40 Lessons Learned through 40 Years of Traveling
Leah Walker August 16, 2014

Thirty years ago I was piled in the back of my family’s Suburban on the way to Colorado. Twenty years ago I was an irresponsible college kid taking road trips across Texas just for a weekend on the Guadalupe River. Ten years ago, I was teaching high school English and squeaking one last bit out of the summer in New Orleans. Today, I am never quite sure where I’ll be next. Simply opening an email could change my plans. My, what a difference a couple of decades make.

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I can hardly believe it, but I am officially in my 40s. During those decades, I’ve been very fortunate to experience a good bit of this earth. In fact, probably more than some will ever see in their lifetimes. Those opportunities have truly been blessings, but always leave me wanting more. One week in familiar Texas surroundings and I’m itching to leave again. As long as I’m in a perpetual state of go then all is well in my world. Clearly, I am an addict and travel is my drug of choice.

I can’t begin to recount all the things I’ve learned as a result of my traveling, so I decided to put together a list of the first 40 that came to mind. Call it a stream-of-consciousness list rather than a concise one. Thus, here are 40 things I’ve learned through my 40 years of traveling.

Air Travel

 

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1. Bring your own bottle of water. It’s one of the few things you can control in the air.

2. Join an airline loyalty program. No matter your airline preference, make sure you don’t let flight miles go to waste and NEVER let them expire.

3. Get an airline branded credit card and learn its benefits by heart. If for some reason you fly a different carrier than your regular airline, then look into getting one of their credit cards, too. Often there is no fee for the first year and there’s a mileage bonus attached. With this type of credit card, usually benefits include a free checked bag, preferential check in, and priority boarding.

4. Seat Guru is your best friend. Go to the site to figure out which airline seats don’t lean back all the way and where the bassinets are located {so that can be absolutely avoided}.

5. The person seated in the middle always gets first dibs on the armrest. Anyone who disagrees has never flown in a middle seat or is a selfish jackass.

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6. Sweet talking the gate attendant in hopes of securing a business class upgrade is a fool’s errand. It ain’t happening, though when you least expect it, one might just fall into your lap.

7. Don’t give dirty looks to the parents with the crying infant. Save those for the parents with the out of control seven-year old.

8. A pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones takes care of a whole lot of flying annoyances. {see #7}

9. Airplane bathrooms are disgusting, but denial and Bath & Body Works Anti-Bacterial Gel do wonders for making it through a flight.

10. Not everyone is a seasoned flyer, so patience is essential, lest you be hauled out of the plane in handcuffs.

Airport Lounges

 

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11. The airport lounge is not your personal living room. Shoes stay on and feet remain on the floor. And snide looks rarely change the offending party’s manners.

12. Booze may be free, but the bartender should still be tipped.

13. Finding a great airport lounge is something that should be revered and always appreciated. I’ll fly through Tokyo for the sushi and beer machine in the United lounge alone.

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14. Make sure to grab some fruit, tea, snacks, and Splenda before boarding a flight. You never know how long you’ll be stuck on the tarmac. That apple might just prevent a low blood sugar tantrum.

15. Headphones are required for Skype calls, iChat, and movies. There is no exception to this rule.

Hotels

 

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16. Booking directly with a hotel really increases your chances of getting an upgrade or not being put by the ice machine. Being a loyalty member of the hotel group is also helpful in that regard.

17. Take the toiletries even if you don’t love them. When you’re about to jump in the shower at home and realize that you’re down to a sliver of soap you’ll be grateful for that lemon verbena bar that smells like Pledge.

18. Tip the maids. They probably work harder than anyone else in the hotel.

19. You don’t use a fresh towel or change sheets every day at home, so why do you need it in a hotel? Join the conservation efforts of the property, even if it’s really just a ploy to save the hotel a bunch of money.

20. Instead of throwing away the shower caps use them to cover the soles of your shoes. It keeps the clothes in your suitcase from smelling like a metro station.

Road Trips

 

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21. The most direct path usually isn’t the most scenic, nor the most fun.

22. Don’t stop for food at any place that is traded on the NYSE. Mom and Pop gas stations and diners sometimes have the best food, or at least some of the best people watching around.

23. Master the art of the roadside bathroom break. This skill will come in handy for many years to come.

24. Learn to read an actual map rather than depending on GPS. There are places without 4G, 3G, or Internet all together, and those places are usually pretty awesome.

25. Once you learn to read a paper map, it’s essential to then know how to fold it. A laminated one doesn’t count.

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26. Knowing how to determine north, east, south, and west is essential. And, no, north isn’t just up.

27. Getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. However, getting lost below 1/8th of a tank of gas could be tragic. Keep an eye on the tank.

28. Take your time and don’t be afraid to deviate from your route. When will you have the chance to ever witness a guy wrestling an alligator or pick your own peaches? If it piques your interest then just do it. At the very least it will make for a good story.

29. Nothing kills the mood of a road trip like red and blue flashing lights in the rear view mirror. Drive the speed limit or figure out how to talk your way out of a ticket.

30. Know that the journey is just as important as the destination. Soak up each mile traveled.

Randoms

 

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31. When you’re a little kid, don’t let your brother put your shoes on for a family photo. Odds are they’ll be on the wrong feet. The picture will live on for eternity and you’ll look like the idiot who didn’t know left from right.

32. If you find a great deal on a flight then buy it and figure out the rest later. Chances are that the fare will be sold out the next time you look.

33. Taking a photo of your rental car is vital in the event you forget its make, model, color, or all three. It also helps when dealing with shady car rental agents.

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34. Keep in mind that the day will come where you no longer go on family vacations with your parents and siblings. Try not to kill one another and enjoy the time together.

35. Beauty and fun can be found even in the most god-forsaken places if you’re willing to keep an open mind.

36. Travel alone and do it often. Your experience will be vastly different and oftentimes more rewarding.

37. When in doubt, just buy the insurance. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

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38. Don’t let money ever be the reason for not doing something you really want to do. Create a plan and figure out how to make it happen.

39. Fear is the kryptonite to rewarding travel.

40. Make a person who is struggling with English feel at ease. After all, they are fluent in least one language that you probably don’t know. On the contrary, knowing a few basic words in the country’s language you’re visiting goes a long way with the locals. Being an English snob does not.

And one to grow on…

 

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41. Put the camera down and iPhone away. Soak up the moment, because it won’t last forever.

Beyond these basic lessons, travel has taught me about various cultures, religions, food, politics, languages, and customs. It’s taught me that there’s an entire existence beyond my Texas and American bubble and that our way isn’t the only way. Travel has taught me to appreciate things like bar code scanners in grocery stores, dependable Wi-Fi, and the basic ability to communicate in my native tongue. Perhaps more than anything, travel has taught me that memories are exponentially more valuable than things.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

46 Comments

  1. Welcome to the 40’s!! It’s pretty great in this age bracket, because we are more knowledgeable about our true selves and about life in general (proven by this post).

    Love #22 and would like to add that just because a restaurant is located river/oceanfront doesn’t make it good! Confirmed that this week in Mexico 🙂

    1. You’re absolutely right on the waterfront restaurants. Normally they’re overpriced and terrible. Thank you so much for stopping by and for the birthday wishes.

  2. Greetings from Singapore!

    Leah, life begins at 40 as they have said but having known a bit of your story, I surely knew that your life begins the moment you realized that memories are important than things. All the best!

    In truth & discernment,
    –Lacruiser

    1. Ahhhh….well, that lesson didn’t come quickly enough. I suppose the important thing is that it was learned. Thank you!

  3. Love these tips Leah! And welcome to the 40s Club! So tell me, how does it feel now that you’re closer to 60 than you are to 20? 😉

  4. We are in the same decade! At least for a few weeks!
    Happy birthday and remember to follow your own rules, especially number 40. You are a big offender of that one!
    Cheers,
    Priscilla

  5. Hi Leah!
    Happy 40’s firstly!
    I must say that I truly enjoyed your article!!! I mean to read your second paragraph, I find myself looking at my bathroom mirror! Only that I’m in mid 50s, but “still want more”. Ever heard U2’s song “With or without you”? An article full of wisdom, wit, and suggestions. I have smiled whilst reading of incidents that I too have experienced but also picked up a few new tips! As an Irishman(now living in Switzerland) and being an aviation buff I have to date over 400,000 kilometers of air miles “Under” my seatbelt,and counting… Seat Guru is a great tool, and about tip 14, I always bring extra Swiss chocolates and wine whilst travelling. Those ladies deserve a little something for their hard work.
    Leah, I wish you happiness and many more airmiles in the future!
    Irish MD-11, aka Gerry

    1. I’m so happy you enjoyed it, Gerry. I sure hope I find myself sitting next to you on my next flight if only for the Swiss chocolate and wine.

  6. Happy Birthday Leah!! Some great tips here, many I agree with, many I didn’t know about it and most of all, can’t agree more with that last one – I’ve always loved travelling but the more I do it, the less and less the “things” mean to me and the more I cherish memories 🙂 Look forward to hearing many of your travel tales!

