27 People On The Most Important Lesson They Learned While Traveling

We all learn lessons while traveling, some more lasting than others, but all worth sharing. So I decided to ask around, and here are the 27 most fascinating and important lessons from the people I spoke to.

1. Caitlin, 28

The biggest lesson I learned from travel is that the things that seem scariest are always the most important to make yourself do. It was rough to leave what had been a very comfortable existence for the first 19 years of my life to live far away from home with a bunch of strangers, but I grew so much and all those strangers are now a network of close friends I have scattered across the country. It’s easy to tell yourself “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but it’s another thing to live it, to do something so actively uncomfortable knowing that in a short time it’s going to be one of the best experiences of your life. That’s what travel is.

2. Rachel, 24

My mom and dad met by the pool when she was on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, so you never know where you’re going to meet the rest of your life. If it wasn’t for travel, I wouldn’t exist.

3. Jack, 25

The biggest lesson I learned while traveling is to not look lost – in Columbia, SC, a man tried to prey on my ignorance and almost scammed me out of money. Luckily, two officers were nearby and helped me out. Another one — don’t go looking for a 7-11 in the middle of winter in Philly wearing nothing but pajama pants and a white t-shirt. Police officers will call you a dumbass.


4. David, 23

For dudes: swallow your pride and don’t try and cram everything in one bag. Not worth the ripped bag and crushed travel dreams.

5. Joseph, 26

Travel lightly. I’ve gone on trips for two weeks with only a small backpack; I just bring one pair of black denim (you really don’t need to wash denim), and because it’s black it can be used formally or informally. Then five tee shirts, a pair of good-but-nice sneakers, and a blazer. Traveling this lightly makes you truly a traveler — you can move from one place to another easily and carry no weight of your past.

6. Alicia, 26

Nothing can compare to the feeling of traveling alone. I’ll never forget the first time I found myself completely alone in a foreign country. I was 23 and had shown up in Barcelona with no laptop, no smart phone, no plan. It wasn’t a vacation so much as a long-term escape mission, as I’d quit my job and didn’t really know when I’d go home. Those first few hours were like nothing I’ve ever experienced, before or after — the almost-inconceivable realization that not a single person on Earth knew where I was. Of having no accessible friends, no family, no obligations, and no direction. In other words, total, unadulterated freedom. It taught me what that freedom really feels like — terrible, bewildering, and ecstatic.

7. Sarah, 29

Wherever you go, respect and do your best to acclimate to that country’s customs and values. Learn, at the very least, “hello” and “goodbye” in the native language. Traveling is a rewarding and beautiful experience, but that reward and beauty can be diminished if all you do is transplant yourself and all your ways directly into another country. Be open-minded and flexible and completely judgment-free. See how other people live as an observer and do your best to not compare your home country to theirs. Just be in their country and in their home and treat it like you are a welcomed guest. You will end up learning more about them and yourself than you could have imagined if you approach travel in this way.

8. Adam, 26

Landing on another continent is an amazing feeling. You always see these huge land masses on the map, but they’re simply abstractions. When you actually get off the plane and step foot on another continent, it fills you with awe, like, “this is a real place and within it are millions of universes that I’ve never experienced yet.” It’s perhaps the most thrilling thing I’ve ever felt in my life.


9. Celia, 33

Always bring your own toothpaste. It’s the one thing that, under any circumstances, you don’t want to be caught without. And you’d be surprised how many places don’t stock good, non-weird-tasting toothpaste. (Especially if you’re using AirBnb.)

10. Caitlin, 21

I live and pack lightly, and there’s absolutely nothing more freeing than realizing that you don’t need all the excess clutter we crowd our lives with — releasing that attachment to an idea of worth, of appearance, of physical need etc. is a high for me. So I don’t bring more than a small bag for even a few weeks away. There’s no need. I feel uncomfortable when I see people lugging dozens of pounds of huge suitcases along. You can’t bring the life you’re trying to get away from with you.

11. Stephen, 32

You don’t have to go to a tourist spot for a fun trip. Sometimes it’s even better to go to a random area you’ve never been with a group of friends and just explore. There are countless photos of people standing next to the Eiffel Tower, but very few next to a street sign in Montana.

12. Jason, 25

Loose plans make for the best time. Whenever I’ve tried to travel somewhere and schedule things out in detail so that every last minute is accounted for, it quickly becomes unpleasant. However, no plans at all can also be a recipe for disaster. There’s a sweet middle ground where you just have an idea of what you want to do, and execute it to an extent, but leave yourself the opportunity to be free and spontaneous.

13. Kelly, 29

While traveling, I learned that nothing can replace the art of wonder and awe. I learned that appreciation for other culture’s means being able to see a culture in a new way. I learned that, when you’re in a foreign country, getting lost is one of the most thrilling adventures. I once wandered around Rome, my feet slipping on cobblestones, for hours, and happened upon streets that looked like movie sets. After a couple hours of wandering, I stumbled into a busy square and looked up to see the Pantheon. The experience of happening upon a sight as famous as the Pantheon was one I could never forget and was more exciting than if I had just gone directly there and sought out the tourist attraction. Granted, I then looked to my right and saw a McDonald’s directly across the Pantheon, so that may have dampened the moment a bit!


14. Tasha, 21

The most important trip I’ve ever taken was to the top of a mountain — literally. It was grueling and awful and absolutely worth it. I didn’t sit contently on a plane for a few hours, I couldn’t buy my way across miles of rock and trail. Beforehand I really had no concept of “journey rather than destination” but I came back understanding the point of exploring, not just visiting. The most important trips of my life were always the one where I didn’t know quite where I was going until I got there: A METAPHOR.

