Travel Lessons We’ve Learned (So Far)

Egypt 2009

Egypt 2009

Today we decided to venture away from our usual posts to focus on lessons we’ve learned so far about travel.  We are relative travel newbies so to our more travel-savvy readers, our lessons learned might still seem naive but hopefully this post will help other noobs avoid some of our pitfalls.

We are late-bloomer travellers.  Besides our many of road trips throughout North America, our first trip that felt truly international was to Cuba on an all-inclusive package in 2003; it was only my second time on a plane and we were in our early 30’s.  Despite the pampering and financial security of the packaged tour, we managed to get off the beaten path by travelling to Holguin City on our own, meeting up with a bartender from the resort and spending the day with him.  This was certainly unplanned and not a tourist industry sanctioned tour (at the time, Cuba had very strict rules about locals fraternizing with foreigners) and it was wonderful.  So wonderful in fact, that we went back several months later and spent more time off the resort with our Cuban friends than on the resort getting pampered.  Our Cuban buddies gave us their unofficial guided tour of their city, introducing us to family and friends, and refused to let us pay for a thing.

Cuban Wedding 2003

On a whim, we were invited to a Cuban wedding at a rural farm and treated to freshly brewed beer ladled from a pan and rice and beans cooked over a backyard fire, the best tasting and most memorable meal we’ve had in Cuba.  And despite a scooter accident that left Al with a cracked elbow and some permanent scars, we learned a very valuable lesson from this trip.  Well, two valuable lessons… first, learn to drive a scooter before speeding off on the rural roads of a strange country in which being cut off by a farmer suddenly herding horses across the road is a common occurrence… and second, have flexibility in your plans and the sense of adventure for the  “secret destinations” noted in the above quote.  Although we took the first lesson to heart, the second one seemed to have been forgotten a few years later when we decided to backpack through Europe.

In 2004, for our ten year anniversary, we took a three week trip to Europe.  This was our first true backpacking/independent travel trip and we had about seven months to plan it.  Being a travel research junkie, I (Carol) set to work on planning our itinerary.  Now even the most anal travel planners out there would have been shocked by my attention to detail.  We had three weeks and I planned an itinerary that consisted of flying into Paris, travelling by night train to the French Alps with the hope of taking the cable car across to Italy, visiting Milan, Venice, Florence and Cinque Terre, then Monaco, Nice and Cannes before heading back up to Paris to celebrate our anniversary and meet up with my brother who would join us for a week as we visited Brussels, Bruges and Amsterdam and then made our way back to Paris to fly home.  An ambitious plan that saw us moving on every two to three days and carrying a notebook with phone numbers of all the meticulously researched budget hotels, departure schedules for all the necessary trains and the costs and operating hours of all the tourist sites.  As we soon learned, whirlwind trips are taxing on the body and mind. We never made it to Monaco, Cannes or Bruges and we crashed physically and mentally in Milan after a gruelling bus and train ride because the cable cars were closed by high winds.  We did not see much more than our hotel room in Milan (but all our laundry got done in the hotel sink).

Train travel Brussels to Amsterdam 2004

Although we have great memories from this Europe trip, we left each location with a sad sigh, wishing we had more time to explore.  Our brisk pace meant that all the cathedrals and museums became a blur and opportunities to  enjoy the ambiance were fleeting. Our best memories from this trip were the times in which we fell away from our plans to linger over a meal rather than hitting that third museum and took chances on patronizing places that weren’t listed in my trusty notebook. What we learned from this trip was that less planning and fewer destinations would have allowed us a deeper sense of the places and more chances to interact with locals and other travellers. We agreed our next big trip needs to be less ambitious and have more flexibility.  And, after a few quick week-long trips to Panama, Mexico and revisits to Cuba and Paris during the years in between, we jump ahead to 2009 to our backpacking trip through Egypt.

Cyprus Art College 2009

Due to the fact that I was working in Cyprus for the two months prior to this this trip while Al was still in Toronto, planning our Egypt itinerary went out the window.  Skype and Google-Talk were our main communication tools (often with poor internet connections) and, with so much catching up to do, travel planning discussions were not a priority.  Plus I was too busy working and enjoying the sites of Cyprus to want to spend hours researching Egypt.  So we winged it.

