenty of horror stories about the dangers of travel. Everyone we spoke to seemed to “know of a person” who was pick-pocketed, robbed at knifepoint, or even assaulted by a gang.
I’m sure that these incidences do unfortunately happen, but from what I’ve seen I wholeheartedly believe that PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY GOOD.
One of the things that made our journey so wonderful was the fact that we had no problems asking for help from locals; and overwhelmingly, locals expressed genuine interest in helping us out.
Just to share a quick story, one of my favorite memories happened on our last day in Japan. After spending an evening with some friends, my wife and I had to race to the train station in order to catch the last evening train back to our hotel.
We were super late. When we arrived to the station, we hastily told an attendant that we needed help to get to our line. The attendant sprang into action and immediately got on his walkie-talkie to tell his other attendants to fast track us through the various checkpoints (skipping the need to show IDs and passes) when they saw my wife and I running up to them. It was sort of fun, kind of like running a marathon and seeing a bunch of suited attendants cheering us on and pointing us to the right direction.
As we were running, my wife had to pull something out of her purse, which accidentally dumped out a bunch of Yen coins on the ground. I screamed at her to leave the money and keep running.
Astonishingly, several Japanese salary men and women who were nearby suddenly dove as a group to pick up all the coins and ran behind us to hand us our money. I’ll never forget the sight of Japanese men in business suits and women in heels, running after us at full speed to give us money.
Ultimately we didn’t make our train. But my faith in humanity was completely reinforced by all the tiny acts of kindness we witnessed during this funny little experience.
And there were so many little moments like this throughout our travel!
Certainly it’s smart to exercise reasonable caution as you travel, but I encourage would-be travelers to assume the best in people. You won’t be disappointed.
2. It’s easier than I thought
When my wife and I told our friends that we were going to be traveling for several months, a common reaction we heard was: “how the hell are you going to do that?”
People (specifically American people) seem to freak out over the logistics of long-term travel. I have been guilty of this too; logistics was a top fear of mine before we started our journey. But looking back now, the whole thing was so easy to plan—even when you don’t have a set itinerary about where you’re going.
Here are some things that we did to prep our trip:
Renting out our house
To help out with our cash flow, my wife and I decided to rent out our home. We had never been landlords before and we were freaked out by the prospect of strangers living in our place. So, to put our mind at ease we hired a rental manager to do all the work for us.
The rental management company we went with is called Rent Method (in case you’re a home owner in the San Francisco Bay area). They did everything: took amazing professional pictures of our house; set our rent rate based on market comps; promoted our house and curated a list of applicants based on our requirements; handled all legal paperwork and bill collection for us.
Super easy. We found amazing tenants and were able to cover the cost of our mortgage, HOA, and taxes with their rent checks.
Finding low-cost international flights was a breeze using FlightFox. FlightFox is a type of online travel agency, which uses a combination of humans and algorithms to plan the lowest fare flights for people. I can’t say enough good things about this service. Consistently they found us cheaper tickets than my wife and I could find on our own. We were even able to fly business class for certain legs because it was just so affordable.
If you’re looking for domestic flights within a country, booking last-minute on the web worked great for us. Most countries have their own version of a Southwest Airlines, and my wife and I consistently enjoyed cheap fares.
Trains and buses are also super easy to book last minute. Often you could book these trips even a few hours before you leave right at the station. One little hack that we figured out was the value of booking first-class overnight train rooms, which included a sleeper bed. They were a bit more expensive but saved us from paying for an additional hotel night.
Getting around most cities was not a problem either. Many places have awesome subways or buses that are pretty easy to decipher even if you don’t speak the language. And cheap.
Places to sleep
Go with Airbnb. You’ll be surprised by how many apartments are available via this platform throughout the world. My wife and I often booked places as late as a day or two prior to arriving to our next location.
Just be careful with Airbnb: often the place you book is not as good looking as what you see in the pictures. But we didn’t really have any seriously bad experiences.
We also mixed things up by staying at a hotel every once in a while. TripAdvisor is a great website to help you narrow down a few hotel options for any given place. And when you book, try to see whether you can do it via credit card or hotel points, if you have any.
TripAdvisor is a great resource if you want to figure out safe places to eat. Generally though it’s easy to find markets and my wife and I preferred to buy our own groceries and cook food in our Airbnb whenever we could. We saved a ton of money doing this vs. eating out all the time.
You can buy little detergent travel packs on Amazon (I like the Woolite packs) and just use your kitchen sink or bathroom sink to hand wash laundry. One really helpful purchase we made was buying a clothesline, which we carried around with us. A clothesline is critical to have when you need to hang dry all your clothes, which is most places since dryers are rare.
Another reason why Airbnb apartments are great is that it’s easy to find a place that specifically has a washing machine. That’s probably the easiest way to do your laundry as you travel. Or, if you are in a low-cost country, just use a laundry service. In Vietnam we enjoyed having all of our laundry washed, dried, ironed, and folded for under a dollar.
Your most important asset while traveling is a smart phone with Internet access. Make sure that it’s a phone that can take a SIM card, so that you can buy and swap SIM cards as you travel to new countries. Phone plans and data plans are ridiculously cheap outside the US.
