An Interview with Lee Abbamonte, the Youngest American to Visit Every Country in the World

By Nomadic Matt | Published March 7th, 2013

lee abbamonte on a mountainI guess this is the week of interviews! On Monday, Dave and Vicky shared why they travel the world and today, Lee Abbamonte talks about being in Libya when Qaddafi was being overthrown as well as being the youngest American to visit every country in the world. I first met Lee a couple of years ago when he stumbled on my blog, bought my blogging course, and fired off crazy e-mails to me. Since then, we’ve become friends (he is the guy taking the selfie when my United flight had to make an emergency landing) and I wanted to share his story today. Here’s Lee talking about that, being the youngest American to visit every country, and his love of sports:

How did you get into traveling? You worked in finance before, right?
Yes, I worked in finance out of college for eight years. My objective was to make a lot of money on Wall Street but a funny thing happened along the way. I studied abroad my junior year in college. This was the first time I ever left the United States. I went to London, England and it completely changed my life. It was easily the best decision I ever made. It changed my view on the world and on my life goals in general.

So with that experience in my back pocket, I always knew I wanted to travel more. But like everyone, I needed to make money to fund the travel I wanted so I got a proper Wall Street job, worked really hard and did pretty well. Wall Street was a means to an end.

So, working in travel wasn’t always your goal?
Right. Aside from making money in finance and other businesses I am/was involved with, the goal was just to travel for fun and enjoy my life to the fullest. Working in travel just sort of happened. I had a written a few travel stories over the years for various travel websites just for fun. I started my blog back in 2006 to basically keep friends and family updated on what I was up to. Without ever thinking I would do travel-related things full time, it just kind of evolved as I started doing more and more things in different facets of business, travel, and media.

How did you go about leaving Wall Street for travel?
Back in the summer of 2008, I simply resigned my position at a major Wall Street firm. Ironically, it happened right before the major collapses of several major firms so it made me look smart, but it was purely coincidence.

Your “claim to fame” is that you are the youngest American to travel to every country. Was that the original goal or at some point were you like “hey, I’ve been to 100. What’s a 100 more!”
During my time abroad in college, I traveled to 15 countries in Europe. During school breaks and immediately after graduation, I took three other long backpacking trips around Asia, the Middle East and Europe again. At that point I realized I had visited some 50 countries. Knowing I would be working a ton, my goal was to visit 100 countries by the time I was 30. For whatever reason, I thought that sounded cool. I ended up achieving that goal at about 25.

Back in 2006, I got an email from a friend that there was actually a record to be youngest to visit every country in the world. I basically assessed how long I had to beat the record and where I had to go and figured I’d give it a go. Even if I didn’t get the record, it’d still be fun and I’d get to see the whole world. Turns out it was a great decision and I have done so much around the world.

lee abbamonte on a mountain

What made you decide to pursue this goal? Did you leave your job to do it?
To be honest, the challenge of actually doing it made me decide to pursue the goal. It is not easy, obviously, but at that point in my life and in travel, I figured it was now or never because I was more than halfway there already. I am also very competitive and goal-oriented. Not to mention, I thought it was pretty cool!

I didn’t specifically leave my job to pursue the goal. I left the job because I had had it with corporate life at that time in my life and I needed a break after 8 years.

Did you hit that record? At what age did you get to every country in the world?
Yes, I became the youngest American to visit every country in 2011 when I was 32 after safely visiting Libya. Technically, because of the addition of South Sudan as a sovereign nation, I am the youngest person to visit every country in the world. However, it is a bit of a grey area and there is a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that goes into that title claim with the world record powers that be, so for now, I go with the “youngest American” title, which I think is still pretty cool! Depending where you look, there are between 25-50 people alive and 90 people total known or believed to have been to every country. I know just about all of them.

