Don’t Expect Travel To Solve Your Problems

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San Pedro Atitlan Guatemala

Sometimes I worry about the narrative that we travel publishers put out there: “Quit your job, travel the world, and all your problems will be solved.”

Almost none of us actually say that — or mean it. But when you add up all the travel memoirs and travel blogs and travel-filled Instagram profiles, that’s the dominant narrative. Travel? Leads to great things. Great things? Reduction in problems. Ergo, traveling must lead to your problems being solved!

I mean, I understand why that’s appealing. Most people who are looking to travel the world long-term aren’t doing so because everything is going perfectly in their home lives. For all the people who travel because they want to see the world, at the same time, you’ve got a number of people who are using travel as a means of escape.

Travel can be a fantastic tool — but it’s not a cure on its own.

Sometimes experiencing a new destination can completely change your worldview. If you combine that with a concentrated effort to change your life, incredible things can happen.

One example I love is how writer David Sedaris used travel to quit smoking. He realized that his smoking habits were routine-based, so he decided to travel to Tokyo, an environment that couldn’t be more different from his home in New York, and kick his smoking habit while he was dealing with a completely different routine. And it worked! The whole story is in his book When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

Did travel help Sedaris change his life? Absolutely. But it wasn’t the travel exclusively — he pursued conventional ways of ending his addiction as well. He didn’t coast along and let travel do all the work; he worked hard on his end as well.

Here are several common problems that people expect travel will solve:

Mount Etna

1. You don’t know what you want to do with your life.

Most of the readers who email me are at a crossroads in their life — they don’t know what they want to do with their life, either career-wise or life-wise. Maybe they aren’t living the life they imagined they would at this age. Maybe they’re ready to start over.

If you’re looking for a new career, traveling the world isn’t the most efficient way to figure out what to do next. Sure, meeting people along the road will give you ideas of different lifestyles and ways to earn. But unless you make an effort to figure out what you want to do, you’re going to end up right back where you started.

I feel like many people set off to travel assuming that the right plan will just manifest itself at the right time. Well, it’s not that easy! Things aren’t just going to happen without an effort on your part.

If you’re serious about making a career change, but also want to travel, just travel to take a break and enjoy yourself. While you’re away, spend time making a career plan or list of ideas to try once you return home. If you happen to run into a new career idea while traveling, that’s wonderful! But don’t go in expecting it in the first place.

Amsterdam

2. You’re not sure whether college is right for you.

I’m divided on this — part of me says Get your degree as soon as possible and THEN do whatever you want! but the other side of me knows how financially crippling college can be, particularly for Americans.

Here’s the truth: a college education is never a waste of time. Sometimes it can be a waste of money if you choose an overpriced school or underpaid field of study, but it is never a waste of time. You will have so many more career options with a degree than without one.

Yes, you can be successful without a college degree, but the truth is that unless you’re self-employed or exceptionally skilled in a sought-after field, you’ll be facing an uphill battle throughout your career.

A lot of readers come to me telling me that they’re not sure if college is for them and they don’t know what they want to do with their lives except travel.

If I were to give advice to future college-goers, it would be to get the most affordable quality education you can find. Maybe that means going to a state school or starting at community college; maybe that means going to the safety school that gave you a scholarship instead of the reach school that just barely accepted you.

You can still incorporate a ton of travel into your college years. You can study abroad — even multiple semesters in different locations. You can work during the year and save up to travel during the summer or on breaks. You can even take extra courses and graduate early.

And if you don’t want to do college for the time being, or ever, look into travel that requires work and gives you life experiences. Look into volunteering or getting a working holiday visa in Australia or New Zealand. Most professional English teaching jobs require a college degree but some countries will hire non-college-graduates for lower-level teaching jobs.

Finally, keep in mind that most adults have no idea what they want to do with their lives, either. I’m just blogging here until the Kardashians hire me to do their crisis management.

Busan Markets

3. You’re in debt or you have poor financial habits.

If you’re dreaming of travel but trying to pay down debt, I understand the appeal of living abroad. Teaching English in Korea is probably the best thing you can do because it allows you to live abroad while saving upwards of $1000 per month, not including end bonuses.

