20 Travel Lessons from 20 Years Living Abroad Travelling the World
20 travel lessons from 20 years living abroad and travelling the world is a celebration of our two decades as citizens of the world. Travel teaches us things. Yet after a decades-long education on the road it feels like there’s still so much to learn.
Last month marked the end of our 20th year living abroad travelling the world. So today is in fact the first day of our 21st year. This time 20 years ago, we were settling into a new life in Abu Dhabi, having packed up our Sydney apartment. I’d signed a three-year contract and had started teaching filmmaking, writing and media studies to young Emirati women. Terence was freelancing – news editing, web design, teaching multimedia, and, later, guidebook writing.
It was meant to have been a one-contract gig. Our plan had been to move to Buenos Aires, where I’d spent a month during a year abroad of in-country study for a masters degree in international studies. I renewed my UAE contract and we moved to Dubai instead, staying seven and a half years in total.
That was the expat period and it was packed with travel in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe – two months each summer, two or three weeks over winter, and countless long weekends and five-day breaks for national and religious holidays
After I quit my job to write full-time – I’d been writing part-time as Terence had inadvertently established a guidebook-writing career for us – we spent the next seven and a half years travelling the world as travel writers and Terence also as a photographer. We put another period of our lives in storage.
Researching and shooting guidebooks took us on epic countrywide road trips in countries as diverse as Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Thailand, and Australia. For city guides we settled into apartments in cities such as Amsterdam, Antalya, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Krakow, and Bangkok.
Then we launched Grantourismo and our focus on slow, local and experiential travel, with our yearlong grand tour of the globe, settling in to places to learn to live like locals in apartments and villa rentals, on a quest to make travel more meaningful and more memorable.
Those seven and a half years comprised the digital nomad part of our lives, living out of suitcases with no place to call home, working from wherever we happened to be – airports, trains, apartments, villa rentals – until mid 2013 when we signed a lease on a Siem Reap apartment we currently call home.
Of course we’ve been travelling for far longer than 20 years (I attempted to summarise our life stories here last year and how we created a life filled with travel in an attempt to answer readers’ questions, if you’re curious; long read warning), but today I wanted to share just 20 travel lessons from 20 years living abroad travelling the world, as it’s the last two decades that have taught me the most about the planet and its people and myself.
20 Travel Lessons from 20 Years Living Abroad Travelling the World
From the realisation that people are essentially the same the world over to recognition that travel is a whole lot more fun if we learn a handful of local words, these are 20 travel lessons from 20 years living abroad travelling the world.
Consequently, these travel lessons formed the foundational ideas upon which we began to develop our grand tour project and this site ten years ago – that travel is about people as much as places and that it’s so much more meaningful and memorable when you connect with people and travel slowly, locally and experientially.
People are essentially the same the world over
One of the first things we learnt when we began to travel the Middle East was that people are the same deep down inside, regardless of religion, government, politics, class, economic stature, and so on. We all have the same needs, wishes, dreams, and desires. A Syrian refugee, a Cypriot shepherd, a Spanish chef, a Siem Reap rice farmer, and a Sydney-born writer deep down want the same things in life. We want to feel safe and secure. We want to be able to feed our families and ourselves. We want to spend time with people we love. All those other belief systems, structures and institutions can get in the way of forming friendships until we learn this. When we are open, tolerant and have empathy, we open ourselves up to so many more opportunities to connect with people and it’s that engagement that makes for the most enriching travel experiences.
People are generally good, kind and generous
We have overwhelmingly met good people on our travels – people who are warm and welcoming, hospitable and kind, people who have given us things when they’ve had so little themselves. Such as the matriarch of a Cambodian family that lives on an average of $2 a day who handed me a bowl brimming with wok-fried morning glory with garlic and chilli – their lunch for the day. I can’t tell you how many times people have given us figs, peaches, pineapples, and watermelons; how many times they’ve invited us to tea, lunch and dinner; how many people have gone out of their way to help with directions, guide us to a place we couldn’t find, and offer us a ride. One time on a highway in southern Turkey we rolled down the window to ask a local driver for directions. He gestured to follow him and we did, for about 10 minutes, until he pointed to our turn-off. Then we saw him do a u-turn and drive back to wherever he was going. Which is why I was aghast to read the New York Times 52 Places Traveler write: “The worst trouble I’ve gotten into while traveling has been when I’ve tried to act like a local. Hang out with locals, but remember you’re always a potential target.” Not true. You’re rarely a target when you travel. Don’t think the worst of people, don’t be suspicious and paranoid; trust people and you’ll continually be touched by their goodness and generosity.
