My Travel Philosophy

I was 20 the first time I truly packed a bag by myself for an international adventure (I don’t count the time I went to Russia and Latvia with my youth group when I was 15 because I’m pretty sure my mother helped). It was on this post-college trip when I was bit by the travel bug.

Before then I had taken a few road trips with college friends, and even on those, I knew I loved exploring faraway and exotic places like Denver, Chicago, Columbia, and the Texas Gulf Coast. But it wasn’t until I stepped onto that plane and let it take me across an ocean that I understood how little I knew, and how much the world could teach me if I let it.

Travel has had its fingerprints on my timeline since early adulthood. Post-college, I went on another trip to the UK with friends, then met my husband a few months later on yet another trip to Kosovo. Kyle and I each brought to our marriage a separate love for exploring the world, so it inevitably became part of our family’s DNA.

We lived in Turkey for awhile and traveled a bit (our oldest had visited six countries by the time she was four years old), then our middle guy was born overseas and went to his second country when he was nine days old (long story; there were reasons).

The Great Wall of China

Eventually, we traveled for a school year, and that sealed the deal: travel, as best we can, big or small, is one of our family’s priorities. Whenever we can, we’ll travel together.

Because of all this, I’ve inevitably created for myself a certain travel philosophy — but a better way to put it might be that I brushed away the vines and unearthed the Travel Philosophy I’ve always had. I’m still working on it, but it looks a little something like this.

1. Travel is Best With a Learner’s Posture

I miss out on growth if I choose to show up at a place as though I know more than what the place could teach me. The most surprising life lessons wait in the most unexpected places, from mamas cooking in the kitchen at their family’s cafe, to the natural world in all its flora and fauna.

Every time I go somewhere new, I’m reminded how big the world is and how little I matter — in a good way. I get chills at the thought of being on an obscure island where no one knows me. Especially in our hyperconnected digital age, it’s good to remember how many corners of the world we have yet to know, and who don’t yet know us.

At the Loy Krahtong Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand

As a traveler, I embody a learner’s posture when I ask questions and wait patiently for the answer, without judgment or expectation; when I’m willing to try new things (even food); when I ask myself, ‘What does this tell me about this place and these people?’ when I don’t understand something and I’m tempted to brush it off as ridiculous.

A learner’s posture reminds me of my own humanity, and it levels me with the fellow humans around me. We all have so much to learn from each other, and this is one of the great and beautiful benefits of travel: it invites us to meet people and places we’d never meet otherwise.

2. It Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

Yes, it can be done very expensively, but it’s not a prerequisite to going. This is a helpful reminder when we’re on a tight budget and I’m tempted to think going isn’t worth it if we can’t spring for top-of-the-line housing/transportation/food/excursions. It’s still worth doing — and can be done beautifully — on a budget.

Munich, Germany

We’ve never gone somewhere and not watched our finances, and we’ve never once regretted going. In fact, it makes the return that much more pleasant when, in the recovery week at home afterwards, we’re not regretting how much money we spent.

It takes planning and forethought, but it’s entirely possible to do, say, Paris on a budget, or New Zealand without racking up credit card debt. I can say this because we’ve done both. Know-how is key.

3. Kids Don’t Make it Worse, Just Different

I’ll be disappointed if I travel with my family and assume it’ll be just like traveling by myself, with my spouse alone, or with a group of adult friends. It’s not the same, and it’s not better or worse… it’s just different.

In fact, I’m tempted to say traveling with kids is a tiny bit better, because they open doors to meeting new people and places (especially in cultures where kids are highly valued). Yes, it can be a challenge, and depending on their ages, there are things you might have to say no to when you travel with your children (like date nights).

The Greek island Samos

But I’ve said this a hundred times, and I still believe it down to my bones: the more kids travel, the better travelers they become. It’s so easy to doubt the enjoyment of family travel when you’re thinking about your toddler who can’t make it to Costco and back without losing her mind. But I promise: most of the time, they’ll become better travelers the more often they travel.

This is a good argument for why there’s no need to “wait until they’re older.” If you start early — even with small overnighters or nearby weekend excursions — they’ll be much better equipped to handle long-haul international flights, crowded hot buses, or waiting in a long line.

