Ten Years a Nomad is an honest account of what it is like to travel full-time, passing through over 90 countries over a decade. Nomadic Matt, as he is known, took off to live the dream. Anyone who is considering the same would do well to read his story.
The travel bug caught him the way it catches so many of us. Work a boring job and commute in the snow and it doesn’t take long to want something different. (It’s somewhat the opposite when you live in a sunny beach community; you know that every resort area and vacation destination is full of obnoxious drunks leaving trash and breaking glass). The guy who was not yet Nomadic Matt booked a two-week vacation, a temporary escape from dissatisfaction.
What he discovered was that travel allowed him to assume a persona who was more confident and adventurous than he was at home. Nobody knew him and he was free to behave however he liked. It wasn’t just an external but an internal adventure.
Ten Years a Nomad is full of practical details that can really help a wannabe nomad figure out how to get started. He talks about meeting people on the road, breaking the news to his family that he quit his job to travel full time, and how he built his business. He shares some savings strategies, such as living off PBJ sandwiches and then cutting out even the jelly. He describes dealing with scams and the frustrating, boring parts of travel.
(It really helps when you assume from the very beginning that you’ll spend hours standing in line, that something traumatizing will happen in security, that something will leak in your luggage, your flight will be delayed, and that’s before you even leave! Then, whenever something actually goes smoothly you can feel excited and lucky).
Matthew Kepnes offers a fascinating, compelling, and achievable vision of the nomadic life. He also makes a convincing case that maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Try it if you like, you can do it if you want to, but remember that you bring yourself with you. Also remember that other people travel from “over there” to wherever you live. Pack a copy of Ten Years a Nomad to read on your next trip.
When I planned the trip, there was no sense that I was also planning to change my life, that my trip would be the first step to a rejection of nearly everything and everyone I had ever known.
I don’t know if who we are on the road is closer to our real self than who we are at home—having changed so much in my life, I’m not sure if the idea of a real self is all that useful, honestly.
It was on the road that I felt most at ease, most alive, and, most importantly, happy.
HERE’S ONE THING THAT IS CERTAIN about travel: All your plans will go out the window.
I finally tried flying on a Basic Economy fare. It was easier than I thought, but still I’d probably do it differently next time. Here’s what it was like.
I planned a last-minute trip with a friend. Because of the time of year and the location, not only was I able to fly on the same days that she did, I was even able to get on the same flights! This is particularly interesting because I booked my trip with reward points.
(The points came from my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and we flew United. This is relevant because apparently United is the strictest with the special rules of Basic Economy).
A regular fare was double the number of points as the Basic Economy fare, or an extra $200+ in cash. This matters to me, and in fact I felt excited that no-frills travel is so much cheaper. I’m an ideal candidate because:
I did my research before packing. I knew from travel scuttlebutt that airlines are strict about this type of fare, that not all carriers offer it, and that the rules vary and change over time. Any deviation was likely to cost me money and possibly also time.
I hate spending more money than I have to, but I also tend to cut my arrival time to the wire. I’m rarely in a situation when I can afford to add even fifteen or twenty minutes to my time cushion. In nearly forty years of flying, I’ve never missed a flight, and I don’t intend to start now.
Especially not due to my luggage, of all things!
My research indicated that under Basic Economy, I couldn’t choose my seat. I literally do not care. I’m that rare creature, a middle seat person, anyway.
I couldn’t choose to sit next to my travel partner(s). Eh. We planned to sleep on the way east, so it didn't matter. We are currently sitting side by side on the return trip, which either says something about boarding last or about the enduring niceness of American Midwesterners. Either way, this restriction doesn’t bother me much because when I’m traveling with someone, we’re already planning to be together on the trip. What’s a brief break when we’re likely napping, reading, or watching a movie anyway?
I wouldn’t get a meal. Eh. Again, I was planning to sleep one way, and we never get fed during the westward leg regardless. I know what types of food travel well.
Most importantly in the list of restrictions that made this fare half-price, my fare would not include any bags! No checked bag (yawn) and no carry-on either! I could bring one solitary personal item, smaller than the original dimensions that were allowed when this type of fare debuted.
If this personal item was too large, I would have to pay not only the $30 checked bag charge, but a $25 handling fee on top. Bags are routinely weighed and measured.
This part interested me. I texted my friend about it and she utterly did not believe me! We went back and forth over it for a while. I offered to pay the $30 to check one large suitcase that we could both share, and that settled the matter.
Under these conditions, paying to check a bag was a good deal.
I’m not in love with the idea of paying $60 round-trip for luggage, but it was significantly cheaper than paying the extra $200 for a regular economy ticket. It was also cheaper than buying new outfits and paying to ship them home.
Some friends, roommates, or siblings might split the cost, sharing the bag and each paying for one leg of the trip. I covered the whole thing, partly because it was mostly my stuff and partly because my friend was covering the rental car. Obviously a romantic couple is likely to be sharing expenses, or figuring out how to do so in a way that makes sense, which fighting over money does not.
The suitcase that I brought was the only piece of luggage that I own that was large enough to share. My husband bought it for a three-week work trip, and it physically holds his entire work wardrobe. It is comically vast and its geometry is such that it comes up to my waist. At its fullest, it weighed 45 pounds, only a bit less than the weight limit for one bag.
