I was 20 the first time I truly packed a bag by myself for an international adventure (I don’t count the time I went to Russia and Latvia with my youth group when I was 15 because I’m pretty sure my mother helped). It was on this post-college trip when I was bit by the travel bug.
Before then I had taken a few road trips with college friends, and even on those, I knew I loved exploring faraway and exotic places like Denver, Chicago, Columbia, and the Texas Gulf Coast. But it wasn’t until I stepped onto that plane and let it take me across an ocean that I understood how little I knew, and how much the world could teach me if I let it.
Travel has had its fingerprints on my timeline since early adulthood. Post-college, I went on another trip to the UK with friends, then met my husband a few months later on yet another trip to Kosovo. Kyle and I each brought to our marriage a separate love for exploring the world, so it inevitably became part of our family’s DNA.
We lived in Turkey for awhile and traveled a bit (our oldest had visited six countries by the time she was four years old), then our middle guy was born overseas and went to his second country when he was nine days old (long story; there were reasons).
Eventually, we traveled for a school year, and that sealed the deal: travel, as best we can, big or small, is one of our family’s priorities. Whenever we can, we’ll travel together.
Because of all this, I’ve inevitably created for myself a certain travel philosophy — but a better way to put it might be that I brushed away the vines and unearthed the Travel Philosophy I’ve always had. I’m still working on it, but it looks a little something like this.
1. Travel is Best With a Learner’s Posture
I miss out on growth if I choose to show up at a place as though I know more than what the place could teach me. The most surprising life lessons wait in the most unexpected places, from mamas cooking in the kitchen at their family’s cafe, to the natural world in all its flora and fauna.
Every time I go somewhere new, I’m reminded how big the world is and how little I matter — in a good way. I get chills at the thought of being on an obscure island where no one knows me. Especially in our hyperconnected digital age, it’s good to remember how many corners of the world we have yet to know, and who don’t yet know us.
As a traveler, I embody a learner’s posture when I ask questions and wait patiently for the answer, without judgment or expectation; when I’m willing to try new things (even food); when I ask myself, ‘What does this tell me about this place and these people?’ when I don’t understand something and I’m tempted to brush it off as ridiculous.
A learner’s posture reminds me of my own humanity, and it levels me with the fellow humans around me. We all have so much to learn from each other, and this is one of the great and beautiful benefits of travel: it invites us to meet people and places we’d never meet otherwise.
2. It Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive
Yes, it can be done very expensively, but it’s not a prerequisite to going. This is a helpful reminder when we’re on a tight budget and I’m tempted to think going isn’t worth it if we can’t spring for top-of-the-line housing/transportation/food/excursions. It’s still worth doing — and can be done beautifully — on a budget.
We’ve never gone somewhere and not watched our finances, and we’ve never once regretted going. In fact, it makes the return that much more pleasant when, in the recovery week at home afterwards, we’re not regretting how much money we spent.
It takes planning and forethought, but it’s entirely possible to do, say, Paris on a budget, or New Zealand without racking up credit card debt. I can say this because we’ve done both. Know-how is key.
3. Kids Don’t Make it Worse, Just Different
I’ll be disappointed if I travel with my family and assume it’ll be just like traveling by myself, with my spouse alone, or with a group of adult friends. It’s not the same, and it’s not better or worse… it’s just different.
In fact, I’m tempted to say traveling with kids is a tiny bit better, because they open doors to meeting new people and places (especially in cultures where kids are highly valued). Yes, it can be a challenge, and depending on their ages, there are things you might have to say no to when you travel with your children (like date nights).
But I’ve said this a hundred times, and I still believe it down to my bones: the more kids travel, the better travelers they become. It’s so easy to doubt the enjoyment of family travel when you’re thinking about your toddler who can’t make it to Costco and back without losing her mind. But I promise: most of the time, they’ll become better travelers the more often they travel.
This is a good argument for why there’s no need to “wait until they’re older.” If you start early — even with small overnighters or nearby weekend excursions — they’ll be much better equipped to handle long-haul international flights, crowded hot buses, or waiting in a long line.
4. Hard Doesn’t Equal Bad
Which leads me to this. I don’t travel to escape real life, I travel to dive right in — and that inevitably means, at some point, dealing with something less than pleasant. Whether it’s a language miscommunication, a less-than-ideal sleeping arrangement, food that’s not my favorite, or crowds, I can let these things develop my character and grow me into a better person …if I let them.
