Five Ways to Mitigate Travel Mishaps

Plane at Dalian Airport by Caroline Wik

Ensure your time away is as good as it can be.

In a dream world, we could travel or go on vacation and have absolutely nothing go wrong. Nothing. No missing baggages, no unexpectedly awful hotel experiences; everything would happen on time and just as planned.

If you’ve traveled a lot though, you’d probably laugh at the thought. A trip where your expectations and hopes are met?! Crazy talk!

It is an unfortunate reality that something is bound to go wrong, but you don’t have to let that spoil your trip. You certainly don’t have to lower your expectations so low that you’re just miserable. There are things you can do to prevent things from going wrong, and if something does go wrong, there are ways to mitigate the damage too.

Embrace Minimalism

We’ve talked about minimalism a lot before, both in reference to travel and in reference to general quality of life, but it bears repeating – being a minimalist at least when you travel can make your life a lot easier.

When we traveled in our pre-minimalist days, we took way too many things and this caused us innumerable headaches. In one instance, we had two checked suitcases packed to the brim on our way home from China and neither of them were at baggage claim waiting for us. Not only did we waste a lot of time trying to get a hold of someone to help us locate our bags and eventually file a lost baggage claim, but we also suffered the stress and emotional consequences of being too attached to things.

Thankfully, we got a knock on our door at three-freaking-a.m. by a kind airport employee with our recovered luggage. We got lucky, admittedly. Baggage is lost all the time at airports. Trying to keep track of hundreds if not thousands of bags is tough, and so losses are bound to happen sometimes. This experience really made us re-examine our priorities and packing style.

Headaches from taking too much can happen from more than just baggage claim though; you inevitably lose things in the hotel, transporting those bags to and from the airport and your hotel is a pain and they only wind up being an unnecessary source of stress. It’s unnecessary because the majority of what people pack with them are all unnecessary items. You just don’t need so many things. On our most recent trip, we managed to pack everything we needed – clothes, extra shoes, a laptop and a minimal amount of toiletries into one backpack. That was the least we’ve ever taken, and honestly the freedom it gave us was invaluable – freedom from worry, freedom to be more mobile, freedom to be flexible with our plans, so on and so forth.

Carefully examine what you plan on taking and pare it down to only the absolute essentials, ideally enough that you can carry it onto the plane with you. The more control you keep over your possessions, the easier trips to the airport and hotel will be.

Don’t Set Too Rigid Schedules

The more you try to schedule and plan every minute of your trip, the more you set yourself up for stress, headaches and disappointment. You’re lowering the amount of control you have and increasing your dependency upon others – on something to not delay your flight, transportation to run on time and for traffic to be ideal.

The easiest and, in my opinion, best way to take back that control is to give yourself some freedom. Take your time, enjoy the journey and be careful not to plan things too close together so you have ample time to get from place to place.

We’ve all had problems arise from situations out of our control like traffic on the way to the airport or an activity running long. Part of our study-abroad in China included our weekends being carefully planned, minute-by-minute and so not only were we not free to enjoy and spend extra time on things we found enjoyable or interesting, like exploring the gorgeous Summer Palace, but if one of us in the group took too long we would be literally sprinting to the bus and, lacking good judgment, the bus driver would drive recklessly to get us to the next location on time. He always got us there, somehow alive.

Long Corridor at the Beijing Summer Palace by Caroline Wik

Hi, welcome to the longest painted corridor in the world (728 meters!) You have five minutes until we leave.

So don’t over-schedule yourself or plan things out too rigidly. Give yourself time to not only enjoy your precious time spent there, but also space between activities so if there is an unexpected mishap in transit you won’t be left sweating about a missed reservation or time lost.

Check Your Expectations

Be careful of what it is that you are expecting – especially if traveling overseas. Obviously you can’t expect everything to run perfectly, but don’t expect everywhere else to be the same or have the same standards as the United States, or where ever you are from.

Customs and definitions of terms vary from place to place so it’s important to not hold other countries to our cultural norms and standards. For example, we were told the dorm we’d be staying at in China was new, very modern and swanky. And it was. Except that we didn’t have hot water past 7:00 a.m. (for reference, our classes didn’t begin until 9:00 a.m.), we were given a washing machine to do laundry but no dryer and furthermore we could never have guessed that we’d be awoken at 5:00 a.m. by actual gongs to wake up construction workers building more dorms near ours.

Not to mention, running the shower meant flooding the bathroom because there was no divider on the floor to keep the shower water contained.

I learned very quickly not only how to do laundry and just how long clothes take to hang-dry, but also not to wait until all but one outfit is dirty to wash them.

Your hotel may have plumbing, but that doesn’t mean you can get it anywhere near your mouth nor that it’ll be hot on-demand. Your hotel may be a 4-star hotel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a 4-star hotel by American standards.

