Recently, I just happened to hit that celebratory milestone for travel lovers by visiting my 50th country. In 2011, I had only visited 4 countries, 3 of which I had lived in before. After visiting Thailand, I never looked back. In less than six years, I’ve managed to visit 50 more countries and currently at 54 after visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina. Through all of this, I’ve mostly worked a full time job (with a few extended breaks of course) and reached the milestone before I turned 31. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life to have done all the things I’ve been able to.
Traveling and seeing the world is probably the easiest things one can do to better themselves. I think the world would be a better place if everyone just got out a little bit more. At worst, it is fun, and at best, you learn and experience things that cannot be taught in a classroom or a cubicle. You learn that your way of life is not the only way of life. You learn that people are just people first and foremost; religion, race, culture all comes after that. You learn that your definition of happiness is not the only way.
A map of all the countries I’ve visited
Johnny Africa Destinations
Travel is different than vacationing
Traveling and vacationing are totally different things. To me, traveling is embracing your inner explorer and discovering something you’ve not known before. Vacationing is merely escaping the life you’re living to pause and recharge. There’s nothing wrong with either option as we all need both things in our lives. It’s not to say that traveling means I’m only allowed to stay in hostels or eat street food, but rather I’m going somewhere to immerse myself in their culture. I want to meet new people, try new things, and have new experiences.
A vacation is booking a 4 night stay at a resort in Cancun where the tourists outnumber locals, and the locals are only there to serve the tourists. Traveling is flying into Cancun, taking the local bus to Tulum, staying at a guesthouse on the beach with a dozen other travelers, eating some tacos on the street, and taking another bus down to Belize. It’s really just the mindset different between the two. To me, travel is about getting out of your element, whereas a vacation is staying in your element. Traveling is often times not relaxing and not pretty, but you still can’t get enough of it and are never ready to go home.
Travel is not expensive
Which brings me to the next point. Vacationing is often times expensive. Travel does not have to be. People often times ask me how I can afford to travel so much. The truth is that living in New York City, traveling to almost every other country is fact cheaper than just staying home and doing what I normally do.
Airbnb has opened a whole new universe into traveling and not breaking the bank. Not only does it allow me to stay in cooler neighborhoods, but it is often times much cheaper than staying at hotels. I’m all about eating the local eats and avoiding the tourist trap restaurants so unless I’m in Zurich or Reykjavik, eating is always cheaper than if I was just in New York City.
It’s really quite simple. If the locals are making less money than me in New York. Yet they are still alive, not starving and enjoying themselves, why wouldn’t I be able to do the same?
Learn some of the local language
Certainly not the easiest thing you can do while traveling, but if done well, it undoubtedly is the most satisfying. Learning a different language in countries is not really mandatory anymore with English being the de facto international language but it goes a long ways in lesser developed countries. I can speak French well enough to hold a conversation but I’m not sure I would have been able to talk to anyone besides tourists in a country like Madagascar had I not.
Naturally this is pretty self explanatory for communicating with those that don’t speak English, but even with those that do speak English, learning their language brings out a whole different side in a person. People open up in different ways depending on which language they speak. Even a few phrases can go a long way as it shows someone you are really trying to embrace their culture and language. If nothing else, it will be humor entertainment value for the locals.
Deserts are damn cool
There’s something forever mysterious and adventurous about rolling sand dunes, camels, and oasis. There are deserts on in fact every continent and they cover 1/3 of the Earth’s land mass. As beautiful as they are, it’s baffling how anything can survive in such unforgiving conditions. The Atacama desert in Chile has areas where no rain has ever been recorded, yet a million people live there.
My favorite, however, still goes to the Namib desert in southern Namibia. Nowhere else have I seen dunes as high or as red as the ones in Namibia. Deadvlei, the salt pan with dead acacia trees located in the desert, is certainly one of the biggest highlights here.
An open mind is essential
One of the byproducts of traveling is forcing me to have an open mind in just about everything. As cheesy as this sounds, it’s true. Traveling to a different country means you get to see and sometimes experience how someone else lives. It reminds you that your way of life is not the only way of life. Every country has its own way of doing things so above else, respect their customs and ways. It might not all be things you agree with, but it’s essential to keep an open mind.
Asking questions is also a vital part of the experience. You’ll never learn more about current issues, culture, and history, than asking questions to the right people. This isn’t to discredit history textbooks, but they are just textbooks that state the facts. Getting personal recounts are something entirely different. Do keep in mind that recent issues might still be a dark spot in many people’s minds so don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk about it.
