10 Things We Learned From Years of Travel

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As always, our travels have taught us countless lessons. And since we love learning … here are our favorite “Aha! Moments.”

1. Carry very little stuff.

Really, it’s true. Think “minimalist capsule clothing wardrobe” – you know, the “Garanimals” of the adult world – everything’s gotta go with everything. You’ll thank yourself later when you’re lugging your backpack up to the 4th floor by stairs. We’ve developed a morning habit of complimenting each other’s attire (even if you saw it … recently) and asking, “Is that new?” It’s always the first laugh of the day.

2. Learn the 7 key words for each of your destinations.

Mastering these 7 words and phrases in the local lingo will help you enjoy your trip: Hello, Please, Thank You, Goodbye, No Problem, Sorry (or Excuse Me) … plus “I am an idiot” always helps break the tension. (Be sure to point to yourself when saying it so there’s no confusion as to who is the numbskull.) After that, don’t stress about language. Keep practicing, learning, smiling, asking questions, making mistakes, poking fun at yourself, and trying again.

Stari Most Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia.
Stari Most Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia.

3. Capitalize on “Chance.”

We love to research and plan trips, but we’ve learned that being flexible and open to new ideas will win every time. That means we’ve got to take a chance. When we were in Dubrovnik, Croatia, James looked at a map and said “Hey, we’re only 75 miles from Bosnia. And it looks like an easy bus trip. Wanna go?” You betcha!

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
–Louis Pasteur

4. Know what drives you crazy; then prepare for it or deal with it!

For example, we’ve learned that arriving in a new city in the middle of the night is just not a good idea for us … for both safety and sanity. So we try to schedule all our transportation to arrive in daylight hours. We also know that we don’t like to get off a 12 hour train ride and search for someplace to sleep. Consequently, we make a reservation for the first night, and know how to get to the hotel. After that, we can stay there or look for new digs.

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5. Break a few rules.

I know, I know, but sometimes you just have to. On Santorini we discovered an abandoned cave house – but there was a fence. We learned that if we were willing to step over a few fences, you may meet the donkey of your dreams!

6. Connect with people.

The sights may be lovely, but it’s the people that make the world go round.

7. Accept that plane travel has become a pain.

I love to fly (James, not so much), but getting on a flight these days has become a true challenge – mostly because of the security process. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that security is a good and necessary thing. It’s the inconsistencies that will drive you crazy … and the actions and attitudes of the security agents. We’ve encountered rude shakedowns, random confiscations of allowed items. and patdowns that went beyond “first base.” I guess the lesson is patience, but it’s sure hard to practice when some TSA Agent has just dislocated your bra!

That leads us to …

8. Keep your sense of humor.

Travel tends to be a comedy of errors. You’re going to screw up, so get used to it. Just keep repeating, “I am an idiot” (in the local language, of course), laugh, and move on.

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9. Understand that you will be judged by your country’s actions and attitudes.

We’ve learned that people around the world just want to understand us and our country. One of the first questions we’re always asked is, “Where are you from?” When we answer “USA” the response can go several ways, but it invariably leads to more questions.

We laugh about an encounter we had with an inquisitive Malaysian high school class, at midnight, waiting in a train station in Penang. Their teacher explained that the kids were on a school trip and he wanted them to practice their English. Could they ask us some questions? We said “Sure,” never expecting what was to come.

For the next 3 hours they grilled us about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s employment policies (KFC had just opened in their town), and the USA Soccer Team’s poor showing in a recent match. They thought we would have all the answers. Our response to all 3 questions: “We’re as baffled as you are!” In their innocence, they also asked some very personal questions, so we were never so glad to see a train arrive when it pulled in at 3 am.

Our approach is to connect with people, let them get to know us as individuals, and remember that we are guests in their county. We know we represent our country, and our goal is to leave them with a positive impression of Americans.

James with his new friends in Dambulla, Sri Lanka.
James with his new friends in Dambulla, Sri Lanka.

10. Realize that as much as we love to travel, we also want to have a home base.

Terri and James

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

61 thoughts

  1. Your ten points are so true! Congratulations for capturing the travel essentials.
    Such a clear and positive vision is beneficial all round – I will keep reading ‘Gallivance’!

