Lessons Learned from a Year of Travel


This is a guest post by my dear friend Kali Hawlk. Please make sure you read every last word. <3

A few years ago, I sat at my kitchen table with my laptop open to Kayak. I looked for flights to Europe — any country and Europe — eager to plan my first trip to some foreign destination.

After searching over and over again for various flights and itineraries, I finally broke down in tears when I realized that I simply could not afford to travel abroad the way I had so desperately wanted to for as long as I could remember.

Bill Bryson was my favorite author and I read his travel books over and over again until the pages were torn and the covers tattered. I dreamed about going overseas, convinced that I’d find home in lands I’d never seen or known.

I was convinced that I was made to travel, especially abroad. But I’d never been because my family never took exotic vacations when I was growing up and I couldn’t afford it as a college student or recent grad when I finished school.

I thought I could finally afford the flight over to some European country when I graduated, and my parents generously gave me $1,000 as a graduation gift. I’d never seen that much money in my name at once.

But a flight itself was over a thousand dollars and I had no idea about how to travel frugally (and this was a time when I was still scared of credit cards, so “travel hacking” was nowhere near my vocabulary). I know people have traveled on even less than what I had to my name at the time, but I was a scared, clueless, freshly-minted college grad used to following the path “they” said you needed to walk in order to reach conventional success.

And before I knew it I had a full-time job with limited vacation days, a serious relationship with someone who was interested in settling down instead of jetting off, a few pets, and a house.

The day I sat and told myself I would never be able to explore the world was almost exactly 5 years ago. Since then but mostly in the last year, I’ve been to both coasts of Mexico several times. I’ve road-tripped through Scotland and Ireland both. I’ve flown to so many cities in the US that I can’t even count or remember them all without pulling up my calendar and backtracking.

And as I write this, I’m about to embark on a 7-day road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway. When I get back home from this road trip, I’ll have two weeks before I’m gone again — to Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and then DC.

I’m a long way — figuratively and literally — from where I was 5 years ago, and my last year of travel has been the most full and extensive yet. Not surprisingly, I’ve learned a lot in that span of time and places.

What did surprise me was how different what I expected to find was from what I actually discovered. These are the lessons that a year of travel taught me.

You Really Don’t Need That Much Stuff

This one is simple to understand, but hard to really get — until you lug around enough overpacked, too-heavy suitcases full of stuff you never use on your trip.

I’ve spent weeks on the road with one suitcase and one backpack. And still managed to overpack and bring too many shoes while forgetting basic items like toothpaste or contact lens solution.

You only need essentials, and that applies to your travel packing and your normal living space. Focusing on what’s actually important doesn’t mean going without anything but clutter, stress, and confusion.

A related lesson: you really don’t need that much space, either. I’ve stayed in tiny places and I’ve stayed in penthouse apartments, and at the end of the day the experience is the same as long as the place is clean and the bed is moderately comfortable.

Don’t waste your time, energy, or money on more stuff and space, on the road or in your home — or in your relationships, your work, and your free time. Luxury becomes overwhelming. Basic is beautiful.

Simplifying Creates the Path to Freedom

The first time I traveled to Ireland, I only had a day to spend exploring Dublin because I crammed so much else into my itinerary. I arrived jet lagged and exhausted, and failed to really experience my first city in Europe.

In fact, the whole trip was a whirlwind because I was on a schedule the entire time. I ended up jam-packing so much into my to-do list that by the fourth day of a two-week vacation, I was grumpy and unenthusiastic.

But I learned my lesson: keep it simple. The next time I visited Ireland, I knew where I wanted to end up each night — but kept the rest of the itinerary open. That allowed me to meander and stroll when I wanted to, and to bustle on through when I was ready for that. I left the to-dos at home and just showed up ready to explore.

I’ve traveled that way ever since. I have a rough idea of where I need to end up, but beyond that, I’m wide open.

Simplifying and going with the flow makes me feel truly free and empowered to discover something valuable — both in my travels and in my life. When you simplify the situations you find yourself in (rather than overcomplicating them), you become capable of bending instead of breaking.

Life is a Series of Choices and Agreements

Even though I’ve been all over the place, I still find myself thinking, “I wish I could afford to travel.” To really travel, or to take vacations, or end up in “better” cities.

A lot of my travel is something I can do through work — either through my job as a director at XY Planning Network or through my own side business as a writer and consultant. I go to business events, conferences, and staff retreats with team members.

Because of this, I can either rack up points to redeem for free travel later or my flight and accommodations are provided since I’m traveling primarily for work.

So even though I’m traveling someplace new each month, I still have the same kind of thoughts about not being able to travel that I had 5 years ago. That’s because I chose those thoughts, and I agreed those thoughts were true.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’ve consciously chosen them, or that I’ve chosen to think that constantly over the last 5 years. But at some point, I believed that “I’ll never be able to travel” was a true statement and I agreed with it. So it became my reality.