4. Hard Doesn’t Equal Bad

Which leads me to this. I don’t travel to escape real life, I travel to dive right in — and that inevitably means, at some point, dealing with something less than pleasant. Whether it’s a language miscommunication, a less-than-ideal sleeping arrangement, food that’s not my favorite, or crowds, I can let these things develop my character and grow me into a better person …if I let them.

Middle of nowhere, on the South Island of New Zealand

Does this mean I live in denial and pretend everything’s great when it’s not? Not at all. In fact, there are times when I “escape” from hard things for a short bit in the name of self-care and safety for my loved ones around me (I’m a highly sensitive person, so I’m looking at you, Asian markets). But this looks like going to my room for a bit with a journal and earbuds, not booking the next flight home or never going in the first place.

Disappointment is inevitable if travel serves as a conduit to escape real life. Because at some point, things won’t go exactly as planned (even at well-curated theme parks). But that’s okay, and travel is still worth it. In fact, travel opens doors to hard things we’d might not try at home, and what a rush of satisfaction it is when we lean into it and come out healthier and more alive on the other side.

5. Locals Know Best

I still remember the first time I was in Tuscany and discovered I had horrible cell reception. I’d bookmarked ahead of time locations for the best gelato, wine, and art in a certain small town, and once I was there I couldn’t load the website. So, I did what I thought was the next best thing: I asked a friendly-looking local.

An Italian side street

He gave us directions to some of the best gelato I’d ever had, and I’m sure we’d have never found it on our own. I kept that little lesson in my back pocket and whipped it out again and again afterwards — turns out, locals usually know what’s best. This makes complete sense when you think about it.

Not only do they usually know best, but by embracing a “When in Rome, do as the Romans” posture, you’ve got a better chance at experiencing the real place, not the manicured, travel-guide-approved version. You might want that every now and then, but the appeal won’t last long, and you’ll miss out on the heartbeat and grit of what makes a place itself.

A few years ago, my family and I went on a Caribbean cruise for one of my work writing assignments. If you know cruises, you know their thousands of pre-planned (overpriced) excursions at all their stops. At our first port-of-call, we piled ourselves in the backseat of a taxi with our kids, ages one to six, and asked the local driver to take us somewhere. Anywhere. Wherever he thought would show us the best of his island.

He drove us to a fantastic beach where the locals swam, where the kids ran around on playgrounds, and where we could sample cheap local food. It was the highlight of that entire trip for me.

6. Slow & Savored > Bucket List

I’ve had to learn the hard reality that, this side of heaven, I’ll never see it all. Not only will I never go everywhere I want to go, but once I’m at a place, I won’t get to experience all I want in that place. The bucket list will never be completely checked off.

If I go somewhere hoping that’ll happen, I’ll spend all my energy going from place to place without actually enjoying it once I’m there (and my mind will be occupied mostly on how to get to the next spot). That might work for some, but it doesn’t for me. I’ve come to learn that I’d rather do fewer things but better.

Arles, France

I’ve had afternoons at an outdoor cafe table and my journal, and felt like I experienced the city more deeply than if I had gone to its well-known museum. I’d rather spend my energy on only one or two experiences per day, and spend the rest of my hours having good conversations as I walk cobblestone streets with one of my kids, sampling local coffee or street food, or just people watching. This pace is more enjoyable for me. And it gives us as a family more opportunities to bond when we’re savoring our simply being at a place instead of running around trying to see it all. Because that’ll never happen.

Split, Croatia

These six ideas help me make decisions about when it’s time to travel, where we go, what we do when we’re there, and why we bother in the first place. It’s a decision-making rubric, it’s a gentle reminder of who we are (and, perhaps, why we choose a different form of travel over the usual routes), and it gives me freedom to be unapologetically myself.

It helps me remember why we prioritize travel in our family — and it’s a source of encouragement during travel droughts, like we’ve been in for awhile as we try to finish our fixer-upper and the end isn’t quite in sight. The call to travel is what keeps us going on the house, and also the other inevitables of life.

Montana

• Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

• I’m in the middle of creating something for you if you’ve got a yearning to travel but aren’t sure where to start, or if you are already planning an adventure but are overwhelmed by all the decisions to make. Head here to make sure you hear as soon as they’re ready.

• If you just so happen to be in the Minneapolis area, I’m speaking on the intersection of Faith & Travel on Thursday, March 21 (so, next week!) at this event, open to the public. Would love to see you there!