  2. #5 resonated with me indeed. As long as the action is harmless, and the intention good. We snuck into a beer tent in Hue and had a great time meeting smiling locals who were thrilled to see us there. We purchased a few beers too, so everybody got their moneys worth that night!

    We’ll be heading to Dubrovnik in July, and I was pleased to see you made the trip into Bosnia as well, as the Bay of Kotor was on my must see list as well!

    Did you get to the Plitvice Lakes?

    1. The beer tent sounds like a blast … and the perfect example of “sometimes you’ve gatta break the rules!” We loved Dubrovnik and wanted to make it to Plitvice Lakes, but ran out of time. All of our research said it’s a great trip.

    1. Thanks Betsy, for the comment and for dropping by the blog. From reading your blog, it appears that we have very similar travel philosophies. I also liked the photo on the Nile. As you may have read, we spent a couple of years in Khartoum. It’s rare to run into someone who has visited there. Very intrepid

    1. One of our favorites came from living in Sudan and beginning to learn Arabic. Our neighbor (a teenager) taught us “Muk mafi” which means “No Brains!” It came in very handy.

  3. Well… I already do most of those things naturally… so now I’m really inspired to travel. I could easily fit my belonging in the back seat of a car. The rest is hidden within.

    1. Hi Michael, so glad you stopped by! Thanks for your very kind words. And what a great blog you have! I love your post on finding things to eat while traveling – spot on! All the best, Terri

  4. After reading this, certainly timely for any year, I believe we are kindred spirits ….or at least have the same philosophy on travel. Couldn’t agree more!

      1. Well Terri I haven’t actually jumped in et! I have done harder things than 30 seconds in cold water and when I think of the suffering of those enslaved in our modern day…well these things help put life in perspective. I appreciate your generous and kind words very much.

  5. I think this is good advice for everyday! Wonderful life adventures you are sharing and in such a well organized blog. Great! I’m inspired by the traveling but more so in seeing the love of doing it together- thank you… wendy

    1. Thank you so much Wendy. We realize how incredibly fortunate we are to be able to travel together – through thick and thin. I think it helps that we aim for learning a lot and laughing even more. Sounds like you have a similar philosophy. All the best, Terri

  6. Excellent! My favorite of these is to be flexible. Nothing ever goes as planned, and you can’t let that ruin your travels! Oftentimes it happens for a reason and it works out better than planned!

    1. Thank you so much Dana. I think it’s really important for all of us as travelers to remember that we’re guests in someone’s home, city or country. I’m so glad that you stopped by. All the best, Terri

  7. All very good points! I normally don’t book hotels in advance unless I am arriving late or it is a very popular holiday. Is is the worst to wander around when you are tired!

    1. Thanks Stephanie. And you’re right – wandering around when you’re tired is the worst. It’s a great recipe for being overcharged because you just want to go to sleep. 🙂 Are you on the road now? ~Terri

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Doyle. There is all kinds of travel, and all kinds of travelers. We’ve discovered that to be happy long-term travelers, we have to know what’s worked best for us in the past, and what drives us crazy. When we sort these things out, it’s all good. ~James

  8. Hi Terri and James, I don’t know if I’ve read this before but it sounds familiar..the Malaysian school class at least! I can say one thing for my South East Asians,.. that they are very direct and very honest. They will ask questions about pay, they will say that you put on weight….That is sometimes quite shocking for some people =) But great tips otherwise~ carry very little stuff is something I don’t always do =)

    1. Hi Tanny, So sorry for my delayed response – your comment slipped past me. You can now teach me how they say “I am an idiot!” in Greenland. 🙂 The Malaysian students were hilarious in their innocence and insistence on frank details … lots of details. 🙂 Are the people in Greenland as direct? Thanks so much for stopping by. ~Terri

  9. We are getting ready to enter a mega-travel phase of our lives (right after retirement…) and have a plan to travel light. All of your suggestions are worthy and helpful. thanks! and thank you for visiting me! Gail

    1. It’s great to meet you Gail. Getting ready for a mega-travel phase is so much fun – and you’re smart to travel light. You’ll enjoy the adventure without having to wrestle with luggage. 🙂 Have you decided where you’re going yet, or are you still figuring it out? So glad you stopped by. All the best, Terri

      1. First on the list is the Haute Route–hiking from Chamonix France to Zermatt Switzerland. That will take 3 weeks and is mandatory “packing light” trip. Then Maui, Kauai, the MIlford Track in New Zealand. Then catch our breath and start again.

