In the past sixteen months, I have lived in twelve different cities and nine different states. I’ve walked the old streets of Montreal, climbed below deck of the famous warship Old Ironsides, lived in Blake Shelton’s hometown, worked out of dozens of local coffee shops, seen alligators up close (and NOT in a zoo), eaten in the original Cheers, visited the scene of the Salem Witch trials, and taken road trips in the New England fall.
Because of my husband Kaleb’s job, we travel the USA full-time. We don’t own a home. Or a car. Or anything of much value for that matter. We move to a new place every month or so, take in all the touristy things we can, and learn the area as much as possible before leaving.
But before you say, “Oh wow, isn’t that exciting? I would LOVE to do that,” there’s some things you should know.
Our Instagram only tells half the story — actually, more like a fourth. There’s a lot more to it. And it isn’t all exciting.
When we first started doing this, I was a bundle of emotions: hesitancy, excitement, confusion, thrill, fear — I felt it all. The first three or four months really were exciting. It was new and thrilling and felt like an adventure. But there was also a distinct learning curve, a new way of life we had to get used to.
There are no guidebooks for full-time traveling. There’s no one typical routine everyone follows, like in “normal” life. There were all kinds of hurdles to overcome and surprises to adapt to. But those hurdles and surprises kept things interesting and new.
Eventually though, the new became the usual. We began to expect the hurdles. The excitement wore off. And we were left with a permanent lifestyle, one that was simultaneously normal and bizarre, both constant and constantly changing. It was a lifestyle we never could have fully anticipated (because, seriously, how many people do you know whose brains you could pick about relocating every 5 weeks?).
Through this journey, I’ve found there’s a lot more to long-term travel than just the excitement of it (though that’s there too!). There’s elements of living on the road that I could have never fully anticipated until I lived them myself. So for those of you daydreaming about switching lives with that Youtuber who makes amazing videos about all those awesome places — there’s more to the story. I promise.
Here’s a few things no one told me about full-time travel. (Now you can’t say no one ever told YOU. 😉)
Everyone Travels Differently
Every travel influencer and blogger you follow has their own normal. Each one prioritizes different things in their travels. Each one funds their travel differently. Each one may have their own definition of “long-time travel,” and they’ll definitely have their own perspective of it.
What one person loves about traveling another may hate. What stresses one person out may not bother another at all. The way I cope with the constant change is different from my husband’s.
We stay in hotels and occasionally apartments, but I have a friend who stays in hostels during her trips. I follow a family on Instagram who lives in a renovated school bus. Others live in RVs or AirBnBs. Some house-sit.
Some travelers like to hit up all the major tourist attractions. Others avoid trendy destinations and try to find hidden gems off the beaten trail. We do a bit of both.
Some are all about the food. Some the culture and the people. Some the entertainment and adrenaline rushes.
Some people get to choose where they travel to and where they stay. Others don’t — they go wherever the people funding the travel send them.
We fund our travels through Kaleb’s full-time job and my freelance writing & marketing. Others fund their travels through making videos, writing for magazines or websites, teaching English in whichever country they’re in, running collaborations with businesses on social media, or continuing to work remotely for their jobs back home.
The point is that there’s no one right way to travel. Everyone you know who travels does it differently — and that’s ok.
It’s Not a Vacation
Travel is not an escape from your normal life when it is your normal life. It’s not a break from reality when it is your reality. It’s not vacation; it’s routine.
Kaleb and I didn’t ditch our jobs to live on the road. (In fact, his job is the very reason we’re living on the road.) He works full-time, and I work part-time. We work on government holidays and, sometimes, Kaleb doesn’t even get Saturdays off. Just because you’re traveling all the time doesn’t mean you party all the time. Our phone bill and bubble teas don’t pay for themselves!
The very essence of long-term travel is that it’s long. It becomes a way of life, not a break from it. Living on the road is not the same as backpacking through Europe or taking a long vacation in another state. Our version of living on the road isn’t even the same as taking a year off to travel. There’s a difference between nomadic living and traveling for fun.
