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You never stop learning when you travel. You never cease absorbing new things about the world, about life, and about yourself. Travel is an educational pursuit, a way of absorbing knowledge through experience.
Though everyone picks up different gems of understanding at different times, there are a few universal truths, a few inalienable facts that we all have to learn. Some of these truths are hard won, while others are subconsciously absorbed – however, the fact remains that by the time a traveller hits the glorious, ripe old age of 40, as your scribe will in just a few short years, he or she tends to have acquired certain pieces of knowledge.
These are valuable lessons. They make life easier. They make life simpler. These basics might be philosophical, existential, physical, or even simple common sense, but the fact is the more you travel, the more you come to realise they're true.
The trek to the incredible Rainbow Mountain
Nina Karnikowski takes the high road to one of the world's natural wonders in Peru.
Whether you pick this up well before your 40th birthday, or you need a little more time to take everything on board, if you love to travel and you want to make life easier for yourself, these lessons are worth learning.
THE LESSON You're here for a good time, not a long time
This is something a fellow traveller said to me when I was 17, and I've never forgotten it. The idea is that you don't get many holidays in this life. You don't have long to explore the world. So with that in mind, don't sweat the small stuff. Don't get upset when things go wrong. Just savour every little moment.
THE LESSON More money does not equal more enjoyment
As a budget traveller you find yourself occasionally lusting after five-star hotels and fancy dinners, but as you grow older you realise that universal truth: "Mo money, mo problems". Some of your best travel experiences will be had on low-budget journeys to unfashionable places.
THE LESSON You travel for you
This is not a competition. You're not holidaying to impress your friends, or to make your colleagues jealous, or for any other reason besides the pure enjoyment of travel. You choose your destinations for you. You choose your experiences for you. No one else matters.
THE LESSON There's a cruise for everyone
Cruising is a colossus of the tourism world, and yet it seems, for young travellers at least, that it's not something you'll ever be interested in. That is, until you realise you've already been on a cruise. You've done the Croatian islands. You've been to the Galapagos. You've sailed in Turkey. There's a cruise for everyone.
THE LESSON Kids don't have to slow you down
There's an assumption that having kids will put an 18-year halt on your travel plans, that you might as well get used to staying at home for a long while. But it's not true. Travel with kids of all ages is not only possible, it's enjoyable, and rewarding for everyone involved.
THE LESSON Less is more …
It takes a while to get your head around the adage that you should take all the money you think you'll need for a holiday and double it, and take all the clothes you think you'll need, and halve it.
THE LESSON … But you will always ignore that mantra
Ahem. Yes, you understand that you really don't need all that gear, and that you could easily ditch half of it – but which half? Wheelie luggage makes it even more tempting to over-pack.
Timelapse: Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine
Take a high-speed tour of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. This important site is famous for its thousands of bright red torii gates over trails through a beautiful hillside setting. Video: Craig Platt
THE LESSON Backpacking is a state of mind
You don't have to be young to backpack. You don't need to stay in hostels. You don't even need an actual backpack. Independent, long-term, experiential travel – the sort of travel backpackers do best – is open to anyone at any time.
THE LESSON You're too old for dorm rooms
That said, there will come a point – usually before the age of 40 – when you realise you're too old for dorm rooms. The rustling of plastic bags, the lights on at 4am, the drunks stumbling around … There's only so long you can put up with that.
THE LESSON People rarely just want to practise their English
There's a wariness that comes with experience for travellers, a knowledge that, sadly, not everyone you meet on the road has the best intentions. One of the classic warning signs is the friendly local who wants to practise their English. This has "scam" written all over it.
THE LESSON Haggling is essential
It's an uncomfortable feeling, essentially arguing with someone over money – but haggling is a deeply ingrained part of many cultures, and it's something you should try to enjoy. But don't go too hard.
THE LESSON Take it slow
That first holiday, you want to see everything. Ten countries in two weeks: no problem. Check all the boxes, do all the things. After a while, however, you realise that sometimes less is more when it comes to travel. Spend more time in fewer places, and you'll be richly rewarded.
THE LESSON Language is power
You can travel without being able to speak the local language. Easily. However, you're just floating across the surface; you're seeing everything in 2D. Learning a language allows you to interact with locals, to learn and experience and show respect. It's a difficult skill, but so valuable.
