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 Off The Rails, a mentorship platform for creative women. She’s passionate about helping others do more with their money, their work, and their lives. You can get in touch by tweeting @KaliHawlk.