Asia has the best scuba diving
Having dived in all the oceans except the Arctic, the best diving is without a doubt the area concentrated in Southeast Asia called the Coral Triangle. This area bordered by the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea has the highest density of marine life in the world (5x more than the Caribbean). Southeast Asia has the best diving without a doubt and Komodo National Park is still tops of my list followed by the Red Sea.
As perfectly evidenced by the below:
Always try the local food
The most important and concrete thing I’ve learned from traveling is that food is absolutely the universal language. There is nothing quite like eating a delicious meal that connects people from the most different of backgrounds. It’s the most primal instinct we have as humans and there’s an unequivocal sense of happiness that we get with a good meal that satisfies our hunger.
Some of my fondest moments traveling the world are pulling up to a local joint filled with locals and I might be the only foreigner there. I order whatever the local favorite is, and proceed to chow down. Locals will often look at me with curiosity often times with a sense of concern over whether my stomach can handle their food, or if I’m enjoying their local cuisine. Often times they speak no English but as soon as I start smiling and making the universal gesture of “this is delicious food”, everyone is all of a sudden happy.
Whether it’s peri peri chicken in Mozambique, Lechon in the Philippines, Ceviche in Peru, or Nasi Lemak in Malaysia, I always make an effort to at least try the local food. Of course not all cuisines are created equal but at the very least, I will still try the food before passing judgement. 50 countries later, I’ve still yet to find a place where I genuinely just disliked everything about that country’s food.
Try the street food
And to supplement the previous point, try the street food. While life mostly happens indoors in Western countries, life happens on the streets in the rest of the world. People trying to make a living, hawking up the best of their cuisine in a simple, and cheap manner on the street. Particularly true in Asia, some of the best meals I’ve had are on the street in the most unassuming of locations. Don’t be scared to try something new.
Petra, Angkor Wat, and Machu Picchu are amazing
Always pay in the local currency
Not only is this good for the local economy, but you’ll almost always receive a better rate. Places like Mexico, specifically prey on tourists incompetence and laziness to extort them. The exchange rate might be 15 pesos to 1 USD but vendors will give tourists 12 pesos to 1 USD if they want to pay in dollars. Most people have no idea what the exchange rate is anyway and 12 pesos might still seem like a good deal so they go through with it.
Personally, I always do the conversions in my head and I know most people can’t do that, but from my experience, paying in the local currency almost always wins out. The only exceptions are countries like Argentina before they started floating their currency.
Go where others won’t
It’s like Warren Buffet about buying stocks: “be greedy when others are fearful”. The same logic can apply to traveling. Geopolitical tensions severely affect tourism. Places that have had some sort of terrorist attacks, disease, or something similar will see a huge decline in tourism. This isn’t to say you should have visited Liberia during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. But somehow, thanks to the media and people’s general lack of geographic awareness, places like Kenya, and Tanzania saw decreases in tourism even though those countries are thousands of miles apart. I even had people ask me how South Africa was with the Ebola outbreak. Newsflash, South Africa is further away from Liberia than the continental USA.
There’s been a seemingly never-ending stream of terrible and heart breaking news coming out of Syria and Iraq for the past few years, and now is certainly not the right time to visit those countries. However, countries like Egypt, and Jordan have all seen their tourism plummet due to peripheral conflicts. It used to be impossible to get a picture of an Egyptian temple without swarms of tour groups but when I went in 2014, I was one of a handful of people visiting these ancient relics.
Get out of your comfort zone and go explore.
Otherwise, prepare for travel expectations vs reality
There’s nothing worse than having certain expectations of a place and have it be completely turned around upon arrival. That’s the reality nowadays. People around the world are traveling more than ever before. With cheap flights, higher incomes, and social media, it’s never been easier to research and plan a trip. This means lots and lots of people in the most popular of places.
Forget the media, not everyone’s trying to kill you
I swear that some people hear something bad about country X on the news and they think the moment they land at the airport, every single person is looking to kill, kidnap, or hurt them. Get over yourself. You think you’re an important person? Newsflash, you’re probably not.
No one’s out to get you. You’re not that important of a person, and no one’s going to kidnap you. Don’t buy into media garbage. They just regurgitate statistics and prey on people’s innate stereotypes and fears. There’s danger in every country. Okay maybe not so much in Iceland but for most of the world, there are always good areas and bad areas.
I lived in South Africa for two years. The media loves to highlight South Africa’s crime statistics and people immediately assume it’s some war zone running rampant with crime. Yes there are pockets that are not good, no questions but it doesn’t mean every single square inch of a country is that way. I can assure you I was not dodging bullets on my way to work every day. Just because one tiny group of people might seek your harm, does not mean they represent the 99.9% of the rest of that region.