This is the main reason why I would avoid paying to check a bag the next time I fly Basic Economy. The bag itself was a monster, an annoying burden that had to be hauled on and off the shuttle twice and hoisted into the back of the rental vehicle.
Going any smaller raises the question of why I couldn’t just make it happen with the personal item.
The current dimensions of the Basic Economy personal item are those of a daypack, a typical school backpack for a high school or college student. I found that packing it too full and putting too much in the front pocket made it expand past the allowed dimensions. Risky!
Depending on the weather and the length of the trip, I’m quite sure I could make this type of bag work for, say, three days. Then I’d have to do laundry. I’d make it work by bringing only one pair of shoes and being very spare with my toiletries, electronics, and snacks. I probably would not pack workout clothes, although if the hotel had a pool I would cram in a swimsuit and flip flops.
Having access to half a large checked suitcase caused me to go a bit nuts. I brought hairstyling implements that I didn't use. I completely forgot sneakers, making my workout clothes pointless. I haven't counted how many points I cost myself for bringing things I didn't use (a personal game), but I believe I set a new record. Not my best showing.
This was a good exercise for me. Ultimately I met all the requirements of the restrictive Basic Economy fare, and saved over $140. That almost pays for a round trip to visit my family. It’s worth it. This was also a good exercise because it reminded me why I despise dragging big heavy bags around, and how distracting and confusing it can be to pack so many items that you lose track of what you do and don’t have.
In sum, I’m likely to be found in the near future, sitting in a middle seat, with my sparse and austere personal item at my feet, counting a thick wad of cash.
You try to prepare for anything when you travel, but you don’t really count on coming down with a cold. My hubby woke up ill on vacation. Later in the day, we determined that we should go out and find some cold medicine.
That’s when it got complicated.
Objectively, I feel that we are very lucky this is the only thing to have befallen us. All sorts of things can go wrong on holiday.
In fact, our first night out, we had just sat down to dinner when an elderly man fell on the pavement. He was alone. The waiters of our restaurant ran out to help him, offered him a seat (which he refused) and probably would have brought him water, called him a doctor, or anything else he needed. We’re right down the block from a hospital, after all.
He did what a betting person would assume an elderly British gentleman would do. He waved off all offers of help and limped off on his own. He probably would have done the same even if he had a crocodile attached to his leg.
Fortunately, all we had was one case of common cold and one case of man-cold.
We walked to the closest pharmacy to see what they had in stock and test my language skills.
This is one of the toughest parts of travel. Not only do you not have the terminology for anything you didn’t explicitly study, but your cultural and commercial assumptions only apply sporadically.
At home, we knew exactly where we would go to buy our preferred cold medicines and how to take them. We’d just go to a large grocery store and buy some NyQuil. Maybe they have the same brands?
Answer: No they do not.
At this pharmacy, even the vitamins were kept behind the counter. Almost the entire store revolved around skincare, shampoo, and baby stuff. We checked the grocery store later, and they don’t even sell bandages or aspirin.
We didn’t recognize ANY brand names or packaging.
Cover me, I’m going in.
My Spanish is pathetic. I mean, I have successfully bought train tickets, gotten directions, ordered food, and made change, okay sure. But there are probably junior high school kids who have covered more than that in their first term. I feel that as an adult person who has spent weeks in Spanish-speaking countries, I have no excuse for not trying harder, studying more. Practicing with my many Spanish-speaking friends. Preparing.
It doesn’t help that I am shy, and my embarrassment at my sloppy efforts makes this worse.
I’m going to leave out punctuation and accent marks here, because if you heard me talking, that is how it would sound.
Hola, mi hombre esta enfermo.
The pharmacist looked extremely professional and intelligent. She raised her eyebrows.
I nudged my husband and had him hold up his phone, where we had looked up “translate Spanish common cold.”
‘Resfriado comun,’ it said.
“Ah,” said the pharmacist, and gestured, holding her hand in front of her nose and mouth. She had two drugs to offer, one for cold symptoms and one for dry cough. That certainly simplified things. She told him (me) to take it three times a day.
We bought the cold medicine, and then it got slightly more complicated.
We were only a couple minutes from our hotel. I started reading the package of the medicine, looking for instructions. While I realized that this would be a powder to mix with liquid, there were literally no instructions on how much to mix it with.
This has got to be one of those vernacular things. Like when we buy tablets or capsules and we know that you just swallow it with whatever helps you wash it down, unless you are a chaos magician and you dry-swallow. A lot of countries sell their over-the-counter medicines in this powder form, and people probably figure out their preferred delivery method in childhood.
Like, don’t mash up headache tabs and put them in jelly. To this day I think raspberry jam tastes like aspirin.
My husband, an engineer, shrugged and poured the powder into a glass of water while I was still puzzling over the instructions.
My reading comprehension is really pretty good when it comes to jargon like this. Most of the key words are Latinate and medical terminology is similar everywhere. I was able to read through the list of contraindications. “Be careful if you’re lactating,” I tell him, and he replies, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The one thing we couldn’t figure out was whether this would be a wired-and-tired drug or a knockout drug like our friendly neighborhood NyQuil. The answer to that came a short time later, when he descended into a two-hour nap.
