Things we wish we’d been told about travelling in our 30s…
My girlfriend and I just came back from 8 months of travelling across Central America, South America, French Polynesia and Australia. Between us, we’ve lived in 8 different cities and vacationed in 50+ but this was the first time either of us ever went backpacking for months so we made a bunch of rookie mistakes that we learned from on the way.
I’m 32 and I’ve been dreaming of travelling the world ever since I was 18. My parents “suggested” I wait until I graduated from University but that summer I landed my dream job in advertising so decided to stick with that for a couple years, save some money and then go. Before long, my focus shifted to my career. The initial hard years of long hours and little pay had finally started to pay back in promotions, pay rises and growth opportunities so taking time off to travel never felt right. Melina is 28 and for her, voluntarily leaving a job and taking time off from her fashion e-commerce career was something only crazy people would do!
If you’re an “older” rookie like us, who’s considering a travel sabbatical (but can’t take the leap) or if you are just starting to plan it, here are a few tips we wish we’d known before starting our trip.
1. No! It’s not career suicide, on the contrary…
Ok let’s tackle the toughest one first…
“What am I doing? Will I ever work again? Will I be “out of the loop” when I come back? Will I lose all my contacts? Will future employers think I’m just a hippie bum?”…
These were all the questions going through our heads when we started to seriously consider taking time off. It was the biggest mental hurdle we needed to overcome before quitting our jobs. We had no answers so we decided to close our eyes, jump and hope for the best when we landed — we can tell you now, the landing was way softer than we ever expected.
Let me put your mind at ease. If you are in your 30s, chances are you have 5–10 years experience in what you do. Knowledge doesn’t just suddenly disappear or become obsolete because of 6 months of travelling. However, what does take a dent is your confidence, you start to second guess yourself, and convince yourself that you have fallen behind. What helped me get over that was simply “getting back on the horse”. After the first couple rusty interviews I realised that it was all in my head and I was soon back to my normal self. Luckily those initial interviews were with recruiters which made for a slightly more lenient audience.
If you told me 8 months ago that we’d have more interviews, more leads, more job offers and more career options now than before our trip, I would have laughed in your face but that’s the truth and I have a theory on why.
When we were working, we were running with our heads down, chasing the next checkpoint, the next bonus, the next promotion, simply because that was the thing to do. We never really stopped to think or ask ourselves if that promotion was even right for us. As cliche as it sounds, travelling gave us the time to stop and reflect on what we really like to do with the rest of our lives and suddenly the question shifted from “why would I be right for this job?” to “why is this job right for me?”. I know it sounds like just semantics but it’s a shift that puts us in the driving seat and got us to start looking into options that we hadn’t even considered before.
Now we’re no longer “selling ourselves” in job interviews, instead we approach them with a new energy and refreshing honesty that potential employers immediately take note of.
One thing — make sure you have a clear story on why you went travelling and what you gained from it, that question came up often in our interviews.
2. No! You won’t be the oldest.
Before travelling I assumed that everyone we will meet will be 18 years old, on their pre-uni gap year. Yes, they do represent a big proportion of the traveller community (especially in hostels) but we quickly realised that they had very different interests and budgets to us. Younger travellers will often go for the cheapest, wildest and most alcohol centric option. As a result, most of the travellers we met were our age or older. Of course, there were a couple exceptions but that was because they too where trying to avoid the “party hostels” crowd.
3. If you’re expecting an epiphany, don’t.
This was a bitter pill for me to swallow. A big part of me thought that by travelling my mind would be freed from the tediousness of the day to day working life and inspire me to develop my next new business idea. Maybe I’d experience a universal problem for which the solution could become a million dollar idea like the Uber founders in Paris or stumble into a local product I could turn into a global success like the Red Bull founder in Thailand… or just a sign to help me understand if I was heading in the right direction in life??! Well… none of that happened.
To make matters worse Melina, who was initially very skeptical about this trip and had every intention of going back to her job, came back with an awesome idea for a swimwear brand and she is now pursuing full throttle.
I think the lesson here is not to expect it, by doing so I had put too much pressure on myself and it never happened. My girlfriend, on the other hand, allowed her mind to run free with no expectations and was rewarded with a great idea and a life changing sense of drive and purpose.
4. Remember to take care of your body.
We love food. We especially love trying local food, local beer, local cocktails and local deserts. We made sure we hit all the recommended restaurants and food stalls before we moved to the next city. We got so caught up in the food travel excitement that we completely forgot about having a balanced diet. Most Latin American dishes we ate were light on veggies and vitamins so soon we started to see the weight coming on and we started to come down with colds and flues.
Lesson here is try not to eat out every day. Stay in Airbnb and hostels with a useable kitchen. Local markets are always a good spot for cheap fresh fruits and veggies but take a good look at the meat and fish before you buy, it might have been there for a while. If you are not comfortable with market meat, most big cities have a modern grocery store which is always a safe bet.
Cooking is always a good way to make your travel budget last longer.
5. No need to see/do everything on the list.
For our first new country, Mexico, we did a lot of research, bought a bunch of guides, read of bunch of blogs and asked a bunch of friends for tips. With that we put together a long list of things to do, see, eat and off we went. Half way through that list we realised that we had turned into “list monkeys”, driven by FOMO and the irrational need to see everything to tick off all the boxes!
Although 9 months seems like a long time, there is simply not enough time to see everything on every list. For example, Mexico has over 4,000 ancient ruins and Lonely Planet lists the 8 that are must see but even that ended up being too many for us. We were blown away by the first one we saw, Teotihuacan, every corner of the ruin taught us something new about this fascinating civilisation, their customs, habits and beliefs.