All we knew for sure was that we were going to meet in Cyprus to fly to Egypt together and we wanted spend a few days in Cairo, see the Pyramids in Giza, take a Nile cruise to some of the other antiquities, include stops in Aswan and Luxor and then go to the Red Sea for snorkelling before flying back out of Cairo.  The only solid plan we had for Egypt was our first night’s hotel booking. Although Al kept reassuring me that everything would work out fine, I left for Egypt wishing I had a trusty notebook.

Giza, Egypt 2009

Sphinx and Pyramids, Egypt 2009

Now, for our first excursion without prearranged plans, Egypt is not an easy country for independent travel.  It’s tourism is organized around tour groups so, at times, it was a real test of our travel skills to find transportation to the antiquity sites and negotiate reasonable rates.  Luckily, we met up with another couple while on our Nile Cruise and we travelled together to some of the far-flung sites.  It was a great experience and a nice break to not have to make all the decisions and negotiations on our own for a couple of days.  The lesson we learned from this trip was that having a very general itinerary meant we were free to enjoy the company of our new travel buddies.  And at the end of the trip, the only wistful thought was wishing for more time by the Red Sea – but with snorkelling like this, who wouldn’t want to stay longer?

Red Sea Snorkel

Red Sea Snorkelling 2009

So we returned from Egypt with a fully entrenched belief that “less planning is more” and an increased confidence in our travel skills (after having dodged dozens of touts at every tourist attraction and having successfully navigated crossing the roads in Cairo’s rush hour, we felt like intrepid adventurers who could slay dragons – if you’ve been there, you know what I mean…).  However, we also learned the importance of budgeting for emergencies.  An embarrassing story for another time… needless to say, emergency money was budgeted in on our next big trip – Southeast Asia.

Monk Lessons

Monk Lessons, Chiang Mai Thailand 2013

With travel experience and new found love for “on the fly” travel planning, we left for Bangkok knowing only that we would spend the first few days with Al’s niece, Laura who was living there and then we would head to the islands for a much needed chance to de-stress on a sandy beach.  We also had a notion of possibly going to Chiang Mai, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia but no definite plans. The only bucket list things were that we wanted to snorkel, eat street food, get Thai massages and I really wanted to see monkeys and elephants.  In the end, we accomplished our bucket list and much more and had an amazing trip.  We spent about five days in Bangkok and then went down to the islands for just over a week, had another brief stopover in Bangkok again before heading up to Chiang Mai for the Christmas holidays.  We booked hotels on the fly, which meant having to move hotels three times in Chiang Mai due to holiday season booking issues, and we spent too many hours in front of computer screens arranging travel for the next leg of our trip.

When we finally left Chiang Mai (three days later than we planned due to no available flights), we were starting to feel the panic of our vacation time coming to an end and, interestingly enough, because we had touted this trip as a “Southeast Asia” trip, we felt an odd pressure to ensure we saw more than just Thailand (silly, right?).  So we flew from Chiang Mai to Siem Reap, did a 3 day whirlwind tour of Angkor Wat and then flew to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam for our final days before going back to Bangkok.  Sadly, as soon as we sped up our travels and started focusing on seeing sites instead of really experiencing the places we were in, we physically exhausted ourselves and got sick.  We spent the last weeks of our vacation with a nasty virus that switched from stomach flu symptoms to sinusitis and got so bad we weren’t sure if we could manage flying the 27 hours to get home!  Due to rushing and illness, we didn’t experience “real” Cambodia or Vietnam and we were disappointed in ourselves for falling into the trap of a whirlwind itinerary again.

So, after all these experiences, what have we learned?  Well, for starters, we’ve learned that slowing down and seeing fewer sites made for a more enjoyable experience than rushing to meet some imagined or notebook-written itinerary but we also learned that some preliminary research and itinerary ideas will save us from hours of computer time when we’d rather be out enjoying our surroundings.  We also learned that as soon as we start thinking about a trip as being “once in a lifetime”, we feel the pressure to see and do everything and that “whirlwind travel” pitfall leads to exhaustion, illness and the disappointment that only comes from having had too high expectations.