The next day, the maid came in. I had waved her off the previous day. “Mi marido es... sick.” (I haven’t been feeling that well either). She cleaned around us. After she left, I realized that she had brought us a pack of tissues, a very thoughtful gesture and not on the regular checklist.
Then I realized that she was checking IN, making sure that these strangers to her country were alive and kicking. I have no doubt whatsoever that, if she found us passed out or in distress, she would have taken the appropriate steps. She unlocked our door with purpose.
We had all sorts of plans when we came here to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. They definitely did not include lying around feeling ill or testing our language skills at the pharmacy.
You know what, though? Like most shared adversity, this is helping us feel closer. We’re taking care of each other, somehow throwing together hot meals, pouring juice and tea, knowing that everything could certainly be worse. We’re safe and friendly people are looking out for us.
Here’s hoping we’re over the worst of it before our dinner reservations, or at least our flight home...
Here we go again. We’re planning a trip and that means certain assumptions. The more we do it, the truer it becomes.
I will deal with my travel anxiety by trying to add even more to my task list than I usually do, rather than less
My husband will deal with his travel anxiety by waking up two hours early
Traffic on the way to the airport will be incredibly heavy
But we’ll arrive with plenty of time anyway
I will be “randomly” selected for secondary search even though I’m a Trusted Traveler
People will constantly get between my husband and me in line or in crowds
Our gate will be changed at least once
Maybe our type of plane will change too, and suddenly we’re both in middle seats
Or our seats will be changed without notice so we aren’t even sitting together
There may be a five-hour delay some time on the trip
We are probably going to be hungry, like crazy hungry
It will rain, no matter where we go or what time of year
I will always be freezing in a hotel room and he will be hot
One of us will get a working key card and the other won’t
Whenever I leave any room, I will turn the wrong way and head the wrong direction
A lot of people will take these opportunities, and more, as reasons to complain. Complainers have no idea they’re doing it. It’s like sports commentary, like a golf announcer only less interesting.
Experienced travelers will accept that there are natural constraints, and work around them.
Because I know that my travel anxiety makes me delusional about how much I can or should get done, I acknowledge that I will always try to do a deep clean of my house or revamp my filing system, and I work around it. I have started leaving myself notes in my reminder app that pop up a few days before a trip.
Dear Future Me, quit wigging out. Love, Past Self.
Because I know my husband can only be happy if we’re at least a few minutes early, we talk through our agenda together. In the world of engineering, they may literally bill their time in 7.5-minute increments. “When you say ‘leave by,’ do you mean we’re walking out our front door or do you expect us to be driving away in the Lyft?”
We know our trips are always subject to constant gate changes, seat changes, and inexplicable delays, so we plan around it. Bring extra food and backup batteries, and shrug.
We know to check the map constantly, because I have the directional sense of a fig beetle.
We also have rules about how many attractions we try to see in a day, how often we stop to eat, and how many days we spend in a city. There is a constant temptation to try to fit in too much, and then feel frantic instead of relaxed. If we let FoMO take over, it will destroy any sense of fun. Any anti-anxiety policy is a good policy.
At this point, we’re getting it down. We do the one-minute perimeter check when we leave a room, so we aren’t forgetting stuff. We check the map so we aren’t going in the wrong direction. We help each other cross-check our luggage so we don’t forget anything.
Probably the most important thing we do is to pause and make eye contact and smile at each other. We remind ourselves that THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!
We travel under the assumption that travel itself is inherently annoying and exhausting. The better we get at anticipating these minor annoyances, the more we can avoid them. The better we get at monitoring our energy level and emotional responses to whatever situation, the better we get at knowing when to take a break.
When we come home, it will be the fascinating stuff that we remember, not the petty complaints. We also recognize that the biggest hassles make for the most interesting traveler’s tales. We never know when it will be our last trip together and it’s our job to make the most of it.
When we move to a new place, one of the very first things we do is to start in on a new ambit. Your ambit is the area where you walk around your neighborhood, also known as your stomping grounds. Everyone has one, or at least everyone who leaves the house, but for most people it stops somewhere around the driveway or the mailbox.
We chose an apartment that is technically within walking distance of our old place, two miles or about forty minutes. We had passed the place many times, on foot, on the bus, even on bikes. A big chunk of the new neighborhood was already in our old ambit, and that helped us feel at home. We weren’t necessarily looking to feel ‘at home,’ though, being more in the mood for something fresh and new.
On Sunday we set off.
We were still unpacking, but we had enough done that we both felt we could afford to take a break. There’s a certain point in moving in to a new place when it no longer feels obvious exactly where everything should go, when the remaining boxes are full of trickier items. The law of diminishing returns sets in. People start wandering around, looking into one box and then another, no decisions being made, and the work grinds to a halt.
A lot of people never get past that point! They just leave the boxes packed, sometimes for years or through several additional moves.
This is when it can be so incredibly helpful to take a break, get away from it all for a couple of hours, and walk back into the room with fresh eyes.
That’s what we did. We had no internet and it was too late in the day to go to the tea house. A local library branch happens to be open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons. There’s a closer branch, but this one is within the two-mile range we are willing to walk. We’d set out on a little adventure and go exploring.