Does this mean I live in denial and pretend everything’s great when it’s not? Not at all. In fact, there are times when I “escape” from hard things for a short bit in the name of self-care and safety for my loved ones around me (I’m a highly sensitive person, so I’m looking at you, Asian markets). But this looks like going to my room for a bit with a journal and earbuds, not booking the next flight home or never going in the first place.
Disappointment is inevitable if travel serves as a conduit to escape real life. Because at some point, things won’t go exactly as planned (even at well-curated theme parks). But that’s okay, and travel is still worth it. In fact, travel opens doors to hard things we’d might not try at home, and what a rush of satisfaction it is when we lean into it and come out healthier and more alive on the other side.
5. Locals Know Best
I still remember the first time I was in Tuscany and discovered I had horrible cell reception. I’d bookmarked ahead of time locations for the best gelato, wine, and art in a certain small town, and once I was there I couldn’t load the website. So, I did what I thought was the next best thing: I asked a friendly-looking local.
He gave us directions to some of the best gelato I’d ever had, and I’m sure we’d have never found it on our own. I kept that little lesson in my back pocket and whipped it out again and again afterwards — turns out, locals usually know what’s best. This makes complete sense when you think about it.
Not only do they usually know best, but by embracing a “When in Rome, do as the Romans” posture, you’ve got a better chance at experiencing the real place, not the manicured, travel-guide-approved version. You might want that every now and then, but the appeal won’t last long, and you’ll miss out on the heartbeat and grit of what makes a place itself.
A few years ago, my family and I went on a Caribbean cruise for one of my work writing assignments. If you know cruises, you know their thousands of pre-planned (overpriced) excursions at all their stops. At our first port-of-call, we piled ourselves in the backseat of a taxi with our kids, ages one to six, and asked the local driver to take us somewhere. Anywhere. Wherever he thought would show us the best of his island.
He drove us to a fantastic beach where the locals swam, where the kids ran around on playgrounds, and where we could sample cheap local food. It was the highlight of that entire trip for me.
6. Slow & Savored > Bucket List
I’ve had to learn the hard reality that, this side of heaven, I’ll never see it all. Not only will I never go everywhere I want to go, but once I’m at a place, I won’t get to experience all I want in that place. The bucket list will never be completely checked off.
If I go somewhere hoping that’ll happen, I’ll spend all my energy going from place to place without actually enjoying it once I’m there (and my mind will be occupied mostly on how to get to the next spot). That might work for some, but it doesn’t for me. I’ve come to learn that I’d rather do fewer things but better.
I’ve had afternoons at an outdoor cafe table and my journal, and felt like I experienced the city more deeply than if I had gone to its well-known museum. I’d rather spend my energy on only one or two experiences per day, and spend the rest of my hours having good conversations as I walk cobblestone streets with one of my kids, sampling local coffee or street food, or just people watching. This pace is more enjoyable for me. And it gives us as a family more opportunities to bond when we’re savoring our simply being at a place instead of running around trying to see it all. Because that’ll never happen.
These six ideas help me make decisions about when it’s time to travel, where we go, what we do when we’re there, and why we bother in the first place. It’s a decision-making rubric, it’s a gentle reminder of who we are (and, perhaps, why we choose a different form of travel over the usual routes), and it gives me freedom to be unapologetically myself.
It helps me remember why we prioritize travel in our family — and it’s a source of encouragement during travel droughts, like we’ve been in for awhile as we try to finish our fixer-upper and the end isn’t quite in sight. The call to travel is what keeps us going on the house, and also the other inevitables of life.
• Listen to the podcast episode about this post.
• I’m in the middle of creating something for you if you’ve got a yearning to travel but aren’t sure where to start, or if you are already planning an adventure but are overwhelmed by all the decisions to make. Head here to make sure you hear as soon as they’re ready.
• If you just so happen to be in the Minneapolis area, I’m speaking on the intersection of Faith & Travel on Thursday, March 21 (so, next week!) at this event, open to the public. Would love to see you there!
• And finally, if you’re craving an adventure from the comfort of your own armchair or hammock, you might like my most recent book. It’s not as good as getting out there yourself, but it’s a lovely next choice.
I’d love to hear from you: do you have a travel philosophy, even one learned accidentally? What have you learned from the road?