Do you ever picture yourself settling down?
I think I am settled down — although some people will have another definition of settled down. I own a great apartment in New York City, have great friends and family and really am pretty happy. I can basically do whatever I want and work from anywhere. Everyday is exciting because I never know what will happen. I love waking up every morning, checking my emails and seeing what’s on the agenda for the day, week, month, etc. I look at it like I’m playing with house money because this was never my intention.

lee abbamonte on a mountain

You were in Libya when they were overthrowing Qaddafi. Tell us about that!
Libya was the last country I needed to visit to complete visiting every country in the world. I was originally supposed to go during March 2011 but the revolution had started and there was a no-fly zone so I had no chance of getting in. So as the rebels took over as the Arab Spring continued, I kept an eye on things. I got word that Eastern Libya was completely controlled by the rebels and that the remote eastern border with Egypt was open — sort of.

I also heard that since there was no government in place that they had dropped the visa restrictions and that it may be possible to get in through that border. So without really thinking about it, I flew to Cairo and then on to a small coastal town called Mersa Mutra, which is about 250 miles from the Libyan border.

I had no idea what I was going to do from Mersa Mutra. On the plane I noticed an educated-looking man wearing a suit and a rebel flag lapel pin. I asked if he spoke English and when he did I asked if he could help me translate to arrange a taxi or car to the border; I was willing to pay whatever it took.

It turned out this man was a Libyan dissident who was returning to Libya for the first time in 40 years. He also happened to work for the United Nations and had a UN passport. He told me that he would give me a ride all the way to Tubruk, Libya in his brothers’ minivan and obviously help me through the border process. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and was obviously grateful.

Not only did he do just that, but he also gave me a place to stay in Tubruk, dinner with his family — whom he had not seen in 40 years — and transportation with his friend all the way back to Cairo — which is a 12 hour drive — a few days later. He refused to take a dime. It was unbelievable how nice their family was to me and I am forever indebted.

There was also a small matter of getting caught at the border in a firefight between some Chinese smugglers and the Libyan rebels. We all had to duck and fire the car in reverse in order to not get shot. That was pretty scary and after 3 hours we made it through!

What travel advice would you give to someone who has never traveled before?
My advice to someone who has never traveled before would be go to Europe. Get a Eurail pass and hit the major cities. Get to feel comfortable and see how cool it is to experience a different country, language, food, culture, etc. each time you make a move — all so close together. That should whet their appetite to travel to less developed nations. Also, the well trodden routes of Southeast Asia and Australia work too, but I think the history of Europe will hit home a little harder as they’ll get more than just partying on the backpacker circuit.

You’re a sports guy. Where was your most memorable sports experience in the world?
Sports are my passion. Playing or watching; it doesn’t matter — I like them all. I am fortunate to have been to just about every major sporting event in the world like the Superbowl, Olympics, Champions league, World Cup, Rugby World Cup, etc. I plan a lot of my trips around sporting events. It’s difficult to pick just one but I will say the 2001 World Series.

This was the World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks that took place 6 weeks after September 11th. I am a die-hard, lifelong Yankees fan, a New Yorker and I also worked in the World Trade Center, so emotions ran very high. The middle three games of that series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx were amazing, exciting and emotional. The Yankees won all three games in dramatic late-inning fashion. They went on to lose the series in 7 games but that didn’t matter. Being a part of that series in New York is something I will never forget.

lee abbamonte in the maldives

Traveling so much as an American, did your friends have a hard time understanding your lifestyle?
I am fortunate to have very good groups of friends, many of whom love to travel and have traveled a lot with me. The ones that don’t travel just know it’s a part of me and love reading my stories on my site but it’s even better hearing the unedited, no-holds-barred stories in person! I always make time for my friends. I go visit them wherever they live, welcome them to New York anytime and I never miss big events. If you lose sight of your friends and family, what will you have left?

If you want to read more of Lee’s stories, check out his blog, visit his Facebook, or watch Fox and Friends on Monday mornings when he does a travel segment.

comments 35 Comments

Sam

Great post Matt! Lee is definitely living a joyful life. Thanks for sharing. SJG

Very cool story about Libya, Lee. It’s funny what can happen when you connect with random locals in a foreign country.

On another note, I never thought of there being a “record age” for the youngest person in visiting all countries till I read your headline – sounds like quite an elite club.

You’ve also given some of us young travelers a possible place in the Guinness Book of World Records to shoot for – thanks!