I’m not saying you should expect the worst or for everything to go horribly wrong – but you should be careful about what you do expect. Your accommodations may be amazing – just not all day. Don’t expect it to be perfect, don’t expect it to be terrible, and don’t let it ruin your trip.

Expect the Unexpected

Along with being careful of what you expect, you can be guaranteed that unexpected things will happen. You can mitigate some of it by being proactive with things like being a minimalist traveler as noted above, but you can’t plan for every possible scenario. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do either.

Learning to accept unexpected things happening and just rolling with the flow is tough, but it’s a valuable skill to have.

Getting sick on trips to new countries is almost a guaranteed “unexpected” thing to happen. It wasn’t until our third week in Seoul that I got hit with some kind of illness. I hadn’t eaten in a day and Adam insisted I try to eat something. I felt awful that my sickness was ruining not just my trip – but his too – and so I suggested we tried Chicken Lady’s* since it was a restaurant we had been past many times and he was very eager to try it.

I composed myself as best as I could and we walked a few blocks over to Chicken Lady’s and took our seat. I strained myself to read the only-Korean menu and we ordered. As the food cooked on the table-top grill I could feel myself getting dizzier and dizzier, and my stomach turning increasingly more. I suddenly told Adam that I had to leave. Now.

I literally jumped out of my seat and ran.

I was optimistic that I could make it back to our room, only a couple blocks away, but I couldn’t even make it to the street corner, where I did the unthinkable. I threw up in the street. When I looked back, Adam and the great Chicken Lady herself had seen it all.

On the bright side my stomach had settled.

Sick and ashamed I stumbled back to the restaurant and sat back down with Adam at our table. Chicken Lady disappeared into the kitchen and came back with bottles of 7-Up and patted my back. She said a bunch of things in Korean so quickly I could have never hoped to understand any of it with how poor my Korean was at the time. One thing did translate though – her kindness. She took care of us for the rest of our brief time there and as we left I asked Adam to tip. We knew that Korea doesn’t really do tips – but I wanted to give them something extra since she gave us sodas and things for free and showed us more care and kindness than I could have ever expected (and have yet to experience again) and because I was way too embarrassed to ever go there again. So I wanted to sort of pre-pay for a meal that I would theoretically have eaten in the future.

She didn’t accept our extra money, and chased us down to give us our change. Without being able to speak Korean well enough at the time to explain (and being way too scatterbrained to even try) our gratitude and what we were attempting to do, we just had to let it go. We went back to our room and just stayed there for the rest of the day until I was better, then promptly resumed our adventure.

I’m not saying you should expect something horrible like throwing up in the middle of the road, but you also never know when you’ll stumble upon something (or someone) incredible either. Expect mis-communications, that you may get sick, to get lost and to have to make compromises. Savor the great moments, accept the bad and move on.

More often than not it’s the unexpected things that you’ll remember the most – hopefully fondly. Even if it is something bad like my getting sick was, there may also be something unexpectedly nice that goes along with it like Chicken Lady’s unexpected care.

Not to mention, it appears the notion that 7-Up cures upset stomachs is universal. Who knew?

*We don’t remember the name of the restaurant, just that the sign had a woman’s face on a chicken’s body and so we refer to it as “Chicken Lady’s”.

Be Mindful and Choose Your Reactions

Most importantly, practicing mindfulness and living in the moment will get you the farthest in terms of having a great vacation or journey. You have control over how you react to things going wrong, whether you will worry about the past or the future, something going horribly wrong, or cross-cultural mis-communications.

It’s up to you if you let these things get to you and worry over every single little thing. If I hadn’t learned to just accept the bad things that happened and instead be grateful that I had the opportunities and adventures that I did I’m not sure I would have made it out sane.

Rather than complain about the gongs and cold water, we took the opportunity to go ahead and get up early. We’d sit on the rooftop of the dorm and watch the absolutely gorgeous sunrises over the East China Sea. Learning to be mindful will help you to see through the bad events that happen and make them less bad, if not good.

Take it slow, do things deliberately, whole-ass one thing – these are just a few ways you can practice mindfulness. Make a habit of being mindful well before you travel. On the road is no place to try to pick up new habits or virtues.

It’s not easy to change your habits – as they say nothing worth doing is easy – but begin working on it now. Don’t eat in a hurry or in front of the television but rather eat intentionally. Pay attention to every bite you take, to the flavors of the dish. Get into the habit of stopping when a situation or thing becomes stressful and take a breath – go for a quick walk if you must – this pause will help you refocus and to think more calmly. When you are stressed and distracted is the worst time to be making important decisions.

If and when things go wrong, or unexpected things happen, it’s up to you how you’ll react. Whether you hyperventilate, scream, have a panic attack and faint in the middle of the airport or if you take a deep breath, accept it, begin working through it and remember that in the future you’ll probably laugh about it – it’s all in your control.

