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5 Unexpected Lessons I Learned From Travel

Travel is like life in a super duper concentrated form; one year travelling can feel like ten years of normal life, with so many incredible adventures, deep fears, roller coaster emotions, and new relationships all smushed into twelve short months.

Take this avalanche of experiences and mix in a break from your daily routines; suddenly you’re forced to turn autopilot off and start making conscious decisions. Say goodbye to your comfort zone and hello to a period of deep personal growth and an introduction to intentional living.

Of course, I’m writing this in retrospect. When I first started travelling, especially in the developing world, I knew my eyes would be opened to a lot of new things – good and bad. I was expecting/hoping that exposure to new cultures and different people would broaden my horizons and teach me a lot about myself (insert more vague clichés about personal growth.)

But hey – now that I’m older, arguably wiser, with over a decade of travel experience in my back pocket, I can now give some concrete feedback about how travel has changed my life. Here are 5 of the most unexpected lessons I learned from travel and how my everyday life has changed since coming home.

What travelling the world has taught me about life.


On my first big overseas trips, I travelled with everything I could possibly fit in my giant backpack. (I was going to London and the staff at the travel clinic convinced me that I needed to bring a water purifier. Yeah, I know. #oneborneveryminute)

But anyway, on the flight I got really sick (I’m blaming the flu shot also sold to me by the above mentioned travel clinic.) When I landed I was weak, disoriented and alone, and I then had to find my way through central London with a giant 70L pack and a fever (and navigating the Tube as a foreigner can be daunting at the best of times!)

Ever since then I’ve downsized considerably and I travel with a 35L pack (or smaller.) I don’t like to carry more than about 10kgs, which is a weight that I can carry comfortably without too much complaining.

What I’ve learned from this is that I need a lot less than I think to get by and that you rarely need the things you bring ‘just in case’.

With time, I’ve learned to translate this into my ‘real’ life and I now choose to live as a minimalist.

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One thing I do all the time when travelling (but rarely do at home) is talk to strangers. It’s not something that I’m good at but when you’re travelling solo it’s either dig deep for a dose of courage or get used to drinking your mojitos alone.

And oh the people you will meet; travellers and expats from all over the world, kind locals who will go out of their way to point you in the right direction, not so nice scam artists, and everyone in between. Some good experiences, some bad, but along the way I was introduced to many so new ideas and viewpoints. I talked about everything, from politics and social issues to arts and literature (and of course detailed discussions about where to find the cheapest and best beer.)

I was invited on great adventures and given opportunities I would never have discovered on my own; travellers I met at the bus station invited me to watch thousands of sea turtles lay their eggs in Nicaragua, I picked up hitchhikers who took me hiking the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, and the kind owner of our eco resort accompanied us snorkelling in a cave on Great Keppel Island in Queensland.

I discovered that, more often than not, people are kind, generous, and trust worthy: like the sweet lady in El Salvador who walked blocks out of her way to show me to the bus station (and then made sure everyone on the bus knew to remind me of my stop!) or the friendly residents of Salt Spring Island who stopped for me when I hitchhiked in Canada.

Both good and bad, these experiences have taught me to try to push myself out of my comfort zone and to look for ways to talk to new people (I even placed a personal ad looking for friends when I moved to Brisbane, which surprisingly worked!) I’ve learned that meeting new people = new adventures and new ideas, a lesson I’m taking with me throughout my life and future travels.

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I’m usually a budget traveller, with a very tiny budget. This means I rarely have luxuries like air conditioning, TV, or sometimes even flushing toilets.

But still, when I wake up in a hot, filthy hotel room, and I look out the window at the Mekong river, I feel grateful. When I’m on a 8 hour turned 16 hour never ending bus trip, I look at my seat mate laughing and offering me fruit and feel I feel pretty darn privileged to be on the bus. And after being pulled over by the police at gunpoint in El Salvador (sorry mom), I laugh with friends because I have a great story to tell!

Even without the comforts of home and with the stress of life on the road, everyday spent travelling somehow feels … magical. Why?

My theory is when I travel, I’m more focused on being present and practising gratitude.

I think having an end date helps; knowing that you’re going home eventually puts things into perspective and you’re suddenly very aware of the passing time. And being in new places keeps you aware – I can’t tell you how many times I’d catch myself in a moment and I’d ask myself, “Am I really here?!”

This isn’t always the easiest feeling to translate into ‘real life’ but it’s something I’m working hard to be mindful of. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that ‘real life’ has an end date too – here is a little reminder if you need it!

RELATED POST: A Practical Guide to Being Present – How to Live in the Moment and Embrace the Joy of Today


Long term travel was my first real experience with sticking to a budget. At home, I would try but I was working and it was always easy enough to expand my budget whenever I wanted to (hello credit cards!) However, when you’re on the road for months, with no paycheck in sight, you have to be more careful.

How you spend your money when you’re on a tight budget really tells you a lot about your true priorities.

What I learned is that when money was tight:

  • I could skip shopping – but I would always find money to go out for a pint at the local pub with new friends.
  • I could eat peanut butter sandwiches three times a day (for a while at least), but I’d spend money on a weaving class at a woman’s co-op in Guatemala or on Spanish classes.
  • I could take 6 local buses instead of 1 direct tourist bus (to save a few bucks) but every once in a while I’d splurge for a massage.

Although I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, I can see now that my spending habits were starting to make a statement about what truly mattered most to me. When I got home I started to get intentional about defining (and living by) my core values and it was no surprise to find caring for relationships, learning and self development, and self care on the list.

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Travel has taught me that I’m strong, capable, and I can do things that other people tell me are impossible.

Travel in itself is something that should have been impossible for me! I left the States in my early twenties with nearly no money and a one way ticket. On paper it was a bad decision and a nearly impossible situation, but I landed on my feet. (Even today when I think back to what happened I’m a little amazed with myself!)

My travels have continued to challenge me: I’ve been lost at 1 am, wandering in a foreign city and desperately hoping to find a bed for the night; I’ve been pulled over at gunpoint in El Salvador and had to negotiate with the police using my limited Spanish; I feel in love in on holiday and decided to be vulnerable and risk my heart being trampled by someone I barely knew.

But each time I found that – in the moment – my heart knew what to do; how to survive and then flourish.

That lesson at such a young age has been a powerful guide in my life. I’ve made lots of choices that go against the norm and have had to make many difficult decision. But the confidence and self belief I learned from travelling has stayed with me and empowered me to be brave and always listen to my heart.

Are these lessons that you can apply in your life? What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned travelling? Has talking to strangers lead you on a great adventure? Let me know in the comments! x

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photo credit (top): Margaret Barley // Used with permission

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