Why We Travel, and Why Americans Don’t Travel Enough

Travel is addictive, and I never really realized why until my most recent trip to Southeast Asia. While exploring Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, I had time to reflect on what it is about traveling that is so inspiring to me, and why it has kept me on a travel binge nearly my entire young adult life.

I travel for two reasons — the first is to immerse myself in all aspects of a destination: the sights, the culture, the food, and the people who live there. The second reason, which I’ve found to be growing more important to me the more that I travel, is to meet other travelers, people like me and people not like me, and learn about their stories and where they come from. The reasons people travel change over time, and at this time in my life I travel to see a new country but also to meet others from around the world. I’m slowly discovering why so many people around the world are compelled to travel for long periods of time, to give up their comforts in order to lead a nomadic, ever-changing, and oftentimes-lonely lifestyle.

When I returned to New York I continued reflecting on my experience. I realized that one of my fondest memories of my travels was meeting other backpackers from around the world. I kept coming back to the many conversations I had with people about my place in the backpacker community as a female American traveling for a long period of time, and why I seemed to them to be a rare sight amongst the other nationalities people encountered. I’ve discovered that are very distinct reasons why Americans aren’t part of the long-term travel, backpackers landscape in the way their European, Latin American, and Asian counterparts are.

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Buddhist Temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Whom did I meet in just six short weeks in Southeast Asia? There was an English masseuse who planned to travel until her money ran out, so far four months into her journey. A Brazilian man who’s lived in Australia the past seven years and who works with a sole purpose of traveling around the world. My scuba diving partner from Canada is just…traveling; his end date remained a mystery even to him. An Italian man from Napoli who won the award for smallest backpack. His bag, smaller than my own, will be by his side for a worldwide adventure totaling a year and a half. There was an Australian man from Tasmania who worked six years without a break so that he could travel with his 50-liter backpack for the next ten years, and with the goal of working in Canada and England for a year or so in between. A man from London whose travels will total one and a half years, abiding by one single rule: not to take an airplane. Starting and finishing in London, he had already taken a transatlantic cargo boat, and when we had met he was planning to cross the Pacific Ocean via a 14-day trip on another cargo boat. There was 29-year-old German man from Berlin who quit working for Boston Consulting Group after a year to travel for at least nine months. A 19-year-old woman from Alberta, Canada who after high school had begun her travels and plans to become a certified yoga teacher along the way. There was a 30-year-old woman from Belgium who was the co-founder of a successful beer startup, and who left the business to travel indefinitely. A chef from Amsterdam who just plain quit his job and is exploring the world, so far nine months in. A French couple from Normandy who quit their jobs and are planning to travel for six months, or when their money runs out, whichever comes first. There were two 20 year-old German men who are planning to travel 13 months before going back to finish university. A born and raised New Yorker, who since September of last year has been traveling and will only return when he has to start to medical school in June. A group of American NYU MBA candidates spending their seven-week break abroad together. Two American girls spending ten short days on vacation from work. A finally a 23-year-old from New Hampshire. He just got up and left, and has no plans to return anytime soon.

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Chiangmai, Thailand

These are just a handful of the many people I met. It was so refreshing to have conversations with people that don’t revolve around what you do, as in your typical introductory exchange in New York City. It’s where you’re from and where you’ve been, how long you’ll travel for, your favorite destinations so far. It’s a conversation around places and cultures, around experiences. Rarely does the conversation escalate to what your old job was or what you plan to do in the future. It’s just the now. And although for most of us it’s hard to connect with the now, traveling forces us to be present.

But are twenty to thirty something Americans traveling in this way?

Here are some startling facts: the average age of American leisure travelers is 47.5 years old. Twenty percent are between the ages of 25-34 and only eight percent are 18-24 years old (Source). Only 30% of Americans have passports, compared with 60% of Canadians and 75% of people from the UK (Source). Furthermore, nearly half the global market of 15-29 year old travelers comes from Europe, with some 93 million outbound trips in 2011, according to IPK International’s European Travel Monitor. Germany (17 million outbound trips), France (7.9m), and the UK (7.3m) are the largest three markets in Europe (Source).