That excitement and desire to learn more about these ancient ruins kept us going for the next two/three sites but as the learning curve level out so did our excitement.
By the 5th site we realised that we were all out of love for ancient ruins and decided to switch our focus to exploring cities, beaches and nature instead… ain’t no shame!
This will keep happening to you along the way, you will meet people who will say things like: “you cannot leave Panama without seeing both Bocas del Toro and the San Blas Islands” or “you haven’t done Patagonia properly if you don’t hike both Laguna De Los Tres in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile”. That’s all bullshit! Over the course of your travel you will get a clear sense of what you like, what you want to see more of and what you’ve already seen enough of. That will allow you to make your own list, perfect for you. There is no shortage of new things to see so even-though the FOMO will hurt when you first start to cut things out your list, that pain will quickly fade away once you start to focus on the things you truly enjoy.
6. Make sure you give yourself weekends.
This one is linked to the above point. When we first started to travel we were still in what we call “holiday mode”. It’s when you feel you have limited time and need to squeeze in as much as you can into those 1 or 2 weeks. Basically we were those rookies you always see sprinting at the beginning of a marathon and you think to yourself: “they are never going to make it”.
Two months in to our travels we were exhausted, kept arguing and travel fatigue had kicked in. We were very close to calling it quits until we realised that all we had to do was give ourselves time to rest. Yes, you are in a foreign country with loads to see but don’t feel guilty about occasionally spending a whole day in bed watching netflix/sports highlights or in a cafe reading a book or even upgrading to a Spa weekend…basically doing whatever it is that you would have done back home on weekends.
7. Give yourself an ongoing personal project.
This can be anything! Postcards, photos, writing, charity, sports as long as it’s something you can keep going throughout your travels. For Melina it was photography (as she plans to decorate our future home with portraits and landscapes from around the world). For me, one of my best friends insisted I send him a hand written letter every month updating him on our travels as he refused to read any of my emails or texts.
Knowing that I had to write a letter every month acted as both a filtering and motivation tool. Filtering because when faced with travel decisions we could quickly pick one over the other by asking ourselves “what’s going to make a better story in my letter this month?” or “which one will give us better photos?”. Motivation because when I had a lazy couple days I would then feel the need to get out again to make sure I found new interesting learnings to share on my next letter… and on my posts.
8. Nah… It’s not dangerous.
We all heard the stories of “a friend of a friend” who got drugged with Devil’s breath and robbed or the guy who got kidnapped and forced into being a drug mule. The list is endless…
Every city in the world has it’s good and bad neighbourhoods and locals, Airbnb hosts and hostel managers will be the first to immediately warn you on areas to avoid. It’s in their interest to ensure you don’t have any bad experiences as they want you to go back home and tell your friends how great their country is. In our 8 months of travelling we never had any incidents and of the many people we met along the way, only 1 was assaulted. But go figure, he was a crazy German gringo trying to buy weed at 2am, in the dark allies of a notoriously bad neighbourhood of Leon, Nicaragua… 9 times out of 10 trouble won’t come your way unless you go looking for it.
A couple pointers to avoid trouble (all common sense):
- Ask locals about the general level of safety & areas to avoid
- Try not to stick-out as too much of a “gringo”
- Quick background checks (Tripadvisor) before signing up to adventures
- If it’s a dangerous activity make sure it’s managed by pros
- The most responsible operators tend to ask you to sign waivers
- Avoid walking around with valuables or expensive accessories
- Ask a local before you head out with your SRL camera
- Avoid making ATM withdrawals at night
- Avoid stumbling around drunk alone at night, you’d be easy pickings
- Take cabs at night if you don’t know the area well
(UberX or local taxi apps were available in most of the countries we visited)
9. Save for 12 months of travelling, plan for 6.
Logistical one last. You will spend more than you expected and you will be slower than you expected.
a) Budget — Most travel blogs and travel guides out there give you an indication of budget per country but we found those to be conservative. Let’s face it, we are in our 30s… we need a good night’s sleep, we love treating ourselves with the privacy and home comforts of an Airbnb, we don’t mind spending a few more bucks on a good meal or a nice bottle of wine, and we’d happily avoid taking a chicken bus or chicken boat if we can.
The two extremes of our accommodation budget — Above, hammocks in a Colombian national park vs Tulum Eco-resort & Spa below.
b) Plan — Two shortcomings of our overall travel plan was that we massively underestimated the size of South America and also we hadn’t accounted for new places you would discover and add to the travel list on the go.
As a result, we found ourselves still in Patagonia in March when our original plan was to reach Quito, Ecuador by then. We had used up all our travel budget (in 7 months — 2 months earlier than expected) when we got to Santiago so we had to make a quick exit and missed out on Northern Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Galapagos!!!
Our lesson here is to budget for double the time you expect to spend and plan destinations for 2/3 of the time you expect to travel and it will end somewhere in the middle. We wish that we had saved enough for 12 months of travel and only planned 6 month worth of stuff to see. That would have given us enough flexibility to take our time in places we loved and explore new placed we hadn’t heard about before. That way we would have had enough time and money for at least 9 months of travel.
That formula still applies to shorter timelines too. If you hope to travel for 3 months, save enough money for 6 months and plan for 2 months worth of destinations.
If you are reading this and you are still unsure if you have the balls to go travelling at 30, we totally get it. The toughest part for us was to take the leap… after that it was all smooth sailing. For the last 8 months the biggest stress we had to deal with was deciding where to see the sunrise and where to see the sunset!
The way we convinced ourselves to do it was by realising that we will probably be working for the next 20–25 years of our lives (unless the swimwear brand makes megabucks! ;-) so what’s a 6 or 9 month break compared to that.
Best decision we’ve ever made… can’t wait to do it again!
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