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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.