• And finally, if you’re craving an adventure from the comfort of your own armchair or hammock, you might like my most recent book. It’s not as good as getting out there yourself, but it’s a lovely next choice.

I’d love to hear from you: do you have a travel philosophy, even one learned accidentally? What have you learned from the road?

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25 Comments

  1. Sarah M

    I couldn’t have said it better myself…I agree with all of these things. Expectations are realistic and practical!

    Reply
  2. Jane

    I love this! We recently down-sized our home and simplified our lives so we can travel more. We’ve learned in the past not to schedule our vacations to the nth degree. This allows us to just enjoy being with each other and exploring our new surroundings freely without expectations.

    Reply
    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Agreed, Jane!

      Reply
  3. Eleanor

    I live in NW Montana, moved here six years ago after nearly fifty years in the South. It tickles me that you showed gorgeous pictures from around the world, and the one US picture you share is Montana. You must be in on the secret that yes, indeed, this is a special place.

    Reply
    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Montana is definitely one of the U.S.’ best-kept secrets! I love it there.

      Reply
  4. Dee

    We have such similar views on travel.. I don’t even have a bucket list and I think every country is just as fascinating as the top attractions, if you take your time and explore and experience its everyday life.

    It’s so important to forget everything you know about a particular destination as well, and to go as a learner without any preconceived ideas about what it’s like.

    Reply
    • Kristin H.

      This is so encouraging! I’m a highly sensitive person too, and desperately need “alone time” in order to feel like a person, but I’m so drawn to and enjoy travel. It’s been less enjoyable since having kids (mine are all quite young) but I think an attitude adjustment is in order for me, and I think these tips might help. Thanks!

      Reply
  5. Katie

    This nearly made me cry. I agree with all of this, but we have a two year old and have been struggling to regain our footing with everything (work, travel, hobbies, etc.) while still spending as much time with our kid as we can. You better believe I sent this to my husband to jump start the travel again.

    Reply
  6. Melony

    At the travel club meeting at my son’s middle school, I just instinctively knew the pace and structure of the proposed educational tour of Italy would be frustrating for him. He is one who lingers long at each display in a museum, and most field trips only spur a desire to go back alone to actually experience the trip. As we talked thru his dream of seeing Italy with what going with the school would offer, we’ve decided to invest in going together instead. He and I will plan and research, save towards the budget etc…. I questioned my decision at first knowing I wouldn’t have the contacts the tour company has. But reading here, I see how I too have developed a travel philosophy, and desire for my kids to experience travel in much the same way you’ve described.

    Reply
    • Tsh Oxenreider

      What a great plan, Melony! Yes, you absolutely can do this as a family, and it sounds like you’ll have so much more fun going together vs. a big group. You can spend a lifetime in Italy and not see it all, so slower-but-richer is definitely the way to go in a country where everything is art.

      Reply
  7. Rachel

    Yes, to all of this. My husband and I adore traveling, and we didn’t stop when we had kids. For those who don’t believe in spending money on trips their kids “won’t remember,” I also say to them that children may just remember it in different ways, like new-found interests that they may not have realized without travel. I’m not sure my two would be as interested in sloths had they not seen them in Costa Rica when they were almost 2 and almost 4—just one of many other similar examples.

    Reply
    • Tsh Oxenreider

      100% agree! We were frequently asked if we were concerned that Finn, who was 4 at the time, wouldn’t remember our year-long round-the-world trip. Well, not only does he remember a surprising amount (now at almost age 9), but that year of travel has really shaped his character and personality in a way that nothing else could. I’m so glad we’ve made the effort to start our kids traveling young. The headache is so worth it to us.

      Reply
  8. Courtney G.

    I love your travel writing! Any advice on what to do when your spouse doesn’t want to travel? He has traveled the world for work (without me and the kids) over the last few years and now he doesn’t want to travel for pleasure. HELP!!!

    Reply
    • Tsh Oxenreider

      This is tough, and I don’t have any personal experience dealing with this, so if anyone else reading this has and has any words of wisdom + encouragement for Courtney, feel free to chime in!

      Overall, I’d say make sure he knows gently and honestly how you feel, and how much it’d mean to you if you guys traveled as a family. And then ask if he’d consider something small at first (either a weekend away, or someplace close), then debrief afterwards the pros/cons, how you might have bonded as a family in a way unique to traveling together, etc. Then go from there. Hope that helps…?