But there are so many ways I could change that, right now! “I don’t have enough money to travel the way I want” is the choice and agreement I’ve currently made. But how easy would it be to change that?

I could do my research and take my travel hacking efforts seriously. I could find bargain-priced flights on airlines I currently refuse to fly with. I could save the $150 I sometimes spend to upgrade my paid-for coach class ticket to first class. I could reduce the amount of money I spent on things like meals out or clothes when I am at home, and put that cash toward a travel fund instead.

It would be so easy to make a new choice. And this is true across all areas of our lives. We can choose new thoughts, new ideas, and new actions at any point in time. All it takes is recognizing our ability to choose, mindfully declaring what we want and then keeping our word through the actions we take.

You can agree to whatever you want in your life. Your thoughts are powerful, so choose them deliberately and discard any that no longer serve you.

The World isn’t “Out There”

The most important lesson I’ve learned from this last year of intensive travel is the fact that life doesn’t happen somewhere else, somewhere outside of you in a different place or time. Life happens with you, right now.

This is it. Now. And now. And now and now and now.

This moment, right here! Right where you are! That’s where the world is. That’s where life happens.

I always thought I wanted to travel to such an extent that I was more nomadic than anything else. Always on the move, discovering new places and things and people.

I always thought happiness and life occurred somewhere beyond myself. I thought I needed to get out and hunt it down. That the life I wanted was something I had to find.

But a year of travel taught me that home is not a place you find. Happiness is not out there somewhere, waiting for you to pursue it on a merry little chase. Life is not something that’s dangling out in front of you.

All these things are where you are right now, or at least, they could be. Because they’re not found at all. They’re what you create.

If you learn nothing else from taking action on your wanderlust and seeing the world, you’ll eventually learn that while travel is a wonderful thing in its own right — the best place the road can bring you is back to yourself.

Kali Hawlk is a freelance writer and the co-founder of a mentorship platform for creative women. She’s passionate about helping others do more with their money, their work, and their lives.

  • I love this piece, thank you for sharing! A wonderful lesson from beginning to end.

    I particularly like your statement that the world is not ‘out there’. This is exactly the feeling I have had a couple of times after returning from travelling far. Our home is just another little place on this earth, just as many others are. Every day is a journey.

    • Yes! I couldn’t agree more — and I’m glad I was able to learn this lesson this year. It’s been the most valuable, meaningful one for me to get.

  • So beautiful. I love that you can CHOOSE those thoughts. If you really want to do something, YOU CAN DO IT. The first step is to allow yourself to do it. Experiencing the joy you have in the present is a struggle for all of us. I’m constantly having to remind myself how wonderful this moment is. It’s so easy to look to the next one and think “I could be doing…” But to realize “Look what I’m doing!” is the exercise in happiness.

    • Absolutely! It’s certainly a practice to choose and make new agreements with what you see and believe in the world. But well worth the effort to do so :)

    • Dublin is wonderful, but I loved the Highlands in Scotland the most. If you plan a trip, I suggest flying to Dublin, spending a few days, then hopping on to Scotland and exploring the north part of the country :)

  • When I was half of the age I am today, I had the same weird feeling about that “Life is abroad – especially overseas”. In my case, being a young german girl of 15, that meant America and my ideas of it. I always had a feeling to miss something great staying in good old Europe (as you perhaps had by staying on the other side as your trips to Ireland seem to prove). I had then the opportunity to go to Canada for nearly a whole year and to live with a francophone host family in the middle of nowhere between Montreal and Quebec. One of the best years of my life that I appreciated a lot. But the most important thing to learn was to (re) appreciate my life (family, surroundings, culture, customs) in Germany I had disliked so much as a teenage girl. By seeing something different it might happen that you see the normal for the first time. I am still very grateful to my parents who enabled me to live this experience at the age of 16, I refered to it a lot of times since then. Travelling, far more than living abroad longterm, has always remained an important part of my life, backbacking as a student, travelling round western Europe as a young mother with my husband and two sons. But experiences changed for the better and the worse. The most important is still the feeling of appreciation for both – travelling AND home.

    • Yes! Couldn’t have put it better. I still love to travel, but that love is now balanced with a deep appreciation and love of life at home, too.

  • Amazing post and well written! I’m definitely someone that is the process of trying to build a life where I can travel on a regular basis. The point you made about the world not being out there and that the here and now and the choices we CHOOSE to make is our reality really hit home. I was already thinking along those lines and your post reinforced it. Thanks! :)

    • I’m glad to hear it, Stephanie! I most certainly still want travel in my life, too. But no matter what happens or where you are, it’s powerful to know that how you feel and respond — and what you create — is wholly up to you to choose :)

  • When we were traveling abroad we would start by making lists of things we’d enjoy doing at each destination. Then each morning we would decide which we felt like doing that day and which we’d prefer to save for our next trip. That took the pressure off to see and do everything so fast we never really saw any of it. In London we discovered that eating our evening meal at the same pub every night felt right. That gave us a time and place to relax every evening. Besides, we could always choose something else next time, right?