Meeting locals makes for more memorable travels
We’ve long said that it’s the people we’ve met not the places we’ve been to that have made for the most memorable travels, and that’s essentially the essence of local travel. Once you trust people and approach your travels with an openness and willingness to interact with locals, no matter their age, race, nationality, background, or beliefs, you open yourself to infinite opportunities. When we travelled when we were young, we nearly always travelled independently, using guidebooks and focusing on seeing sights, strolling museums, climbing monuments, scrambling ruins. Like most travellers, we mostly hung out with other travellers. It wasn’t until we moved abroad that changed. It was on our first trip to Lebanon for New Year’s Eve in 1998, with a friend who’d come to visit from Australia, when we asked staff in a fashion boutique where the best spot was to see in the New Year. She invited us to join her and her friends. We did and we had a blast, dancing on tables and drinking like there was no tomorrow. They welcomed us as if we were old friends. That’s the night we learned how much the Lebanese love to party – and why, like them, we should have taken sunglasses with us as they drove us home the next morning. See our tips for meeting locals when you travel.
Exploring backstreets and neighbourhoods is more enjoyable than being jostled by tourist crowds
Going local and exploring the backstreets of cities and local neighbourhoods to get an insight into the everyday lives of locals has always held a bigger appeal for us than staying in the tourist centre. That was why we began to rent apartments in destinations like Venice and Milan many years ago. We quickly realised that taking time to hang out in a park, watch a local football match, linger for a while in a café, or see a live band at a bar was far more satisfying than running around ticking off sights with masses of other tourists. It allows you to soak up the atmosphere of a place, get a feel for the pace of life and how people live out their daily lives. In these times of over-tourism where residents are erecting banners telling tourists to go home, I guarantee you’ll be far more welcomed in a backstreet pub than a busy street that thousands of tourists pound down every day taking selfies in front of a famous building and running its residents’ lives.
Travelling slowly and settling in is more satisfying than racing between cities and towns
When you travel more slowly and settle into places for a while, rather than moving towns every day or two, you have more time for interactions with local people – in contrast to whizzing through places, racing around seeing the sights, and only meeting staff at restaurants and hotels. Because when you slow down, you have that time to linger and to pay attention to the little details of the everyday that are woven into the fabric of life. You become more acutely aware of your surroundings and the people that inhabit them. You start to notice the nuances of daily rituals and can take time to observe customs and ceremonies of the community you’ve temporarily settled into. Slow travel, like local travel, enables you to do more than scratch the surface; it allows you to get beneath the skin of the place you’re exploring, to have a deeper experience. Slow travel can also save budget travellers some money.
Wandering aimlessly and getting lost can be exhilarating
This is what you can do when you go local and go slow, when you leave your gadgets locked in your luggage and you leave yourself enough time to be able to wander aimlessly to the point of getting lost, without the worry of getting back to be somewhere. This is when you allow yourself to slip into those backstreets and follow your nose, snooping around when you need to put your faith in people and may have to draw from the kindness of strangers to find your way home again. But trust me, as long as you don’t end up down an alley with a crazy woman attacking you as we did in the medina of Tangier many years ago, or down a dead-end with angry dogs growling at you as we did in Bangkok’s off the beaten track Thonburi a few weeks ago, it’s worth it. Some of our most memorable travel memories are of getting lost, especially in cities such as Amsterdam, Antwerp, Venice, Buenos Aires, Brussels, Berlin, and Hanoi. There’s a thrill that comes with venturing into the unknown – a feeling that’s elusive to most travellers these days who don’t risk doing anything without checking Googe Maps or consulting Trip Advisor.
Befriending strangers in foreign lands is easy: eat, drink and cook with them
The easiest and fastest way to make friends while travelling is to drink, eat and cook together and it’s one of the most fun ways to connect with people, too! My first introduction to the idea of befriending strangers over beers and a barbecue was as a child in the late 1970s on my family’s epic five-year caravanning adventure around Australia. We’d barely unhooked the van and set up the annexe and dad was inviting some family he’d met fishing on the beach over for dinner. Our family had always cooked and feasted together so it seemed completely normal to me to do it with people we’d just met. But it wouldn’t be until the mid 1980s when Terence and I started watching the pioneer of the television travelogue cooking show, Keith Floyd, always with a glass of wine in hand – and soon after, Rick Stein – meeting people, cooking in their kitchens, village squares, on paddocks and on lakes around the world, and then feeding them, that we were inspired to travel the world to eat, drink and be merry. We’d already been living abroad for four years and sipping and eating our way through the Middle East and Europe when Tony Bourdain’s first foray in food-driven travel A Cook’s Tour was released in 2002. Jamie Oliver’s Great Italian Escape in 2005 made me want to meet Italian nonnas and learn to make pasta with them. But the fact that Bourdain would go on to inspire millions around the world to travel was thrilling. If you were a Bourdain fan and you have never sat down to eat and drink with strangers on your travels, now’s the time to do it!