There happens to be a very nice walking trail in our part of the world, and most of the route can include this trail. In a car we wouldn’t have thought to go that way. On foot it was obvious. At least, it was obvious because we scoped it out on a map first, and as neighborhood walkers, we look for the green blotches that indicate parks. About a quarter mile of our route wound through neighborhood houses.
This is a nice part of creating a new ambit, too. You can start to get a feel for your neighborhood, seeing familiar faces, meeting dogs and babies, checking out gardens. Your very presence helps the neighborhood become safer. Foot traffic deters crime. That’s the sad irony of people feeling like they aren’t safe to walk where they live. Go out and bring your phone, bring your friend, bring the people who live next door. That’s what my family used to do. Invite someone to walk with you and make an ambit.
The area we explored on our way to the walking trail? Was much nicer than our own block!
One of the hazards of making a new ambit is that it can spark some house envy. It’s a good place, though, to start talking about home improvements and savings accounts and repair projects. Something about seeing someone else’s nice yard is so much more inspiring than sitting indoors on your own sofa.
We walked along. “This feels like vacation,” said my husband, who had been unpacking a box only half an hour before.
THIS FEELS LIKE VACATION!
We walk everywhere on vacation, because for us that’s the whole point. You can see so much more of a place on foot. You can meet people, you can overhear their accents and check out the local streetwear trends.
I think there’s also something about the rhythm of walking that just feels right for a human. A dog too, probably. For our dog, walking is a religion. His little ears bounce with every step. It always surprises us how many people have dogs and don’t take them around, because having a dog is such a compelling reason to explore your ambit.
We walked along. We got to our walking trail. It was green and beautiful in the summer light. We got into a conversation about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird based on my recent reading of Furious Hours.
Suddenly, we were there. That was two miles, really? Are you sure??
Let me tell you, that walk was almost entirely uphill, but we didn’t even feel it.
The library itself is much nicer than the one in our old neighborhood. That library is large, new, pretty, well-lit, and reasonably well-stocked. Unfortunately, there’s a used bookstore in the lobby that runs on donations. Its musty smell is so strong that I literally hold my breath several paces before walking in the door and don’t breathe again until I’m almost to the YA section. You can smell the funky old donated books outside on two sides of the building. This is a bummer because there are few things better than a public library to expand one’s ambit.
This new library, though! I could see this becoming a thing with us.
We found two chairs side by side. WiFi, hooray!
I got a few things done, such as changing our address. It didn’t even feel like work.
Then we decided to check out the outdoor seating in the back and I accidentally set off the alarm on the emergency exit, but it was okay. I didn’t even have to go to jail.
On the way home, we went a different way, which is always a good idea when you’re working on a new ambit. Sometimes the other route is nicer. We found a place with non-dairy ice cream and got ourselves some. We sat in a tiny grassy park and ate strawberry ice cream and a dog came over and licked my husband’s face.
Then we went home refreshed and got back to work, grubbing around unpacking and breaking down boxes.
That entire day, we spent two hours exploring and twelve hours working. Guess which part of the day we actually remember?
I went to a travel workshop once. The presenter asked everyone to raise their hands:
“Who likes the window seat?” Half the hands went up.
“Who likes the aisle seat?” The other half of the hands went up.
“Who likes the middle seat?” My hand went up.
Everyone looked around and laughed. I shrugged. What can I say? I’m the middle seat lady.
This is part of the secret to happiness. Know who you are and know what you want, then go for it. I have a long history of admitting my weird preferences to people, such as the fact that I don’t like coffee. Usually my weird preference makes life easier for other people in some way, so why not just own up to it?
Okay, so why do I like the middle seat?
It’s mostly process of elimination. First off, I hate the aisle seat. The aisle seat is the absolute worst. Whether it’s on an airplane, a train, or a bus, the aisle seat is the target of every swinging strap and elbow and passing cart. Not just during boarding, which would be bad enough. The entire duration of the trip.
I’ve been hit in the face with so many strap ends, I can’t even say. Once, the zipper on someone’s jacket swung out and actually cut my forehead and drew a line of blood.
In the middle seat, you’re still somewhat vulnerable when people drag massive, heavy bags out of the overhead bin. They’re much less likely to fall on on your head than they are for the poor, long-suffering aisle seat person.
Why not the window seat, then?
For many years, I was a white-knuckle nervous flyer. I wanted no part of being anywhere near the window. It also seemed fair and just that a person who loves looking out the window should sit there, instead of me. I’ve been flying since I was seven years old and I’ve spent many hours looking out of an airplane window. I’ve had my turn. I’m busy reading, anyway.
Ah, but there are things I dislike about the window seat as well. First, I feel trapped. If I need to get up to use the restroom, I have to ask two people to get up, and then disrupt them again when it’s time to come back. Second, I’m the person in control of the window shade, which means I’m often asked to raise or lower it. Third, I feel like the window seat is colder?
The worst part about the window seat, though, is that the person in the seat behind often seems to have a thing about putting THEIR FOOT up in the crack and propping it up on the arm rest.
MY arm rest.