You Can Only Control Yourself

Taking steps to ensure that your trip will be as stress-free as possible isn’t difficult, but it will take work. Examining and minimizing what you choose to take with you, planning some activities but not over-planning, setting the right expectations and learning to be mindful and in control of your reactions are only a few ways you can ensure a great trip but the impact from them is enormous.

The true value in travel isn’t the souvenirs, the cattle-like shuffle to see every single tourist attraction, nor about how fabulous you looked the whole time, but rather in the personal growth, the journey, the sights, experiences and people you’ll encounter.

What things or strategies have you employed to ensure your travels are stress-free and enjoyable? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Seven Lessons Learned from 80 Days Around The World: The Epic Lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland

Around the World in 80 Days the board game.

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t read or at least heard of the popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. At the time Verne was one of the most popular authors alive, and the book inspired people to travel and adventure and much debate arose questioning whether or not it was in fact possible to travel around the world in 80 days.

The story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition is an obscure but fascinating tale within which are lessons I think are as amazing as they are important. Which is why I’m sharing with you a brief summary of their story and some of the amazing lessons I’ve learned from it.

Verne’s novel was published in 1873 and in 1888 brave young journalist Nellie Bly pressured her editors to let her test the book’s basis. She was known for her audacity and willingness to put her life on the line to uncover a story – most notably when she faked being insane so she could bring to light the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. It took her a year to convince her editor, but eventually she was allowed to go. She was 25 years old.

The day she left for her journey the paper she worked for published an article announcing the trip. An editor for a competing paper saw the article on his way into work. Once there he called into his office the timid Elizabeth Bisland, who at the time was only 28 years old, and told her to go pack her things and be on the 6:00 p.m. train to San Francisco. She was instructed to beat Nellie Bly.

Newspaper clipping

Meet the Women

Nellie Bly

Before we tell you their story, let me first give you a bit of a background about these two women so you know what kind of people they were. Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, came from a humble family. Her father was a laborer who after years of hard work was able to buy the local mill and most of the land surrounding their home. His lesson of never giving up would stick with Bly for the rest of her life.

Nellie Bly

Unfortunately, her father died while she was still young and money quickly ran out – the family lost all their land and had only her mother to rely on. Her mother did eventually remarry but the man she married was abusive and a drunk; the marriage didn’t last long.

Through watching her mother’s struggles Bly learned that as a woman she couldn’t depend on anyone else – she had to be self-sufficient and strong. Which is why when a misogynistic article was published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch arguing that a woman belonged at home and at home alone, she was understandably upset and wrote a scathing rebuttal under a pseudonym. The editor of the paper liked the article so much he asked her to join the paper. Though he rescinded his offer once he learned that Bly was a female, she persuaded him to hire her anyway. It was a much better job than the work she was doing at the time being a maid. It was common for female journalists to take on a pen name rather than use their real name, and Elizabeth chose Nellie Bly.

Female reporters were a rarity at the time and for the few that were they weren’t allowed to write for anything other than the arts and gossip pages of the newspapers, but Bly was different. She refused – she was audacious and willing to risk her own personal safety to expose evils and mistreatment where ever she found it. Frustrated with the Dispatch for refusing to let her, she eventually talked her way into being a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World. Her first story: pretend to be insane in order to be admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island and investigate reports of patient abuse. These were the kinds of stories she loved most.

Elizabeth Bisland

Born on what was once a great sugar cane plantation, Elizabeth Bisland was almost the antithesis of Nellie Bly. A sophisticated, learned writer and poet, Bisland didn’t seek out the limelight but rather enjoyed a quieter existence.

Elizabeth Bisland

The Battle of Fort Bisland was fought on the estate Elizabeth Bisland was born on however the family fled during the war, relocating to a home her father had inherited. Using torn and burnt copies of Cervantes and Shakespeare she had found in her grandfather’s estate, Bisland taught herself first to read. Later, she taught herself French so she could read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original French text.

As a teenager Bisland often sent small works of her poetry to the New Orleans Times Democrat under a pen name, although once discovered she moved to New Orleans to write for the paper. Around 1887 she moved to New York and worked for various newspapers, eventually becoming an editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Bly’s style was unrefined and coarse, while Bisland was more elegant and refined. Bly was also more adventurous and scrappy while Bisland was more interested in books and conversation. The only things they had in common were rough upbringings, an interest in writing and that both women would publish detailed accounts of the trip afterward.

The Challenge

In 1888 after having exposed the cruelty of the Mexican dictator and the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Nellie Bly had become fascinated with Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days and wanted to see if it were in fact possible to circumvent the Earth in 80 days or less. In modern times you could fly around the world in a plane in a couple days, but back then the most they had were steam ships and trains. She had a plan: she’d begin by catching a steam ship to England and would send back brief reports via a new technology, telegrams, and send longer reports via letter. There was a problem though that stopped her editor from allowing it: She was a woman.