Monk Chat

Monk Chat Program, Chiang Mai, Thailand 2013

And what will we do differently on our next adventure?  To answer this question, I will turn to a Buddhism lesson we’ve learned from a Monk in Chiang Mai.  In Chiang Mai, we participated in a Monk Chat at one of the temples and this has led to an email friendship in which we receive lessons on Buddhism and meditation and he gets a chance to practise his English (again, a good example of travel’s “secret destinations” – if we had rushed to see the sites in Chiang Mai, we would never have befriended a Buddhist Monk).  Triratana often refers to Buddha’s wisdom of “following the middle road” or, as we interpret it, maintaining balance.

In our future travels, we will strive to find that middle road between researching and “winging it”.  We plan to research enough to know where to go, what to see and transportation options available while maintaining flexibility in our plans to incorporate all the secret destinations that will be revealed to us. Oh, and we will continue to strive to travel lighter because, although we’ve improved with each trip, we still brought way more stuff than we needed.  I will write a post about packing light, if I ever manage to actually learn that lesson (don’t hold your breath…).

As always, thanks for reading.  Remember, we really appreciate comments and please feel free to share our posts.

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28 thoughts on “Travel Lessons We’ve Learned (So Far)

  1. Love this post! Thanks for sharing the lessons you have learned, I couldn’t agree more with your advice to ‘take the middle road’. I’m looking forward to your ‘packing light’ post too as its been a big topic of conversation between me and The Bloke (my trusty travelling partner) over the years. He is the master at minimalist packing and in the days before 9/11, when you could take liquids on board planes, used to oversee all packing in our household to ensure we could do a month in Asia with a small hand luggage bag (including guidebooks, snorkels and sun tan lotion!). I’ve never mastered the art and am always tempted to pack a few unnessecary items. I’ll update you on how light we pack for our big trip next year, packing up for a huge new adventure is a whole other level!

    • Thanks, Mushette. When it comes to packing light, I am not sure I’ll ever master it. It sounds I could learn a lot from a post written by your Bloke on minimalist packing. Any advice he or you can offer would be appreciated because I have the tendency to take the “we’ll be so glad we packed it, if we need it” approach… really not going to work for our new adventure! I’m going to try to bring less for this round the world adventure than I did for our 6 week trip and I’m already having anxiety about it.

      • I can totally relate to that anxiety, I’m sure your Buddhist Monk pen-pal would have some good advice for us on that one! I’m sure it’s all related to attachment to ‘stuff’…
        I’ll get on an write that post soon and hopefully it’ll help! Do you have a departure date yet?

      • No, our house needs renovations before we can put it up for sale so we’re spending every spare moment (and dime) on house projects. Our plan is to get the house up for sale as soon as possible and then let the real estate closing date determine our our departure date (seeing as we’ll be homeless at that point). It’s scary and overwhelming but as Stephan Hunt said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” And yeah the attachment issue is a big one I’ll be really tackling soon… once the house is sold then we’ll sort through and sell all our belongings.

      • Wow, I’m sure you have your hands full at the moment then! Once we started sorting through our things and began to have fewer possessions, we began to feel liberated. We still have a lot to sort but I’m gradually getting used to not buying anything new and letting go of things I’ve hoarded!
        I commend your bravery in following your dreams and I’m so pleased I found your blog as its very encouraging to know there are others taking a leap of faith into the unknown. Best of luck as the adventure unfolds :-)

  2. I love the quote you have used for your “about blog” at the very top. I have used it in my writings before (not in my blogs though). Follow your dreams and I wish you the very best. :)

    • Thanks for the encouragement. :) We’re excited and scared all at once for our new adventure and we find a good quote and words of encouragement like this give us the courage and calming effect to keep working towards our dreams.

