Long term travel – some myths debunked

what its really like to be on the road long-term


If you would believe the evil empire of social media, the only people travelling are young, good looking and desperately trying to shore up an influencing gig on Instagram or beautifully dressed and well-preserved retirees on river cruises.  I want to bust that particular myth.

The rest of us, the heaving mass of humanity, are largely ignored, disavowed.   We’re the ones sweating,  navigating a path through crowds of selfie takers, whilst schlepping heavy cases and unwieldy backpacks .  We’re hot and cross and may well ruin your photo (when I’m feeling bitchy maybe on purpose).   We’re not checking into 5 star hotels, with plush lobbies and, that pinnacle of dreams, an elevator.  We’re in the dodgy area a few blocks away.

I apologize, I should introduce us.  We’re travelers.  We’re not on holiday, travelling is quite a different undertaking.  Being on the road long term is hard work at times.   I know, I know, I can hear the violins tuning up here, and, believe me, I am completely aware of the irony.   But becoming a temporary nomad was something we wanted to do, we loved doing it, are missing it dreadfully, but there is no getting around the fact that it is hard work and not always a joy.  The payoff, though, the payoff is epic.

We’re the ones who have been plagued by WhatsApp messages for the last 2 days asking us when we will arrive at our next stay, a place we’ve never been, negotiating planes, trains, unmarked busses and ubers.  I restrained myself from messaging back..

“well, we’re taking the 12.45 train from Dresden, which I understand stops running two stations before the actual stop we need, whereupon we will be herded, trustingly, onto a bus which will take us (hopefully) to the station we were first meant to stop at, only we don’t know how far that is, or how long that will take.  Then we’ll try to find a bus which will take us  approximately to within 1.5 kilometres of our destination, which we will walk to.  So…you tell ME when we’ll get there. ”

You may gather from my blog title, we spent a year as temporary nomads. We don’t fit the standard demographic for taking a gap year, and we struggled to define what, exactly our year was. We kept telling people “its not a holiday”. Why wasn’t it a holiday? Well there are some fundamental differences between a little break you take from your day to day grind, where you treat yourself to some nice meals, a cocktail or two and maybe a spa treatment. This didn’t look like that at all. We had to stretch our funds, make compromises, take some chances.

So I thought it might be a good exercise to make some comparisons between a holiday and travelling….

Adjusting your expectations

If, like us, you are on an extreme budget – (exacerbated by a truly horrific exchange rate) you will need to set your sights a bit lower than when on a two week jaunt.    We have become accustomed to climbing three flights of stairs, with bags, to our digs.  We know that a kitchen, as described in the listing, is rarely a kitchen (but sometimes you get lucky).  We know that there will often be others staying at the same place as we are, and they will not always be congenial (or even clothed).    We are now thankful for windows, even if the advertised sea view is actually  power lines and car parks.  We are ecstatic if there are any form of window furnishings.   We are even more ecstatic if there is no shower curtain, because those things are more clingy than a Taylor Swift stalker.  Perhaps that is one of the takeaways of the process.   Roll with the punches and get on with it. 

We understand that we need to rethink the terms “balcony”, “kitchen” “carpark”.   Travelling has knocked the hard edges off expectations, now we’re either resigned or in stitches laughing at the contrast between description and reality.

Power pole with wires instead of a sea view
The picturesque sea view from our accommodation

Extreme budget tip:   Whilst hostels offer a great vibe, and shared our philosophy, we often found Airbnb was cheaper for two – although there were often good reasons why and location is a biggy.   Best tip though is house and pet sitting.

Here’s a link for a discounted membership.   Not only do you get to stay in a “home” (rather than accommodation) you meet some great friends and have furry companions to keep you company. 

Can’t recommend it highly enough for a traveler, as you have the time to take some downtime.

Your appearance

Unless you are that girl who unrolls a professional looking kit complete with hair straighteners and false eyelashes in the hostel bathroom (don’t be that girl) you will potentially look like crap all most of the time.  Your clothes will rarely be freshly washed, and there was no hairdryer where you last stayed, so your hair, your hair is tragic.  Makeup is a distant memory, its buried in one of your bags, under the headlamp you thought may come in handy.   Nobody cares and none of it matters.  You learn that.

Extreme budget tip:   Get short hair – blond highlights if you need any.  Its easy to explain without language.  Pictures on your phone to assist in descriptions are also handy, but no guarantee that is what you will walk out with.

Your diet

You will learn to eat what you can get.  Canned tuna is your friend except when going through security screening at airports.  You will consume copious quantities of beer as it is the cheapest drink you can buy in order to rent space to sit for a decent amount of time.  Our budget meant that lunch was the first option when eating out as it was often a better deal than dining at night.   You will eat your weight in bread.  Staying somewhere with cooking facilities was the holy grail for us.   

travelling larder, crackers, canned tuna, olives, bananas and an orange
what your wallet allows….

Extreme budget tip:  Are you going to a destination to sample its restaurants?  If you are then do it, but if you have to choose, eat cheaply at home and then go out, buy a beer, learn to nurse it, and prop in a spot where you can chat to people and soak up the atmosphere. 

Questioning the value of Tours and Entrance Fees

I mentioned we were on a budget?  We did cull the tour budget to excess.  When we did pay for things we felt we couldn’t compromise on, we often experienced a level of buyers regret.   Museums tend to blur into each other after a while and entrance fees seem to be pretty uniform regardless of what is on offer.  We tended to do a free walking tour (they’re not exactly fee, you need to tip for a good guide) and ask them for their advice on what was “unmissable”.    We would always head for the food market as well. 

Most places seem to offer up a castle, a tower or island or someplace you need to pay to access.  We questioned whether these were worth our funds, as they were mostly the drawcard.  When you take the gondola ride up to the castle, what is it you are looking at?   Do you need to pay the 8 euro fee to go into the church when the glorious architecture outside is reward enough..?

Extreme budget tip:  Sometimes it was nicer to nurse a beer and look up at the castle, the tower, the island than standing on it and looking out at a generic city.

Time – the only thing that makes you rich

Whilst you may be counting the pennies, the long term traveler is rich in the only commodity worth worrying about – Time.  You have time to take a day off, just wander and see where you end up.  To chalk a mediocre outing up to experience and push on. Laugh about getting on the wrong bus and losing two hours trying to rectify your mistake.    I will warn you though, being itinerary-less (is that itinerant?) is a luxury – almost a drug – to be able to decide what to do next on a day to day basis.  You will miss it terribly.

Extreme budget tip:   being on the move frequently can wear you down and sap your enthusiasm as will  moving from city to city.  Try to give yourself some down time, and vary your destinations to include some small, out of the way places in order to regroup and rest.    You will remember these little stops clearly in contrast to another city. 

Pause frequently to congratulate yourself on getting there, and celebrate the person you will be after such an awesome experience.  Your journey is an amazing gift, no matter where you end up and what you do on it.  It’s more precious and valuable than a disposable social media post. 

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Is it too late to have a gap year in your late 50s? To take back some time from our day to day working life to travel - unplanned, unescorted, unfettered? To take that leap? It was a defining year - liberating, challenging, humbling, scary. It was many things, but it wasn't a holiday.

2 thoughts on “Long term travel – some myths debunked

  1. Wonderful post! We do have such a similar approach to travel. And I love canned tuna as well 😀 I always carry food around with me, and definitely bring it to wherever I’m staying at, in case of those times you arrive famished somewhere in the middle of the night and everything is closed, etc.

    I’ve been thinking lately of also bringing along my own tea bags.. I like the good stuff, and most hotels hardly ever have a good selection.

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