Travel writing, especially about long term travel, tends to be about The Good Things™. There are indeed a million and one good things about long term travel. But, the truth is that long term travel comes with its own set of challenges and it certainly isn’t a cake walk for the most part.
The obvious show stopper for most people of course lies in making money while on the road to continue to fund their life and travels. However, I’m going to talk about the less obvious challenges that one might not foresee at the start.
Seeing your folks less
This problem isn’t just limited to long term travel. If you live very far from your parents or extended family, you will still face this issue. You spent 18 or more years living with your parents and siblings and it is a huge life change to see them just once, twice or three times a year if you’re lucky. Most people are caught up with the rigors of life and don’t truly realize how less they actually see their parents.
If you want to understand and get a handle on how many times you will see your parents in the rest of your life, here is a good calculator: seeyourfolks.com
You will probably be shocked at how low that number comes out to be. See your parents more, even if you’re a perpetual traveler or digital nomad.
On the bright side, being a perpetual traveler means that you can probably see your folks for longer periods when you DO see them because you don’t have a traditional job/leave schedule.
Let’s face it, eating healthy on the road is a huge challenge in and of itself. You end up eating out a lot more and if you’re new to a place it takes a few days to learn where the healthiest eats are located. Furthermore, you’re often limited in your choices by the geographic region you’re in and by the local food habits.
It’s extremely challenging to be vegetarian in South America. If you forego meat, there aren’t that many other options for you to chow down on. In contrast, try eating something that hasn’t been fried in Thailand. If you like plain yoghurt, it’s almost impossible to get unflavored yoghurt in either South America or South East Asia, you will almost always be treated to some version of vanilla and sugar.
With every move, you need to adapt yourself to the local flavors and find the healthiest balance for your system. This is easy enough to do if you live in a place for 3 or more months. But at a faster rate of traveling eating healthy becomes a huge challenge.
Not having stuff in your fridge
Oh, so you have a fridge full of stuff you like? LUCKY YOU!
There are times when I get hungry at 11PM. Instead of having to head out somewhere and find a nice place (or a 7-Eleven), wouldn’t it be awesome if I had this thing called a fridge with some of my favorite goodies? Well, unless you’re a traveler that likes to carry around a Kelvinator in your backpack, you’re out of luck.
Keeping your back straight
After sleeping on hundreds of different mattresses I can say with confidence that my back has suffered greatly from the perpetual traveler lifestyle. Mattress quality does not matter much for people who travel 2 weeks a year. So you get a back ache but then get fixed up when you get back home. Try sleeping on various mattresses of questionable quality for a year. Your back will weep.
Yoga has helped a great deal in this respect. I always wake up feeling bent in four different directions but after a few minutes of stretching and Yoga things seem to go back into place.
As a person who works online on the road, this is perhaps my greatest pet peeve. If I’m in a cafe or using a WiFi hotspot at a hotel and the internet suddenly slows down to a crawl you can be sure that I’ll be giving dirty looks to everyone who could be suspected of being a bandwidth hog.
There are so many categories of bandwidth hogs. Kids who just have youtube videos streaming on their iPhones but they’re not even watching the videos (they’re probably looking at the TV on the wall instead..) – WHY ARE YOU STREAMING STUFF IF YOU’RE NOT WATCHING IT?!!! Then there are those unsuspecting people who have windows laptops chock full of malware hogging bandwidth for one reason or another. Then there’s that lady in a suit, blackberry in one hand, iPad in another, having a 9-way video conference with her office mates in Asia, Australia, the Americas, etc. But the greatest offender is the geek who decided that a donut cafe is the right place to stream the latest episode of Game of Thrones. He knows what hogging bandwidth does to other people and yet, he does it anyway. Well, Mr Geek, please remember that Winter is Coming and it’ll get you first.
Having to answer “Where are you from?”
