How to Get Off Your Butt and Travel the World

How do you make the leap from cubicle daydreams to life on to the road?

There are plenty of guides on the practicalities of traveling the world — like planning an itinerary, booking cheap flights or living in hostels — but sometimes the harder questions go unanswered — how do you find the courage to travel?

Endless road by TheFriendlyFiend, FlickrEven for those that want nothing more than to escape a life of monotony, even for those that hate their jobs, even for those that feel like they have no life and desperately need some excitement, it still isn’t easy to actually get on a plane and go.

I know. I’ve been there. I decided to travel to world when I was 24. I left to travel the world when I was 29.

For five years I found excuses to postpone my dreams, not consciously of course, but there was always some excuse to stay. Only years later, once I’d made it all the way to India, did I realize what held me back — fear born of inertia.

Inertia is a powerful thing — both imprisoning and liberating at the same time. The negative aspect is the inertia that imbues our lives in the form of habit. We get up, we go to work, we come home, and the same thing happens the next day.

The first law of thermodynamics says, more or less, that bodies in crappy ruts tend to remain in crappy ruts.

The good news is that bodies on the road tend to remain on the road.

The question is: how do we make inertia work for us rather than against us?

The answer is that it’s going to take some energy. You have to make the change happen. You must decide to save yourself. One thing that I think is absolutely key to understand is that traveling doesn’t have to be turning your back on your life at home. I don’t think of travel as escaping from my life at home (which I like), but as something that enhances and informs the life I live when I return home.

Eliminate Excuses

The best way to change your habits is to look at what’s stopping you from changing.

You want to travel the world, but, like me, you have a million excuses stopping you.

Let’s take a look at some common reasons to not travel (this is not an exhaustive list, but it reflects both my experiences and those of people I’ve met in my travels).

Most of these reasons (excuses) complete the phrase i’d love to travel the world, but…

I don’t have the money

Generally speaking this is a less self-indicting way of saying, I already spent the money on something else.

Money...What Money, by stuartpilbrow, FlickrVery few of us are so poor we can’t save money to travel the world. It doesn’t take nearly as much money as you think; I spent $12,000 including airfare ($2000), traveling for three months in Europe and seven months in Asia. That averages out to $1,200 a month, far less than most of us spend at home (and for the record I was not pinching pennies as I traveled, I ate well, slept in nice, clean guesthouses and didn’t pass on anything I wanted to do just because it was expensive).

So how do you save for a trip? That depends, but here’s a good place to start: stop buying so much stuff. We all spend a shocking amount of money on stuff we don’t need, and this is the number one habit to break if you’re serious about traveling the world. Live simply and save your money. Here’s how Rolf Potts recently addressed the question of money:

The specifics are less important than your attitude. That is, whatever job you take to travel the world and/or fund your journeys, the most important thing is to stay positive, live simply, and discipline yourself in such a way that you save your money. For my first vagabonding journey around the North America when I was 23, I worked as a landscaper for 8 months. This wasn’t a super high-paying job, but by living simply I was able to save enough money to travel the USA by van for eight months.

My experience was similar, I was running a restaurant kitchen (not a good way to get rich), and I mananged to save the money I needed. To expedite the savings I also did some web development on the side.

Start a savings account and, instead of buying stuff, put your money in the account. If you’re new to saving, check out Get Rich Slowly for some tips and inspiration and The Art of Nonconformity for some reasons why stuff leads to mediocrity, not the sort of life changing experiences we all crave.

The key to letting go of stuff is realizing how much more valuable experience is — this is a profound shift of priorities and, in my experience, goes far beyond just saving to travel.

I’m not big on being frugal, but if you simply eliminate stuff from your life, you’ll suddenly discover you have quite a bit of extra money.

I can’t quit my job

This one is doubly powerful in today’s economy.

I HATE MY JOB by mikecolvin82, FlickrThere are probably some of you who have found completely fulfilling work and are in the place you should be. I understand that, I haven’t done a long trip in three years because I had such a job. But if that was really true, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

And if your job is not fulfilling and not making you feel like you are doing your best work for the world, then there is absolutely nothing to lose by quitting it.

Think of it this way: the world needs you and you’re ignoring it. Working at job you dislike is cheating the world out of your creative genius and passion. Don’t be that guy.

As for the current economic situation… if you’re really worried about the long-term viability of your job, then what’s the harm in quitting?

I only speak English

80 percent of the world is desperately trying to learn something you already know. You’re way ahead of the curve here.

Would it be nice to speak Nepalese and chat with the sherpas by a campfire in Nepal? Absolutely, but trust me, no one is going to hate you because you can’t (that said, a phrasebook is always a good idea, just making a tiny effort will get you a long way). I have the utmost respect for those who can learn languages, but I suck at it and it has never gotten in the way of my travels.

Besides what better way to learn a language than to immerse yourself in the country?

I’m too old

No, you’re not.

I’ll do that when I’m older

Old People Sign by rileyroxx, FlickrSadly, from what I’ve seen, you probably won’t. I’ve never understood long term deferred gratification — why would you assume that you will in fact be old? Why take that risk?

If you’ve never seen it, watch Rady Pausch’s The Last Lecture, which is heartbreaking, but very inspiring as well. And bear in mind one of his central messages: “We don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well.”

Isn’t traveling just running away from my problems?

Possibly, but not necessarily; you’ll never know until you go. Even if you are running, it may not be away, it could easily be toward. There’s really no way to answer this one until you go. And don’t be afraid to fail. If you head out to travel the world and discover that you absolutely hate it, hey, you can always go home. But you’ll never be able to answer that question until you leave.