Sweet interview, I’m definitely inspired! Although I’m not sure I could endure Wall Street for 8 years, regardless of the end goal (I’ve worked in finance for about 1.5 years and am on the verge of quitting!)

I look forward to reading more on Lee’s site!

Cool, and he’s managed to survive every country in the world and live to tell the tale! Lee sent me a funny travel photo which I featured on my site – I’m sure he would have racked up a few when visiting every country in the world! Good on him! Hoping to do the same one day!

Matt Willett

Great interview Matt, gives those of us a little less travelled a greater thirst to keep going!
Can only imagine the incredible stories Lee has to tell.

Cheers
Matt

what a great interview! It really would be an amazing feel to have traveled to every country in the world :)

Congrats on a following through on such an inspiring journey & what an accomplishment!

The Libya tale is truly unforgettable. Best of luck with round 2! :P

Great interview!! Met Lee in Vegas, but it’s not like I interviewed him lol. So this was great to get to know his story. My dad goes to Libya pretty often for work. (Don’t ask.) I’m glad you stayed safe!

Sam

Personally, I don’t really get the point of visiting every country in the world just for the sake of it (or the sake of a record), but good for him, I guess. Also, why do Americans always have to refer to London as “London, England”? It’s not like London, Canada, London, Kiribati or any of the 9 Londons in the US are really that famous that we’re going to confused. I don’t need to say Boston, USA to make it clear which city I’m talking about (although the original Boston is in England). Sorry, pet peeve! Anyway, that story about Libya is pretty amazing; cool stuff!

Interesting interview Matt. Lee has obviously seen a lot of the world, and breaking the record has practically guaranteed his ability to keep traveling while getting paid well for it, so I don’t see why some people have issues. Relax!

Lee accomplished a very difficult goal. Just because it’s not your goal doesn’t make it any less inspirational.

So funny, I did 4 years in finance before leaving to travel, but I certainly haven’t hit every country. I’m too slow of a traveler :)

Visiting every country is a great achievement but I think managing to work in finance for 8 years would have been a much harder slog!

Matt I can’t believe you didn’t ask the obvious question… his favourite?

interesting interview. i love the Libya part, the kindness of strangers that travelers meet on the road is always touching.

Vee

Wow… a lot of negative comments here. Regardless, Lee is a still a very well traveled man who deserves the spot light. Visiting all those countries is a whole lot more than I can claim for myself in a life time, let alone within the first 32 years.

As an American, my first long-term traveling experience was in Mexico (mostly Mexico City, Guadalajara, & Nayarit region) and I highly recommend Mexico as a first stop for those who are new to long-term traveling. From Mexico, one can travel to nearby countries for cheap. Plus, the people are friendly and the food is yummy. Europe was too intimidating for me to venture first.

Right on! Now that’s a record to be proud of. I love how he wasn’t even thinking about being a traveller or making money from travelling, but it all came together. We’re always saying that the people in the Middle East are some of the most hospitable and friendly in the world, and he just proved that by sharing how kind the Libyan man and family were to him.

Our goal was 30 countries by the time we’re 30. That record’s already been hit, and more. So maybe we should make it 50 countries before 30??

Cheers for the awesome interview!

What a great story! I am not much on the “bucket list” style of travel but this is inspiring.

Great interview! Sounds like he met some amazing people in Libya. Now if only we could visit not just every country but literally everywhere… just not enough time in one lifetime!

I’m also curious to know if Lee has a favourite country?!

Rahul

Man you need a lot of money to cover all countries, and Lee must have accumulated a zillion flight miles. I have one question, “Did you travel alone sometimes?” When there is no one else to accompany you?

Very inspiring interview.

