Life Lessons from Overseas / Travel

Life Lessons from Overseas: The Sanity-Saving Power of Travel

Missing something?  Check out past Life Lessons from Overseas columns: an introduction, culture shock, making friends part I, making friends part II.

It’s somewhat disappointing when it turns out that living overseas is not just one nice long 2 year vacation.

I mean, you would think that living in a city that attracts tourists and backpackers (or not) would be a little like being on vacation and travelling yourself.

Turns out though, not so much.  Those first few months and those last few months are all about playing tourist in your adopted hometown.  All of those (long) months in between?  Things like work and school and grocery shopping tend to get in the way of that vacation feeling.  Living overseas stops feeling like a cultural experience when you become so used to your surroundings that they cease to surprise you anymore.

Before you know it, you’re as crabby as anyone in a cubicle in America, desperately in need of a few days off.  And worse, you are in a place that is probably already smacking you upside the head with culture shock and everyday petty annoyances like traffic jams or air quality or fending off the monkeys in the garden.

It might seem strange to someone not living overseas, but after traveling for an untold number of hours to get to your new adopted home, the secret to expat happiness is actually…more travel.

As one reader put it so perfectly:

…traveling around our newly adopted country is SO important. I find that I get in kind of a funk, being the accidental trailing spouse, if we don’t get out and explore on the weekends. Because then life is mostly just laundry, groceries, picking up the house, trying to figure out dinner, etc., so we might as well be anywhere, and somewhere where all those mundane things would be easier. So exploring the country while we’re here helps to discharge all the inconveniences and annoyances that come with being an expat.

Yes, exactly.

Travel is broadening, it is exciting.  It is romantic and inspiring.  Visiting new places helps us to think different thoughts, feel different emotions, see, smell and taste things we’ve never experienced before.  There’s nothing like a trip to a new country to make you feel alert, expanded, open to new things.  When we travel it’s sometimes as if I can actually feel my mind stretching out and lighting up in new ways.   It makes me feel alive.


Travel also goes a long way towards making the place you come home to more bearable.  I won’t pretend that, coming home from vacation, I ever felt anything but a tinge of disappointment as we descended beneath the smog cloud cover flying into Chengdu’s airport.  If nothing else though, I was usually overjoyed to be reunited with our washing machine.  There’s only so many days you can go with sand in your pants, you know?

We weren’t always good about traveling as much as we should have.  When I used to think about planning a trip, all I could think about was the expense and the hassle; but I’ve come to realize how short-sighted that was.  Spending money and annual leave on travel is basically spending money and free time on happiness, on having the sorts of adventures you always promised yourself you’d have, that you might regret not having someday.  Every moment of every trip might not be pure happiness and bliss, but those moments give us so many more interesting memories than new clothes or a another weekend spent running errands would.

I’ve also realized that getting out and away doesn’t always mean taking time off of work and getting on a plane.  Some of the best trips we’ve taken have been crammed into three day weekends.  We come home a little exhausted, but mostly exhilarated from the thrill of trading our usual weekend chores for a chance to see some place new and exciting.    Taking a train or renting a car (in places you can do so) is also a great way to take an affordable trip and see whole swaths of a country you might otherwise never travel to.  Sometimes its the journey rather than the destination that makes a trip memorable.

That’s not to say traveling is easy.  It can be a stressful, it can be expensive, it can require time off of work, it messes with kid’s routines, planes get delayed, flights get in at 2am, hotels are not what they were promised to be.  Plus some regions of the world are simply more conducive to traveling than others.

Even so, no matter were you are, getting out — whether by plane, train or automobile–and going somewhere –whether it’s 25 miles away or 2,500 miles away — really does make living overseas feel like the exotic adventure we all hope and expect it to be.

There are a million websites out there with tips for finding the cheapest airline tickets, most affordable hotels, the best ways to keep kids happy on planes, the best adventure destinations, etc, etc.  Below are just a few ideas Chris and I have for making travel a little more doable, affordable, and more fun for our family.  What are your tips for travel?  Let us know in the comments!

Morning at the Beach

 (And if you need any more inspiration for getting out and going with kids in tow, look no further than this amazing trip our friends in Chengdu took a few months ago: 3 kids (including a 4 month old!) all the way from Chengdu to Nairobi and back.  And now they’ve just tackled Tokyo as well!)