But living abroad is full of financial temptations. Even if you live in a cheap country — or especially if you live in a cheap country — it’s easy to get into the habit of going out every night of the week and overspending on food and drinks.

Living abroad isn’t enough to get at the crux of your financial habits. What’s most important is that you overhaul your spending habits and start to consistently live within your means. And that goes whether you do it at home or on the road.

Lake Bled Slovenia

4. You’re living an unhealthy lifestyle.

I’ve known several people who are sick of life at home and choose to move to Chiang Mai, Thailand, in part for for the healthy lifestyle benefits.

Well, some of them are surprised to learn that Thai food can often be quite unhealthy (so many dishes are full of sugar), exercise often takes a backseat to massages and motorbiking, and a large percentage of the expat population (including the travel blogger crew) goes out drinking nearly every night of the week.

Eating healthy and exercising are both very difficult to do on a regular basis while traveling. Sure, you’ll probably be walking more, but constantly changing your environment makes it difficult to stick to an exercise routine and diving into the local cuisine tends to pack on the pounds, not reduce them.

The truth? Most people who keep fit on the road were already in shape at home and simply continued their routine on the road.

If you’re looking to travel to create a healthy lifestyle, you should get yourself into a home workout routine before leaving on your trip, or move to a place where fitness opportunities are abundant. That could be a town where you can surf or hike on a regular basis; it could be somewhere like Ubud, Bali, where you can take tons of yoga classes.

Another option is to build WWOOFing into your trip, or working in exchange for accommodation and food on an organic farm. You’ll spend your days doing physical labor, often outside, while eating healthy local food.

Colombo at Dusk

5. You want to start a business.

Starting an online business while being based in a cheap destination is a very smart idea. You’ll have a lower cost of living to maintain, your savings can last longer, and sometimes the internet can be even faster than at home!

I even know entrepreneurs who can afford to live anywhere but spend stints living in cheap locations so they can invest more of their money into their business.

Here’s the thing, though — many people want to travel and start a business. And to be honest, that is insane. I’ve done it, friends of mine have done it, and while many of us have survived, the conventional wisdom is that you can’t give a new business the time and attention it deserves when you’re busy traveling.

Productivity is dependent on routine, and routines go to hell when you travel. Additionally, travelers are constantly on a search for a decent working environment. So much of your energy in each destination will be spent complaining about poor working conditions until you find a cafe with good wifi, actual plugs, available and comfortable seating, and decent coffee.

For this reason, you’ll have a much easier time starting your business if you live abroad, or travel very slowly, rather than travel full-time.

Santorini Flowers

6. You’re escaping abuse, neglect, or a painful past.

If this is the case for you, I am so sorry. As a survivor of an abusive relationship, I completely understand how it can fuck with your head long-term and how hard it is to dig yourself out of that hole and get yourself into good working order again.

Travel can help enormously when you’re in pain — it gets you out of your toxic environment, teaches you skills, gives you confidence, and introduces you to people who will change your life. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love journey is perhaps the most famous example of this. But just traveling isn’t enough. You need to work on your underlying issues as well, just as Gilbert did.

Whether you choose to work with a therapist (and many therapists work online via email or Skype) or go it alone, you need a method of self-care. Perhaps that means joining a support group online. Perhaps that means getting into a yoga or meditation routine. Perhaps that means creating a list of goals that will help you get back to the person you once were.

It’s always okay to admit that your problems are more than you can handle on your own. There’s no shame in that.

Rauma Finland

7. You and your partner are struggling in your relationship.

This is the only item on the list that will have me screaming, “NO, NO, NO! THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO TRAVEL!

Traveling to solve your relationship problems is like having a baby to solve your relationship problems. Lots of people do it — ill-advisedly — and the result is almost universally poor. At least when you travel you don’t create another human in the process.

Traveling with a partner tends to create more stress and exacerbate underlying issues; it doesn’t make them better. If you choose to ignore this and travel anyway, you may end up remembering your travels as a terrible time in your life.