Marilynn

Is there a contest for the oldest female to travel to every country? Seriously, when I decided to book my second trip to Europe I had not considered becoming a world traveler, now I am. On my first trip to Europe, I went with my, now departed, husband for a month. It blew some peoples minds that we only booked a hotel for when we arrived and when we were to depart and just went as we pleased. I also live outside of the U.S. about 6 months of the year. Our first adventure started early in our marriage, he got out of the Army, during Vietnam (yes I am older) and we set out with a tent, sleeping bags and his separation pay. We were from the pacific northwest, he had family in NY state, so we headed east and traveled around the states. We did settle down, raise a family, buy a beach place and do travel through his company trips. Than we came to Baja and fell in love and bought a tiny condo on the Sea of Cortez. That was a bit scary and turned out to be one of the best things we ever did in our lives together. He is gone and I am ready to renew my spirit, to travel, sketch and paint my way across Europe, again. I said next was Asia. I do need to spend long periods at home with my two loving little dogs, so it will be a slow trek that I hope I have the health and the time left for. Oh and the money? Thinking along those lines, I will have spent only a few months in my home in Washington State and I have always wanted to do the Panama canal. I was thinking a cruise for this, only it is hard to book from the Southern Baja. Today I realized, be more flexible, go to Panama and find some sort of boat crossing over and do it that way! Fall is Europe, next winter or spring is Panama and than, hmmm, I will see.
Speaking of Baja, we were told so often that we would be decapitated, or at the very least over taken by bandits if we drove it became hilarious. I have driven the Baja at least 20 times and have yet to see a bandit. And NO I am not extremely wealthy, I will have to be thrifty to really do this stuff.

Liz

What an awesome story and amazing adventures! And, great advice for new travelers about starting in Europe and then branching out to places outside of one’s comfort zone.

Wow, sounds like Lee is living the dream. I totally relate to planning trips around sporting events…I got my husband to Europe by promising him a Premier League game. Oh, and stadium tours are a great option if your favorite teams aren’t playing. We toured the Arsenal Stadium in England (a former player was our guide) and the Real Madrid stadium in Spain. Totally made my husbands’ trip.

Also, I loved the story about Libya. It’s amazing how many kind-hearted people you meet while traveling!

This means I have 7 years to beat your record!

Inspiring story. You outlined your thought process well on how you connected with a stranger on the plane to Cairo to ask for help and it turned out to be a rewarding experience. There are good lessons here on serendipity, embracing uncertainty, taking chances, and being in the moment for adventure to experience history in Libya first hand. Your do what it takes attitude to complete the last country for your goal is to be admired. That takes balls. Congrats on your accomplishment!

Adrian

I think it is amazing that he has been to every country. If airport transfers count, I guess then technically he has been to every country. In my opinion though, being in a country for less than a day does not count. I have many friends that travel for the sake of saying, “I have been to 50 countries!” Only to find out that they spent two days or less in a country. To each their own. Traveling is about experiences and if you think you have “visited” a country in less than 24 hours, then more power to you!

Great interview – visiting every country in the world is about as amazing as it gets. Very jealous of Lee.

Emily

Really awesome interview! How did you get into countries Americans aren’t allowed to visit like Cuba for instance?

Great interview Matt, but I must admit I thought there would be much more than just 25 – 50 people who have been to every country in the world! That figure cannot be correct surely. It also depends what people class as a country or not. Jonny

Wow, talk about inspiring! That’s one hefty goal. Now you two have got me thinking about setting a goal like that for myself. I know it shouldn’t be about numbers all the time, and setting records, but it’s still nice to have something to push towards! :)

Wow every country in the world. I thought I had that honor. I like your website and would like to talk to you about a future collaboration. I would like to ask him about all 196 countries. I would like to know how he traveled to Bhutan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, and Madagascar etc.

I look forward to your reply,

Thanks

Dr. Dramberger

Awesome! Now this is a man who know how to enjoy his life! If I visit 10% of all this countries…I will be a happy man!

This is inspirational. What an incredible story, thanks for sharing!

wow, i wish i can also travel around the world, but so far im contented in exploring my own country, we have 3 major islands that makes up the 7 thousand plus islands :)

i’ve been in different countries in Asia, i also visited Melbourne and Sydney, been in Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, also in France, Bordeaux to be exact but not once in US :( so far so good, now i need to go back check my files and work my ass off so i can travel the world

Mithal El Alem

i am from Libya and for me its amazing to hear good things about my country. There are good people in the world everywhere. I liked the story, it also caught me becuz i am libyan and i enjoy traveling around the world and meeting interesting people. thank you Lee and thank you Matt. peace, salam

Awesome story. What an accomplishment!

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