Learning a few local words makes a world of difference
Learning a few local words of the language of the place you’re travelling to will make a world of difference to your experience of that place. If you have time, enrol in an introductory language course, but if not, resolve to try to learn at least 10-12 words of the language of the place you’re visiting before we go: hello, goodbye, yes, no, how are you, good thank you, please, excuse me, you’re welcome, how much, etc. “Sorry, I don’t understand” and “I don’t speak much xxxx (the language)” will come in very handy. Even if you only end up using a few – “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye” – it will improve your experience of the place immensely. Locals get a kick out of foreigners making an effort to learn their language, which makes a huge difference to how you’re treated. If you’ve been to Paris and thought the French were rude, think about whether you said “Bonjour!” when buying a ticket, ordering a coffee or entering a shop. Non? Try it next trip and see what a difference it makes. You’ll also find yourself becoming more confident, the more people acknowledge your efforts, respond to you in their language, and teach you some more words or phrases. That in turn will motivate you to learn more. And the rewards are immense. Wait until you’re on the receiving end of those smiles.
Pre-trip research and reading for context will enrich your experience
Reading a travel guidebook to the place you’re going is a great start. Work your way through the front and back chapters of the best guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, Footprints, Rough Guides, and Bradt, which have sections on history, politics, culture, the arts, music, and more, and also list further reading recommendations. A good history book by a respected historian on the place will provide background information that will enrich your travels in ways that you could never imagine once you get there. That knowledge will provide context, help you to make sense of what you’re seeing and experiencing, and deepen your understanding. Also read literature on the place – and not only travel literature by foreigners who have visited, but also fiction by local authors, although sometimes this is best bought once you arrive. On a trip to Penang last year I found an abundance of books – short stories, novels and memoirs – by local writers in a Georgetown bookstore. If you’re coming to a country such as Cambodia, read up on the early history and archaeology as well as modern history and contemporary politics. Do get an idea of the depth of reading that travel writers do on places, see my Cambodia Reading list.
Good local guides will provide a deeper experience of a place and its people
Good guides are tremendously under-valued these days, based on my conversations with travellers here in Cambodia. Time and time again travellers to Siem Reap dismiss my suggestion that they hire guides to visit Angkor Wat and the other archaeological sites. I think people who pride themselves as being independent travellers perceive hiring guides as something only tourists do and prefer to go it alone using Instagram and Google maps. What they’re missing out on is not only a deeper history of a place, some practical help with getting around, and great travel tips, but they’re also missing out on insider insights, as well as the chance to engage with a local. Sometimes I find the conversations in between the prepared scripts that I have with guides to be more revealing and more fascinating than the history lessons. I appreciate hearing their tales of growing up as a child during the tragic Khmer Rouge period A good guide, hired even just for the first day of your exploration, will provide an even deeper experience of a place, and could just become your new local friend.
Getting hands on and learning things provides a more immersive experience
Experiential travel which is simply about doing and learning things on holidays rather than lying on a beach has been a rapidly growing trend for good reason. Learning things or better yet, a learning holiday makes for an even more immersive experience of a place. This was a lesson we learnt when we began doing cooking classes many years ago and it was another reason we started Grantourismo. Whether it’s a flamenco dance class, some lessons on a musical instrument, a cooking course, or sailing lessons, there’s nothing quite like learning to do something new when you travel, particularly if it’s in a place that’s highly regarded for that skill, art, craft, cuisine, or sport – like learning how to master the art of making macarons in Paris, France, or to make silver jewellery in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, getting a flamenco guitar lesson in Jerez, Spain, or learning how to surf again in Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica. You’ll not only have that sense of achievement that you would anywhere, but there’s the added bonus of gaining a more immersive experience of the place, whether it’s from the deeper knowledge of the subject you’ve explored and its context in that place or the insights into the culture and society and the local friendships you formed.