THE LESSON Bad days happen
You can plan everything to the finest degree: you can do your research, you can read reviews, you can book ahead, you can pack everything you need. Some days, however, will just be a disaster. Move on.
THE LESSON It's OK to splash out
Want to spend $300 on dinner because you love food? Go for it. Want to experience a night in a five-star hotel? Do it. Want to fly business class just once? Make the booking. There's no shame in saving up for something you really want to do and then splashing the cash.
THE LESSON You're capable of amazing things
You can survive when things go wrong. You can make yourself understood in another language. You can befriend strangers. You can explore the world on your own. You can change your life with a split decision. This might be the most important lesson of all: you are capable of amazing things.
THE LESSON People are fundamentally good
There's a tendency to be on your guard at first, to listen to tales of thievery and scams and believe it's safer to assume the worst in people. But that's a mistake. The people you meet on the road are overwhelmingly good of intention and of heart. You might run into the odd exception, but the vast majority of people are kind, generous and well meaning.
THE LESSON Risks are worth taking
Travel is at its best when it challenges you, when it forces you to reconsider what you thought you knew, when it takes you outside your comfort zone. It's a thrill, an experience, a story. The idea of "risk" is different for everyone, but the benefits remain the same.
THE LESSON Off the beaten track is good
Most people tend to begin their travel careers in popular, safe destinations. As time goes on, however, you discover that sometimes the best experiences can be found in the most unlikely places. The entire world is worthy of exploration.
THE LESSON But some of the best things have been done before
There's a reason Italy is so popular; same as it's no surprise everyone goes to Canada. These are truly amazing places. Just because a destination is mainstream, doesn't mean it isn't worth a visit.
THE LESSON Stereotypes are ridiculous (and sometimes true)
Experienced travellers know that Germans aren't really uptight, the French aren't rude, the Americans aren't boorish, the English aren't whingers, and Australians aren't drunks. Occasionally, however, they are.
THE LESSON Two weeks is enough
Anyone waiting for that perfect time to see South America, or Africa, or North America, to hold out until they have six months to "do it properly", will probably never make it there. Two weeks is long enough to have an amazing experience. And there's no better time to make it happen than now.
THE LESSON The world is a safe place
Despite all of the security issues, all of the unrest, all of the bad news stories and potential danger, you learn as you travel that the world is actually a pretty safe place. Countries you thought were dodgy are not that bad. People are trustworthy. The world is good.
THE LESSON Your own country is worth exploring
Though it's tempting to view Australia as a destination for "later", there's so much to explore here, so much to appreciate. Want cultural interaction? Go to the Northern Territory. Want spectacular landscapes? Head to Western Australia. We have so much that's worth seeing now.
THE LESSON Travelling alone is amazing
At first, it seems intimidating: going out on your own, tackling all of travel's challenges without anyone's help, existing purely in your own company. But solo travel is something everyone should experience. It's the ultimate freedom, and will teach you more about yourself than you've ever known.
THE LESSON Expect the unexpected
Things will go wrong when you travel. Trains will run late, hotel bookings will fall through, restaurants will be terrible, and nothing will look like the brochure. That's life. The sooner you accept these mishaps and move on, the more enjoyable your travels will be.
THE LESSON Drinking is fun – in moderation
There are some amazing travel experiences to be had with drink in hand, from sipping pastis with Frenchmen to downing caipirinhas with friendly Brazilians. As long as you do your boozing in moderation, it's something to be enjoyed.
THE LESSON It's not wrong, it's different
It's easy to judge other cultures, to decide that their way of doing things is a mistake. But your world changes completely when you take on this mantra: "It's not wrong, it's different."
THE LESSON If you can't afford to lose it, leave it
There's no point stressing out your whole holiday over your expensive watch, or those nice earrings, or the bag you really love. If you've can't bear to lose something, then don't take it travelling. It's not worth the worry.
THE LESSON You've never "done" anywhere
Any traveller who tells you they've "done Asia", or they've "done the US", or they've "done" anywhere, are kidding themselves. Nowhere is ever done. Particularly not entire continents. There's always something new and amazing to discover.
THE LESSON Trains are better than planes
The hierarchy of transport options goes like this: trains, then planes, then buses. Trains are the best way to see the world, a way to mix with locals and stretch your legs while travelling efficiently. Planes are fast but soulless. Buses have character, but take forever to get anywhere.