If you and your partner are having problems, start your work at home, not on the road. Don’t go on a long-term trip or plan a major lifestyle change until you’ve been working on your relationship for a long time and are ready to continue your work on the road.

Pink Dubrovnik Sky

Travel is a wonderful thing — but it’s no panacea.

Choosing to travel can be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make, but if you go in expecting travel to fix all your problems, you’re going to be disappointed.

Instead, take travel for what it is — an opportunity to see the world a different way, develop new skills, achieve long-held dreams, and become a stronger, smarter, more compassionate individual. While picking up a few crazy stories along the way!

And if you do manage to fix your problems while traveling, all the credit goes to your hard work — not travel itself. You should be very proud of that.

What do you think? Have you used travel to solve a problem?

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63 thoughts on “Don’t Expect Travel To Solve Your Problems”

  1. I kind of used travel to solve a problem. I wanted to see the world and felt like I was leading an adventure-free, boring life. I didn’t have money to travel, either. So I joined the Peace Corps. Two years without running water or electricity in rural Africa. It changed my life. I felt able to cope with anything. After a few years back home, I left to live abroad again.
    The difference between that and travel:
    I had a (low-paying) job and a house.
    There was a support network, especially for health care.
    Instant friends via the other volunteers.
    It wasn’t open-ended: the contract was 2 years.

  2. This is great, Kate. I have said this so many times to both myself and other people. (However, that hasn’t exactly stopped me from thinking, “Let’s get the heck out of here!” every time life gets a little rough for me.)
    Another thing I would add that travel is not going to fix: mental illness. I’ve struggled with chronic depression my entire adult life. And depression has a funny way of finding you no matter where you are — whether you’re in your home country working a 9 to 5 job or hanging out in a hammock in Thailand. It really doesn’t care where you are. Plus, if you’re in a foreign country, it’s a lot harder to find the psychological help and/or the medication you might need as a lot of countries — especially Asian countries — view mental illness as something shameful and “not a real thing.” (I’ve even had international students tell me that mental illness doesn’t exist in their countries!). So, yeah, people need to get themselves sorted out and on the path to recovery before they up and move to some tropical destination.

  3. Great post Kate, you are so right!!

    I have always loved traveling and I never thought it would solve my long term issues. But in a way, it did help me confront them. It was during a long term trip that I had to face some emotional issues head first and the minute I got home, I made sure to look for the right kind of support I needed.

    In my case, it was also a way to carve my own path into a new career, but again it didn’t just happen like that. It took 5 months of moving from place to place and eventually having to go home for a surgery that made me realize that really, traveling and talk about travels is the only thing I want to really do in my life.

    Also, amen for saying that it is almost impossible to get a proper work routine when traveling full time. I can’t blog when I travel! I am too busy… traveling!

  4. Wow, Kate, amazing and what a totally honest article. When I was younger I used to think moving abroad will magically cure me just because I’ll be placed in a new environment. It took a while to realise those troubles would still follow me and I’d just have to internally fix it no matter where I was 🙂

  5. Great advice, Kate! Appreciate the honesty and completely agree that travel does not cure problems. What it can do is give a new perspective and sometimes we just need that in order to solve problems.

  6. Awesome article. It’s easy to assume that travel will solve all of your problems, and I’ve been guilty of constantly moving to new countries as a way to have something new and different to look forward to. While the new challenges and interesting people are a distraction, as soon as you take a moment and breath you find that any issues you had at home (or in your last country) have followed you.

  7. Good article! I agree, I think the myth of “quitting your job to travel and chase your dreams” or the “Eat Pray Love” narrative is the dominant myth out there and it isn’t exactly a panacea for life’s problems. As publishers, it’s easy to glamorize reality.

    For a lot of these reasons listed, I just don’t enjoy long-term travel. It does wreck havoc on my health habits, I can’t get much work done, and I miss my dog too much. But, I am guilty of traveling as an escape and in many ways it does work.

    Personally as far as college goes, I say get an education first or get skilled in something before traveling. I think studying abroad is the best experience and a total win-win situation.