15. James, 41

I’ve been to all 50 states and about a dozen foreign countries, and my favorite thing about traveling is stumbling upon a place from which I expected nothing, and it winds up absolutely enchanting me.

16. Jean, 23

Don’t overextend yourself. Treat a new city not as an all-you-can-eat buffet, but as a place with one or two unforgettable specialty dishes. Spend some real quality time on those dishes. Make sure those dishes didn’t come from a Hard Rock Cafe.

17. Max, 30

Bring something to give: Depends on where you go, of course, but it never hurts to have small, meaningful gifts to give to people you meet along the way. Baseball caps from your hometown team, postcards, local candies, small amounts of liquor, anything you can pack a few extra of and give away as you go. You’ll be surprised by the depth at which gift-giving is a universal custom, and you’ll never be disappointed by having something to share.


18. Chloe, 24

Bring running shoes. I know it sounds ridiculous, but there’s really no better way to see the sights — even if you feel like you’re whizzing past them, you’ll discover new things and turn corners you never would have otherwise, and seeing anywhere you’re going from the street-level view like that with no aim except to see it all always gives you a new perspective on things.

19. Alexander, 25

The human element is everywhere. I’ve been in some areas that are widely considered unfriendly and the people are supposed to be rude, yet a stranger saw me looking around confused by my location and offered assistance or something to prove wrong everything I’d previously been told.

20. Frank, 41

I knew nothing about Chattanooga, TN, except that it had a funny name. Then I passed through it and found myself in America’s most charming city. Nestled in the Appalachian foothills, it has mountains and rivers and lakes and cliffs and bridges and waterfalls and underground caves. It’s just big enough to be a city and just small enough not to be ugly. The only problem with me telling you this is that now I’ve spoiled the surprise.

21. Lily, 24

Always avoid the big tourist spots, because the food around it is terrible and the people ruin the experience. The only proper time to visit the Eiffel Tower is in the middle of the night.

Bucchi Francesco / Shutterstock.com
Bucchi Francesco / Shutterstock.com

22. Rich, 35

Two of the greatest joys of travel don’t actually happen while you’re traveling: anticipation and reflection. Travel is by nature exceptional — it breaks the rules of our daily lives, uproots us and plants us elsewhere, disrupts routines and familiarities. But the deepest joys of travel are often felt while we remain in the predictable patterns we long to escape. The days and weeks leading up to our departure are filled with daydreams and expectations, planning and packing, anticipation and desire — the powerful emotions of what might yet be. And during the days, weeks and years that follow an adventure we relive it, retell it, remember it — establishing the powerful narratives of what once was. Through the stories we tell ourselves before we embark and through the stories we recount long after we’ve returned, the brevity of our journeys are extended and enriched. Indulge in the daydreams. Surrender to the memories. And even the briefest of journeys can span a lifetime.

23. Karen, 27

Growing up, my parents always told me stories about their home country — the villages, vast rivers, bustling marketplaces. And I got to experience all of that firsthand when I stayed in Korea for a month. While I practiced certain Korean traditions at home, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of them until I was fully immersed in the culture — my culture. I learned respect and appreciation for something I’d previously thought to be tedious and a waste of time. Spending that time in my parents’ homeland taught me to be proud of my heritage and I realized it’s something worth preserving.

24. Michel, 30

You don’t need to say goodbye forever to a country you really enjoy. The end of one travel experience is not the end of your travel career. You’ll be on the road again in six months, a year, two years. Getting up and leaving is an option you can make work if you want it enough. I think it’s good to remember this when you’re nearing the end of your travel experience. You’ll be back. You’ll travel again. It’s your choice.

25. Elia, 33

Meeting people while traveling is not something you can ever force (some of my most boring experiences have been on tour groups), but it somehow often ends up being the best part of a vacation. Go grab something to eat or drink alone somewhere, and wear a smile. Make conversation. Meet people in the way you would want to be met — with an open mind, and no expectations.

26. Daniel, 29

Always be mindful of pickpockets — they’re everywhere, especially in Europe. I’ll never forget when I was living in Paris many years ago when I was still in my 20s and I went on a train trip to Switzerland. I had to change trains in some small city and when we were boarding the train, a group of people all clamoring to enter a door really only the size of one person, a bunch of people created a diversion and started pushing all of us into the train. I thought they were just rushing to get seated. I didn’t realize I’d been pick pocketed until I got to where I was going, went to take out some money of the ATM and suddenly it all flashed back to me. Keep really important items in your socks or in another place that only you know. Assume you’ll be pick pocketed when you travel and keep a backup credit/debit card someplace literally on you so that if your bag gets stolen or if you do get pick pocketed, at least you won’t be totally stranded.


27. Jaime, 30

Bring a headlamp, a headlamp changes the game when you’re camping. Not only do you have both hands available at all times, but you get the added benefit of actually being able to see in front of you anytime after dark. When I whipped out my headlamp for the first time, my friends made fun of me for going Bear Grylls hardcore camper on them. That was more than made up for when I saw them try to set up tent in one hand while holding a flashlight in the other.

BONUS: Christoph, 29

Traveling someplace new, especially if you’re going to be living there for a long time, is the best way to give yourself a fresh start and a whole new outlook on life. It will be daunting and even sometimes lonely, sure, with cultural traditions and language barriers and all the rest, but that’s what makes it so exciting. There’s almost no better way to reinvigorate yourself, to give yourself a fresh start and a whole new outlook on life than to travel or live someplace new. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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About the author

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.

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