Is there a handbook that indicates to uncouth people a list of fun things to do on planes? Is one of those things sticking a dirty bare foot through a crack into someone else’s lawfully bought and paid-for seat space?
My main goal in life is to not have to have embarrassing confrontations with people, partly because some of them are psycho. It’s not my job. I don’t run a kindergarten and I shouldn’t have to ask someone to put their foot back on the floor where it belongs. I also shouldn’t have to ask a flight attendant, who certainly has better things to do and has also seen worse.
You’d think it was just me. You’d think I was making it up. You’d think it had only happened once. Now, though, thanks to social media, we can explore entire photo albums together of other people documenting the same phenomenon with their cameras.
FOOT INTRUSION. IT’S REAL!
Speaking of arm rests, one of the perks of the middle seat is that people generally feel sorry for the middle seat person and allow them (me) to use both arm rests. I’m short and I have long upper arms, so this works out pretty well. It makes it pretty straightforward for me to sit quietly and read my book.
The last time I flew, though, I sat between two large men, both of whom used both of their arm rests. Like I wasn’t even there. Like I’m just a bit of foam packaging material to keep them from brushing against each other.
My powers of invisibility are usually useful. It can be emotional, though, when another passenger is... on me. Like, squishing half my thigh under their body and refusing to acknowledge it. Come on. What if we were both big, then what would happen? Just because I don’t use 100% of my space, the space I bought for the same price that you bought yours, does not mean I get 65% and you get the rest. Also, you are literally treating me like a piece of furniture.
Maybe one day airlines or space ships will go with individual pods, like in Alien.
I still think the middle seat is the best. Safe from the barrage of arms and luggage coming at the aisle seat person, safe from carts bashing into one’s funny bone. Relatively able to come and go at will, unlike the window seat person with the dirty foot prodding at them from behind.
One of the strangest aspects of the middle seat is that when there are unassigned seats, people will flag you down. On more than one occasion, I have been cruising down the aisle looking for a nice middle seat when I’ve been waved down. “You can sit with us!” As a small person with a small bag, I’m a good bargain. A married couple once explained to me in great detail that she likes the window seat and he likes the aisle, so they seek out small people like me to sit between them.
She’s portable, she’s unobtrusive, she comes with only a few curated accessories, she’s streamlined, she’s... Middle Seat Lady!
Trip planning is nuts. Every single detail is important. Anything you forget to pack has the potential to mess up your trip, and I know, because someone in my traveling party has forgotten everything including: passport, wallet, car keys, glasses, prescription meds, and hiking boots. There’s even been more than one ticket booked to an airport in the wrong city. Rigor in travel planning is rarely wasted.
The first law of trip planning is: NO CHECKED BAGS.
[The only exception to this is a wilderness trip, because our expedition packs are too big to fit in the cabin, they weigh too much, and we sometimes want to pack liquids].
Personally, I expect the entire sum total of my luggage to fit under the seat in front of me, and usually that’s where I put it.
Why hand luggage? Because you always know where it is, and because you can make connections after a flight delay when others can’t. It also gives you far more options for layover adventures when you don’t have a big wheelie bag - they aren’t even allowed in all places, and you don’t want to find that out the hard way.
NO CHECKED BAGS - NOT JUST A PHILOSOPHY, BUT A RELIGION.
The second law of trip planning: THREE DAYS PER CITY.
We break this rule all the time in small ways, but it is the true foundation of a trip. Three days is enough time to thoroughly explore most cities - too long in my home city, unless you love napping on the beach! Any city that requires more than three days to explore, like London or New York, probably deserves multiple trips. It might also be a good candidate for a hub city.
As an example, we love O’Hare Airport so we route international trips through there whenever we can.
The third law of trip planning: ONE HIGHLIGHT EACH.
A “highlight” is the “swear I’ll never ask for anything else as long as I live” part of someone’s trip. Everyone gets one. The rest of the group better be either ride or die, or they’re going off alone for their own highlight at the same time.
Examples: I rode the London Eye with my husband because it was his highlight, even though I freaking hate Ferris wheels. I owe him for all the times he’s bushwhacked with me in search of, say, the tricolored blackbird, and don’t even ask him about Mandarin ducks.
[Note: I don’t think Mandarin ducks are real. I think they are the Sasquatch of the birding world, added to birdwatching guides as a prank].
Ideally, everyone gets a highlight each day of the trip. Usually they are something small like “buy a bag of Starburst” or “walk across this famous bridge.” In museums, it’s good for each person to pick a room, because the biggest and best museums can’t be covered adequately in a single day anyway.
These are the three laws. They may be amended only after discussion and official approval.
My husband and I also have a policy that we take turns choosing the destination of our trip. We’ve agreed that we would both like to visit every country on Earth, so it’s somewhat arbitrary in which order we see them.
This is when the true trip planning starts.
The very first thing that we do is to check the weather history during the time of our trip. This tends to rule out a lot of ideas. Our wedding anniversary is in late August, which just happens to be a terrible time to travel in large sections of the world. It’s our personal choice to avoid the rainy season, partly because inclement weather means more clothes and bulkier bags.
Next we look at the country’s “national day” and any other major festivals. Usually we are trying to avoid these. They make everything cost 3x as much and almost universally result in large drunken mobs. It can be really fun to see a country decorated for celebration, though.