  8. Hi, Kate. I love this reality check. On the relationship front and mental health front, travel often highlights hot button issues we often ignore or suppress at home. There’s nothing like being tired, dehydrated, amped on expectations, and strung out by fear or the unfamiliar to start an earth shattering fight or to trigger a meltdown! Travel is s good tool for identifying big personal demons and knowing what problems need to be confronted. Working through those issues is s journey all its own ! The exotic hotel, bath house, or restaurant alone never takes the issue away on its own, for sure.

  9. I agree with #7 lols … It’s true, that when u travel with ur partner, and at that time, the relationship was not that healthy, it could ruin your mood of holiday. I tend to get angry to may partner most of the time, even for small things, like when I asked to take a photo of me drinking the waterfalls, but somehow, my partner couldn’t get the best angle of my open mouth and the waterfalls … that drove me crazy! Haha.

  10. I do agree with you, although I must say that travel really opened my eyes to so many things that have changed my life and solved my problems. It taught me not to worry when things aren’t going your way, that you will find what you’re looking for in the end, and to not let the bigger picture stop you from reaching for your goal. The number one thing that it taught me, is to open my mind and my heart.. to be kind! And that is the most important thing in life. No it will not solve your problems, but it will certainly fill an empty hole! X

  11. Great post! Thanks for calling a spade a spade. There was a time when I was at a crossroad in my life, like you mentioned. At that time traveling refreshed my mind and helped me introspect. But quitting a job and embrace traveling can’t be the solution for everyone.

  12. Great piece. Travel is awesome and I certainly recommend it. But if you have problems, more often than not, they will be there when you get back. Often though, you learn and grow a lot when you travel, and sometimes opportunities come up when you are globetrotting. But if they don’t … I also think you need some kind of funding (or to be young and child-free with a lot of bravado) to give up your job and go travelling. I did it and arrived in London with 12 pounds in my pocket. I don’t regret it, found the best jobs, made good money, gained experience and still got to travel. But I couldn’t do it now I have kids. I know families who travel without traditional work and with kids and I would love to do it with mine, but it’s not that simple as I have their education to think of and another parent who would oppose it. Lots to think about here.

  13. This is such a great article Kate!

    Travel has always been in my blood somewhat as my mum was such a globetrotter herself lol! However, travel isn’t the be all or end all, but it can reveal and open up – who you are.

    I had always wanted to live and work abroad. And I made it happen living in the Czech Republic n’ all!

    And if I’m honest, of course, every now and then, you need a bit of space to clear your head and listen to your instinct, which I always do lol! Travel to India did just that. I had been living in Berlin for a while and wondering if I should move on or not, and for the first time ever in my travels while in India, I couldn’t wait to return home.

    I was in India for 30 days and it struck me right there and then, that the “home” that I wanted to return to was in Germany, and not England! From then on, I settled in, made an expat life for myself in Germany, and never looked back lol!

    And it’s soooooo true: “travel is an opportunity to .. become a stronger, smarter, more compassionate individual. While picking up a few crazy stories along the way!”

  14. I love this article Kate! I too get very concerned about the predominant travel narrative out there, which usually includes three points: travel solves everything, those who choose not to quit their “ordinary” lives and travel are somehow lesser/weaker, and travel is all happiness and rainbow and sunshine.

    Travel can be used for great life changes and improvement, but it can also be used to run away and not deal with your problems. Travel can be greatly satisfying for some people, but working up a career ladder and staying home and having kids in a stable environment can be greatly satisfying for others. There are incredible, enlightening, and uplifting travel moments and there are frustrating, stressful, and terrible travel moments.

    In the end, the truth about travel is a lot more nuanced than the current narrative makes it seem, and travel is what you make it. I think as travel bloggers we have the responsibility to show more sides of travel.

  15. Many of the things that you write are so true. I guess I’m kind of using traveling right now at the moment to solve life problems. I moved to Lyon France for a month this summer. So many things have happened during this spring. I came back home from a truly life-changing visit to Africa and have to figure out if I’m really going to go all in for my new life-goals. I got a new job, a qualified great well-paid job in teaching but it’s not my dream job and I really can’t see myself working there for a large amount of time not even for the next 10 years or so, I know that I will not be happy. On top of it all my boyfriend who I had lived together with for the past 5 years broke up with me.