Women shouldn’t go across town unescorted, why on earth should she be allowed to go alone around the world? Only a man could do this! Furthermore, she’s a woman: she’ll need 11 trunks worth of clothes and cosmetics that will slow her down trying to keep track of all those things and carrying them from place to place. These were some of the problems the editors of the New York World had with her trip. But that didn’t deter her – it hadn’t stopped her before and it wouldn’t this time either. But Bly wasn’t about to give up, she told them: send a man and I will go for another paper and I will beat him. They remained firm in their decision

A year later though she got a break. The World faced shrinking circulation and needed something to boost readership – a publicity stunt – and Joseph Pulitzer knew just the thing: Nellie Bly. He gave her a few days notice to pack her things and then she would be out. She left November 14, 1989.

On his way into work, Cosmopolitan Magazine owner and editor John Brisben Walker read the front page story in the World announcing Bly’s trip to see if Phileas Fogg’s fictional record of 80 days was possible and if she could beat it. Immediately, he knew this would be an incredible opportunity for him and his publication to get in on. So once he arrived at the office he called for a young writer to be brought to him – and it had to be a female. Literary editor Elisabeth Bisland – who was unaware of Bly’s trip – was called to his office and they exchanged brief greetings before he got to business: She needed to go home and pack her things and be on the next train to San Francisco because she was going to challenge and beat Nellie Bly around the world.

Bisland refused.

She gave excuses at first – she had dinner guests coming that night, she didn’t have enough time to pack, etc. But eventually he wore her down convinced her to go. Her real reason which she admitted to later was that she was a shy, studious and serious writer and as such she cherished her anonymity and privacy. She didn’t want publicity or celebrity – which she knew this would bring. She knew that this would be a sensational story and wanted no part in it. Bly on the other hand reveled that fact.

Bly had left that morning on a steamship east to England but Bisland’s editor believed it would be faster to travel West and so Bisland went via New York Central Railroad to San Francisco.

In Chicago Bisland talked her way onto a fast mail train headed straight for San Francisco. There was a $750,000 contract riding on that train being the fastest yet, and everyone else on the train was either a mail or railroad official. She was the only woman. In Utah the train stopped and changed engineers, the new one being Cyclone Bill Downing who was known for his lack of fear. A few minutes before 1:00 a.m., the train lead by Cyclone Bill Downing slowly began to move forward – but it wouldn’t last for long. He pushed the train to it’s limits careening up and down mountains, around passes, through tunnels and across long plains.

Derailment was common back then and everyone aboard feared the worst – and their nerves were not eased by the trains violent rocking and roar bouncing off the mountains. From the rear car passengers could see a spray of sparks trailing behind them like fire. Many aboard got seasick from the ride, and those that didn’t got sick from the smell of other’s being sick. One man writhed on the floor in terror and was handed brandy to help calm himself.

Bly didn’t have it any easier – she was on an actual ship for the first time and got seasick for a few days. To further complicate things other passengers had no idea why she was on the ship – especially alone. Rumors began circulating about her being an American heiress traveling to mend a broken heart, causing a number of single men to attempt to court her – several of them even proposing.

She eventually devised a plan to end the attention – she “confided” in another passenger that she wasn’t rich, but that a couple charities had raised money for her to go on a long trip to restore her health. The proposals ceased.

Once in England Bly met with a correspondent for the World that told her if she traveled overnight, didn’t sleep and made a few detours she could meet with Jules Verne at his estate in Amnion, France. She was ecstatic – who cares if she had to spend 48 hours straight awake and on the road? She got to meet an immensely famous author whom she respected and loved! While there, she even got to see the map he used to plot out his character’s journey and one he made of hers. He told her that if he beat the fictional record he’d applaud her. He was very supportive of her, even sending her a telegram when she made it to San Francisco to congratulate her.

The two women sent brief reports back via telegram, which the brilliant Joseph Pulitzer realized he could use for more than just status updates. He sponsored a contest for readers – whoever could guess closest to the second that Nellie Bly would arrive back in New York would win a free trip to Europe. Naturally, contestants had to purchase a paper first since the entry form was inside.

Pulitzer’s marketing scheme worked splendidly – the contest was huge and received nearly a million entries. He was careful to never mention Bisland and keep the focus on Bly. The winning entry was off by 2/5 of a second. Second place was off by 3/5 of a second. The contest and paper launched Bly into becoming one of the most famous women in the world at the time.

On the other hand, Cosmopolitan Magazine did a rather poor job of publicizing the race and brought much less attention to Bisland, which was okay since she didn’t want the attention anyway.

The race was neck-and-neck nearly the entire way. While Bisland knew her mission was to beat Bly, Bly had no idea she was racing against anyone else until she got to Hong Kong – about halfway through. The conversation with a ticket office employee went something like this:

Employee: You’re going to lose the race.

Bly: I don’t think so – I’m ahead of schedule.

Employee: Well, the other woman was here a few days ago and is ahead of you.

Bly: What? What other woman?!