Travelling off-season is infinitely more enjoyable than battling high season hoards
It only took us one summer in Europe to learn how hellish high season can be (yes, it was Venice) and a winter holiday in a country that’s seen as a summer destination (Cyprus) to appreciate that travelling off-season can be infinitely more enjoyable than battling the high season hoards. Yet like the families who have no choice but to travel in the school holidays, we didn’t have much choice either during the years I worked for a women’s university. But after many summers in Europe – as glorious as they can be with the long sunny days – we began to appreciate going to destinations in the off-season simply for the fact that there were no or few other tourists. And we would be more warmly welcomed, too. At risk of sounding like a broken record, Siem Reap, for instance, is much more enjoyable in the more laidback, low season months when there are few tourists around and you can find empty temples to explore. European cities such as Barcelona and Venice are also more appealing in winter. In off-season you’ll find not only a more relaxed pace you’ll get more of a peek into the lives of local residents – rather than other tourists.
Visiting second cities and lesser-visited countries can be more rewarding than major tourist destinations
For the same reasons that travelling off-season and getting off the beaten track and into the backstreets of cities is more fun than going in high season and focusing on the tourist zone, visiting second cities and lesser-visited countries can be infinitely more rewarding and more enjoyable as the major destinations, for example, Lyon versus Paris, Valencia instead of Barcelona, Antwerp over Brussels. Those second cities are far more laidback because here are fewer people, the locals are friendlier because they don’t yet hate tourists, the places are better value because they’re not major destinations. These days, with the emergence of the anti-tourist movement in recent years in places such as Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Iceland, and Dubrovnik, which have been heaving with high numbers of tourists in the high summer seasons, spending more time in alternative places is simply the right thing to do. I’m not saying not to visit Paris or Barcelona (they’re some of our favourites in the world), I’m just recommending you visit them off-season instead and in high season explore those lesser visited cities and countries.
Taking your green habits on holiday with you is more essential than ever
Many of us are so good when we’re at home, declining plastic bags, bottles and straws, carrying our canvas totes with us wherever we go, separating our garbage for recycling, turning lights off around the house, taking short showers, reusing bath towels, and how many of you change your sheets every day? But once we get on holidays, we’re buying small bottles of water because it’s easier than lugging a litre bottle around, buying take-away coffees in plastic cups, accepting street food in Styrofoam containers, we’re taking long showers and leaving the television and all the lights in the hotel room on, we’re leaving our once-used towels on the bathroom floor, and complaining if the hotel sheets aren’t changed every day. I don’t need to tell you that the world is grappling a plastic problem of immense proportions. The holiday destination you’re visiting – especially those in developing countries that might not have a good garbage collection service, let alone a recycling system, that doesn’t have safe drinking water from the tap, and is battling a tourist-generated plastic problem – will appreciate you bringing your green habits with you. Pack your cotton tote, bamboo straws, and reusable cups, drinking bottles and containers for take-away and picnics. When it comes to water and electricity treat your hotel room as you would your home. And support eco-friendly businesses, organic eateries, farmers markets, and zero-waste restaurants.
Travelling sustainably is a way of giving back to places you visit and it feels good
The notion of travelling sustainably and how to do that is something that a lot of travellers struggle with. The easiest way I’ve found to do it is to think small and local. You’ve probably lived in places where there have been campaigns at some stage to supporting your local community and small businesses by ‘eating local’ and ‘shopping local’. Well, it’s the same thing. The best way you can give back to the places you’re visiting is by spending cash in those places. Simple as that. Taking a cruise on one of those floating cities? Don’t buy souvenirs on board but buy them at the ports of call when you do shore excursions. Sip the massive multinational travel companies and book tours with small local travel businesses. You can still make reservations and buy tours in advance using online travel booking sites, but read the small print: who is running the tour? Is it a big global brand name you recognise? Skip it. Book with the small local guys instead. It’s all about leaving out the middle men and going direct to the source, so you know that more money is going toward the local communities that need it.
Travelling responsibly is simply the right thing to do
Like a lot of the things on this list – slow travel, local travel, experiential travel, and sustainable travel – I’ve also written about responsible travel a lot on Granourismo over the years. They’re the foundations upon which we built this site, and our philosophy and outlook was born from travel lessons we learnt on the road. We gradually learnt that as travellers we have a responsibility to the places we travel to, and just as importantly as where we travel is how we travel. Traveller sustainably and traveller greener are more responsible ways of travelling, but travelling responsibly is also about having a sense of right and wrong and travelling more ethically. It’s about showing regard for the people and community you’re visiting; respecting local cultures, customs, traditions, and values; and things like supporting fair trade. It’s about avoiding visits to schools and orphanages (children are not tourist attractions) and not riding elephants, not posing with drugged tigers, lions, and bears, and avoiding animal shows, dolphin parks, and zoos (wild animals belong in the wild). Instead, you can support local NGOs and charities, visit animal sanctuaries and conservation centres that are rescuing, rehabilitating and returning animals to the wild. If you’re coming to Cambodia, see our comprehensive Responsible Travel Guide.
