The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers

travel personal growth

When people hear that we’ve been traveling around the world, they often imagine the two of us relaxing on a beach, drinking mai tais and reclining under flaming tiki torches.

Sure.

In reality, it’s no wonder that the word “travel” is derived from the French word travail meaning “to work hard, to toil.” While we may occasionally indulge in beachside cocktails here and there, our days are typically filled with on-the-fly problem solving in ever-changing contexts: finding decent places to sleep, negotiating safe transport, and keeping ourselves well and well-fed so that we may focus on understanding the places we visit and the people we meet.

But this makes independent travel sound like something of an exercise in endurance. Much more than that, it facilitates the development and sharpening of a rather specific set of life skills that not only come in handy on the road but also translate in the real world (you know, the place where tiki torches are replaced by fluorescent track lights).

7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers

1. Seek First to Adapt, Then to Complain (a.k.a., Adaptability)

Living outside your comfort zone becomes the norm on the road. New environments provide different challenges; what worked in the last country may not work in the next. All that stuff you became accustomed to just last week? Forget about it. Independent travel forces you to continually size up each situation and adapt accordingly. Your resulting experience depends on it. Sometimes your life may, too.

We’re reminded of: When we (two American non-Muslims) were presented with a steaming bowl of goat bits at a feast to break the Ramadan fast in Kyrgyzstan, we joined in by reluctantly chewing on a jaw bone.

2. Plan With Multiple Outcomes in Mind (a.k.a, Planning)

Determine which variables are most important to you (e.g., comfort, cost, risk, time), do your planning, and optimize accordingly. In doing so, you create not only Plans A and B, but also Plans C and D, too. In the end, circumstances force you to a hastily crafted Plan E, which you later realize may have been the best plan all along.

Planning Travels on Jeep - Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
Planning our route through the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

We’re reminded of: When a Chinese train station attendant informs us that the train no longer runs to our next destination, we don’t force it. We find another one…and stumble upon a Tibetan opera festival.

3. Work a way in. Leave a way out. (a.k.a., Problem Solving)

Independent travel presents myriad problems to solve, from the mundane (how to find your way to the bus station) to the critical (whether taking that bus will present personal danger). Strikes close transport routes, hotels fill up, and conflicting information confounds. The constant challenge: work your way into the circumstances you want, while continuously leaving room for an exit strategy should the ground shift under your feet.

We’re reminded of: When the land border crossing from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan engulfed us in a sea of humanity. We used not only our physical strength but also our wit to find a way out, barely.

4. Find the Common Ground (a.k.a., Negotiation and Compromise)

As in life, fruitful travel experiences depend often on seeking an outcome where all involved are reasonably satisfied and feel that they have been respected in the process. And we are not just talking about agreeing on the right price for your hotel room or compromising with your travel buddies about which bar to go to. Win-win relates to the larger issues of negotiating common space where prevailing cultural norms and standards may be at odds with your own.

We’re reminded of: In the hills of Svaneti, Georgia, our host family shares their emotions, we share their sorrow. Then we find a graceful exit.

5. Tune In, Filter Often (a.k.a., Observation and Perception)

Seek out the signal while filtering out the noise, particularly in order to fully appreciate what it is that you’ve come to see: the culture, the people, the country. And while you keep your eyes wide open to all that is new around you, also keep in mind that wide-eyed perception is well-served when paired with a finely-tuned bullshit detector.

We’re reminded of: In the middle of the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, two Tajik soldiers train their Kalashnikov rifles on us and ask for our documents. We formulate an excuse to return to the view of our driver and jeep.

6. Have Less, Do More (a.k.a., Resourcefulness)

Develop an ability to very quickly uncover relevant sources, glean meaningful data and assimilate it. Information can be found everywhere – from local people on the street to other travelers to quick searches on the internet. But the trick to finding the golden nuggets: remain open to the right people while sifting out the shills and the under-informed.