The employee filled Bly in on the rest of the story, which greatly displeased her and made her more determined to go faster. On the ship from Japan to San Francisco Bly used her celebrity to convince the captain to go faster – and he did everything he could to get her there on time.

While the trip had its ups it also had its downs – bad weather, miscommunications, mechanical problems and conspirators slowed them down. In the end, it came down to Nellie Bly coming by train from San Francisco and Elizabeth Bisland by steam ship from Ireland. Either women could have won, and the world anxiously held its breath.

Spoiler Alert: Ultimately, Nellie Bly won. Thanks to a ticket salesman who lied to Bisland about missing one of her intended boats and forced her to catch a much slower ship which guaranteed Bly would prevail. Bly’s end time was 72 days 6 hours and 11 minutes while Bisland’s time was 76 and a half days.

Bly’s victory was celebrated with parades and much publicity – by this time she was more concerned with fame than with uncovering immoral actions and becoming more and more arrogant. She attempted to capitalize on it by going on a lecture circuit but it didn’t bode too well. Later s board game and an amusement park in Brooklyn would be made using her name and journey as their themes, however she didn’t profit from either.

Bisland’s return was much less grand although she was just as much changed. She was greeted by a small crowd of curious people and her sister. She wrote soon after returning that she wanted to live her life in such a way that her name would never again appear in a newspaper. However, she would continue to travel. The trip itself had broadened her outlook and opened her up to the world. She particularly loved Japan and would return many times.

Finally, the Seven Lessons Learned

There’s so much that can be gained from the lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland but I’ll just share a few of the more prominent things that stood out for me.

Screw Social Constraints

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were unique – they were doing things during a time when women doing practically anything was frowned upon. While most women were being chaperoned to the store and back, Bly and Bisland were traveling the world alone.

Of course, that wasn’t all they did that was unique. During her early career (teens and early 20s) she would do anything required to expose social injustices – even if that meant going into an abusive insane asylum that she might not get out of (not to mention, many of the people there weren’t actually insane.)

Who cares what other people think of what your doing? Why let other’s opinions – which mean absolutely nothing – have an impact on your happiness? Be yourself, do the things you love, not what others have told you to do or love. Be different, and be proud. By doing this, you’ll encourage others to follow suit and do the things they love.

Things aren’t perfect, but everyone – male and female, and of all races – does have it a lot better than things were in the 1800s. If they could do amazing things then, you can do amazing things now. The only limits you have are the ones you set.

Take Risks

None of the things that happened in this story would have been possible if Bly and Bisland hadn’t taken risks. To me it seems that Bly threw all caution to the wind – she knew things would work out in the end if she was persistent.

Bisland wasn’t really one to attract attention to herself or go outside social norms, but yet she took those risks anyway – just in a very cautious way.

Bly took huge risks every time she did an investigative piece – she almost didn’t make it out of the asylum – but her risks paid off every time. People thought she was crazy for doing what she did but because of her life got better for a great number of people, and she even changed government policy to help protect people from abuses like the asylum.

The trip around the world was a huge risk for both women – not only was it dangerous for them to go alone, but if something did happen to them there would have been almost no way to know. There were no cell phones, GPS or cameras and investigative technology and practices were dubious – especially in the less developed countries they went to. But the trip was worth it. Both women learned so much from this trip, and society in general learned more about the world and grew more accepting of the idea of women being capable and able to handle themselves.

Whichever way suits you, you should take risks. Great or small, if you want something you need to be willing to take risks to get it. Maybe changing the world isn’t your thing – it doesn’t matter, even to get something selfish that you want (which is not necessarily a bad thing) there will be some risks involved. It may not be easy – but nobody said it would be. Of course risks have potential downsides, but whether or not you succeed you’ll come out ahead. If you fail, learn from it so you can try again in the future and hopefully then succeed. Take risks, learn from your failures and live without regrets.

You’ve only got one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s.

Travel!

Whether or not travel is something you are interested it, it’s something I highly recommend you do anyway. It’s not always visible at first but travel will change you.

It’s impossible to tell beforehand the exact ways that travel will affect you – it’s different for everyone. The only thing I can guarantee that it’ll do is change how you look at the world and give you a broader perspective than you could have imagined previously.

Furthermore, the world just isn’t scary – you have no excuse not to travel! If two women can muster up the courage to travel during a time when women couldn’t even go outside without a male escort, you can too.

Learning a Language isn’t Necessary for Travel

Bly didn’t speak a word of any language other than English, and while Bisland did speak some others she certainly didn’t speak the language of every country she went to, yet they got by. Things are even easier nowadays and so you can make it in nearly every country without using any language other than English.

There are certainly benefits of learning the language of the place you are going to, but if you aren’t going to stay for long or are only there to do touristy-type activities, then learning is not necessary.

You Have No Excuses NOT to Learn

You may not need to learn another language but if you want to, you really don’t have any excuses not to. Think about it, if Bisland could teach herself French in the 1800s from tattered books then YOU can learn ANY language NOW thanks to the INTERNET!