My next pass - and this falls to me, because I’m the one with the dietary constraints - is to look up as many suitable restaurants as possible. I search for “vegan restaurant” [city] and cross-reference with Happy Cow. Then I mark them all as a favorite on Apple Maps. This is huge because we often wind up in parts of town that we had never anticipated, and we can often find a place to eat nearby without standing on the sidewalk searching for half an hour. Many parts of the world have better options and labeling for gluten-free, vegan, or other preferences or sensitivities than we do in the US. Others do not. It can ruin a trip to discover that the only places with real options for a meal are already closed for the day.
Another vital part of trip planning is to look up “[city] in 24 hours” and “must-see [city]” and “don’t miss [city].” Most of those attractions usually don’t interest either of us at all. A few of them will turn out to be the major highlights of the trip. Sometimes we hadn’t even realized that that attraction existed, and it changes our goals for the trip entirely. I mark all of these in Apple Maps as well.
Once our key attractions and a bunch of restaurants are marked, we zoom in on the map together and browse around. This helps us to get acquainted with the layout of the city in advance. It tends to be pretty obvious that certain places are grouped near each other, and we can spend a day in each area. Other attractions are so far afield that we cross them off our list, not wanting to spend half a day or more on a tour bus unless it’s truly epic.
London wound up happening in pie wedges, with Waterloo as the center of the pie. Iceland happened in loops, starting and ending in Reykjavik.
Spending a few weeks planning a trip adds to the anticipation and extends the fun. It also helps to avoid pitfalls such as showing up on the day that a destination is closed, or arriving so late that we can’t buy a ticket.
Policy is part of trip planning for us. We have a weekly status meeting, where we’ve worked out policies for all aspects of our marriage, and our travel policies have become a friendly, efficient way of having fun together without annoying each other. (Much). The better we get at planning, the more fun we have, and the more we can anticipate our next trip.
I won’t claim that we went to Europe “for free” because nothing in this world is free. We like to say it’s “included.” For all intents and purposes, though, we got our flights and lodging without paying, and that’s kinda free, but we’ll stick to points for accuracy’s sake.
Los Angeles to Heathrow, United miles.
Edinburgh to O’Hare and back to LAX, United miles.
Waterloo Hampton Inn, Hilton points.
Edinburgh Airport Hampton Inn, Hilton points.
There are parts of our trip that we possibly could have paid for with other types of points that we have saved up, but we’re still learning how this stuff works. Sometimes the exchange rate isn’t a good enough value and sometimes we’re a couple hundred points short.
The main thing to note is that I’m not a big fan of providing free advertisements to major corporations that don’t need it. As an historian I’ll just note that in the attempt to attract loyal customers, various branded megaliths will offer increasingly enticing deals in exchange for that loyalty - and the data, of course. If you’re cynical enough to believe that your data are already floating around out there, and we know ours has been hacked at least three separate and distinct times, then you may as well eke some slight gratification out of it.
Rewinding a bit, what did I mean when I said that things aren’t “free” but are rather “included”?
Let’s say someone offers me a paper plate with a slice of pie. Technically it’s “free” but is it? I’m on the hook for being at the event with the free pie, whatever it is, which means I’ve probably either paid to get in, I’m volunteering with cleanup, or at the very least I paid to get there and traded my time for this over any other options. Also, I’ll have to deal with the caloric intake of the slice of pie itself and, in my case, checking the clock because I can’t eat within three hours of bedtime.
Everything is a tradeoff.
In this case, the reward points that my husband and I used for our trip could have come from two sources: his business travel and our credit card usage.
The tradeoff for the frequent business travel is that we often can’t be together. He traveled something like 21 out of the last 50 weeks, sometimes for a week at a time. We haven’t been married so long that we quit liking each other or anything.
The tradeoff for the points cards is that they have an annual fee. They require a certain credit profile, which not everyone can manage, and they require artful juggling to make sure that we don’t carry a balance.
In other words, this trip is not only something that not everyone could do, it’s something that not everyone would even want to do.
Another way that we did not travel for “free” is that we paid for a bunch of stuff that is not available through points, not that we know of anyway. We ate meals, some in restaurants and some from grocery stores. We paid admission to museums and historical sites. We rode all sorts of public transit, from the tram to the water bus. We even paid cash to use the restroom.
It’s a bad idea to imagine that you can travel for “free.” It can be either a form of abundance mindset or of scarcity, and as we all know scarcity mindset spreads like mold. It seems that most people who want to travel on a tight budget will get so fixated on their bargains and extracting value that it prevents them from having a good time.
It’s also rough on the communities.
Let me throw in there that I’ve had occasion to live in a resort area more than once. It’s not my preference. Why? Right now we live on a pier. What people basically do is come to our neighborhood on the weekend to get drunk and leave a bunch of trash and broken bottles, then drag their crying kids around or get into domestic arguments, sometimes within earshot of our living room. Every single one of them is hellbent on sneaking into our parking lot because they don’t believe they should have to pay one red cent toward our personal apartment complex or municipal expenses. Such as trash pickup, parking lots, road maintenance, or policing their drunken butts.
I don’t want to be that kind of tourist, the one who brings a cooler from home and feels like local people are trying to rob them.
