Sometimes traveling abroad feels like a single, never-ending moment of “Oh, no she didn’t!”
Of all the worries people have when it comes to travel, sickness, crime and accidents rate equally high. But a few more insane things about travel lurk under the surface. For instance, online travel fora are filled with questions about vaccinations people should take before travelling to Europe (?!), or you notice someone will start three different threads on the obvious and less obvious scams in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
But travelers seldom take into account how their journey affects their social life or physical wellbeing. Of course it is great to be prepared, and the idea of knowing what you are getting into makes a lot of sense, but there are some other unique travel phenomena people don’t really know about, and yet they affect all of us out there.
1) The chance of falling in love increases dramatically
Remember the instant excitement back in school when a new student was introduced to the class? What was he/she like, where did he/she come from and maybe can we be friends? I think this is well illustrated in season 2 of “Stranger Things”, when a new girl comes to town, and our protagonists instantly develop a crush on “Mad Max” who skateboards and likes to play videogames (ignore this if you haven’t watched Stranger Things).
I believe a big part of this excitement comes from the opportunity of meeting someone new and interesting. Think of the kids in “Stranger Things” who spent a lifetime in primary school with the same boring people for 6 years. But then one day, a new student comes into town…
As adults, we relish the chance to meet new people as well. Especially when we are single, hanging out with the same people for hours on end can get tedious and while couples will stick around discussing gazebos and housing prices, singles will often be the first ones to leave a dinner party to head into town.
Now imagine traveling somewhere you have never been before, all on your own. Firstly, you will be relaxed since these are the holidays. Without the usual worries and responsibilities, people tend to behave in a more open way, ready to engage. This effect is compounded by the fact that travellers deal with a lot of uncertainties and communicating with others will often give you that one vital clue you need: “Is the ferry leaving at 9 am or pm?” “When do the expect you to check out in this hotel? Is it okay to ask for a little more time?” “Can I play a card game with those strangers while I wait for my bus to leave?”
So in short, everyone “on the road’ seems to be more open to strangers, and that whole feeling of being alive and feeling free is amplified by new sensations and impressions all around you. It is no wonder people fall in love more easily when they are travelling. If only because they are spending more time socialising, and the additional time is spent with people they haven’t met before. Solo travellers can turn this into a travel challenge game, where you choose to mingle instead of isolating yourself.
2) A holiday affects your health positively, travel itself does not
Whenever you’re on a transcontinental flight, most people (subconsciously) dread the flight ahead. Not because of a fear of flying, but with the hours spent being uncomfortable. If we are unlucky, and this seems to happen more and more, we are either seated next to someone who doesn’t respect personal space, or simply can’t because of their weight issues. Alternatively, a young family can be just close enough to make everyone else’s life completely miserable for the next twelve hours.
And even if you do catch that perfect flight, with ample legroom, you still feel like you’ve been hit by a train. Why is that? A lot of research has been put into this, and it turns out that travel in itself is a stressful activity. Away from your daily routine, you find yourself calculating departure times, connecting flights and the time spent at immigration and/or security.
This is the exact reason why I will sometimes take the night train instead of a one-hour flight somewhere. Because in reality, catching a flight involves a lot of moving parts like traffic jams, check-in lines, immigration lines and that anxiety the night before. So in reality, that one hour blows up to an activity that destroys an entire day. And that’s just by yourself; imagine going through these hoops when you are a family with two kids. No wonder you will often catch a family having a meltdown at the airport.
But there’s more. It turns out that even though you spend the better part of the trip sitting, whether that it inside a bus, an airplane or a minivan, you will still feel utterly destroyed once you get to your destination. This is because none of these seats are relaxing.
Pro tip: In a minivan, make sure to sit as close to the driver as possible
There is a very good reason you are always having such a hard time catching a goodnight sleep on an overnight flight. The sitting-up straight really doesn’t help, and since there is very limited personal space, your body is constantly correcting itself. Even though that sounds hard to believe, it actually takes energy to stay stuck in a single position in an airplane seat. Try to make it one of those fun travel challenges to convince the stewardess at the check in to give you an exit seat.
And while I am nearly six-foot-tall, I always feel sorry for people who are taller than me, as airline seats consistently seem to shrink smaller every time I catch a flight. Plus, there is the noise. Most travel is inherently noisy, with airplanes being the worse. Now your hearing quickly adapts to the constant rumble of the engines, your brain does not and stress hormones are released. This is why “just sitting” is not the relaxing, low-stress activity people make it out to be.
Luckily, there is a solution; noise-cancelling equipment will allow you to really push out any ambient grumbling, and everyone who has ever flown with a set of noise-cancelling headphones knows the enormous difference these gadgets can make.
I have recently upgraded from my Bose QuietComfort, which is an “over-ear” headphone coming in its own travel case, to a Sony MDR EX750 which unfortunately turned out to be a total dud. The noise cancelling is great for an in-ear set, but the battery pretty much croaked after one flight, so I am back to my massive Bose model again.