It’s not an easy task, but learning another language has gotten significantly easier thanks to the sheer amount of resources you have available to you right now for free. There are ways to get around money issues, if you really want it you will make or find time and with some strategic habit-building you can make yourself stick to it. The tools are all at your fingers – if Bisland could do it you can too.

Embrace Minimalism for a Simpler, Hassle-Free Life

Do you really need all those things? Really? Bly most famously only traveled with a single bag that she could carry with her – currently with The Smithsonian – containing only the absolute most essential items.

Going with only the clothes on your back may be a bit too extreme for some, but it should make you consider what are the absolute essentials – what could you live without on this trip? Do you really need multiple pairs of shoes, tons of clothes, or a bunch of electronics? What exactly do you want to do with your time there? Unless you intend on spending your time on your computer or with your nose in a book, skip those sorts of things. Take only a couple of your most versatile clothes (that can be dressed up or down) and only buy clothes at your destination if you need them. When you’re done you can donate, resell or give them to someone else.

What you pack should be indicative of what you will be doing, so unless you plan on spending a lot of time in your hotel, leave all the extras at home.

You are Limitless

When you consider the time period, the limited resources and social constraints that bound Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, what they managed to accomplish is incredible. The vast amount of resources, knowledge and overall freedom that we enjoy now gives everyone the opportunity to do amazing things.

Pretty much anything you want to do, you can do so long as you apply yourself and stick to it.

So what’s holding you back from pursuing your goals? What did you gain from Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition?

Our First Experience with Couchsurfing

Sand Storm by Stephan Geyer

Thankfully our couch was much better situated than this one.

I’ve always been a big fan of Couchsurfing as a language learning resource for finding native speakers of your target language without having to leave your own city. A few weeks ago though we finally got to use it for its original intended purpose – travel – and for anyone who hasn’t heard of it yet I wanted to introduce you to it and share a bit about out own experience.

What’s Couchsurfing?

While ‘couch surfing’ is a general term for staying overnight on someone’s couch, when I say ‘Couchsurfing’ I’m specifically referring to Couchsurfing.org – a non-profit social networking service with the goal of connecting travelers and hosts from all over the world.

Simplifying things a bit, Couchsurfing essentially lets you either stay at another person’s home for free or allow others to stay at your home for free. There’s no obligation to host people and when traveling you get to choose whom you stay with (though the host always has final say on accepting or denying travelers). While ostensibly the purpose of Couchsurfing is to provide travelers with a free place to stay, the real purpose of the community is to bring people from all over the world together to spread cultural awareness and learning.

Rather than go into all the specifics of how Couchsurfing works, how they handle the issue of safety or how to sign up (topics about which volumes have already been written) I’m just going to send you over to the Couchsurfing.org About Page.

Our First Couchsurfing Experience

Being familiar with Couchsurfing but having never used it to travel, we decided to dive right in and give it a try for our recent trip to Chicago. We had a family reunion on the weekend and wanted to stay in Chicago for a full week beforehand to do our own sightseeing and experience the city.

There are two ways to find hosts on Couchsurfing, you can either post an itinerary and hosts can send you offers or you can seek out specific hosts and send them individual requests. We chose to do the former, posting our itinerary almost a month before we were schedule to leave. To my surprise, a host offered us a place to stay the very next day.

I’ll call him ‘D’ here instead of using his name to respect his privacy. D said he would love to host us, so we checked out his profile. He was a verified member, had over 30 positive references and 0 negative ones, had been vouched for and had tons of pictures up – all indicators of a good person to stay with.

D is in his late 60s, breaking the stereotype that a majority of the people on Couchsurfing are very young, and has an apartment right in the heart of the Loop only a few blocks from Millennium Park. A hotel in the same area easily could have cost us over $200 a night. In addition to all of that, he told us he could get us free parking for a week at his weekend job. If you’ve ever been to Chicago you know free parking is kind of a big deal.

D’s hospitality while we were there was staggering. The first thing he did was give us a key to his apartment and then took us grocery shopping where he insisted that he buy us whatever groceries we would like for the week. He loved showing us around the city, and gave us an extensive tour. Through the week he treated us to two meals and showed us around to several other places.

Beyond all of that, the best part of the whole experience was getting to meet and hang out with someone new. D not only seemed to know everyone in Chicago but had a plethora of stories – about the city, his past Couchsurfing experiences and his childhood in Ireland.

The Bottom Line

Our first experience with Couchsurfing was overwhelmingly positive. I’m already looking forward to our next trip and intend to open our own home up to travelers here in Cincinnati. While the surface benefit of Couchsurfing is saving money by not paying for accommodations the real spirit of it is so much more than that. Even if you only stay with someone for a night I highly recommend giving Couchsurfing a try – 9 times out of 10 you don’t just get somewhere to stay, you get a new friend.

Have you used Couchsurfing in the past? Did you have a good first experience or a not so good one? Share your stories in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephan Geyer

10 Lessons Learned From Traveling

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

Source unknown.