    So I signed up for a language course, I have wanted to get serious with my French for a really long time, and moved to Lyon for a month. Just getting away from my everyday routines at home seemed like a great idea to have time to reflect and think about my life and what I want it to be. I’ve been here for one and a half weeks now. I journal every day, I take long walks around the city during weekends, i attend my language course for a few hours every Monday to Friday, I indulge in everything the French supermarkets have to offer and enjoy an amazing meal at restaurant every now and then.

    Just being here won’t make any difference but life is good here, I feel that I’m doing something purposeful (learning French) and it gives me time to reflect on life and decisions that I have to make about myself and my future. I might not come to any enlightening conclusion but doubt is always a part of life. Being here through just by my self, allows me to just think about myself and what makes me happy.

  16. Happy to hear your honest voice about all these aspects of life and travel, it’s such a well-written post! We also think that travel is a wonderful opportunity to achieve a lot of things – but it’s definitely not the only opportunity and it’s only an opportunity not a solution itself.

  17. YES especially to the part about productivity being rooted in routine. I was traveling through Thailand for two months before I settled into my apartment here (to start my teaching job) and having an actual place to work everyday is so great! Working in a noisy hostel lounge or on a bed usually didn’t work out well, haha.

  18. while I do agree with your premise Kate, that travel will not solve many of our problems, I am not sure I agree that travel bloggers are all saying that it will. Perhaps some are, but many are saying, “traveling is more fun than staying home and can help relieve boredom.” Older folks, like us, in particular are often in the “American rut” of watching life, but not experiencing it directly. And although direct experience can be a bit challenging, the rewards are worth it. In my view, travel itself doesn’t solve problems but it can help folks to find more creative and interesting ways of living life to the fullest.

  19. Amen to this Kate!! Thanks for writing those really important aspects down. We are of the category “Travel when your life is in balance!” and not of any other other reason. Travel won’t solve any of your problems but postpone them so it might be a better choice to solve your problems before you go! And then your journey will become the best you ever had!
    xx Anna & Vanessa

  20. Natalia Tamburini

    I couldn’t agree more – I’ve always loved travel and after college I found myself in a bad relationship and with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I backpacked through Spain for 5 months on my own. It was an incredible experience but money ran out, I had to come home and fell right back into the bad relationship and still had no clue what I wanted to do. Travel is incredible, but if you’re looking for it to fix you or your situation, it won’t. You can use it to aid you, to push you beyond your limits but then you gotta do something with it! Thanks for the post.

  21. Travel is tempting because it creates the opportunity for someone to become anyone. No one on the road has any idea about who you are at home, about your problems and as a result, there is a sense of freedom. This however, doesn’t mean that the life you left behind has changed.

    My advice is to use the time away to work on yourself, so that you’re better able to face the issues you left behind whenever you return. Travel is great for the soul, but it’s not a quick fix to all problems.

    Thanks for the honest post.

  22. This is a post that speaks to me so deeply, because my most recent trip (which ended 6 months ago) definitely happened because I was trying to fix something in my life that travel couldn’t possibly fix. In fact, instead of travel fixing my problems, it only exacerbated the problems further and made it abundantly clear to me that I had serious problems that needed some serious fixing. But that was also a good thing because it made me understand what I actually had to do to fix these problems and I wouldn’t have know what I really needed to do without it. I think when you travel, whether you’re going for the right reasons or are trying to fix problems, it can give you a lot of insight into you and your problems, which can help you find the right solutions. But it definitely won’t be a cure all to them because it can’t be. Great post as always!

  23. Travel has helped me develop as a person, but I agree it doesn’t solve your problems. I’ve started to feel quite lonely lately – partly because you have to constantly make new friends when backpacking, and also because you constantly have to say goodbye to people you care about. A lot of people don’t give me much sympathy because I’m ‘living the dream’ and, while I agree that my life is incredible, it doesn’t mean we don’t all have difficult times.