We’re reminded of: Our goal: hiking in Nepal’s Himalayas without breaking the bank. We were astounded by the prices we were quoted initially (in the $1000s of dollars) for this trip-of-a-lifetime trek for which we eventually paid about $500. How? We performed some online and on-the-ground research, talked to everyone we met who completed the trek, and triangulated our data. The result: we took the same trek as supermodel Gemma Ward.

7. Find a Common Language, Create One if You Must (a.k.a., Communication)

Interacting with people is arguably the most rewarding part of travel. It can also be the most exhausting. Having to frequently adjust to different cultures and languages takes both skill and energy. Leverage your non-verbal and verbal communication skills in order to build bridges of trust and worthwhile relationships.

Conversing on the Street - Chennai, India
Conversations on the street.

We’re reminded of: Breaking down language barriers in China’s poorest province through non-verbal communication and enjoying lunch with locals.

———

Should a prospective client or employer ever ask “What good have all your travels done for you?” you’ll be able to connect the dots between your travel experiences and your personal and professional growth.

And think: this list is simply the beginning. After all, we couldn’t really have called it “Top Ten Habits,” could we? It just wouldn’t have had the same ring.

Thanks to Stephen Covey for his original 7 Habits, and for helping us to keep our lists short.

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Comments

  1. says

    Regarding point #7, I recently interviewed the founder of Project Play for an article. His bridge to communication: soccer. It’s really amazing what can happen when we stop thinking about language and start thinking about commonalities.

  2. says

    Had to laugh at your first line because that is exactly what people thought (and still think) when we told them we were moving to Brazil. Ha! Far from it, no doubt.

    What a great list! It sounds like you all have gained so much knowledge through your experiences. Thanks for sharing it all with us. I love the A through E plans. I’m a planner, but equally open to tossing it out the window if it doesn’t work out so this one was especially good for me.

  3. says

    This is great! Thanks for writing such thoughtful content– your work stands out from others because of your dedication.

    I’m not sure I’m always a highly effective traveler, but I try to go for five out of seven or so. :)

  4. says

    This is fantastic Audrey & Dan! You two definitely epitomize “effective travelers”, bar none.

    Coincidentally I’m currently reading that book – 7 habits of highly effective people :)

  5. says

    So true — there is a pretty big difference between sipping mai tais on a beach and hiking in Nepal! Being flexible and being observant are definitely vital to travel. So many people want to plan their trips out to a T and get upset when things don’t go accordingly, but sometimes the beauty of travel is those unexpected things that happen.

  6. Luba says

    Having traveled a great deal I can identify with so many of these habits. What has travel done for me? – Its always been about the journey – the good, the great, and the down right terrible. You are so right about connecting the dots between travel experiences, personal and professional growth – all the habits are effective for enjoying the ride we call life!

  7. says

    Fantastic post as usual! I love how you share moments after each piece of advice. You have certainly lived a full life these past few years. Thanks for sharing and I will keep all of your points in mind when we start our travels next month.

  8. says

    First, I completely agree that backpacking is the nitty gritty type of travel. It takes hard work and a lot of problem solving….which is strangely why I enjoy it so much.

    In the past few weeks, I have been looking at people’s travel blog sites and I am suprised that I just happened to stumble upon this one. I hope this doesn’t offend you, but I haven’t seen your name posted in many places…yet I believe your site is the best one I’ve seen!

    Wonderful pictures…did you take them yourselves?

    Great job! I could learn a lot from you guys…

  9. says

    @JoAnna: Shared interests definitely go a long way, whether you are traveling or not. And the most forgotten of all commonalities: that we’re all human.

    @Lori: We have either gained knowledge, or perhaps reaffirmed some suspicions we might have had before embarking on the big journey. So, you are a planner? So am I, but have learned – sometimes the hard way, sometimes the easy way – that life rarely goes according to plan.

    @Chris: Thanks. 5 out of 7? You mean at the same time? I’m usually focused on just one at a time ;)

    @Lola: Enjoy reading the “original” 7 Habits. As good a book as any when it comes to condensing many of the great thinkers and thoughts on personal effectiveness and personal growth. I have referred to it often – personally and as a consultant – since first reading it almost 15 years ago.