      Reply
    • Chelsea Hudson

      Travel with just yourself or you and the kids! I started taking my girls on long road trips every summer because I go CRAZY sitting at home with the kids over the summers. My husband works and couldn’t take time off, nor was he interested in the cross country road trips I planned (Maryland to Colorado, Maryland to NovaScotia and PEI, Maryland to Texas etc…). We also go on lots of day trips out of our area and sometimes camping trips together. I, too, had a hope and dream that we would all be doing this as a family, but that just isn’t how things panned out and I realized I could still do what I enjoy with my kids. My girls still RAVE about those road trips, by the way, and always ask when the next one is. Good luck!

      Reply
      • Andie

        I have also done this with my 5 kids, a couple of whom have special needs. I do it also because the summers are BRUTAL. The way I have made it work is to go early and stay late on a location we go as a family for family vacation (so a little different than the issue the original question addresses). I have now flown internationally with the whole crew a few times solo. My husband misses us but understands why I do it and it has worked well for us.

        Reply
  9. Anna

    Your travel advice really resonated with me. (Except that I do have to admit that I sometimes travel to escape. I live in harsh places, and need to get away at times.)

    Our kids have been traveling since they were pretty young, too. It’s fun to have those shared memories, and they build into the fabric of our family. One thing I’ve discovered about traveling with kids is that I have a different perspective, and see some things that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We have to move slower as a family than we would as an individual or couple of adults, and that has given us time to really soak in some spots.

    Reply
  10. Emily U.

    Thank you for this! You always take what my soul is feeling and put it into words. You also give me hope that having a family one day does not equal giving up a love for travel. Hard does not equal bad is one of my favorites: hard and good is one of my favorite ways to describe travel experiences. If we travel to grow and to learn, it inevitably includes being hard at times! Also, isn’t it funny how a simple corner cafe, a good book, and some people watching can teach us so much about a place?

    Reply
  11. Tina Jones

    I love traveling too. I have learned from my past travels to plan only a few things – one per day – which leaves plenty of room to explore and relax.

    Reply
  12. Suraj Rayanade

    I just started traveling within India since couple of years, and believe me whatever you listed most of it is already in my listen learned list…
    Your efforts appreciated..!

    Reply
  13. Rachel Molder

    The hardest work is done when they are young. My now 10 year old is a joy to travel with but when she was 18mo. Old she was a terror. We stuck with it, 3 day road trips, flights every year and it paid off, she’s now very accustomed to travel. My advice to anyone starting out is to stick with it, they eventually get over the trantrums.

    Reply
  14. Christine Bailey

    Well, I couldn’t love this more. Gives me wanderlust – a big dream is to travel cross-country in an RV with our kids in the next few years to see a bunch of national parks! Oh, and I loved the “learner’s posture” in particular – when I worked for The Mocha Club, one of our first slogans was “I need Africa more than Africa needs me” – and when I went to Africa, it was so apparent that I had more to learn from the African people, their joy, their way of living, than I could ever bring them.

    Reply
  15. Andie

    BLARGH. I missed you in Minneapolis. On travel. My fave topic. Waaaaaaaahhhhhh.
    okay. that’s all 🙂 We travel similarly. We skip all but the most compelling museums in favor of sitting in a park with local foods and just being. This method has served us well in Asia, Europe and Africa so far with our kids. And the pace is doable. I do like a good small walking tour for kids, though. I don’t mind splurging on those.

    Reply
  16. Ujjawal

    I always love to travel some time i face some problems because i don’t know about that place but after reading your blog i got some tips. Thanks for sharing these tips.

    Reply
  17. Whitney A Bak

    Ahhhhh! Missed you when you were in my (original) neck of the woods. What a bummer! However, I’m not in Minneapolis because I AM in Singapore for a year . . . and as an HSP can very much relate to what you said in the blog and on the podcast about Asian markets, taking time to yourself, and enjoying traveling “slowly” rather than trying to “cram it all in.” P.S. Adaptability was my actual number 34 on the StrengthsFinder test, so . . . maybe it’s a Type 4 thing??? Haha. Thanks for representing how we sensitive, introverted, “feeler” types can still LOVE travel and make excellent adventure buddies!

    Reply

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