  7. Many Happy Returns of the Day, Ms. Leah. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the tips and I liked them all..I too travel frequently on business, less on vacationing..but will try and reverse the ratio..

    Learned that I was not always following the few tips you have given, particulary on the bar tenders in lounges and the maids in the hotels..very true, they are the most hardworking people..

    Enjoy many more years of happy travelling and writing on your adventures in unknown and unexplored lands..Hapy and Safe Travels….Raj

    1. Thank you very much, Raj. I do have to say that tipping the bartenders could be a cultural thing, but I’m sure maids around the world appreciate a little extra for their efforts.

  8. Hi Leah, my wife and I are planning a holiday of a lifetime for next year. We have traveled to mid France, Southern Spain and Southern Italy together and most of the UK. I have personally traveled to the South of France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, the old Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Chicago in the US.

    We are looking for something both cultural and restful but with guaranteed sunshine and a decent level of luxury. Maybe all inclusive. It will be our 30th Anniversary together on 2nd November 2015 so we thought maybe end of May 2015 for 1 week, end of July to August for 2 weeks or end of October for 1 week.

    Do you have any suggestions as to the best locations for a holiday like this for a couple in their early 50’s? I have a heart condition so it cannot be too active.

    Many thanks, Mark

  9. Great tips. I like your style: bloody Marys, sushi, beer and beautifully decorated hotel rooms are right up my ally. I just entered my thirties and now travel with my toddlers in tow. Don’t worry, they aren’t the ones screaming on the plane. I’ve got flying with my kids down to a science. I love road trips, because they have so much character. Fun greasy food, interesting people and weird sites you weren’t expecting to see. I am constantly itching to go, go, go. I love your tip about just booking the low airfare and figuring it out later. So true. I love Google Flights for scouting out the lowest airfare.

  10. Great list and I like how you said it’s more a stream-of-consciousness post. My son puts his shoes on the wrong foot just because we tell him to do it correctly. He doesn’t need an older sibling to do that to him. I pretty much agree with all of these. I definitely want to agree about not giving the crying infant the dirty looks. The parents of the older kid screwing up, yeah, curse them with your eyes. Happy birthday, by the way. I never wish people happy birthday on Facebook because then it looks like I’m being selective (and I am). So happy birthday here. And I hope maybe next year you can make it to Siena for the palio since it wasn’t in the cards for this birthday.

  11. This is awesome, Leah! Thank you for #7. And for #24. I resisted GPS for a long time, insisting on using only REAL (paper) maps. I’m amazed and disturbed by the number of people who cannot read maps these days. So, we do use GPS when traveling and even at home, but always have paper maps just in case.

  12. I can’t believe you are 40 years old! You look so young 🙂
    About your advices: they are really great and helpful.
    One thing we have to disagree are tips. Tips are very American and they are not so popular in Europe. Personally, I’ve never seen any Polish who tipped stewardess for free drinks. It just doesn’t happen 🙂

    1. Oh, well thank you! Yes, tips are very American, but I’m not talking about tipping flight attendants. I’m talking about tipping the bartender in the airport lounge. 🙂

  13. Love this post! So many of those points are my favourites! Solo travel is awesome and grows you in more ways than people can ever believe. You never know what will happen tomorrow or if you will ever return to a place so making the most of locations and experiences is a must! Being a travel photographer and blogger I keep having to remind myself to take the photo, then stop and appreciate my surroundings, not just what is in front of me, but the smell, sounds and culture.

    Thanks for sharing!

  14. Wonderful post.

    #21 is basically my mantra.

    Happy birthday.

    I recently turned, gulp, 50, and did a couple of “50” posts.

    Best wishes for many more decades of memorable travels.

    1. Thanks, Charles, and happy birthday to you. And it took me awhile to learn #21. Think of all the awesome stuff I’ve missed.

  15. Happy Birthday a few days late! Love the tips (I’m 45) and learned something new- what to do with the shower caps!! Genius! Best wishes for many more years of travel!

  16. Hi Leah,
    really enjoyed this. I turned 48 on Wednesday – have been writing a travel blog for a little while and am going on my first trip alone in my life to Barcelona in September. I meant to do this when I was around 18 but life had other plans for me! So many adventures to have eh…

    1. Happy birthday to you, Janice. And congratulations on your first solo journey. It will take a minute to get used to, but I think you’ll be rewarded with a special experience.

    1. Oh, thank you, Pola. And you can bet we will be having a drink soon. The question is, where in the world will this happen?

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