The Skills You Need to Travel

trying to figure out where to go in thailandI recently received an e-mail I think deserves some attention. It’s a really good question that deserves a long answer. The person asked me:

“Have you noticed a particular set of skills that come in handy abroad? What should I learn to best prepare myself for living, working, and traveling overseas?”

It’s a great question because travel, especially solo travel, requires a lot of skills. So when I was asked this question, a few traits came to mind, but one more than any other: adaptability. It is the most important trait I think a traveler needs to have. You can suck at reading a map, have dietary restrictions that keep you eating only lettuce, and have the ability of a dog to learn a language. But if you cannot adapt to new situations, you won’t make it.

People are scared to travel sometimes. They might dream of spending their days roaming the world, exploring ancient ruins, and lounging on the beach – but they don’t actually do it.

The world isn’t full of nomads – it is full of worker bees. Why? A lot of the reason why people don’t travel is that they don’t make it a priority. They keep the dream in their heads. But another major reason is that they don’t feel they have the traits to do so. They feel they won’t make it. They fear they’ll get lonely, mugged, bored – the list goes on. But one thing they always feel is that they won’t be able to adjust to their new surroundings.

Without the ability to deal with the unexpected, you’ll fail. But you can learn this trait. You can do it. You don’t need to have this ability before you go. You can learn it on the road. In fact, the longer you are gone, the more you learn to deal with unexpected situations. If there is one constant in travel, it is that eventually, something goes wrong. You break down in Australia, get lost in a jungle, lose your camera, miss a flight, get sick, or stuck somewhere where no one speaks English- something will happen to you. It’s Matt’s Law- the longer you are on the road, the more likely it is that something goes wrong. Falling into the ocean with my camera wasn’t on my list of travel goals. Neither was breaking down in Australia. Likewise about my travel companions taking me a different way than I had expected.

But I got over it. Because I learned to adapt. But it took me a while to become totally comfortable with that.

When I first set off on the road, I was rigid. I stayed in my box. But the more I traveled, the longer I went, the more unexpected things that happened, the more comfortable I got. I found beauty in the happy accidents of travel.

You need to know thyself, though. In my tips for new travelers post, I gave a list of things I’d tell a new traveler. If I had to add another tip, it would be to start at your comfort level. Know yourself. Maybe jumping in head-first isn’t the best idea. Maybe you don’t want to see just how adaptable you are. Well, that shouldn’t stop you from traveling. There are a lot of alternatives that will allow you to dip slowly into the pool of travel. Maybe a tour group is good for you, or maybe you should travel with friends. But whatever it is, you need to get out on the road first! Adaptability is a skill you can learn, and traveling is a great way to learn it.

Many things will happen to you while you travel – some good, some bad, some in between. No matter what, though, if you aren’t open to the experience, you will always be longing for home. You’ll have a miserable time and won’t be able to enjoy the cultures you are in. So if there is one thing I think you need when you travel, it’s the ability to adapt.

The road is constantly changing. You just need to learn to adapt to it!

  1. NomadicMatt

    @quickroute: Patience is a good quality to have, especially when you get stuck in a train station for hours!

    @tanya: thanks!

    @backpakker: what skills do you have?

    @debo: well, you are in luck- there are more elephant pictures to come.

  2. Great post, Matt! Adaptability IS the key. Otherwise, you’re just fighting against a force stronger than yourself. And that’s no fun!

    I also agree that the number one way to travel more is to make it a priority. People always ask me how I can travel so often. A lot of people even seem annoyed or angry when I say I’m off on another adventure. They feel like I’m cheating the system somehow. But really, I’d just decided that now I work to travel and so any opportunity that comes up to do so, I take it.

    btw, thanks for including me in your list of travel links. I really appreciate it!

  3. The best travel skills transcend travel.

    In addition to adaptability, I’d add the skill of developing curiosity and wonder. Rather than imposing our own perceptions and prejudices on the situations we encounter, how about approaching everything with wonder?

  4. NomadicMatt

    @sfroshner and julie: You are right! The best skills can be used anywhere in life and I think the ability the learn to adapt can help not only in the travel world but in the “real world.” You can take those skills with you in the workplace, into relationships- anywhere!!

    @julie- I think there are plenty of skills you need when to travel and approaching everything with wonder if one of them!

  5. Rita

    A thought-provoking post! It is said “travelling broadens one’s horizon”. There’s some truth in it.
    I met a few people on the road who were always complaining because they expected standards the trip/country couldn’t offer to them. If they compare foreign countries with home, they’ll never be happy on a trip.
    The greatest challenge I had to adapt to, was travelling the Australian Outback with a broken arm. It happened on the first day of the trip. But I never thought of going home.

  6. Jimshu

    Great post and yeah, I like the ”adaptability” advice.One of the skills I have developed, is when in a new unknown place, or situation, is to blank out my mind of all external influences, and ‘feel” or sense what my inner self is saying.Trying to read my ‘gut instincts’ or what other senses are telling me.
    It’s a bit like Zen Buddist meditation , but it’s on the run, moving,in the immediate,etc.
    If the instinct is good, positive etc, it banishes fear,gives confidence to embrace the situation.
    If bad or negative, I’m on the lookout for that unexpected bad event.Inevitably,I have spotted it, and can avoid it.
    Sound weird?No.It’s just making the most of your gut instinct.A gift some of us don’t use, perhaps.

  7. Couldn’t have put it myself better.
    I’ve been saying the same thing to anyone who asks how I do it.
    I just went on my first trip solo AND staying in a hostel for the first time and when I came back people asked me, ‘How did you do it?’
    Easy. I JUST DID. I didn’t think twice about it, “fear gets you nowhere” is one of my motto.

    “A lot of the reason why people don’t travel is that they don’t make it a priority. ”
    Exactly. I’m so amused when people tell me ‘Oh I’m so jealous you travel, you’re lucky’
    Lucky? I saved up months for this trip! I made a lot of sacrifices to make my travels happen so, lucky? I think not. It’s just my priority. People buy expensive clothes or electronics and wonder how they can’t afford a trip to the Bahamas? 60% of my annual income go to traveling. Ever notice that since you started traveling you compare prices to where it can take you?
    “$120 for this tshirt?! That’s a return bus to Montreal”
    Thanks for this post. ‘Adaptability’ – you definitely got the word down.

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