Well, I’m from India but I haven’t lived there in 10 years, which happens to be more than 1/3rd of my life.. I travel around and live on the road.. But where’s your house? I don’t really have a house. It all sounds very suspicious and I can see the look on the other person’s face changing from “I just asked a routine question” to “What are you F*!KDLA*!#(!^ going on about?”.
The worst part is that normally people don’t understand what I just said and don’t know what to ask next so the conversation sort of freezes there. I’ve often defaulted to simple answers now like saying “Chile” or “Portugal” or “India” and then sort of easing them into the “I travel a lot for work” or “I can work while I travel” kind of angle.
Things seem to work better this way.
Not having deeper relationships
It’s very hard to form deep friendships as an adult. It’s even harder if you’re not around for more than 30,60, or 90 days at a time. Most other people don’t have time and if they have time, they don’t have flexibility of time. So the limitations that adult life places on ‘just hanging out’ severely affects the ability to form meaningful friendships in a short span of time.
On the other hand, your friends are all on the other side of the planet, living their lives and you’re no longer an active part of their lives. This does lead to some level of social isolation. Zara and I travel together so at least we have each other, thank goodness for that!
Skype and Hangouts do help a little bit but there’s no substitute to having dinner around a table full of smiling faces. There just isn’t.
Not getting food that you like
There have been times and places that we could not find any decent Indian food. Portuguese food is out of the question in most places outside Portugal but it’s not so different from other western cuisines so Zara doesn’t get as ‘food-sick’ as me. There have been times in Asia that Zara has desperately wanted some good bread though!
After a few months of traveling in Patagonia, I began to crave some good Indian food. But you need to take a 2 hour flight up to Santiago to get it. There was a moment in Coyhaique, Chile that I was actually considering taking a flight to Santiago to eat some real daal! I didn’t take the flight and just decided to suck it up for another month. But I seriously considered it! Desperation!
To offset these kinds of issues we always travel with a few tea leaves from India and some snacks. Missing Indian food? Shove a handful of Bhujia in your face and wait for another month or two.
The buying stuff conundrum
Zara and I are not consumerist in general. We like to spend our money on experiences rather than things. We do however need to buy new clothes and other knick-knacks now and then. But when I see a t-shirt I like, I go into mental ping-pong mode. “Wow, I really like that t-shirt. But if I buy it I’ll have to carry it. I have the space available in my bag though… But then if I let myself buy this one, I’ll buy the next one and it’ll be a tsunami of t-shirts and my bag will eventually weigh a hundred kilograms. But this t-shirt is really nice and if I don’t get it then in the next country it won’t be available.”
I usually end up not buying the t-shirt and so, three years later, I can still carry my bag around and all my photos look like I have 2 pairs of clothes. YAY!
Got any other long term travel pet peeves?
Throw ‘em in the comments and let us know!
Nice to see an honest post about the downside of extensive travel. I can see how eating would be a huge challenge. Even on the month-long travel I do, it gets to be a hassle to eat out or shop more often to fill a small fridge in a rental apartment. It’s also not as easy to cook because you don’t have all the ingredients you don’t want to invest in for a few uses (e.g., condiments).
Yes, a hundred times yes Deb! This is our major frustration because we absolutely HATE wasting food. So to buy condiments, oil, etc. and then either leave them behind in an apartment not knowing about whether they will be used or discarded is quite a nightmare. Also sometimes the utensils in a rental apartment are just not good enough. They’re often just an afterthought by the owner. I never thought I could appreciate a well stocked and equipped kitchen the way I do today! A good kitchen is such a joy! I suppose we only marvel at that when we’re on the road with two spoons and a cup in our rental apartment kitchen that was advertised as “Fully equipped” :) AirBNB should have a rating system just for kitchen quality.
So agree! It used to be a treat to eat out, now it a treat for me to be able to cook my own, healthy meal! I have a friend who does a lot of travel, too and is starting a podcast for healthy travel. I can’t wait to see what advice he has. I’ve also been scouring the internet for great healthy travel recipes – if anyone finds some, let me know.