While there are certainly elements of fun in traveling full-time, that’s not always the point. Maybe it starts out as the point — but in the end the point changes on you. Most people who travel do it to either learn more about themselves or learn more about other people in the world. They see it as a means of education — of learning history, geography, new cultures, new climates, new foods, new walks of life. They do it to broaden their horizons and to show themselves that their country, their people group, their perspective, is not the only one in the world.
Believe it or not, there’s still times when Kaleb and I need a getaway. We literally leave our new home-for-now and go to an entirely new place of our own choosing for a weekend. To us, that’s vacation. That’s traveling for fun. It gives us time to regroup, relax, and just have fun without feeling like we need to cross anything off our to-do list, cook, or run errands.
While living in so many new places seems exciting, it’s actually quite tiring and, sometimes, we just need a break from it. Some travelers go back to visit family or crash with friends, some go off to a whole new place for a vacation, and some go back to the home they still own for a reprieve.
When traveling is your life, it doesn’t feel like a getaway. It feels like. . .well, life.
It’s Really Hard Sometimes
There’s canceled flights, lost luggage, and panic attacks. The water tastes different in each city. The different climates mess with your allergies and the different time zones with your sleeping patterns. Just when you’re learning your new home, you leave for another.
Us travelers are all too aware that our way of life looks glamorous on the outside. We’re used to hearing people listen to what we do and exclaim about how lucky we are and how we need to enjoy it while we have the chance. So sometimes we may be hesitant to tell the whole story for fear of complaining about “champagne problems.”
But the truth about traveling is this: for every exciting opportunity, there’s moments of insecurity and fear. For every fun day, there’s a homesick night. Charming photos are mixed in with lost passports, feelings of loneliness blended with new friendships. No matter how many interesting and friendly people you meet, you’ll still miss the people who know you best. Even the coolest places come with a bit of culture shock.
Moving all the time, being away from the people you love, living in a place that doesn’t yet belong to you, always learning new names and grocery store chains and roads and driving laws — it can be tiring. And it certainly comes with its fair share of stress.
In short, full-time travel is a full-time job.
There’s Always More to Travel Than You Know
This goes hand-in-hand with my last point. We all know that scrapbooks and social media posts don’t show the whole picture of someone’s life. So before selling your house and packing your bags to travel the world like “that guy with the awesome travel blog,” you may want to learn more about the whole picture.
Just because a traveler is Instagram-famous doesn’t mean they’re going to share all their deepest feelings and questions with the gram. You may feel like you know someone’s story because you watch their Instagram stories every day and know their dog’s name and what kind of coffee they like — but you really only know the parts of their story they’re comfortable with telling a world of strangers.
If you really want to know what travel is like, find someone who will tell you the good and bad, the hard and the easy. Ask them real-life questions about logistics, mental health, physical health, homesickness, and how traveling has changed them. Because what I read on all the popular travel websites did not — I repeat, did not — prepare me for the daily grind of long-term travel.
I’m not famous or rich, and my travels don’t take me out of the country. But I still hear people calling my life exciting and cool. And it surely is at times. But let me tell you — I’ve had days where I hated the sight of another hotel, times where I felt so lonely and just missed my friends and family, moments where I felt incredibly frustrated with having no roots or permanent community.
You see what people want you to see. But there’s always more to the story.
You Miss Home
Or rather, you miss having one. The very concept of home changes. One day it’s Florida, and the next it’s Arizona. One day you’re living in a hotel and the next in a downtown apartment filled with someone else’s furniture.
Home is such an underrated word in today’s obsession with travel. In reality, you can’t have a vacation without having a home. When you go on vacation, you’re only able to “get away” because you have a place to come back to. The very idea of an escape means leaving an environment you already have. Full-time travel doesn’t come with this safety feature. Even if you absolutely love your nomadic life, you still recognize how important it is to have a home.
Home means safety. Home means stability. It means love and comfort. Friends. Family. Roots. Belonging. Home is always yours. It’s always there for you, ready to welcome you back.
Even if you don’t own a physical house while traveling, you still miss wherever you came from. You miss the places that make you feel calm and grounded at your core whenever you think of them.