Sadly, so few of the people I met who were traveling over long periods of time were Americans. And my new found friends would ask me, why don’t more Americans travel? Or when they do, why for only ten days to two weeks at a time? I believe that answer has three parts to it. The first is a reflection of the discouraging higher education system that we have in the United States, where a private university costs 30 to 60 thousand dollars a year. If anyone wants to have a “good job” these days, they need to get their undergraduate at a “good” school (not to mention think about heading straight to a graduate program). This in turn leads to a tremendous amount of debt. Students need to pay off their loans quickly, because the government charges interest after six months to a year depending on the loan. Graduates are forced to get a job to pay off those debts, and there goes that gap year that they were planning to take.

The second reason is that the United States remains the only developed country in the world without legal minimum vacation days. Meaning we are entitled as employees of any company to zero vacation days. More than a quarter of working Americans currently do not have vacation time. The average American worker is entitled to 16 days of paid leave (keep in mind this is after a few years in the work force. If you’re an entry-level employee, that number is closer to seven). But the length of the average vacation lasts just over four days! Only 25 percent of workers say they take all the time off that’s due them (Source). In fact, 15 percent of Americans report taking no time off (Source).

These numbers are disturbing, particularly when you compare to other countries around the world, where the average vacation days plus paid holidays total 28 in Australia, 33 in Croatia, 34 in Germany, 38 in France, and finally the winner, Brazil, with 41 days (Source & Source).

The final reason, which I feel is the most difficult to overcome, is that American culture in general does not value independent, backpacker travel. Speaking here in generalities, American families and the institutions they attend in higher education instill this sort of mandate that you should be seeking an internship or a paid job immediately upon graduation in order stay ahead in the workforce. Particularly in finance, where some students intern at investment banking firms even during their summers in college, these graduates are primed to head straight to work. And the working hours are long and hard. Many young people feel that this type of lifestyle will pay off because they can retire at a young age, and then enjoy their free time.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

But what our family, friends, professors, and employers have trouble understanding is how profoundly traveling as a young adult shapes the rest of your life. It develops strength of character. Without any exaggeration, it makes you who you are. And I’m witnessing it when I travel, not only within myself but in the other people I meet along the way. You learn to be not only independent but also you are humbled, becoming supremely aware that you are only but a small part of this very complex world. Traveling reminds you that your nine-to-five desk job is not what defines you. You learn that not everyone is like you, and you experience that first-hand.

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Halong Bay, Vietnam

Perhaps one day the young backpacker community will be filled with Americans, but for now, we have a long way to go. In the meanwhile, I encourage young women and men not to wait, but to do what may be a little different than what others around them are doing. Don’t take a vacation. Instead, travel.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

This post also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.

How to Backpack for 6 Weeks in Southeast Asia

I believe in traveling as light as possible, no matter what type of trip I’m taking. And these days with weight limits, checked bag fees, and carry-on weight and size restrictions it’s just plain easier to pack light. The more I travel, the smaller and smaller my bag gets. I’m headed to Southeast Asia for 6 weeks, and this will be my lightest trip to date. Below is a list of what I am bringing, with some packing tips for any traveler, regardless of destination.

Many of these items are destination specific. I will be traveling to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, where temperatures reach a high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows in some areas in the mid 60s. There is also a good chance of rain. This area is very hot, humid, and mosquitoes are everywhere.

Also, Keep in mind I will be traveling on a budget, backpacker-style, meaning I will be staying in hostels and will be buying the least expensive plane tickets. Most airlines in Asia have a 15kg (33lb) carry-on limit, so my goal will be to pack well under that amount. I’m pretty small, so I also want to save my back the pain of carrying 15kg every day for 6 weeks.

Pre-trip checklist:

-Scan the front and back of your credit and debit cards that you’ll be bringing with you. Send yourself an email of these scans, in case you lose your card and need to contact the bank.

-Scan your passport and email yourself the passport information as well. Also make a photocopy of your passport and keep it with your original passport.