Thanks for reading, Averi!
You can find a lot of healthy [yummy] recipes for your travels, searching online.
Here are some suggestions to get you started: http://bkpk.me/travel-blog-search/?query=healthy+travel+recipes
So true, travelling long term is fantastic and I love it, but as you said there are downsides to it too. For me the hard bit is about the effect it has on the relationships back home and the fact that I miss having my own pets/companions but we cannot have everything right?
I totally agree with your Franca. I’ve often felt that it would be so NICE to have a dog with us. But that would place serious limitations on international travel, not to mention, complications with moving him from place to place. So how do you handle loneliness on the road? Or you just treat it as a bittersweet part of travel, meeting new people but missing the old?
While my wife and I are not full-time backpackers, we are full-time travelers and work for a year or two in one place, then move on. To me, one of the hardest parts about traveling so much is the stress of not being able to communicate or interact with people effectively. At times, it can be difficult to get something done just because of the language barrier. Another difficult aspect of traveling so much is always re-learning a new culture and society. We stay long enough in one place that we have to learn how to pay our bills, where to buy groceries, and how to find basic life necessities each time over and over again. It can be draining, but I wouldn’t trade the disadvantages for the advantages we have gained from traveling and the growth we both experience from the challenges we face. I think this is something that all travelers realize as they learn more about themselves as they learn about their environment.
John, that sounds like a great lifestyle! Do you plan to continue with this when/if you have children? I think the frustrations of learning new rules in each place is better than the mundaneness of doing the same thing over and over again. How do you meet people and make friends in each place? One year seems like a decent amount of time to get to know some folks :)
I miss the close relationships. This is truly something that I struggle with, and especially seeing as I am dividing time between two cities. I feel like I just start to get into the rhythm of being home when it’s time to uproot my life again and move to another continent. I do love it… but sometimes it hurts.
At least you’re moving between places you know people at. It’s much worse when you know nobody and every interaction has to start from ZERO. Perhaps it’s easier if you live in different places for longer. Say 6 months in a place, then NEXT, and so on. It might give more time to form at least some form of relationship with people there.
I so agree with the eating healthy part. Too much fried food in this world. I think it’s natural for people to want to know where you’re from – they’re just trying to place you somewhere in that computer mind of theirs. The easiest answer is to say “Well, I pay my taxes in …” Unless of course you don’t pay any, then you really are rootless (not to mention lucky.)
I normally say that I’m from India and Zara says she’s from Portugal and then they ask where we live so there are already 3 variables to keep track of :) I remember trying to explain all this to US immigration once because they LOVE to ask these types of questions. I could see the guy just get bored with my answer and eventually go like “Whatever” and just stamp us in, haha!
Thanks for this super article! It is so easy to only focus on the positives of travel – and our memories protect us to a certain extent in that we forget or romanticise past (often terrible) travel experiences! Your will power and restraint in not purchasing clothes or souvenirs of sorts is impressive! The Simpsons Lego! Who knew?! So cool!
Yes, that lego was seriously hard to resist, amongst many other beautiful things that we’ve come across! I honestly still think we carry around too much stuff but it’s hard to optimize down further from our backpacks, especially all tech gear because the compromise towards not taking photos and videos is just too much for us to bear!
These points are good, I especially like the first one. Part of my decision to travel full-time was because of my fathers health. I just couldn’t get home enough to see him with my office career. So bye bye career, hello travel. I now make it a priority to spend a quality month or so at home every year. Something I couldn’t do with my location dependent job.
That’s awesome! I’m so glad that you’re doing this because I once met this Australian lady who complained that her daughter would only call once every 6 months. Now that made me sad..
All of these things seriously crack me up, because they are all SO true! I go through the buying stuff conundrum at least three times a day, and I start to lose my mind a little bit when I can’t find decent wine. Farmer’s markets, when they exist, can be a good way to keep your diet on the healthy side. You mentioned my biggest issue with long-term travel, and that’s how isolating it can feel and how I am unable to form deep relationships or a community. It’s still worth it for now, but it won’t be a sustainable lifestyle for me forever.