Planning your trip and booking some stuff is sensible but leave room for spontaneity
Doing research and planning some of your trip before you go is important. Unless you’re an experienced traveller or you’re the most flexible, adaptable, resourceful, and most easygoing person in the world, I don’t recommend completely winging it. That’s when things can get stressful and you’ll hate yourself and hate the place and if it’s so bad you end up hating the very idea of travel you’ll be reluctant to ever do it again. If you’re heading to a popular tourism destination in high season then you’ll need to book as much as you can in advance. But try not to fill every day with tours and activities, to leave some room for spontaneity. If you’re travelling off-season and going to lesser-visited places then book your flights, book some hotels in the first days or weeks so you’re not wasting time online when you’re there, but leave some nights free in case you decide to cut short some time in a place or extend your stay in another. Sometimes we think we want to go somewhere, but when we arrive we discover an altogether different place we want to spend our time. That’s the beauty of travel.
Getting out of your travel comfort zone is good for you
For many of us, travel is about learning new stuff, experiencing new things, broadening our perspectives, and opening our minds – and to achieve those things we generally need to take a few risks, get out of our comfort zones, go places we haven’t been before, and do things we’ve never done. I’m not necessarily talking about climbing mountains or going to war zones either. Sometimes it can be as simple as going to a new holiday destination if you’ve got into the habit of vacationing in the same beach town every year, camping instead of staying in five-star resorts, travelling by public transport if you’re used to private, or taking a road trip if you normally do tours. It might mean travelling to the chaotic capital of a developing country if you’re used to easy holidays in Europe, or travelling solo if you usually travel with your family, partner or friends. Whatever it is, it’s about facing your fears, as terrifying as that might seem. The rewards will far outweigh the discomfort you initially feel and you’ll return home more confident than when you left, having achieved those things you set out to do and discovered it wasn’t scary at all.
Travelling is addictive – prepare yourself
Once you realise that getting out of your comfort zone wasn’t so frightening after all, and you’re feeling confident and ready to take on the world, don’t be surprised if you return home and want to get right back on a plane and go away again. Travel does that to you. It’s incredibly addicted. I often blame my parents for the travel bug that bit me, as they took me travelling from a very young age and then kept me on the road on an epic journey around Australia for five action-packed years. While I didn’t travel overseas until my mid twenties, Terence and I relentlessly explored our backyard, frequently playing tourists in Sydney, and getting away for long weekends and holidays whenever we could – which wasn’t easy, as we both had good full-time jobs, we were studying at night, we were making music and films on weekends. But when we finally went overseas – to Mexico and the USA via Tokyo for a 6-week backpacking trip – we were hooked. From that first trip, it would be another four years before we moved abroad, and before we did I travelled Latin America on my own. But it’s clear we’re addicted. Of course not everyone gets bitten and that’s a good thing. Imagine the world on the move!
Staying home and exploring your backyard is important too
For all my talk about travel and my efforts to persuade you to do it, and why and how, and the travel lessons you’ll learn and rewards you will gain, sometimes it’s best to spend a holiday at home. Let’s face it: sometimes travel can be completely and utterly exhausting, incredibly frustrating, and extraordinarily stressful. It might be because you’ve made a bad choice about where to go. Maybe the weather’s crap or the place isn’t right for you. Maybe it’s just not your kind of scene. Perhaps you’re not in the right state of mind to travel. You’ve had a tough time at work. It hasn’t been a good year. Or you’ve had issues with your health. Sometimes travelling isn’t a good thing for us to do at all. No matter how badly you feel the need to escape, don’t do it. Otherwise, you might read the fact you had a bad time, as ‘travel is not for me’. Many people do. 20 years of travel has taught me that it’s probably better that you do a staycation. Stay home and look after yourself, spend time with family and friends. Explore your own backyard. Rent a beach shack and go for walks by the sea or just play tourist in your hometown. But don’t travel, because you might hate it so much you’ll never do it again. And we can’t have that.
I frequently reflect upon our travels and what I learn from each trip. So when I decided to sit down and bash out 20 travel lessons from 20 years living abroad and travelling the world it didn’t seem such a feat. I initially got to 16 and needed a day away before the final four came to me. But once I started making another list, I found myself with a further 30 lessons from the road. Travel really is an ongoing education. If you have any travel lessons you’d like to share we’d love to hear from you.