I don’t have anyone to travel with

I’m an only child so I’ll admit that this one had never actually occurred to me, but I can say that being alone, even being lonely, can be a very healthy experience.

However, the truth is, unless you willfully decide to be alone, you’re going to meet tons of people on the road. Even if you leave home alone, you won’t be alone for long (which is both a blessing and curse, depending on your personality).

Inspire Yourself

Eliminating your excuses is only half the challenge.

Excuses are the result of movement in the wrong direction, and to stop moving in the wrong direction is progress, but only so much.

Once you have stopped your old habits, you must shift directions and move again somewhere new.

Start with something very simple, like taking a different route to work, ride the bus (which also saves money), walking somewhere you usually drive, or otherwise physically alter the way you see the world around you.

I used to have Super Human Powers by Esparta, FlickrStart photographing your day, not only will you get a new perspective on things, but if the results are rather dull then you’ll have even more inspiration to change.

Start a journal, write down what you like about your life, what you don’t like and how travel is going to change that (this will prove hilarious about halfway through your trip).

These things might sound silly to you, they might seem unimportant. But traveling is about much more than just going somewhere else; it can offer all variety of life changing experiences, but only if you’re ready for them, so get yourself ready by changing before you leave.

Start Planning

So you’re looking at the world around you a bit differently, now it’s time to get serious about this trip you want to do.

It’s time for a concrete plan. The simple action of planning can easily become the inertia you need to propel yourself onto the road.

Head to your local library and check out some books. Buy them if you must, but remember we’re trying eliminating stuff, so try not to buy too many. And don’t get guidebooks just yet, pick something like Rolf Potts’ book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-term World Travel 1 or Edward Hasbrouck’s The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, both are excellent and will inspire you in numerous ways.

Delve in into the practicalities of living on the road, sell your stuff, rent a storage unit if you really can’t part with all of it, get rid of the things that block your path.

Also start doing some research on how to travel. It sounds silly, but there is an art to traveling. Read travel blogs of those who have gone before you, is a great site (though it’s no longer updated), as is World Hum and Half of what you learn will be wrong and most of your preconceptions will be shot to hell the minute you land, but it doesn’t matter, make yourself part of the travel world and eventually you will end up living in it.

Figure out where you want to go and how you want to get there. I suggest you buy round the world plane tickets, you’ll save a lot of money that way, but be sure that your tickets include overland travel as well2. Unless you’re hopping islands in the South Pacific, ground travel is almost always cheaper (and infinitely more fun).

But chances are you will need some plane tickets, so when you’re ready to kick your butt in high gear, go ahead and buy them. I used Airtreks, there are others that will work just as well. Or cash in your frequent flyer miles if you have them.

Buy a ticket, set a date and make the new path real.

Give notice at work. There are few more personally liberating acts than quitting a job.

Once you know where you’re headed, it’s off to the bookstore in your spare time. Read the latest editions of relevant guidebooks, but don’t buy any. If you must, buy the guide to the first country you’ll visit, wait and buy the rest when on the road.

But while you’re digging through the guidebooks, wander over to the fiction and memoirs sections as well to see if you can find some novels or travel narratives on the area you’ve chosen. Headed to Asia? Read Graham Green’s The Quiet American. Headed to Europe? read Kafka, Dickens or my personal favorite, W.G. Sebald. Headed to South America? Read some Borges, some Marquez or some Neruda. Headed to Central America? Read Arturo Bolano, Ernesto Cardenal or any of the many accounts of the civil wars in the region.

Here’s another one some people will find silly: go have a meal a restaurant that serves food from an area where you’re headed.

Read, eat, sleep and breathe your travel ambitions. Make them real.


Congratulations, you’ve almost made it. By this point you have tickets in hand, you have some idea of what living on the road will be like, you have some gear and maybe you’ve even have packed. You’ve kissed the job goodbye, shed the stuff that was holding you back and you’re nearly there.

About the only thing left to do is get on the plane (or bus or train or whatever).

It’s difficult to describe what that will feel like, I’ve rewritten this sentence about twenty times now and I still can’t do it justice. It’s a sense of liberation that you will rarely get a chance to feel. Embrace it.

Not very many people create the opportunities to live out their dreams; think about how lucky you are when you walk down the concourse and step on that plane.

A Word about Failure

Not every trip happens. When it’s your first trip, failure is hard swallow. But the truth is, there’s is no such thing as a failed trip, there are just postponed trips.

For every long trip I’ve gone on (and that would really only be two long trips, totaling almost two years of traveling), there’s half a dozen well-laid plans that have fallen through for one reason or another. I should be writing this from Paris, but I’m not. I bought a house instead — I failed to travel to Paris.

Like anything, travel is the result of choices, sometimes you go, sometimes you don’t just yet.

Don’t beat yourself up if your initial plan doesn’t work out. Hang a map on the wall, keep saving and eventually you’ll get there.

  1. 1. Full disclosure: I write for Rolf’s, it’s not a paid job and Rolf has never suggested that I pimp his books. I just happen to genuinely think that his book is one of the best meditations on extended, budget travel that’s out there.

  2. 2. One of my only real regrets in my own trip is that I didn’t go overland from India to Nepal. I already had the (non-refundable) ticket so I got on the plane. Everyone I’ve ever talked to loved the journey from India to Kathmandu and I wish I had done it. Next time.

[photo credits, from top down: TheFriendlyFiend,stuartpilbrow, mikecolvin82, rileyroxx, Esparta]


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