I never set out to break a world record; things just sort of escalated. Although I had been on the usual summer holidays with family before, the travel bug really bit me at the age of 18, when I embarked on a backpacking trip with friends through Southeast Asia. From that moment, travel became my obsession, and at the age of 24 I became the youngest solo traveller to visit all 196 nations.
But before you jump to conclusions, I’m not one of those “rich kids of Instagram” – I’m from a normal middle class family. Although I was lucky enough to get the occasional cheap flight thanks to my dad’s job as a pilot, everything else was paid for through working temporary jobs and ninja budgeting skills.
So what advice would I give other young solo backpackers about to embark on their first adventure? I’ve attempted to distil my wisdom into 15 travel lessons below, but my most important piece of advice is, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson: Buy the ticket, take the ride! ✈️?
Travel Lesson #1: There will be lots of waiting
Particularly when overlanding across countries, there will be huge chunks of time you need to occupy. You probably won’t have an internet connection, so you’ll have to find some old school ways to keep yourself entertained. Bring something good to read. Download some podcasts before your trip or at your hostel. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Write a book. Learn a new language. It’s a great opportunity to escape the distractions of social media and achieve something you’ve always wanted to.
Travel Lesson #2: Don’t become complacent
Don’t assume you are untouchable because you came away from your first backpacking trip unscathed, or from your 5th even. I didn’t get mugged until I had visited over 100 countries, and to be honest my guard was probably lowered. You won’t be able to enjoy your travels if you’re constantly on edge, but a bit of common sense will go a long way.
Travel Lesson #3: Technology is a solo traveller’s best friend
Technology has completely changed the way we travel. Sure, there’s something romantic about sending postcards and using real paper maps, but you’ll be grateful for the convenience and security that a smartphone can bring you. Always load up google maps on your phone either before your trip or at your hostel so you can use it offline.
Try and keep the tech you carry with you to a minimum though. Only take your laptop if you need it for work – it’s heavy and another important item that can go missing.
Travel Lesson #4: Always have emergency money
Emergency funds are essential even in “safe” destinations – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a wad of cash in a sock or an unused credit card. And this isn’t that kind of emergency where you need another round of jaeger bombs. There were occasions where I was in countries where international credit cards were not accepted and I was down to my very last dollar. Keep a back-up for absolute emergencies, and be strict with yourself. Also, call your bank before your trips so they don’t block your card at the most inconvenient time in some far flung destination.
Travel Lesson #5: Do your research
Even seasoned travellers should research every destination beforehand. There was nothing worse than arriving in a completely foreign place and not having a clue what to do or where to go, but there were occasions I made this mistake. You’ll get some amazing recommendations from people you meet on your travels, but you still need a basic grounding in the destination in order to not feel like you’re missing out. Even just researching the main sights and a bit of the lingo will help you get your bearings, and find the more unusual stuff once you’re there.
Travel Lesson #6: Give yourself the freedom to say yes
Be open minded and say yes to exciting sounding adventures. There were times where I followed the guidebook too closely when I first started travelling, and I’m sure I missed out on some cool experiences that way. Travel is all about embracing the unexpected, and no matter how hard you try you can’t control everything. It’s good to have some plans and structure, but you should always be open to changing things if you feel like it.
Travel Lesson #7: Back up your travel photos
Not the most original piece of advice ever, but you’d be amazed how many people don’t do this and then lose EVERYTHING. My travel pictures were the most precious souvenirs I took from my adventures, allowing me to reconnect with that place and time. I was only robbed of my camera once on my travels, but still lost some precious memories. The easiest thing is to set up a Dropbox and get into the routine of backing up regularly.
Travel Lesson #8: Take your time before making judgement calls
After a long flight when you come out of arrivals, don’t just jump in the first persons car in the middle of the night who offers the cheapest fare. It’s your safety. Take a moment, sit in the smoking area, grab a drink, whatever, but you have to take a breath and decide who you’re going to trust. Just relax and take your time. More often than not, you’ll find the good people in this world, but a little patience and a calculated decision won’t hurt you.
Travel Lesson #9: Get a local SIM card or travel sim card
I was victim of some pretty hefty phone bills when I returned from my travels, which could have been easily avoided with a bit of common sense. If you’re staying in a country for more than a few days, and expect to be using your phone, getting a local SIM card could save you a lot of money. You can also look into getting an international or global SIM card. And you should consider taking your old phone along if it’s still in working condition, and depending on where you’re travelling to, especially if safety is a concern.
Some networks are now enabling you to take your existing monthly package abroad with you to certain countries, so check with them before you go, especially if you’re locked into a contract and will have to pay the monthly rate anyway. But if you decide to take any sort of contract phone away with you, ALWAYS put a cap on your spending – it’s so easy to do and will save you from the scary bills.
Travel Lesson #10: Take care of yourself when you reach your limits
Backpacker circuits are a melting pot of people passing through hostels, and more often than not you will have days or even weeks in a row where you will be out partying. But when you start to feel tired, exhausted or ill, take a day or two off. There’s no shame in it, but by pushing through it every time, you may find you miss a week or two of your adventure when your body just gives up on you.
Travel Lesson #11: Book some things in advance for a little structure
If you have a rough idea of what you want to see over a few weeks or a few months, and you don’t have all the time in the world, then book your ticket out of your destination as soon as you arrive. I did this particularly during bus travel around South America, and places that I fell in love with, and could have easily stayed weeks, I gave myself time; a week in Buenos Aires for example. You tend to find that people ask where you’ve come from, and where you’re going to next in hostels, so I found that people actually liked the decisiveness of where I was going to next, and very often travelled with me. Most importantly, this meant that, although difficult to leave some destinations, I managed to see everything that I ideally wanted to see from my research.
Travel Lesson #12: Check the climate
Although a very regular piece of advice, always check and recheck the climate when you are travelling. I made this mistake in South America, where high altitude does not complement occasional very hot days and freezing cold nights in some areas. You may have to pack for many different climates on one trip, but don’t cut corners. You won’t enjoy being in -10 degrees Celsius with nothing but a jumper like I found myself in.
Travel Lesson #13: Keep a travel journal or photo diary
There are many stories that I only vaguely remember from the start of my travels, and I wish I had a detailed journal I could look back on to remember even the smallest of things that are now faint memories.
Travel Lesson #14: Be prepared to feel empty when you return home
You will feel very empty every time you return home. There will be great feelings of initial home comforts and seeing your friends and family, but a very numb feeling will be present when you are alone. You will be used to being constantly around people, and even sleeping in your own room can be an incredibly lonely feeling. These emotions will subside and quickly you will have itchy feet again, but very few of us are lucky enough to travel all our lives. Appreciate the time you have at home with the people you care about and use it plan your next adventure!
Travel Lesson #15: Be grateful
Always remember when times get tough that you are incredibly lucky to be travelling and free to do whatever you want when you wake up tomorrow. There are many people back home that would be envious and switch with you in a heartbeat. We are all so lucky to be able to travel.
Got a question for James? Leave a comment below and we’ll get them answered for you! ???
In 2013, James Asquith became the youngest person in history to travel to all 196 nations in the world. To find out more about how he did it, and the adventures he had along the way, you can check out his book Breaking Borders.
What to read next
- Everything You need To Know About Planning The Ultimate Canadian Road Trip
- 50 Travel Experiences That Are WAY Better Than Material Things
- Getting inked by the legendary tribal tattooist Whang Od