      2. That sounds wonderful Gail. I’ve heard that the Haute Route is a great experience – and you’re right about the packing light. Anywhere in Hawaii and New Zealand is a joy. Great itinerary. ~T

    1. Hi Gail, What a wonderful way to be thankful and share the love. Thanks so much for linking to our post and introducing us to all these fascinating blogs. We immediately went to #2 because James grew up in Glasgow, Ky, just 15 miles from Horse Cave. And if you’re in that area for your bucket list, we thought you’d get a kick out of our post about sleeping in a wigwam in Cave City, just a few miles down the road. All the best, Terri & James

  10. Reblogged this on Geokult Travel and commented:
    This is a fabulous post by James and Terri Vance who write about their travel adventures on http://www.gallivance.net.
    There is some really great practical advice and I love their morning habit of complementing each other’s wardrobe choices.
    Will definitely be spending some time exploring this site over the next little while.
    Thanks Terri for letting us reblog 🙂

    1. Hi Kimberly! So glad that you stopped by. When it comes to travel, over the years we’ve probably made most of the mistakes possible. But to our credit, we (usually) learn from them. 🙂 We realized early on that we were going to screw up (a hard lesson when you’re young and think you’re invincible), but figuring out how to move on and laugh at ourselves has made all the difference. How about you, ever had any travel mishaps? ~Terri

  11. I love this list – well done and spot on!
    You’ve hit all the main things to keep in mind, AND the main things that make us all want to blow a gasket (or two) in the heat of the moment! Still working on number 1…really trying to work on that – how do you do it??
    I’m afraid Matt’s going to ban me from future travel if I don’t since he’s the one who carries that very large backpack of ours. 😀
    ~ Andrea ❤

    1. Thanks so much, Andrea! We had so much putting this list together one night over a glass of wine, laughing about all our (continuing) mistakes and the lessons we learned from them.

      We’re still refining number 1, but I think our big realization was that we don’t have to prepare for every situation – we can buy (or rent) clothes and other items there. I just read a great account by some long-term backpackers who’d always dreamed of attending the Moscow Ballet – which required formal evening wear. So they went to a clothing rental shop, got kitted out, came out looking like royalty, and had the time of their lives. The next day they were back to jeans and their pack were no heavier. 🙂

      We’ve really slimmed down our electronics – that helps a lot. As for me I look for lightweight neutral clothes I can layer, add my personality with fun jewelry and scarves, and stick with 1 pair of shoes. What about you? ~Terri

  12. well I am finally having a chance to peek around the “gallivance” blog and this post was enjoyable – I really love tip one – about carrying little stuff – and I actually do that on flights that are right here in the States – sometimes it has many drawbacks – and I find myself at a store – but this tip is good fro all traveling – whether near (or far away like you guys). I also like that you both seem to live with a sense of humor that keeps life fun – anyhow, safe travels and potent list you give here – take care

    1. Thanks for your comment Yvette and for dropping by the blog. Your comment motivated me to go back and re-read this post. And I must say, that I still feel as strongly about these points as I did the day we wrote them. Knowing how to be an independent, long-term traveler isn’t a knowledge one is born with. Every traveler is different, as is every travel experience, and to be inspired to continue and experiment takes experience and some tweaking. At least, that’s what we discovered. As to traveling light, it has been our mantra for years, and it’s never caused anything but a better experience. ~James

      1. Thanks James – and this post has been on my mind since I read it earlier this week (fun when that happens – ) but I liked the “first laugh of the day” – hints at much of the chemistry you two have – and then sorry about the bed bugs. and that is what was so great about this post – so often we see photos of these adventures – which are great – of course – but this poignantly notes the rigors of such adventure – which too often is overlooked. anyhow, I will be back to look around some more later – hope you two have a nice weekend

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