A Few Ideas for Making Travel Doable, Affordable and Fun

1. If you are going to fly, make sure you are always getting frequent flier miles for every single trip you take.  Make sure your kids are getting frequent flier miles too.  This is such an obvious thing, but sometimes its easy to forget to submit those tickets and redeem your miles, and they do add up–especially when your kids are also getting miles for all of those regular trips home to the States.

2. To augment your frequent flier miles, research the best no-international-transaction-fee credit card for you — and make sure it comes with either airline mile rewards or hotel points.  Then, use this card as much as possible.  Chris and I are very careful to never spend more than what we have budgeted for, but we basically use only one credit card to pay for everything, including our apartment here in the States.  Our card comes with an annual fee but the benefits we’ve enjoyed so far more than make up for it.  We pay off our entire balance at the end of every month and since we get 1.5 United miles for every dollar we spend, we’re also building up our mileage accounts so that for our next vacation we can…

3. Redeem airline miles for free tickets.  This is far, far easier than most people realize, it just requires making some phone calls and knowing your charts.  Our tickets to Tokyo cost us approximately $40 in taxes each.  That’s it.  And we only had to burn 30,000 miles each.  When you are using a credit card with reward miles and traveling to and from Asia at least once a year, 30,000 miles is easy to replace.  Remember too that even if you have United miles, you can redeem those miles for flights on any carrier in the Star Alliance–again this is really, really helpful in Asia.

4. Whether you are staying in a hotel on per diem or on your own dime, make sure you are getting points for it.  I always thought Chris was sort of crazy for being so obsessive about hotel points until we took our honeymoon to Malaysia.  There is no way under normal circumstances we could have afforded to stay in the hotel we did, in the room we did.  The “honeymoon suite” we stayed in normally costs between $400-$500 per night…we payed $60.

5. Research, research, research.  Research is not the same as planning an itinerary-Chris and I rarely have solid plans for our trips–but we do research the heck out of them.  Before we went to Japan we spent a lot of time on Trip Advisor figuring out which hotel would be closest to the biggest metro station, what kind of transportation we should take to and from the airport, what kind of restaurants were kid-friendly, whether we should bring a stroller or leave it at home, etc, etc.  When we are traveling its always those unexpected moments that are either the most exciting or the most stressful.  Doing your research ahead of time allows you to enjoy more of those spontaneous, exciting moments and fewer of the “oh-shoot-I-didn’t-realize-we-couldn’t-do-this” stressful ones.

6.  Travel often.  It’s too easy to stay at home when you are really, really used to just staying at home, even if staying at home is actually making you progressively more miserable.  In contrast, it’s easier to travel when you are used to doing regularly, when the memories of your last trip are still fresh and you can recall the stressful moments realistically rather than hyperbolically. Chris and I think that at least once small trip about every 3 months is pretty optimal for us–but that’s just our family. Your ideal travel calendar might look very different.

7.  Assume the tourist attractions will be kind of duds (but go anyway, on the off chance they are not).  Personally, I find most tourist sights to be too crowded, too staged, too something or other to be really compelling–not all, but most.  It’s always the things I’m most excited to see that are the most disappointing and; in contrast, it’s the things I’m the most “meh” about beforehand, that always end up being the most moving or interesting.  Maybe its just the juxtaposition between expectation and reality; but it seems that the most fun moments on our trips don’t tend to happen at tourist sights.   They happen when we are just walking around town, exploring neighborhoods, trying new foods and just taking in the atmosphere.

8. Expect to be hungry, tired, thirsty, lost, and annoyed at some point.  Being in a new place means not always knowing how things work or where to go.  Carry snacks and water, have a fool-proof plan for getting back to the hotel when everyone is done for the day, and  remember that it’s always the weirdest/most annoying moments to live through that make for the best stories when you get home.  It’s all about managing expectations when you travel.

9. Pack a little notebook along with your camera.  When we travel I usually take a few minutes at the end of the day to jot down notes and observations, the little things that I might not catch with my camera or that might be easy to forget in the days and weeks after the trip.  Things like the mannerisms of people on the street and the mood of the city.  It makes for great inspiration and great memories.