Basing one’s entire judgement on some news article that your friend’s brother read is no way to live. Read some blogs (like yours truly), go on TripAdvisor or LonelyPlanet, and read about the stories and experiences real people have had before arriving at your conclusion.
Which transitions well to the next point…
Most people just want to be happy
People are different, but they’re also the same. People have different beliefs, religions, languages, and customs but at the end of the day, everyone is still just trying to live their lives and get by. People are trying to provide for their families. They’re trying to make enough money to bring food to the table, have a good time, pursue their dreams, etc. People are just looking to be as happy as their circumstances can allow them to be.
From my travels, the correlation between happiness and money is not as straight of a line as one might think. Some of the poorest places from a GDP per capita basis also had some of the nicest and happiest people. Perhaps they were just happy to see an unfamiliar face and wanted to make a good impression, but I highly doubt that.
People are mostly good
People are generally good. No one is born hating someone else, but rather taught and influenced by their surroundings. No one wants wars, famine, and destruction. It’s almost always the corrupt leadership of a few that leads to the suffering of the many. But like I’ve said before, most people just want to live their lives, and pursue happiness in whichever way they know how. Sure some people are going to try ripping me off and try to make that extra buck, but that happens everywhere, even at home.
When I was traveling through Africa, often times I had no idea where I was going or how I would get to my next destination. Through broken English and make-shift sign language, people would go above and beyond to make sure I reached my destination safely. Some people were so helpful and concerned that they insisted on going with me to a certain point, even if that meant inconveniencing themselves.
People are just people first and foremost. Humanity’s purpose at the most basic and primal of levels, is to survive. Race, religion, and culture, all come after.
Traveling alone is NOT being alone
Traveling alone is perhaps one of the scariest and most uncomfortable thing someone can do. It is also amazing. There are whole blogs dedicated to why solo travel is the best. The key takeaway is that, traveling alone doesn’t mean you’ll be alone. If you’re sociable and open to meeting new people, there are countless others just like you. Sure there are times that you might be more alone than others, but it is certainly not the majority. Some of my fondest moments are when I went on the overland tours through Africa and the friends I made along the way.
Don’t wait around for a flaky friend who won’t commit to anything. The world is not waiting around for your friend, so why should you?
The best beaches are in the Indian Ocean
Purely just my bias but the beaches and oceans in the Indian ocean are the most stunning. Having visited the islands of Mozambique, Madagascar, Zanzibar, and Mombasa, it is tops in my books for sheer beauty. Also, some of the most deserted and stunning beaches I’ve seen in my life are in Mozambique’s northern peninsula in the Quirimbas Archipelago.
Africa has the best sunsets
And the best at a lot of other things too. Africa is still my favorite continent after all my travels.
The more I travel, the less I pack. I normally just take a backpack and it carry on only (unless I’m diving of course). I’ve come to realize that there is absolutely no need to pack a huge suitcase, even if travel is for months on end. Not only does it weigh me down and inconvenience me when I am on the go, but it is so cheap to have laundry done in some countries. Also, God forbid I have to wear something for more than a day! Keeping it carry on only will inevitably save you the headaches of losing luggage. This doesn’t happen often obviously, but when it does happen, it could ruin the trip.
With that said, good gear is something I’m totally for. There’s no need to break the bank in order to get the most high tech stuff, but making sure a backpack/suitcase is comfortable, and sturdy are key things to any keen traveler.
Money and happiness are mutually exclusive
This is likely the most important lesson I’ve gotten out of traveling. I once thought making copious amounts of money was the key to happiness because this meant I could buy things that I thought would make me happy. Traveling has shown me more and taught me that excessive material possessions do not in fact make me incrementally happier.
I’ve traveled to many different places in the world, from the extremely rich to the extremely poor. It’s in the latter category that I really met some of the most humble, nice, and above else, happiest people in the world. Whether it was Africa or in Southeast Asia, often times it was the people with the least amount of means that seemed to have the least of worries. Perhaps it was because they didn’t have that much money, and in turn, had no opportunity to develop the problems we think we have in the first world.
Money isn’t the problem
Money is not the problem. It’s thinking you don’t have enough, when you actually do that is. Money does buy happiness, make no mistake but it also makes it possible to develop problems when there weren’t any to begin with.
I’m not saying everyone was living the good life. I’ve witnessed some extreme heart-breaking poverty in my travels and I haven’t even been to any of the countries that’s in civil war. Perhaps it was a facade that people put on when they saw a foreigner like me.