By the way, a lot of people blame airplanes for becoming ill on arrival at their holiday destination, saying that the airplane was “filled with germs”. I don’t necessarily think this is true, and there is a lot of research pointing at a flexible immune system. What this means is that while you are “on the job”, your body knows it has to get it together, and tends to ease up whenever there is room for it. So on a two-week holiday it is not uncommon to spend several days with the flu or a nice little fever in between.
But to end on a more positive note: traveling abroad and eating foreign food will also beef up your resistance, and add some welcome diversity to your stomach bacteria. Eating new types of food can be a travel challenge game too for the uninitiated.
3) Travel changes your everyday personality
It turns out that when people travel, we all exhibit a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As I mentioned earlier, people tend to be much more open when they are on the road. I remember traveling to New York with my family and being awed by this incredible city, we walked around with our eyes wide open, while we seemed to annoy and amuse New Yorkers at the same time.
But these New Yorkers will probably experience the exact same thing when they make it overseas for the very first time in, let’s say Paris: “The French all seemed to be running around and stressed, because nobody is able to help me out or give me an explanation.” It is almost funny to see the different frequency we operate one whenever we are out of our familiar territory and trying to conquer the unknown.
In short, travellers act differently and have a heightened sense of awareness and are much more open for human interaction than they would if they were in their own trusted environment.
Psychologists often refer to “the big five” when they try to classify personalities, and they consist of 1) openness, 2) extroversion, 3) neuroticism, 4) conscientiousness and 5) agreeableness. I can pretty much guarantee that you can picture yourself in any scenario abroad, where you are acting very different abroad than you would at home.
For instance, you may find yourself giving to beggars with much more easy abroad than you ever would at home, and you may be more open to interaction as well, and those are just two traits. The catch is that this effect is strongest when you are on your own. Bring anyone along, and you will stick to your regular behaviour that your friend(s) know and expect from you. Which is why traveling along is so different from traveling with friends or in a group. Something that connects well to the next point:
4) Travel makes you a bigger person
When you have a few days off, and you stay for an extended weekend or a week even, you usually perceive this as incredibly relaxing. Since this is your home, you know where to find exactly what you need and everything has a tried-and-tested routine. It’s great but it doesn’t feel rewarding and it definitely doesn’t trigger any personal growth.
But traveling does. Getting into unfamiliar territory requires preparation and abandoning your regular schedule, whether that is an eating- or a workout schedule. While this may seem unsettling to certain people, even they will realize over time that deviating from your regular habits is empowering and nothing to be afraid of. Instead, we learn to handle ourselves in new countries or cities where we don’t speak the language and rules.
Individuals who get uneasy when their routine is under threat will benefit from extended traveling. And more often than not, these are the people that come home with a better idea of who they are and what they want from life. It is no coincidence that a lot of great minds have spend their formative years traveling for several months at a time.
The differences in culture, the adversities faced, the complete lack of structure and everything else that comes with travel will make you stop taking things for granted. Seasoned travellers have advanced problem-solving skills, know how to deal with adversity and a well developed sense of how to get what they want in an unexpected situation. Eventually, you too will embrace adversities as fun travel challenges, and develop a more resilient character.
So if you have lived in a village all your life with about 20.000 people, traveling through different continent for several months at a time will supercharge your personal growth. The problems you deal with, the people you meet, and the amazing experiences you will share, they are all going to have a profound effect on you and your perspective on life.
It is often observed that travellers returning home experience a strong appreciation for foreign cultures, while at the same time having a newfound love and understanding of their own culture. At the very least, being abroad allows people to develop a different and broader perspective on several things within your everyday life. Think of your diet, your spending pattern and your regional culture.
By now, you really should be packing your bags already…
5) Travel will alienate you from some people back home
Sadly, all that personal growth has a flipside and this is one of the more insane things about travel: In the previous paragraphs I illustrated the importance of traveling for the soul, and made a point of traveling by yourself. But what happens to your friends who stay home?
This is another phenomenon travellers are very familiar with. There are always one or two friends you lose touch with once you get home and try to catch up. Chances are you there was already a rift before you left, or perhaps they planned to come along but weren’t able to put aside the necessary money. Unlike you?
Whatever it is, your trip and your experiences away from home have led to the final cataclysm in your relationship. And it isn’t just something that happens between friends. When a couple has to live separated for an extensive period of time due to a study exchange program or an internship abroad, things will end more often than not.
Not being able to experience new things together will let things erode, together with the inability to relate to each other’s new situation. So unless you are 100% sure that your relationship is going to survive your extended travels, you might as well just start with a clean slate.
So while some of the effects above are mildly inconvenient, others are pretty awesome and well, unless it is a painful breakup, #4 really shouldn’t affect you as much as it affects. So no real loss there either, as harsh as that sounds. Altogether, it is safe to say that travel is an intensely rich source of inspiration, emotion, experiences and personal growth. Now go pack that bag!
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Alexander Grootmeester is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.