You’re walking in this space of tension where you see each new place as home, yet you also miss the places that flash in your memory when you say the word.
It’s Not All Glamorous. . . And You Don’t Really Want It to Be
Going to Disney, spending the night on Times Square, and waking up at the Grand Canyon’s south rim for sunrise were pretty exciting. The hours spent on the road or in the airport were not. Neither were learning to navigate the metro system or recovering from a weekend squeezed full of activity.
These weren’t low points exactly. They were just normal, necessary parts of life. The regular days in between big mountaintop moments. They’re the place where real life happens.
When traveling is your life, you don’t feel the need to constantly be going out and doing something. You eventually tire of road trips and tours and local meetups. You actually want to just stay “home” for the weekend, make brunch, and lounge around in your favorite pair of sweatpants.
Travelers need down days too. We need evenings of doing a whole lot of nothing to help us recover from big moves and cope with the mental and emotional stress of uprooting our lives so often.
We also need real-life days, where we go grocery shopping, clean the apartment, and manage our budgets. Real glamorous, right?
It Will Teach You SO Much about Yourself
This phase of life has been so stretching. Moving to so many new places has pulled me further outside of my comfort zone than I ever really wanted to go. It’s shaping me into a new kind of person.
I’m not someone who ever claimed to have wanderlust coursing through my veins. In fact, I’m a homebody. I’m an introvert to the max. At times, I’m shy. I’m nearly ALWAYS change-averse. If I had the power to keep my life, my friendships, my home, and my plans the same all the time, I probably would.
But this lifestyle has made me adapt. A lot.
At my core, I’m still all those things. But I’ve discovered the importance of learning how those traits play out in my life and where they may be holding me back. I’ve learned the power of stretching myself to help me thrive in this kind of life.
For example, the first Sunday we visit a church, I walk straight up to one of the leaders, introduce myself, and start asking questions about how we can get involved. If someone I just met invites me to coffee, I go. And I willingly make loads of small talk. I make a list of every nearby thing that sounds remotely interesting and slowly begin visiting as many of them as possible, often by myself. At Kaleb’s work events filled with people I don’t know, I introduce myself to whoever happens to be standing next to me. And I do that about 10 more times during the course of the night. I force myself to leave the house every single day and do something — no matter how small or short.
NONE of this is me at my natural state. But these things are becoming more natural to me.
I don’t have to work up as much courage to begin talking to a stranger anymore. I’ve got my usual small-talk questions tucked away in the corners of my mind. I naturally say yes when asked to go out with someone new, even though there’s always a part of me that balks. And I actually WANT to leave the house every day now. I’ve recognized the value all these new personality shifts make in my day-to-day life, and that gives me to the motivation to keep making them.
This lifestyle has changed me in many other ways too. I’ve learned how people and routines make a place feel like home just as much as physical things do. I’ve learned just how few things you really need to thrive. I’ve experienced the Bible and God in entirely new, entirely more real ways. I’ve learned so much about how I function, what my strengths and weaknesses are, what I need, what’s hard for me, what’s worthwhile to me, and what’s not.
If nothing else about this article resonates with you, at least sit with this. Extended travel changes you.
It shows you the best of yourself and the worst of yourself. It strips away all that’s familiar and known until you’re just left with who you really are. You see your true self when all the old reputations and familiar contexts and people who know you are gone.
It opens your eyes to whole new worlds and other points of view. It shows you just how very small you are in this vast world of ours and just how good God is to still lavish His affection on you.
When everything around you is changing, you’re bound to change too.
Extended travel is multi-dimensional. No matter how you slice it, there’s some photo-worthy parts and some cringe-worthy ones. So for those of you who want to take a year off to travel — if you can do it, DO IT! Just expect to hit some speed bumps that will stretch you and grow you, to experience a fair share of moments that won’t make the Instagram cut, and to come back a slightly different (and hopefully better) person.
To see how we build community on the road, read How to Meet People & Make New Friends When You Travel.
Originally published on Jessica’s Medium profile on May 12, 2019.