There’s lots of guides out there telling you the billion and one things to pack and be prepared for, warnings about knowing customs and to never make certain gestures, always carry cash, always have credit cards, or reminders that the police aren’t always your friend, etc. but this isn’t one of them. These are a few of the lessons we’ve learned from traveling, lessons that have had a big impact on us and how we travel.

Stuff Holds You Back, Embrace Minimalism

You’re all packed and ready to go on your adventure abroad. You’ve got everything you need in three suitcases – including the kitchen sink. You’ve got clothes for two weeks, soaps, shampoos, three pairs of shoes, towels, all your camera gear, laptop, Kindle, iPad, iPod, iPhone, cosmetics, hair spray/gel, entertainment for when you are on the plane, and somehow there’s still room for souvenirs.

Stop right there.

What do you actually need to pack? What will you be doing on your trip? You’ll need much less than you think. Halve your stuff, and then halve it again. Take only that. Everything you need can fit in a backpack.

Your stuff owns you and ties you to it. The more you have, the less you’ll be able to move around (and the more it will cost!) and the more you’ll worry about your stuff getting lost or stolen. The less you have to carry and worry about, the more free you will be to move and enjoy your trip. So only pack what you know you will need. Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but if you are traveling, you should embrace it.

On our first trip abroad, I packed too much. As a result I was constantly worried about it getting lost (it did) and it made each trip to the airport harder. Even while we were settled in, we realized we couldn’t just go outside of the main city for a day or two like we had originally wanted to, because our stuff tied us to our apartment.

So what should you take? Only what you need, and cannot buy once you get there. Consider what you’ll be doing and pack the absolute minimum. You really don’t need your whole wardrobe – and clothes can be washed anywhere around the world. For tech gear, prioritize what you are bringing to place emphasis on devices that can multi-task. Like to take a lot of photos? Get a smartphone. Want to read? Buy a smartphone or e-reader. Music? Smartphone. Maps? Smartphone. Email? Smartphone. Writing? Smartphone.

Be as compact as possible and learn clever packing tricks to maximize efficiency of space, and should something happen or if you need something, buy it while you are there and return/sell it when you’re done with it. There are groceries, 7/11s and Quick-E Marts everywhere so you can buy the cosmetics, toiletries or whatever other items you need and toss it before you leave.

Cloud Storage

When you leave to go to the next destination or even home, you should leave filled with memories and photos rather than a bunch of stuff. Taking pictures has gotten so much easier over the past fifteen years, and good cameras have gotten cheaper. I managed to take over 60 glorious gigabytes of photos during one summer trip alone, all of which were stored on my laptop’s hard drive. I knew they were vulnerable, and planned on backing them up as soon as we returned. I would have, and should have, backed them up during the trip – but I foolishly depended upon my web host’s server for said backup and had no idea that access to it outside of the US would have been blocked.

Naturally, my laptop’s hard drive died as soon as we got home. The data couldn’t be saved without using the services of a company dedicated to data recovery, which cost me over $2,000 – the price of my laptop. The whole experience made me sick to my stomach, but I paid it because those photos meant that much to me.

If you don’t have it already look into cloud storage – especially before you go. They didn’t exist when we left on our trip, but they do now and it would be stupid to not take advantage of them. On the plus side, many of them have apps to sync data from your smartphone too (bonus!) Also be sure to check if you’ll have access in the country you’ll be going to – trying to use the internet in China was so difficult we essentially took a sabbatical from it. It’s good to have more than one option.

Don’t Buy Stuff

This goes along with the first tip – don’t buy souvenirs, trinkets, gifts or anything like that. People back at home rarely want a reminder that you went abroad, and those trinkets often just take up space and gather dust. Aside from the fact that they are just things – often low in value but the price is jacked up to prey on tourists, the main important point is that they have significantly less value than experience and memories. A better use of your money is to go do things rather than buy things.

Also, your stuff owns you – refer to the first point.

Alternative Accommodation – It’s Not Scary!

Hotels are expensive, and can significantly shorten a trip to anywhere – so why not skip them and find an alternative? For newbie travelers I can understand there being some reservations about Couchsurfing and the alternatives – but as we’ve learned there’s also a risk of getting a crappy hotel and it can be a lot worse. Host families are a great way to stay in a new land, learn the language, culture and where all the interesting things are. But it’s not for everyone.

Only want to stay a few days? Why not Couchsurfing or a hostel? Want to stay longer? Get an apartment ahead of time, or stay in a hostel/couchsurf until you can get one.

Damage

It's difficult to see, but several ceiling tiles crumbled and the drywall bubbled and cracked and started to fall. Click to make bigger.