  3. OMG…you’re doing the same as us! selling the house and being homeless…it is scary isnt it!?
    you guys seem to have the same issues as we do – how to plan enough but not too much, and how to travel light. we are having to work out camping gear and personal belongings to fit on to a bicycle trailer (and possibly saddlebags), in order to cycle the world for charity over the next 18 months to 2 years. we aim to find a home abroad at the end of the trip! so essentially for the duration, we need to enjoy the travel, the hidden gems, and the experiences without getting too caught up in detail….ahhh, ‘winging it’ is most definitely high on the agenda most of the time, unless we need a flight between continents, or a camp site!
    I am really looking forward to reading more of your posts…
    (ps I am 39 and hubby 41, so similar also in the fact we have come to this later than most)

    • Thanks for your comment, Reikipixie. Your adventure sounds amazing too. We’ll definitely follow along! It’s nice to know there are other 40-somethings hitting the road – we haven’t come across many others similar in age/life stage to us. When does your trip start?

      • Well, it’s all a little in the air at the mo, but we hope to start in June. It’s all been very last minute, as we were initially going to backpack, but when looking into things, we decided to cycle. That led to us getting a specially commisioned tandem trike due to hubbys war injuries, and then on to doing it for 2 charities!!! it’s a work in progress, lol. are you travelling full time now, or still waiting for house sale?

      • I see from your site that you’re supporting Help for Heroes. I was actually involved in assisting Wounded Warriors to send a team of Canadian military members with mental health injuries to join H4H at the Big Battlefield Bike Ride last year. The soldiers found it an amazing experience. I had hoped to go along to lend my support to their cause but it didn’t work out. Small world!

      • Yes we are…hubby was in the Forces and was medically retired due to injuries from combat, so its close to our hearts to raise funds for them, as well as Monkey World. sounds like you were part of doing fab work from your side of the world too.

  4. Great post, I agree with slowing it down and taking time to appreciate a destination. I’ve done winging it and I’ve also done the whirlwind, once in a life time, have to see everything trip. It was exhausting and the winging it trip was much more enjoyable.

    • Hi Anna. Thank for your comment, it’s great to hear that we’re not the only ones who learned this lesson the hard way. When I look back on our travels, the moments I remember most vividly are the times we really connected with the places and people. Hopefully, we’ve learned our lesson and will manage to keep it slow on our round the world trip.

  5. Hey there fellow traveler. I’ve recently come across your blog myself and have been reading your posts for the last hour! Good on you for following your dreams and taking “the middle road”. I can’t wait to read your future posts and so have nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award. If you’d like to accept, check out the rules here: http://ninahuppertz.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/the-liebster-blog-award/. Keep up the good stories and I look forward to learning more about travel (the successes, failures, and joys) through the eyes of another! Wishing you all the best too with future endeavors!

    • Thanks for reading Nina and thank you very much for the Liebster nod! It’s a great award to showcase new blogs. We’ll do our best to respond to it soon. We are pleased our writings are enjoyable for other travelers like you.

  6. Pingback: Travelling Mudskippers’ Top 10 Bucket List | the Travelling Mudskippers

  7. Dear,Al and Carol ,I learnt more things from this article.Very good this article to me.I hope to read more your travel lessons.Great!!!Great!!!Great!!!I am enjoying with your post.Thank you

  8. You can definitely see your expertise in the paintings you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

  9. As travellers who are a decade older than you and ‘travelling’ in the looser sense of being based here in Hanoi and travelling from here as part of work/pleasure activities, I really enjoyed your lessons learned. When you come back to Vietnam you have a base in Hanoi with us for as long as you want/need. I’m looking forward to reading more about your plans and adventure over the coming weeks/months/years. Ah, good times x

  10. Thank you very much for your generous offer! We would love to take you up on it. We ran out of time to visit Vietnam properly on our last trip so we really want to go back and Hanoi is a destination we definitely want to explore. We’ve been enjoying your blog also.

  11. Enjoyed your post and lessons learned. I too, have the tendency to cram too much in. We plan to go back to certain favorites, spend a week in each and savor it. We leave for Havana in the morning for a week., part of a photographic group from the US. Our first time there. Your decision to travel while you can is to be commended. Best of everything.

  12. Thanks Lynne! We hope you enjoy Havana. We love Cuba! We’ll watch for your post about your trip. Thanks for the positive feedback on our travel plans too. It’s great to get encouragement from like-minded travellers. Safe travels.

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