-Call your bank and credit card companies to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling to. That way you’re card won’t get declined if you try to use it abroad.

-Buy travel insurance. I use World Nomads. It doesn’t cost that much money and it’s worth it to have insurance should anything happen to you. Better safe than sorry!
-Vaccinations: Check the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website for the types of vaccinations that are recommended you take before going to a specific country.

Money: US Dollars are the currency of choice in Cambodia. Be sure to bring a good amount of new and crisp US Dollars with you, but not too much. Use ATMs to take out foreign currency in each country you go to. You’ll only use your credit card for big purchases at hotels, nice restaurants, for plane tickets, and for expensive adventure activities such as scuba diving. When you arrive at hostel you will pay for your stay in cash.

My Top Two: There are two items here that I couldn’t do without, and that have traveled with me around the world.

Sherpani Small Ultralight backpack. This is the single best travel purchase I’ve ever made. I’ve used this backpack so much. It’s stylish and lightweight, and it fits everything you need for the day, no more, no less. The $60 is worth every penny.

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From Sherpani.com

I’ve also been all over the world in my purple Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Parka (with hood). It folds into a nice pouch, and I use it as a pillow on the plane and at night. It’s a great jacket for all types of weather and is waterproof.

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From Uniqlo.com

Gadgets & Gear:

 

-What’s going to carry it all: My small Orange Gregory Jade 50 backpack. It carries 50 liters, and is perfect for my frame. I bought this when I studied abroad in college, and it’s been with me ever since.

-Passport: Make sure to have several blank pages for your visas-on-arrival Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

–Money belt with cash. Make sure to buy a comfortable and good quality money belt, as you’ll be sleeping with it on the plane, in buses, and in some cases at hostels. Often the ones you get for free are scratchy and not fit for actual carrying around long distances.

-Long and thin wallet that can fit lots of cash bills and less credit cards. Mine has different compartments to separate my US dollars from foreign money.

-Small coin pouch

-Two TSA approved combination locks (I have on from REI and the other from Swiss Army)

-Mini babybliss pro TT dual voltage hair dryer

– My GoPro Hero4 Silver, charger, handle, and two extra backdoors. The GoPro and charger fit into a small black case.

-My iPhone 5S and charger

-My Samsung smart phone and charger. I have this unlocked Samsung so that I can buy a SIM card with a data plan when I travel to countries for 5 days or more. It can be a drag to buy a new SIM for each country, but if you’re there long enough it’s well worth it should you want to stay connected. Never turn on your data roaming from your American phone, it will cost a fortune.

-Five round pegged adapters: one is already attached to my hairdryer, one to my GoPro charger, one to my iPhone charger, one to Galaxy charger, and one extra just in case)

–GoTravel Small Explorer Backpack. Its fold-able and only weighs 163grams. I tend to buy souvenirs and fun accessories towards the end of my trip, and my bag starts to fill up. If my backpack gets too big I check it and use my Sherpani as one carry on and this fold-able backpack my second carry on.

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From go-travelproducts.com

-Two medium packing cubes (One by Muji, the other by Sea to Summit). This is wear I pack most of my clothes.

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From Muji.com

–Eagle Creek quarter cube. I carry in this cube my medications, earplugs, extra adapters, two sets of ear-bud headphones and an eye mask.

–Eagle Creek toiletry hanging pack

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From eagle creek.com

–Sea to Summit pocket towel. The micro fiber makes this towel fast drying and ultra absorbent. It’s also antimicrobial which allows use for extended periods without washing.

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From Amazon.com

-Plastic disposable rain poncho

–Cocoon Travel Sheet: mine was polycotton, adding 408g to my pack. There are different varieties depending on your budget and the temperature of the location you’re going to. These travel sheets are great in case you’re in a hostel with questionable cleanliness. Also comes with a pocket for pillow insert, a side opening with velcro closure.