  • One of my often-used phrases is ‘your perception is your reality’ – which is basically to say that however you see the situation is how the situation will be. If you see it as confining, restrictive and without possibility, it will likely be that way.

    Conversely, see it as an opportunity to grow, move, and develop into what you want it to be, and it will be.

    Personally, I once wanted to be the friendly, outgoing type of woman who ran a lot, had a dog as a best friend and enjoyed being out doors. So, I created that life for myself, and didn’t wait for anyone to do it for me. I am all of those things, and it’s attracted more people like that into my life.

    So, yes, life is exactly where you are and however you make it to be.

  • A few years ago, I stopped saying “I can’t afford to…” and started saying “It isn’t my priority to…” we can afford most of the things we desire, but we choose when they are a priority.

  • Loved reading this reminder — thanks,Cait and Kali! It reminds me of the parable of how to meditate — essentially it ends with the lesson that you can’t let the lack of quiet outside of yourself stop you; it’s about finding the quiet inside yourself. Our single biggest motivator to save fast and quit our jobs next year is to be able to travel more — it always makes our world much, much bigger, which I appreciate endlessly. I already get that to some extent through my work travel, but that is limited to travel within the U.S. for the most part, and I always long to get outside our myopic borders!

  • Ah, you’re speaking right to my heart, Kali! I always love your writing and this is one I’d like to print out and stick up on the wall. I too have felt that “home” was out there in an undiscovered land (I blame being an expat), but perhaps it’s time I find a contentment within instead of constantly seeking.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words! “Find contentment within instead of constantly seeking” — I think that sums up my goal and the best lesson learned absolutely perfectly. And it’s something I have to practice every day, but I know with that practice I’ll eventually master the ability to find that contentment internally :)

  • Thanks for this post, Kali! Realizing that I create happiness and fulfillment in the now is definitely something I’m struggling with/working on these days. For me it’s often couched in the context of potentially moving, like to a different apartment or a different city, as if my life would suddenly be perfect if I moved (or in the context of paying off my loans, as if my life would suddenly be perfect if they were paid off). I need to keep remembering that life is now, not at some distant point in the future. Thanks for the reminder. Hope you’re having a fantastic trip!

    • I so so so relate to this — “as if my life would suddenly be perfect if I moved,” or any statement that starts “as if my life would suddenly be perfect IF ____.” It’s an easy pattern of thought to fall into, and whenever I catch myself thinking this I have to remember that the key is to first BE, then do, then have. (As opposed to how we usually think: I have to have X before I can do Y so I can be Z.”

      PS: Don’t move to a different city!! ;)

  • Great post. I also was always looking “out there” to where I believed my “perfect life” would be. And now I look back and realize that there were many ordinary things in the past that made me happy – but I was too busy looking ahead to notice. Strange postscript to my story : after 15 years of not really traveling anywhere, I took a course in teaching English as a second language and have been living in China for two years (minus a summer vacation back home in Canada). It is a great adventure and I’m happy that I did while I was still young enough to enjoy it (I’m 54 now but still pretty healthy). I’m happy I took the chance to have the adventure and get paid while I did it (teaching English). But it has made me realize that home is a great place too. I have come to appreciate Canada and my home province of Ontario so much since I have been in Asia. Universal Medicare, free speech, snow in the winter and beaches in the summer. It’s a great country to come home to!

    • What a fantastic adventure to take on! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comment. I thought about teaching English in South Korea when I graduated from my university, but ended up not going — and it’s been one of my only regrets because I’ve thought of it as an opportunity I’ll never have again. What a foolish way to think! Thank you for proving me wrong, and standing as proof that it is possible to explore the possibility beyond the age of 20 — which is the limiting belief I’ve been hanging onto. I’m so glad you’ve had a good experience abroad AND have found that much more love for home at the same time. Thank you again for sharing this!

  • I’ve found that planning one thing per day seems to be the perfect amount of things to do. Any more than that and it’s too busy, and anything less is too boring.

    Even though that one thing may only take a few hours, you will find 4 other things to explore just going to and from your planned activity.

  • I wish I could travel the way I could back in college but that would take some serious self-discipline. The sketchy but cheap hostels, the naivety, and the endless energy made it a really fun time for me. I do use miles and points now though which have allowed me to go to some really cool places for minimal cost. Now whenever someone says they can’t afford a vacation, I’m like really? Although, not everyone wants to put the up-front hustle in to get the points. 1-year of travel for you though? That’s awesome. I need to read more of your blog to see how you’re doing it. Living the laptop lifestyle is my dream.

  • It sounds like it was an awesome adventure.

    My wife and I are about to head off to Europe (from Melbourne). This post makes me even more excited for the journey. We’re doing our best to keep the whole process simple – the packing has been interesting/fun/challenging. lol .

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