For us it’s not a total write-off yet. We’re also growing older and it’s always harder to make friends as you grow older. Right now, we’re experimenting with various modes and speeds of travel to see what works. Of course, if all else fails we shall go back to living somewhere and perhaps still travel a few months a year. There are many options once you break the shackles, that’s the best part! We’re all learning and experiencing and experimenting all the time. I also ask myself about community and status. Would I rather have status and be an over inflated balloon only to burst at a certain age due to its loss or would I rather go through life as a nobody, or somewhere in between. These are hard questions to answer especially if you’re unsure of what you want for yourself. Community is only meaningful if you mean something to your community, but that does come at a cost and risk.
Appreciate the candid account of the downsides of what you do.
I always get carried away with the wide-spread hype around backpacking and long-term traveling – missing out on details like these. But I guess it is all about getting carried ‘away’!
Question though, cynical part of me always thinks of the intermittent relations you make while traveling are enriching and unadulterated than most of the so called deeper relations we build. I’m sure you meet so many like-minded and interesting people all the time – how does that fill the emotional void?
The food will be biggest problem for me. I believe that I will miss the food from my home town after a couple of weeks.
And second thing that will be a problem is the necessity to pack and repack. Long term traveler will need to limit long term possession in order to keep everything neatly packed when they need to leave.
Well, Wonderful experience, I often choose to travel alone than to come with a group
So true! Not having a fridge / kitchen sone of the things that I miss most when travelling, we’re currently having a very slow travel in Cambodia and so have an apartment with a fridge and kitchen and even and ice-making freezer! You will understand the bliss I’m sure. And I can totally relate to the craving of the food you love, as a vegan traveller I go crazy when I see a vegan cake or a hard to come by vegan product (thai also extends to finding vegan shampoo and conditioner!) But the hardest thing is definitely being apart from friends and family, that has been the biggest challenge.
Great post and happy travels!
Yeah, we can identify with this one having travelled full-time the last year. We’re slow travellers and make sure to stay in nice Airbnb places with wifi, so internet no an issue. But food is always an issue (for the different reasons you mention) as are different beds, some good, some not so good. We also love Indian food and its hard to find on the road, we generally find most places don’t have as much ethnic food as we have back home. And trying to make people understand we are full-time travellers not easy either. How to answer that we don’t have a permanent phone number without sounding like a homeless bum…
Ah, all so true! I have been thinking about a similar post for a while but ended up writing one just on the homesickness that creeps up from time to time. We travel with our kids in our van and they miss their friends and grandparents massively. Most of the time all the everyday wonders of travel keep them content and wide-eyed but there are times when we all just get a bit lonely. The other big thing apart from the homesickness, is just the relative ease of living when not travelling. Everything is trickier on the road – shopping, eating, watching a movie! Also, my partner and I would just about kill for a babysitter right about now, any offers?
I suppose it can get really tough – and that’s why I don’t see myself travelling full-time. I like having a regular schedule, with travel thrown in. But doing it with a partner seems appealing. Maybe some day. If marriage and kids don’t prove a deterrent.
Laundry can also be a hassle, particularly as dryers are non-existent in most countries. I’m also sensitive to fragrance, so also carried non-scented laundry soap pods with me. When we were on the road, I had to figure out how many days our clothes would need to hang dry and work backwards to determine when to wash them. Now that I’m back home, it’s nice to be able to toss a load in the dryer, then head out to do other things.
This is the beautiful blog. Traveling for more than 3 years myself I understand what it feels like. You guys got it all in this blog. I admire your travel.
This is an uber-cool blog. Thanks for the honest feedback and sharing your experiences. Also, traveling on an Indian passport isn’t the easiest. Thanks a bunch for making life a little less difficult! Muchas gracias and godspeed!