THE LESSON You'll probably never see these people again (and that's OK)
When you're young you part with new travel friends promising to stay in touch, swearing you'll catch up soon, convinced this will be the start of a lasting friendship. But then you come to realise that with 99 per cent of those people, that won't be the case. You just have to enjoy these fleeting relationships while you can.
THE LESSON Always carry toilet paper
It's a simple trick, but a good one: always carry toilet paper. And always know where the nearest public facilities are (our tip: in pubs, shopping malls, and fast food restaurants).
THE LESSON Anything you want to do, anywhere you want to go – you can.
This is a revelation for so many travellers, the fact that all of these places you thought were out of reach, all of these experiences you thought you'd never have – you can make them happen. Easily. All it takes is a decision.
THE LESSON Gaffer tape is amazing
Is there anything this stuff can't do? From fixing backpacks and suitcases, to patching holes in clothing, to holding your old hiking boots together.
THE LESSON Great holidays can never be recreated
It's an easy trap to fall into, wanting to go back and do the same things again, wanting to recapture the magic, to see and feel the same things you did before. But travel doesn't work like that. It will never be the same. Better to go somewhere new and make fresh memories.
THE LESSON You need far more money than you thought
You really do. Something tends to happen to money when you're travelling: it just disappears. Best to take lots of it.
THE LESSON Local food is best
By far the safest way to eat when you're travelling is to dine on whatever it is the locals enjoy. The food is fresher, it's cooked with passion and skill, and you eat it surrounded by new friends.
THE LESSON Insurance is essential
This is a lesson that's occasionally learned the hard way – with a whopping medical bill – but one that everyone picks up eventually. You need travel insurance.
THE LESSON It's never too late to get started
Though we've chosen to focus on age, one thing to stress is that there's no wrong time to begin your wanderings around the globe. At any age, or any point in your life, the decision to travel will be a game-changer.
THE LESSON Coming home is the worst
There really is no more miserable feeling than the "back-home blues", the knowledge that all that excitement, all that anticipation, all of those challenges and joys and thrills, are all finished. There's only one cure: book another trip.
TWO DESTINATIONS TO VISIT…
BEFORE YOU'RE 30
Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand
Regardless of how you do Koh Pha-Ngan – Full Moon Parties on one side of the island, chilled bungalows on the other – it's best to do it while you're young.
This is Europe's quintessential backpacker party town, a place of warm days, long nights, and cheap drinks. If you're over 30 you'll feel ancient.
BEFORE YOU'RE 40
There's something truly magical about Uluru, and it would be a mistake to leave it until much later in life. Get there now, and go back another time.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Though people of all ages hike the Inca Trail with few problems, it's not a bad idea to tick this off early so you can explore more of South America.
BEFORE YOU'RE 50
New York, US
One of the world's truly great cities is ripe for exploration at any age, and you'll want to return again and again. Best start before 50.
Cape Town, South Africa
Everyone should experience southern Africa, and there's no better jumping off point than Cape Town, with its mix of natural beauty, history and culture.
BEFORE YOU'RE 60
La dolce vita awaits all those who visit Rome, who get to feast at its restaurants, marvel at its history, and revel in its modern culture.
Tokyo is recognisable but strange; daunting but safe; old but new. There's plenty to love about Japan's capital, and you will always be given a warm welcome.
BEFORE YOU'RE 70
Bucket-list stuff for many a traveller, and the kind of journey you can quite easily leave until you have the money (and the time) to do it in style.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
The home of the mountain gorillas, spread across Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, is another dream destination that is ripe for post-retirement experience.
FIVE LESSONS WE NEVER LEARN
Budget airlines are bad
You pay next to nothing to fly on a budget airline, and yet you still roll up to the airport each time expecting five-star service and an on-time departure. Not the way it works.
Brochures are untrustworthy
Though you know, deep down, that there's no way any hotel or resort is going to look the same as it does on a website or in a brochure, it's still a disappointment.
You can't get an upgrade
You can ask for an upgrade, by all means. You can dress smart, you can talk slick and you can make pleading eyes. But it's extremely rare to get bumped up.
Possessions aren't important
Every time you travel you realise you can quite easily get by with just the contents of a small suitcase. And then you get home and completely forget again.
There's no cure for the travel bug
Just one more trip, you think, then I'll stop for a while. I'll stay home and save for that house, that car. But there is no cure for the travel bug. You'll never stop.
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