    @Luba: Thanks for stopping by. I think this is the first of a few thoughts regarding how to connect travel and personal growth.

    @Rob: I disagree that these habits come naturally to all long-term travelers. We’ve met quite a few who seemed to fall short, particularly when it came to adaptability and communication. Although experience and time on the road can be helpful when developing these habits, like any practice, they are more the result of conscious effort than of some inherent positive behavioral drift.

    @Dave and Deb: Thanks. I suppose we have. But sometimes it takes others to let us know. Perhaps a Habit #8: Reflection?

    @Lindsey: You had never heard of Uncornered Market??? Shame on you! Kidding. I suppose there could be many explanations for that.

    We are not offended by the fact that you just stumbled upon our site. And we are flattered to know that among the sites you’ve visited, ours is the best you’ve seen. We are pleased to be known as a place for quality content.

    We are on the road 100% and are often in developing areas with spotty internet. When it comes to allocating our time, traveling and having experiences takes priority. Behind that, generating high-quality content. Then comes marketing. And when it comes to allocating internet bandwidth, our clients come first.

    This operating model may strike some as upside-down, but Google, Alexa, Lonely Planet, Tripbase and our readers seem to endorse it. Regardless, there’s always room for improvement, especially on the marketing front. That it took you some time to find us is evidence of this.

    Yes, the photography is all ours, save for a photo or two (usually of us). We even did a post on street and people photography that you might enjoy:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/05/10-tips-for-great-street-and-market-photos/

    Happy travels!

  10. says

    Really well-written and chock full of great advice. I like that you gave a practical application/story for each, as well. Really kept this from being ‘just another blog list.’

    Just snagged your feed! Looking forward to more!

  11. says

    Hi there…as someone who is embarking on a trip that will take me to a few regions of Russia, India and France, this is very timely! And well-written too!

    You’ve gotten a new reader in me. Thanks much!

  12. cheryl says

    Dear Audrey & Daniel, How wonderful that I stumbled onto your site….we will be logging on quite often to see what you’re up to next….hubby and I have a much-anticipated trip to Peru in less than a month and are very thrilled to see you are there! We look forward to your postings and words of wisdom!

  13. says

    @Rod, Colin, Mark: Great to see you here…and thanks for the kudos. Happy travels.
    @cheryl: Thank you. Enjoy your time in Peru. Big country, diverse landscape, and some interesting food. We just posted our experience at Machu Picchu, in the likely case you are headed there.

  14. Wolfie52 says

    As an American, who has a foreign born wife with whom I travel overseas, I can add this: If you are traveling in a Muslim country, (women especially) do not hike about the country in your shorts and midriff t-shirt and flip flops, with your various tattoos showing.

    Men, same thing. As an American, I witnessed this in Southeast Asia many times. It EMBARRASSES me. Go to Europe, or COVER UP. Please….

  15. says

    @Wolfie52: Good advice, the sort someone might follow if s/he were applying #1 (adaptability) and #4 (Finding the Common Ground). We might even suggest modesty in dress be extended to non-Muslim countries as well. Our rule of thumb: check out the locals, see how covered up they are, and within reason follow suit. When in doubt, there’s never any harm in covering legs and arms — it’s generally respectful and also practical for managing sun exposure.

  16. says

    People also have that impression when I tell them I live in Barbados. They find it hard to believe that I actually work, though of course I do make time to go to the beach, have the occasional rum punch and travel off the island from time to time. I think the tips you’ve given work well when you relocate as well, because things often work differently to what you take for granted wherever you call home.

  17. says

    Useful tips. They might sound like common sense, but you’ll be happy you had them in mind when you travel. I prefer your 7 habits to Covey’s.

  18. says

    @Sharon: I completely agree – these habits are very applicable for when you relocate or become an expat. We started to develop some of these skills when we moved to Prague, Czech Republic and had to create a life (including find jobs) from scratch.

    Life is about balance – work hard, but also enjoy what your location has to offer. So, enjoy those rum punches from time to time :)

    @Keith: Thanks for the kudos that you prefer our 7 Habits to Covey’s original list!