Clothing:

A tip for choosing your clothes, which has always been a challenge for me: always go through everything one more time, and create a very specific scenario where you plan to use each item. This will help you take things away. For instance, as I went through each piece of clothing I imagined myself wearing it as I rode in a tuk-tuk through Angkor Wat. I magically changed the weather to imagine myself under the sweltering sun, drenched in the pouring rain, and riding through the hard winds. I would make sure my clothes and shoes were appropriate for each scenario.

-Three bikinis: they are small and easy to carry, so I decided to be luxurious and bring three.

-Three pairs of shoes: my everyday walking shoes (I have Ryka sneakers that aren’t that loud white old granny kind. Wear something you’re not embarrassed to wear, because you’re going to wear them almost every day), nice black leather sandals (for days I don’t want to wear the sneakers, and to go out at night), and my walking flats, which I find very comfortable and is sort of the wild card pair.

-Sandals: my Havaianas flip-flops are essential for the hostel showers and the beach.

-10 pairs of underwear, 2 bras, 5 pairs of socks

-One pair of jeans

-One sweater

-One blouse

-One short jumper

-Two pairs of shorts

-One pair of leggings

-6 shirts

-2 dresses, one casual and the other a simple black dress.

-One sleeping t-shirt

-Sleeping shorts

-One light, large scarf. This can be used to keep warm but also to wrap around your shoulders or legs when entering temples.

-One beach cover up

-Small red purse for when I go out at night and when don’t want to carry my Sherpani

Toiletries: I won’t list everything, except a few items worth noting. Remember you can always buy items there, so don’t bring a large bottle of shampoo.

-Bring two sets of travel sized shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel, and when you run out buy more there.

-Bring a travel pack of makeup remover wipes – not necessarily for makeup removal but when you need to wash your face and can’t get to water or it seems very dirty, use the makeup pads.

-Travel size tide packets: in case you want to wash your clothes by hand in the sink

-Two small bottles of hand sanitizer for your day to day.

-Travel pack of wet-ones.

-Three 2.5 oz cans of mosquito spray. Small cans are portable and easy to bring in your day bag when you travel.

-Two CVS SPF 30 sun lotion pouches. I love these because they save a lot of space by using less plastic.

-One small Neutrogena SPF 55 face lotion. I bring this in my Sherpani every day.

You can buy more sunscreen and mosquito spray when you get there as needed, but it’s always good to bring a little bit to start, especially if you love a certain brand of sunscreen for your face (aka that’s me) and there’s no guarantee they’ll have it there.

Medications: This does not include any prescription medications you individually must bring with you. I like to take the following with me in small amounts just in case: ibuprofen, emergen-C, burts & bees throat drops, Gas X tablets, and midol.

Jewelry: I don’t bring anything valuable. I brought two of my favorite (inexpensive) rings that I wore on the plane, one necklace, two bracelets, and two pairs of earrings. Southeast Asia is a great place to buy jewelry. I didn’t bring many items so that I can buy some fun items there.

Makeup: A personal decision, but I packed just the minimum. When I travel I rarely wear makeup, unless I go to a bar or nice restaurant at night, then I put a little mascara and powder on.

Random Items:

–Hair ties, you can never have too many!

–Lip balm, with SPF 15.

-One small tube of hand cream

-6 individual packs of tissues: always bring tissues with you in Asia! A lot of places won’t have toilet paper, or it won’t be of the best quality.

-Small notepad and a pen

-Sunglasses: don’t bring your favorite $300 Chanel sunglasses, but don’t bring cheap $7 ones either. I brought my Cole Haan sunglasses. Make sure you like how they look on you because they will show up in all your photos!

-Hat: I don’t really like hats, but I know they are necessary especially in the hot Southeast Asian sun. Mine is easily fold able.

-Two plastic bags. I use one to separate my dirty clothes before I do laundry, and the other is just extra in case I need it.

-One paperback book and two magazines. My kindle broke; otherwise I would have brought that along with me instead.

–Lonely Planet pocket phrase book for Southeast Asian languages

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From Amazon.com

Total weight of my backpack: 12kg: yay, success!

 

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My bags are all ready to go!

This post also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.