However, it’s those people with just “enough” that surprise me the most. Those with enough food to eat, a roof over their heads, and a big family that seemed to be enjoying life the most. I’m sure they all have problems of their own, but for someone coming from a society that earns 100x what they earn, we also seem to have 100x the problems they do. Something’s not right here.
For this reason, traveling the world has lowered my estimation of happiness. I’ve come to realize if these people can be happy with so little, what am I worried about? It is never about will I have food tonight, but rather what type of food will I eat? Will I really be a happier person with that much more money?
I’m not stupid or naive because if it wasn’t for money, I wouldn’t be able to travel in the first place. More and more however, I continue to realize how fortunate I am and that most of my problems, aren’t really that problematic.
Book multiple flights when traveling to smaller towns
There are plenty of tips and tricks when searching for flights. One that helps me a lot is booking multiple legs for a single flight. When traveling to smaller towns within a country, often times it makes more sense to book a round trip flight to that country’s capital city, and then search for a separate flight within the country using a different airline.
For example, if I searched for a round trip flight from NYC (my home base) to Labuan Bajo, Indonesia which is home to the Komodo National Park, I’ll get flight options that comprise of airlines that are part of the same alliance. This drastically reduces my options and increases my price tag. In much of Europe and Asia, there are many discount airlines that are not affiliated with any other airlines. In the previous case, the better choice would be to search for direct flights to Jakarta and/or Bali, and then perform a separate search from Jakarta/Bali to Labuan Bajo.
T-mobile is God’s gift to American Travelers
Sometimes I yearn for the days when traveling meant really going off the grid and exploring the unknown. Those times are behind us because there’s wifi and cell phone service almost everywhere these days. It’s hard to imagine myself traveling without some sort of electronic device. Phones in particular have come in very handy when I travel.
T-Mobile completely revolutionized cell phones starting back in 2014. They offer free unlimited data roaming in almost every country in the world. This means I can land in Cape Town, turn on my phone, immediately have full service to whatsapp my friends, check my email, and grab an Uber all for free. For the purists out there that believe in maps, I can assure you that you will fail at navigating in Istanbul. Google Maps on the other hand…
UBER has changed the game
Uber’s impact on traveling is revolutionary. Tourists used to be (and still are of course) prime targets for third world taxi drivers with no official metering policies. Tourists couldn’t speak the language, have no idea what the market rate is, and would subsequently be ripped off my taxi drivers. Uber has leveled the playing field with fixed pricing.
For example, while traveling through the Philippines, my international flight landed in Manilla Airport’s terminal A . I had a a domestic flight to Cebu, that left from Terminal C. The airport bus was unreliable at best, so I decided to try my luck with a taxi. He quoted me 400 PHP (~$8) to go from one terminal to the other! I showed him my Uber app that quoted me 120 pesos for the exact same fare, to which he seemed very irritated. I ended up going with the Uber and the guy even had a bottle of water for me.
Nowadays, Uber is usually not the only game in town. Many countries have banned Uber or the general consensus favors other apps. Do your research before hand and make sure to download Uber and any other ride hailing apps to avoid getting ripped off.
Read the reviews
Never has it been easier to scout out potential accommodations, restaurants, and tours. I suppose this washes away the spontaneity of generations past where people would just have to wing everything and hope for the best but I think it’s for the better. TripAdvisor, Airbnb, LonelyPlanet, and other sources have made it possible to fully plan where you want to stay, eat, and go depending on the validations by other (sometimes) like-minded travelers.
Get no fee ATM cards and Credit cards (Americans only)
This is a no brainer. Nothing is worse than taking cash out of an ATM and getting charged with exorbitant fees. Sure I could take out a thousand dollars at a time but if I have a lot of leftover money, I will lose out again when trying to convert it back to my native currency.
Charles Schwab offers a free checking account with all their brokerage accounts (which are also free) that is completely free to use abroad. All ATM charges are reimbursed, no questions asked.
In addition, I hate carrying cash around. In developed countries, I take try to not take any cash out and put it all on my credit card. Make sure to have a few credit cards without FX fees. Visa is the most widely accepted in the world, Mastercard second, and American Express is only in developed parts of the world.
Engage in Credit card churning (Americans only)
Which leads me to this next point. Churn credit cards like there’s no tomorrow. Reaching 50 countries wouldn’t have come so fast if it wasn’t for all the credit card points and free money I’ve earned in the past few years. To keep it short, I haven’t paid for flights in 2 years, have 20+ cards with about $15,000 worth of points and miles, and my credit score is still above 800. Read the following articles to start!