15 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Overseas: The Sanity-Saving Power of Travel

  1. Ha, #8 is my biggest challenge – I have severe low blood sugar cranky-butt syndrome and it always ends up hitting us at some point when we travel, usually when we’re stranded on a mountain with nothing but a bag of wafer cookies. After I passed out in the Quito airport I got a lot better about stashing Clif bars in all my bags…

    by the way this series is awesome to read! We’ll be going on our first posting next summer so I’m starring all the entries in my google reader for later.

    • Omg, yes, this is also my greatest weakness. I’m a Jeckyll/Hyde character if I haven’t eaten enough. Since becoming a Mama it’s only gotten more absurdly important to have a good stash of granola bars with me whenever we leave the house/hotel. Passing out in Quito airport? Yikes!! That must have been so scary!.

  2. All good tips. Next you need to write about how you manage to follow them while lugging a baby along. It’s seriously curbed our adventurous spirit.

  3. Great post — this series is SO helpful for us newbies! One thing I’ve been wondering as I contemplate my DLSR camera purchase is whether carrying one around is safe/makes you a target for muggings. One of my photog friends suggested putting black electrical time over anything branded so it just looks like a generic camera, which I thought was smart. Obviously the whole reason to get a camera is to document all the fun trips and interesting things about daily life at post, but I’d be interested to hear your trips on being discreet/safe with expensive equipment.

    • Thanks Natasha! On carrying cameras I have a few thoughts and I’m about to embark on a camera bag experiment so I’ll let you know how it goes. In Asia people have a real thing for owning super expensive cameras so I didn’t worry too much about theft–my camera was always sort of the the lowest-end one in a sea of giant DSLRS. 🙂 I do hear you on the camera bag targeted-muggings and your friend’s idea sounds marvelous.

      Personally, my biggest pet peeve for awhile has been carrying a camera bag that looks like a camera bag and can only be used as a camera bag. I have a really, really tough absolutely wonderful little Lowepro bag but a) it’s getting too small for my lenses and b) it’s very obviously a camera bag. In China it would have been nice to be able to be a bit more discrete. Also, now that I’m constantly hauling Will and his stuff around, its annoying to have 2 bags when I’m out by myself.

      So…I’m trying something out. I bought a giant tote bag with lots of pockets and before I bought it, I put my entire Lowepro bag inside to make sure it would fit. It does. Then I went and ordered this product from Amazon: Supposedly it gets here tomorrow so I’ll let you know how it works!

      There are also all sorts of “girly camera bags” or “Mommy camera bags” on the market now–bags that look like nice purses but are actually camera bags inside. Two brands, Kelly Moore and Ephiphanie come to mind. Personally, I think I’d rather have an insert so I can change up bags when I want to, but we’ll see how my grand plan works in real life! 🙂

      • i have a lowepro backpack. room for lenses, pockets for snacks/water, comfort of a backpack and doesnt scream camera bag.

      • I love lowepro! I have a tiny bag but I need to upgrade to a bigger one. THey are also so great in the rain with that waterproof cover you can pull out! What camera are you shooting with?

  4. Hi Dani, where did you take that sea picture? it’s gorgeous and we are so happy to see lovely Will’s smile.—greetings from Chengdu

    • Hi HouJing! So wonderful to hear from you!!! How is the busy summer season treating you? How is married life? 🙂 Took that photo in the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. It’s much easier to get to from the US than China but its a beautiful place! Worth seeing next time you are in the States! Take care and miss you guys in Chengdu!!

  5. So late to comment (bc I was traveling, ha!), but gotta say I have yet to meet any other person who has traveled as much as we had in our first year+ here. We’re averaging more than a trip a month, both within the Philippines as well as international (we got here in April ’11 and we’ve been to: Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam… And that’s just outside the country!).

    • omg you guys are so busy! Just think of all of the amazing memories you guys will have from your time in Manilla (Ok, well not actually IN Manilla I guess, but stationed there). Do you have any tips for people who want to be as adventurous and prolific travelers are you two are? I would love to hear them!

      • Late in replying again! I have lots of tips, but all related to Manila (how to find cheap flights, how to find cheap hotels, how to make the most of your long weekends…). I bet it varies a lot by region! Once we leave in a year, it’ll be tough not traveling for 6 months while my husband is in training…

      • Manila tips are great too! So many people ended up posted there so it’s probably good advice for lots of people! Definitely will be different not traveling while hubs is training, but the nice thing about DC is that there is so much to do and explore here that it ends up being a nice break from travel I think.

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