Otherwise, if you’re lazy, you can get a smart phone that uses the T-Mobile Simple Choice International plan. I paid about $50 dollars per month to get 1GB of data per month to access the Internet in pretty much every country that we visited. The global coverage is spectacular, except it didn’t work in Croatia, which bummed me out.
3. It’s cheaper than I thought
Toward the end of our travels, I took a look at the expenses that my wife and I had incurred on the road and made a surprising discovery: it was cheaper for us to travel full time than it was to live at home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Full time travel for us saved us roughly one-third off our normal living costs. Maybe that is just a sad testament to how expensive it is to live in Silicon Valley.
But when you’re no longer paying for a mortgage (renters), no longer paying for gas, no longer paying for utilities/insurance/etc.—the savings really do add up.
Of course, our spending was entirely driven by how we traveled. If we were staying at the Four Seasons and went clubbing with bottle service every night, then our budget would have been out of control. However I would not say we were skimping in our travel. We lived out of nice apartments, ate terrific food, and even flew business class. Yet our expenses were still reasonable.
Where you travel matters as well. When we were in Asia, we spent much of our time in Southeast Asia, which is really inexpensive. A hotel night costs $20 USD and a world-class meal costs $1 USD. A little money goes a long way there.
Most of our Europe travel was focused on Eastern Europe, which was definitely more expensive than Southeast Asia; but still pretty reasonable, with $50/night apartments being the norm.
Getting to these countries is the expensive part. But getting around and finding accommodations within many desirable countries can be quite inexpensive. If you’re budget conscious, start your travels in Southeast Asia. It shouldn’t hurt your wallet too much.
4. I didn’t miss any of my possessions
At the start of my travels, I wrote about how I would be leaving behind all my possessions to live out of a 40-liter backpack for several months. My favorite financial blogger, Mr. Money Mustache, once shared an awesome philosophy about materialism. To paraphrase, he basically said that living with less stuff allows you to focus more on people and experiences.
That turned out to be totally true. Free of the distractions of my stuff, I was able to soak in so many beautiful moments with my wife on this trip. It was refreshing to walk the Earth, look up, and see stuff—rather than shuffle about with my head down thinking about my next task as I often find myself doing at home.
I didn’t miss any of my stuff; none of it.
This experience has inspired me to dramatically slim down my life when I get back into my home. I suspect that at least 80% of things I have do not provide any real incremental happiness to my life. I can’t wait to give them away.
5. You will never feel richer
When I say “rich,” I am not referring to how much money you have in the bank or how much you earn. I’m talking about richness at a more existential level: a feeling of such complete satisfaction that nothing else can be added to the moment to make it more perfect.
Travel makes you feel so freaking rich!
There have been swings in my life where I was making little and times where I was making quite a bit. But the interesting thing is that I never really felt a serious change in the quality of my life between those periods of famine and excess. For me (and many others), it doesn’t take too much money to feel comfortable. As long as I have good shelter, health, food, friends/family—I’m good.
Travel gives you something that is rare to find as an adult: child-like wonder.
Right now I’m on the train watching a small child stare out the window, nose pressed against the glass and mouth open in wonder. Everyone else on the train is staring at a laptop or phone, oblivious to the world that’s going by. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a kid, but when I was on the road with my wife, there were so many moments where I was just like that kid I am now seeing on the train.
The world is so fascinatingly diverse. When you travel you see weird landscapes, explore edifices that seem impossible to build, and experience cultures that are absolutely alien.
Those slack-jawed moments of child-like wonder are what make you feel rich when you’re traveling. It’s joy, plain and simple.
6. Living in the present is hard
Apparently there is a cultural movement happening right now behind the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to fully live in the present and just appreciate a moment with all your attention.
As I mentioned, travel gives you so many opportunities to live in the present. There is just so much cool stuff happening all the time, and it really grabs your attention.
But, extended periods of mindfulness is hard. It was something that I tried to practice with my wife but consistently failed.
Prior to our travel, I spent 9 years running a company. As an entrepreneur, you kind of get trained out of being able to enjoy the present. There is always a crisis to attend to, competition to worry about, or strategic planning to map out. In my very darkest moments as an entrepreneur, I had the unhealthy mindset of viewing all activities as an opportunity cost. For example, on a Saturday evening I would weigh going to the movies with my friends vs. gaining an extra two hours to work. It’s a disastrous mindset when you start to view your family and friends as burdens to working.
So when the opportunity came around for my wife and I to quit our jobs and travel, we vowed to live in the present every day. When we visited new places, we often asked each other “are you living in the present?” to remind ourselves to appreciate the moment.
But living in the present is difficult. If I graded myself, I would probably earn a “C-” on practicing mindfulness. As much as startup life really sucks, I am addicted to this world and I slowly got pulled back into advisor meetings, conference planning, and brainstorm sessions on new business ideas while on the road.
Living in the present is something that I will continue to work on. I encourage all readers who are considering long-term travel to try to include mindfulness as a goal during your trip. In the few moments when I was able to live in the present, it was fantastic. It’s especially precious to share it with someone I loved.