I’d rather be mildly interesting, a middle-aged lady with a big backpack going somewhere cool. Want to come along?
The way that we look at our points accrual is that it’s a sort of weird coupon for certain specific consumer habits. My hubby is rewarded for putting in mega-long hours at work and being the designated fix-it guy, the closer. We are both rewarded for committing financial transactions. We use these bizarre consumer bonuses to offset our spending in other areas, such as:
Eating at local restaurants
Shopping at the co-op grocery store
Riding public transit
Buying a book or travel gear from an independent bookstore
Contributing toward wilderness preservation, because birds
Supporting museums and historic sites, because if we don’t, who will?
We’d like to feel that we are contributing in some small way to the places that we go. We’ve seen a lot of preposterously bad behavior from fellow tourists during our travels. Sometimes it’s so embarrassing that we still talk about it years later, like the guy who demanded a guarantee that he would see a blue whale or his money back. Um, sir? They live in the sea, wild and free? They do not answer to thee or to me? Whales they be?
One fine day in Iceland, we were waiting for a tour bus when I saw a young woman drop her glove. I tried calling after her but it was pretty windy. She was walking so fast and that glove was obviously hand-knit, a beautiful fuchsia, days of effort. I ran after her and handed it over. I was rewarded by her thanks and the slight smiles and nods of the bystanders who saw. The GDP technically decreased that day because I destroyed the reason for someone to buy something new. In reality I know that I contributed to the community, not just of “people in the national park that day” but the international community, built on goodwill and mutual trust.
In other words, the foundational concepts of an economy.
I never thought I could “afford” to travel. Then I thought I was “too old.” In my mind, only people in their early twenties got to go anywhere. This is completely weird, because I started flying alone at the age of seven and in some ways I grew up at the airport. Scarcity mindset is powerful.
CAN’T AFFORD end of story!
The biggest problem with scarcity mindset is that we are so locked down, we don’t even bother to find out exactly how much something costs.
I went through this earlier this year. I had been wanting a new desktop computer, and I sat on my wallet forever and ever, a couple years past the point when my old laptop was even usable anymore. Finally I felt like I had “enough” saved up. I went down in trepidation, very nervous about spending “that kind of money.” (Same kind of flat green American dollars I spend on anything else?)
It turned out to cost less than half of what I had estimated, even after accessories and tax.
Travel can very much be that way. If you save $25 a week for a year, you can basically buy a round-trip airline ticket to anywhere in the world.
(Not, like, Antarctica or Area 51 or inside Fort Knox, but you know what I mean).
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to travel right at this very minute, for various reasons. For instance, if a friend is coming to town and we haven’t seen him in several years, we’d probably rather stay home and visit with him than go somewhere else. Maybe someone is finishing school, or it’s monsoon season, or we’re waiting for the cherry blossoms. There are all sorts of reasons why it might be better to wait a bit before going on that dream trip.
In the meantime, you can start planning and preparing, for real, right this minute, as soon as you finish reading this.
There are two things that it is very smart to do if you want to travel, and they don’t cost anything.
The first is learning to ride various kinds of public transit. You don’t actually have to pay to get on the bus or the tram or the water taxi or the funicular or whatever to do this, if you’re geographically isolated or you believe you are too broke for bus fare. You can look at maps and timetables and watch instructional videos. There are zero good reasons to skip this part, if you’re serious about your trip. It’s part of fine-tuning your vision and clarifying what you want.
The second thing that is very smart to do is to walk a lot, especially uphill and especially up long flights of stairs.
Not everyone can walk, true. If there are mobility issues then it’s even more valuable to practice ahead of time. Just how are you going to get around?
One of the saddest things I ever saw was a woman struggling to keep up with her friends at a historic site in Spain. We were coming down the (uneven, primitive) stone steps after looking at some incredible cave paintings. The woman was recovering from knee surgery. Her party wanted to know how many more steps there were and what the terrain was like. The sad but true answer was that there was no way she would enjoy the tour, and maybe a 5% chance she could actually do it, given the nature of the site. She was going to wind up sitting outside in the rain and cold for an hour, all because nobody thought to do the research. A quarter mile of slippery stone steps up a steep hill! What were they thinking, putting her in that position?
Maybe they could have waited a year, and done a different trip during her recovery?
It’s not about limitations, it’s about making life as interesting as possible within the constraints that we have at this moment.
There is a third thing that we can do to prepare for a dream trip, and that is to study the local language. It is SO helpful, especially when reading signs. On that same trip to see the cave paintings, we would have missed out except that we were willing to go along with a Spanish-language tour. We probably got 50-80% of the information, enough to feel like we understood what we were looking at.
The thing about travel is that it is extremely specific, moment to moment. That’s what makes it interesting. You’re standing on one specific square foot of the world at one specific moment in time. At that moment, either the restaurant or attraction that you wanted to visit is open for business, or it is not. Either you have the correct currency or form of payment, or you do not. Either you have read the map correctly, or you have not. Does this make sense?
You’re not “in England,” you’re in the Underground station in a hot and stuffy hallway, trying to figure out which of two tunnels to enter. You’re not “in Iceland,” you’re standing in front of a gravel parking lot, realizing that the museum you wanted to visit is not only closed but completely demolished. Travel means RESEARCH and lots of it, every day, every time you transition between one activity or location and another.