  19. says

    @marta: Hard work on one hand, but if done right, oh so enlightening.

    @eD: “Do more with less” always sounds good. But hopefully the “use all your information sources wisely…and add a dash of skepticism” bit of practical advice came through.

  20. says

    @kheir: Although we didn’t include respectful dress or clothes in the original list explicitly, it did come up in the comments, see @Wolfie52 above. Important stuff, cultural sensitivity.

  21. says

    This is a great list and a very intelligent post…Travel is highly rewarding on so many levels, but it is hard work that challenges us in so many ways. And that reinforces and teaches us new and useful skills that are important in life and the workplace. I truly agree and thank you for this important reminder!

  22. says

    @Lisa: Nice to see you here — and thank you. I’d like to think this post crystallizes our travel experiences — and whatever wisdom we might have collected from them — as well as any.

    True, travel can be hard work. If it weren’t, would it be as rewarding?

  23. says

    Came across your website in travelpod’s top 100 travel blogs. You have many interesting articles. I only was able to read two of them tonight. (I bookmarked your site and will come back.) I know I will find them very beneficial when I do some travels myself in the future. First article I read was this one, 7 habits of highly effective travelers. I did read that book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey long ago. It’s a good reminder on what we need to do to make our travels more effective. Thank you. :-)

  24. says

    @Nancy: Thanks for stopping by our site and leaving a comment. If you like this article about personal growth and learning through travel, you may enjoy the other articles in this series. Good luck and enjoy planning your travels!

  25. Julie O says

    Your #2 reminds me of one of our oft-used phrases when traveling – “there’s no wrong bus”…every bus takes you somewhere and sometimes it’s a wonderful place. Just came across your blog (somehow…) as we prepare for our first trip to Cambodia. Thanks.

  26. says

    @Julie: Thank you. So true: there is no wrong bus. Losing one’s way can be seen as an opportunity wrapped inside of a challenge. Happy travel planning. If we can answer any questions, please let us know.

  27. says

    What a wonderful list,
    I have to agree with Lisa E that travelling to different countries is so rewarding. I noticed that the older I get, its harder work to make connections with the natives, maybe its an age thing where one was more carefree in there youth.
    Thanks for the post.

  28. says

    @DHC: The comparative experience is the primary reason to travel around the world.

    Making connections takes energy. That’s why we find taking frequent breaks from the action is absolutely necessary — to maintain our energy level and to properly process what we’ve experienced.

  29. BillW says

    I always think of how important it is to enjoy and accept the compromises you need to make when you travel. You can’t see everything everywhere you go. So rather than fret about what you don’t have time for enjoy what you did.

  30. says

    @Bill: Very well said. It’s about accepting the current situation and making the most of it. Yet, we often get stressed and worried about things we can’t control (i.e., not enough time to see everything) instead of just enjoying the experience.

  31. kurt phillip says

    AS I WAS READING THE LIST OF SUCCESSFUL TRAVELERS,

    IT SEEMED TO ME THAT IT ALSO IS A LIST OF WHAT A PERSON NEEDS TO

    HAVE A SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGE / RELATIONSHIP.

  32. says

    Bangkok

    Dear Audrey and Dan,

    When I travel I keep two thoughts in mind, and these two thoughts determine my behavior:

    1. I am in “somebody else’s house.”

    2. I am an “Ambassador.”

    I also believe that two personal characteristics are required everywhere:

    Patience and a Sense of Humor.

    Safe travels,

    Jan Polatschek

  33. says

    @kurt: They do seem to go hand-in-hand, don’t they. If you are looking for more successful relationship/marriage advice while traveling, we also wrote:
    How to Travel the World Without Killing Each Other

    @Jan: Indeed, the list is long. Regarding interacting with others, it seems to boil down to one word: respect. If you carry that along with your patience and humor, I suspect you are well-prepared for the best that human interaction has to offer.

  34. says

    Amen. Lots of wisdom in these words, applicable anywhere, at any time. I would add another: use your watch to tell you where you were, not where you have to be. On the clock travel is pretty much impossible in many places around the world, if not most, and as a results of your point 2 time as you understand it at home ceses to exist.