7. You should buy a good camera and learn how to use it
In 2007, my wife (then girlfriend) went on our first international trip together to the Greek Isles. Exhausted from our long travel, we went straight into our cave (yes, a cave hotel room) and passed out for 2 hours. When we woke up from our nap, we looked out of our window to witness an incredible sunset over the Santorini caldera.
I ran outside with my crappy digital camera to capture this special moment, with my beautiful girlfriend in her frazzled post-nap hair, smiling right into the lens with a Mediterranean sunset behind her.
It was one of the shittiest photos I’ve ever taken. I had no idea what I was doing with the camera and the photo that came out was garbage.
For our most recent round of travels, I vowed to do things differently. Photos are really important for me personally because I have terrible memory and like having these picture references to help me remember things. Thus, I wanted to do everything that I could to maximize the beauty of each shot.
Over the past four months I’ve taken several thousand really high-quality photos. They are huge treasures for me and my wife, and we plan to print many of them to display around our house.
There are three things that I did to help me take great photos during our travel:
First, buy a nice camera. Not to say that you can’t take amazing photos with your phone, but I wanted something that would allow me more precision.
I wanted a camera that had great manual controls; was lightweight and easy to carry (NOT an SLR); and featured interchangeable lenses. Finding the perfect camera was really easy: I went over to my favorite electronics review site, The Wirecutter, and saw their recommendation for the best mirrorless camera under $1000.
The recommendation has changed since I last looked, but at the time the editors suggested the Sony NEX-6, which I opted to buy. I found a great kit for about $900. Pretty expensive, but man is the quality amazing!
This camera is such a beast. It handled long-exposure shots in -15 degree F conditions (Northern Lights in the Yukon Territories) as well as 100 degree F, high-humidity sunrise shots (Angkor Wat, Cambodia). Everything came out beautiful.
I love this camera and I don’t think I’ll upgrade for many more years. But having a nice piece of hardware is one thing, understanding how to use it is another. Which leads me to my next tip:
Take lessons on using your camera. It turns out that there is a bit of theory behind what makes a good photo. There is also endless advice on how you can manipulate your camera to get great results. Fortunately, the Internet is full of free information to help you get up to speed.
For me, I decided to actually buy a video course on digital photography. Specifically, this one from Udemy.com: EasyDSLR Digital Photography Course for Beginners. The list price is $39, but Udemy runs sales all the time for 75% or even 90% off. I think I paid $9 for this course, which gives me lifetime access to the videos.
These videos were a breeze to consume. Most lessons were 10-20 minutes long, and I just watched one per day. The lessons were an awesome investment for me, arming me with a lifetime of strong photography foundations to build upon.
The last step to learn great photography is an optional step:
Learn how to post-process photos. Post processing is something that many of us are familiar with by now. If you use Instagram, it’s the part of the photo-taking process where you add some hipster filter to make your photo look cool.
Post processing of course is not just for annoying hipsters. It is in fact a fine art, giving the photographer a wide palette of options to fine tune control of your image. Perhaps you want to increase contrast to make your lights and darks pop; or maybe you want to increase the warmth of the entire image by tweaking the tones. All this and much more is possible.
Probably the best post-processing software around is Adoble Lightroom. I picked up a copy myself and was immediately scared away. It takes a while to feel comfortable within these tools, and the best way to learn is to again rely on the trusty Internet for free advice.
The best set of free lessons I’ve found are these articles on post-processing tips for beginners. These write ups provide a decent walkthrough of Lightroom and also features detailed case studies on how to process a portrait, landscape, etc.
I’m still working my way through these lessons (one article per day), but already I’m seeing huge improvements in how my pictures look.
8. There’s no place like home
I missed tacos while traveling.
Apparently it’s hard to find decent taquerias in Asia and Europe. Needless to say, the first thing I did when I landed back in San Francisco was devour a big plate of carne asada tacos.
Beyond some food, as I mentioned before there were few material things that I truly missed while traveling. But my wife and I did miss one aspect of our home life that was impossible to bring with us: our family and friends.
Being away from the people we loved was the hardest part of travel. And really, we weren’t even away for that long! Four months is nothing. In countries where long-term travel is part of the culture (like Germany or Australia), it is not unusual to meet travelers who were in month six or even month twelve of their travels.
In any case, I was feeling a bit homesick toward the end of our trip. My wife and I are blessed to have the very best of friends and family. Getting away from your environment is great for many reasons; one lesson it teaches you is how grateful you should be for the amazing life that awaits you at the end of your journey.
Thanks so much to my readers for following me and my wife as we explored the world for the past several months. I’m not sure what I wanted to get out of blogging about our journey, but seeing all the followers and commenters really encouraged me to keep writing.
It’s going to be a while before my wife and I take another trip like this. Our sabbatical from work (we both quit our jobs) is almost over and we’ll likely be getting back into new projects soon.
I will continue to post on this blog though. There are three things that I love talking about: travel, financial freedom, and startups. I’ve spent a lot of time on travel topics, but there is much I wish to share about the latter two themes as well.
But a final word on travel: do it.
Don’t delay it. You won’t regret it. It’s one of the best investments you can ever make.