Our accommodations were the worst during the actual ‘study’ part of our trip to China. In addition to the terrible plumbing, thin walls, rock hard beds and improper ventilation, one day we were hit with a heavy rainstorm that caused flooding (I stomped across campus back to the dorm with water up to my waist – hoping I didn’t fall into one of the many poorly marked pits where they were doing construction) the teachers and cooks fought to keep the water out, but unfortunately couldn’t. In addition to the flooding, several parts of the building began to fall apart too. The travel abroad reps at our university who picked the location for the study-abroad program made it sound much, much more luxurious than it actually was. The picture above isn’t the worst of the structural damage, but unfortunately most of my pictures were too blurry to be used.

On the flip side, I was quite entertained at the situation and value the experience. It was, if nothing else, much more interesting than a perfect situation.

Water left in the hallway, buckets that were once used to toss water out the windows and catch water dripping from the ceilings. At least the game tables were saved.

Water left in the hallway, buckets that were once used to toss water out the windows and catch water dripping from the ceilings. At least the game tables were saved.

Teachers, cooks and administrators sweeping water out of the building after the storm.

Teachers, cooks and administrators sweeping water out of the building after the storm.

Work or Volunteer To Stay Longer

If you want to stay gone longer than a week or two, you’ll need some sort of income. You can do this through making money online – or you can get a job or volunteer where you want to stay. Luckily, there’s a lot of options available.

If you’re reading this blog, then you obviously speak English. If you’re good at it, teaching English abroad is a great option as it’s wanted nearly everywhere. Nomadic Matt has excellent comprehensive resources for working, volunteering and teaching English abroad.

Don’t Just Look, Experience

You can visit a country without ever really experiencing that country… How? By sightseeing, visiting tourist traps and sticking to the expat scene. If you avoid people and the culture of different countries you’ll be missing out on what I find to be the biggest values in traveling. You don’t have to speak the language (although it helps, even if you can only speak a few phrases, and anyone can do it) to experience a country, but you do have to interact with the people that live there, adapt and do things you may not have done before.

It’s particularly difficult in a country where you don’t speak the language and where few people speak English. Despite not being good with Korean at the time, we did our best and it was appreciated. From the people we met, we learned things we likely wouldn’t have otherwise, we went to restaurants we might not have found, tried interesting food, I could go on forever with just our experience in Seoul alone. Get involved with the things that are going on.

Relax and Get Lost

Get Lost

Attribution needed

Er, please don’t go away. I mean explore. There’s a time and place for schedules, sightseeing and to-do lists. Traveling is not a race, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Take your time, explore, do unexpected, spontaneous things. Taking your time and not rushing around allows you to relax, savor the experience, food and people, and to really connect with the area and people surrounding you. Save some time for exploration, you may be surprised at what you find.

One of my favorite times we got lost was when we stumbled upon a kung-fu shop in Beijing, wandered in, and wound up spending the evening chatting with the owners, learning about the things they sold, their family – notably one of their sons who has won several competitions. They even took us into the back of the store and showed us their personal favorite weapons. Stuff that we, as fellow martial arts, really love.

Boiling Point

Leave Your Stereotypes At The Gate

If you travel and actually experience countries, instead of only sightseeing and sticking to the expat scene, you’ll learn pretty quickly that stereotypes are ridiculous and that the way you do things isn’t necessarily the right way. Nearly every country is modernizing, but in their own unique way – not westernizing (and definitely not Americanizing).

Learn, respect and celebrate differences. You’ll gain a lot of insight and may even realize that some of things you do seem backward.

There Is A Whole World Out There, Go EVERYWHERE

Speaking of stereotypes, it always makes me a little crazy when people restrict themselves to just certain places in the world because of a stereotype they have or because of something they’ve seen on TV. I’ve heard people say “I only want to go to X because it’s beautiful” (as if there aren’t other beautiful places out there, or other reasons to go to country X), or restricting themselves to western countries because they are afraid of what else could be out there.

Go everywhere, have an open mind, and expect to be surprised.

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” – Anthony Bourdain

Fear Holds You Back

I’m just going to jump into this one, and say that you need to get over the fear of making mistakes, or doing scary unfamiliar things, because the regret of not doing or the voice in the back of your head that always whispers “what if?” will always haunt you. Stop thinking so much and just do. Places change quickly, and if you don’t do it you may not get the chance to later.

If you really have a hard time getting over the fear, realize that in 99% of cases it’s completely irrational. Weigh the benefits and risks, and the impact of the possible outcomes. What’s the worst that could happen? How bad would that really be?. As long as you don’t die or get thrown in jail, I’d say you’re good to go.

It’s All About Freedom

Minimalism, cloud storage, ignoring your fears, it’s really all about freedom. Freedom to travel, freedom to experience new things you wouldn’t have otherwise and freedom to stay longer – or shorter – if you wish. As we continue to travel we’ll learn more and share it when we do, but what have your experiences been? What advice do you have for new travelers? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Side note: some of the images in this post are not our personal photos, and I couldn’t find attributions for them. If you know who to attribute them to, or if they are yours, please let me know and I’ll fix it.