    Great post!

  35. says

    @Federico: Thank you. Love your addition! Particularly in today’s uber-connected world — even when on the road — that’s sage advice. Stop paying attention to your watch and pay attention to the world around you.

  36. says

    Some great advice here – I think the adaptability bit is particularly apt as we all to often see people failing to adapt to their surroundings – I think its only once you have achieved this that you can achieve anything else.

    will share this on Twitter

    Tristan

  37. says

    @Maddy: Thanks, glad you found this helpful! And sometimes you just have to do what you have to do…whether it’s a pile of steaming goat bits or something else :)

  38. says

    @Kieu: Glad you liked it! Our experience is that these tenets hold in general — regardless of whether a traveler is re-integrating back into the world of a full-time job.

  39. says

    Great tips, I agree so much on number 7. Communicating with people can be incredibly rewarding. Even when that communication is made by broken english and smiles. Even if it’s a little awkward. It’s that what drove me and some friends to make MealSharing. And it’s been that… a really rewarding experience.

    It’s also been in a exercise in adaptation!
    :)

  40. says

    @Ainara: We were talking with Adam about MealSharing recently at ITB and what a cool concept it is. Although people love beautiful landscapes and buildings, it’s often the conversations and connections with people that they hold most dear to their heart. Add food to that and it’s an even better combination!

    @Hannah: Glad this is useful for your upcoming trip!

  41. says

    Thanx for this article. Its something else than tips about food or cheap transport. I really like the originality of this post. I really recognize the skill to adapt quickly to different countries. You just picked up some of the local language and suddenly your all blank again when you cross a border. I had this experience really intense when I crosses the chinese border at Lao Cai (the vietnamese border with china). No foreigners, no english everything chinese. Help! haha. It really forces you to adapt quickly. I will keep following your blog!

  42. says

    Great post. I think #1, “Seek First to Adapt, Then to Complain” is truly the number one thing that travelers must remember. Adventure comes with adaptation and if you’re not able to be flexible, your entire experience will suffer. It’s a good reminder for travelers to always keep an open mind and not bring old judgment to new places.

  43. says

    Plan with multiple outcomes in mind…that is so true. Everytime I start one of my adventurous travels I make a plan how the journey should look like.

    While I am on the road I meet so many interesting people and beautiful women with whom I spend my time with and everything comes different as I expected.

    While connecting with people in different cultures I am also faced with communication difficulties. But most of the time it is absolutely no problem to talk with my hands and feet.

  44. says

    Thank you for posting this! :)

    I appreciate that adaptability was the first most important skill.

    I think being able to adapt makes your travel life easier as well as the lives of people around you easier.

  45. says

    Great list and very true for someone seeking to do long-term travel. I have found time and time again that someone’s adaptability is the thing that most often influences if they have a great time or a horrible time somewhere. No place will be like the one you are used to, so if you are looking for that, or for everything to always go 100% according to plan, you will never be happy!

  46. says

    Planning for multiple cost scenarios can save your life. I have a credit card that can be used in multiple countries and I plan for as many costs as I can, plus I take 30% extra just to be on the safe side.

  47. says

    If you want to live a life that is positive, enjoyable and full of meaning, each of these are important no matter where you are at in the world. Number 7 and finding a common language can be equally challenging in our home town, not because of the language, but because we assume we are speaking the same language since we are using the same language. Not often true. Perspectives and experiences are different. This is why listening to whomever we speak with is the number 1 rule. To us all living more sustainable globally connected lives that matter! – Jeff

    • says

      Jeff, very true observation about the difference between spoken language and communicative or body language. And although listening seems simple, to really do it effectively takes time and effort. But it’s certainly worth it!

  48. says

    Great info. I love the way you have turned stressful situations into great positives and memorable experiences! Thanks for sharing.

  49. says

    Funny how point # 2, planning, reminded me of the time when I got to the bus terminal and was told that the bus I intended to take had already left. I just followed the advice of the fare collector to head to another town where I could take another bus that could take me to my destination. To think I had no fixed itinerary.

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