Part of what makes travel cool is that it magically transmogrifies you into “a traveler.” What does that is the process of figuring out how things work. That develops a mindset that is distinctly flexible and robust. You learn how to deal with confusion and disappointment and unexpected problems, such as getting stopped in security because one of your plane tickets matches your maiden name and the other matches your new married name. You learn perspective about what kinds of problems are worth getting upset about and which are just part of the game.
Eventually you learn to anticipate most situations ahead of time and just avoid those types of problems entirely. Like the overpacking problem and the “late to the airport” problem and the “quarrel over which restaurants to go to” problem.
Travel is just you in a different place for a while. That means you can solve for many of your travel problems in advance, while you are still the at-home you. Then when it’s time to leave, your trip will be a dream come true.
The numbers are in and we are maniacs. My husband and I walked over 83 miles and climbed the equivalent of 167 flights of stairs on vacation. In 11 days. What does this mean?
What it means is that we’ve figured out our idea of fun, and it includes a lot of walking. If we want to see the world for a week or two at a time, then we have to stay in the game the rest of the year.
There are two types of trips that we tend to go on. One is the urban type, like staying on the Las Vegas Strip or walking from Waterloo to Kensington Palace. The other is the wilderness expedition. It doesn’t seem at all obvious, but both kinds of travel add up to a lot of miles on foot, a surprising amount of elevation gain, and often, a backpack weighing anywhere from ten to fifty pounds.
There isn’t much that is interesting to see, in our opinion, from the inside of a car, the inside of a hotel room, or a lounge chair.
Traveling revolves around value. Frankly it can be very annoying and expensive to go anywhere, and every time I go through airport security I swear off it, “and this time I mean it.” That’s why it’s important to make sure that you’re doing as much of your favorite stuff as possible, and spending as little time and money on anything else as you can manage.
For us, we don’t see the point of doing certain things on a trip. Those include, but are not limited to:
Watching movies that we can see at home
Going to a shopping mall
Looking at souvenirs, none of which are locally made
Eating at American chain restaurants
Carrying around more than maybe 16 ounces of extra luggage
Trying on and rejecting various outfits
We also aren’t really fans of dance clubs and we don’t drink.
What we really like to do is to SEE EVERYTHING. Parks, museums, architecture tours, public art, archaeological sites, all cover a lot of ground. Many of them are impossible to see without going up and down a lot of stairs. Our second-biggest day of stair-climbing was done in just six hours in Edinburgh.
We weren’t like this when we first got together. We both drank a lot of cola and we hadn’t yet been camping together. That was also before we lost 100 pounds between us.
Walking everywhere used to be really hard on my hubby because he had a childhood foot injury that caused nerve damage. After about two miles of walking he would be done. He’d be walking with a limp and really struggling. I had an easier time walking, but I still had chronic pain issues and my fitness level (and pain threshold) was very low. We would just be too tired.
I never would have thought, after being together for thirteen years and aging a wee little bit, that we would be covering so much more ground now than we could when we were both still in our thirties.
Walking a lot toughens your feet. That part is obvious. What isn’t so obvious is that getting fitter can reverse what felt like permanent and total damage in other parts of the body.
My dislocated hip and dislocated rib, fixed.
His herniated disks, no longer a problem.
Knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, fibromyalgia, geez we really are middle-aged... All the problems we used to be able to list off are fading into history.
All of this has been encouraging to us, partly because of course it’s better not to be in cruising pain from the moment you start the day. It’s also encouraging because the more we travel and the more active we are, the more ability we seem to be buying ourselves.
I won’t lie, there were a couple of points during the trip when my feet were so sore that I wanted to ask for a piggyback ride. Daddy carry me. My boots weren’t really designed for twelve miles on concrete. It got easier day by day, though, and the other thing that happened was that the waistband on my pants loosened up.
The human body was designed for walking. When we say “hunter-gatherer” what we’re really saying is “walks all day every day.” I think of my pioneer ancestors walking thirty miles a day next to their covered wagons, some of them probably barefoot and certainly not wearing modern athletic shoes. Before 1950 or thereabouts, most people both urban and rural probably put in ten-mile days routinely and never thought twice about it.
We meet a lot of people on the road, and some of them are considerably older than we are. I think we both saw someone who caught our attention on this trip. Mine was an American woman of about sixty, who was in much better shape than I am and looked like she could easily do a handspring into the pool. I couldn’t take my eyes off her shoulders. I knew I wanted to be as fit as she is when I reach her age. My husband’s was a Scottish grandfather playing soccer on the village green. His calves were indistinguishable from a young man’s even though he had to be over seventy. He was executing footwork that his grade-schooler grandkids couldn’t do, probably because he had been kicking a football every day for, oh, at least sixty-five years. Will we do the same?
We’d like to visit every country in the world, and at the rate we’re going, we would have to start doing about twenty a year if we want to catch up. We’ve talked about how sad it would be if we finally had the money and leisure but lacked the strength or the energy. We still have time today to keep walking and keep climbing stairs, huffing side by side as we plan our next trip.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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