  24. I agree with you that travel doesn’t solve all problems. Most problems will just follow you so it doesn’t matter if you’re in Europe or Asia. But it does make life a little bit better – at least that’s how it’s been for me 🙂

  25. Love this post!! I look at travel as a way to enhance my life! It helps you discover who you really are, but is not a be all, end all answer to all your life’s problems! I am at a crossroads in my life right now after losing my regular job of 32 years to company closure and while I would love to put my head in the sand and escape, I have to face reality and find another job to find a way to continue to travel and make more discoveries about myself.

  26. This is SO true. Going overseas may delay having to deal with problems you may be facing, but they will still be waiting for you when you get back (or they’ll follow you there). I do think travel provides a good sense of perspective and allows you to view things with new eyes, whether that’s relationships, your job or lifestyle.

    Really loving your posts lately Kate!

    Liz

  27. New destinations, new problems. But when we travel, we left our past behind and look forward for the what is coming next. You are right that travel doesn’t resolve our problems but it gives us change and change through travelling is positive for me. It helps us to see the world in a different perspective that I think somewhat helpful to resolve our problems.

  28. I agree with the premise, and I think that’s part of why I put off travelling for so long. After ten years though, it’s still all I think about, so I set out to start. But I saved a lot of money first and I have a game plan for making money on the road.

  29. I still haven’t let go of the idea of travel as a magical fix/wish fulfillment of one aspect of my life – artistic/literary creativity. I swear, every time I fly to Europe (OF COURSE it’s Europe), which at this point is a few times per year, even if it’s for a 12 hrs a day work event, I am thinking: “This. THIS is going to be the trip on which I sit down at a charming, noone’s-discovered-it-yet cafe with a moleskin and write something ABSOLUTELY genius that’s going to be a generation-defining international best-seller! Also, THIS is going to be the trip on which I sit by the riverbank, sketching/watercoloring this lovely city scene, which I will then frame and hang up on my wall as totally original, romantic illustrations of my travels!”

    Instead I pretty much drink wine at at night catch up on work emails or crime procedurals (with wine). But EVERY TIME I go, it’s the same thought process all over. ONE DAY!!!

    (PS – ok, to be honest, one time this scenario actually did play out like that… 24 blog posts drafted in a single day https://gohomeandaway.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/crimea-day-4-writers-heaven/ )

  30. Glad to see as a Travel Advice specialist you are being responsible here. I have learnt also that travel alone does not make our problems magically disappear.

    Emigrating though, does, I have found 🙂

    Greetings from this English guy now living, working, partying (you name it baby) here in the Czech Republic.

  31. Well said. Travel will recharge a healthy mind, but if anything’ troubling you, it may not work.
    (Love that Great Wall with bicycles. The awning says Malang. Where is this? Amsterdam?)

  32. I like this article a lot as, many people do think all they need to do is to put up a blog and write about their travels and money will just start poring in.

    They don’t realize that most travel bloggers that do make money took years to build up a following as well as advertisers to help support their site. Not to mention putting the article together to make it interesting so that people don’t start reading and stop after a short time. It should make people think twice before trying something like this.

  33. Good advice. I tend to travel on a whim and move on when I’m called to. Often informed by falling in and out of love. Works for me. 🙂

  34. Really? Laying around in a hammock on the beach in Thailand, getting some massages, and doing a cleanse isnt going to help my depression?

    Bummer!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  35. I think we build up the travel lifestyle for sure but there is something great about the inspiration that it brings to others. I know I started reading your blog in 2012 and in less than 5 years have come along way in my life because of that inspiration. So thanks for making it seem like this amazing thing because it’s motivated me.

  36. Hey Kate,
    You choose really helpful topic for beginner traveller.
    And every newbie traveller must read these tips before start his journey.
    Thanks for sharing..:)

  37. Hi Kate, i do agree with your post as i firmly believe that traveling is thing that gives you joy, pleasure as well as adventure and thrill too but it’s not a problem solver thing for sure. it was a good post to read, in your encouraging words. thanks.

  38. Totally agree! It doesn’t solve your problems but it does take your mind off things and opens you up to new experiences and people. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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