How do you choose your next destination when you have the ability to choose almost anywhere in the world? Then, once you decide where to go, what do you do to prepare for your travels? And finally, for those who don’t have a limited number of days for their trip, how on earth do you decide how long to stick around each place you visit?
The above questions were asked in the comments section of my last post when I asked all readers of the blog to specify what you want me to write about. They are great questions because, if you’re planning on spending a significant amount of time traveling the world, you will have to answer them over and over again. And since I’ve needed to ask myself these questions all the time over the past 14 years as I’ve moved around the world from place to place, always trying to figure out where I should go next, I figured it would be a good idea to provide my answers in a post.
Choosing a Destination
Very rarely do I know where I’ll be more than one month in advance. I’ve never been much of a planner and with the current lifestyle that I’ve carved for myself, it is almost impossible to make future plans without having to change them once, twice or several times.
So, I don’t plan.
I prefer to use that simple method of ‘going with the flow’, making decisions last minute whenever I feel the inspiration or need to move on to a new country. Sometimes I’ll choose to visit a country because of something I read recently, other times I’ll choose based on something I want to learn or people I want to see. All I know is that if I were to wake up tomorrow with this burning desire to traverse the remote plains of Mongolia as soon as possible, I’d start looking for flights…and chances are I’d be in Mongolia relatively soon, even though the thought of going to Mongolia was nowhere to be found in my head today.
Choosing my next destination really is quite random for me.
With that said, I do believe that traveling must have a purpose. Without a purpose or goal, traveling can get boring quite quickly (hard to believe but it’s true!). As a result, I try not to choose destinations just for the sake of seeing a new country. Instead, I choose destinations because there is something I want to do there, some goal I want to achieve.
An example would be my recent trip to Yemen. That trip materialized in about two weeks after the thought of really visiting Yemen came to mind. And my reason for going was to visit a country that sees very few visitors so that I could hopefully shed even a tiny bit of light on this land and its people. I also wanted to visit Socotra Island because I had a feeling that it would be an incredible place to organize a Wandering Earl Tour and of course, I wanted to see it first-hand before organizing such a trip. (And yes, I’m still working on the details of that tour. Should be finalized very soon!)
Again, purpose. Travel needs a purpose. This doesn’t mean that you need to spend years thinking of some grand goal you’d like to achieve and which country would be the most ideal for you to achieve that goal, but having a goal, any goal, in mind certainly helps narrow down your options. I certainly wouldn’t go to China in order to learn Spanish and I wouldn’t go to Mexico to learn about European history.
Think about your interests in life and that will help you choose your travel destinations. Do you want to learn a language? Do you have friends somewhere in the world you want to visit? Is there a particular sight you’ve always wanted to see with your own eyes? Do you prefer to spend some time surrounded by nature or in a big city or on the beach?
Ask those kind of questions, which is what I do all the time, and deciding where to go next won’t be as daunting of a challenge.
Preparing to Visit a New Country
This is an easy one for me because I really don’t prepare much at all. Since I do choose my destinations at the last minute, I just don’t have time to do much research before I land somewhere new. And since I no longer use guidebooks (nothing against them, I just prefer to travel without them these days), I typically land somewhere knowing very little beyond what I already know just from being a traveler who is interested in the world in general.
If I know of a travel blogger who has recently been to the same place, I might check their blog or send them a quick email before I begin my trip in the hopes of finding some good recommendations, maybe for a place to stay or perhaps a location/experience that was particularly memorable. And on occasion I’ll head over to the WikiTravel page for the city I’m landing in and have a quick read, maybe to get a list of a few budget hotels to check out when I arrive. But that’s about it.
Overall, the reason I prefer this type of minimal preparation is because it allows me to travel with as few expectations as possible. If I don’t read a ton of stuff about where I’m headed, I feel that I’m more open-minded as I travel around. Filling my head with too many details, stories, news articles, etc. before I arrive would diminish my ability to treat every moment without prejudice.
On the other hand, doing almost no research can often lead to a longer adjustment period upon arrival. I will certainly need more time to figure out ‘how things work’ and there will be more surprises along the way, some potentially unpleasant. It can be a harder to find accommodation, find places to eat, learn how to get from one point to another or anything else you need to do while traveling if you need to learn it all as you go.
My recommendation is to do what you are most comfortable with. And if you’re just starting out traveling, definitely do some research before visiting a new country. I certainly did when I first started out. I had a guidebook in hand almost everywhere I went for the first few years. Then, once you become more experienced, you won’t feel the need to rely on a guidebook as much because you’ll have gained a travel confidence that is hard to explain until it happens. Strange situations just won’t seem strange after a while and the fear and worry that you once had when traveling to new destinations will eventually disappear, leaving you feeling as if you don’t need to conduct as much pre-trip research as you once did.
How Long Do I Stick Around?
Deciding whether I should stay in a particular country for a day, a week, a month or even longer is, unsurprisingly by this point, something that I also don’t plan out in advance. As I seldom have somewhere to be, I am able to just show up and see how things go. If I enjoy a town, city or country, I stick around until I’m ready to see something new. If I don’t enjoy a place so much, I move on much sooner.
However, these days, I am not the same traveler I was in the beginning when I would strap on my backpack and set off for months at a time in a particular region of the world. Now that I work online and have things I need to get done in order to earn a living (more details on this in a future post), I can’t keep up that same pace. I need to travel slowly at times so that I can get things accomplished and sometimes slowly even means staying in one destination for a few months or more.
So, what I started doing (when I first began working online) was alternating between periods of normal backpacking where I would visit a few countries for a couple of months and periods when I would stay put in one particular destination for a month or two. This allowed me to continue working online, to put some real energy into this blog and to still see more of the world in the process.
It also helped keep my costs down because whenever I do stay in one place for a longer period of time, I am able to rent an apartment quite cheaply, making it much less expensive than staying in a private room at a hostel, guesthouse or budget hotel.
Eventually, though, my travel style changed once again and became what it is today. Now I prefer to have a long-term base, a location where I can really be comfortable and somewhat ‘settled’ while also being in a convenient location so that I am able to jet out for weeks or even a month or two at a time to new places. This ideal setup allows me to create stronger friendships, gain a deeper understanding of the local culture and of course, get more work done while at my ‘base’. I also have a comfortable and familiar place to return to after spending some time away.
The first place I used as a long-term base was Playa del Carmen, Mexico and now it’s been Bucharest, Romania for the past 18 months. I’m still traveling all the time but having a place to return to, a place where I can leave my stuff, has made a huge difference in helping me maintain my excitement about this traveling lifestyle. It’s just too difficult to build a blog and to really work on anything while constantly moving around the world from new country to new country.
How did I end up choosing Bucharest? It was actually completely unplanned. I showed up in Romania towards the end of 2011 as part of a Eurail trip I took around Europe and my plan was to stay for about 10 days before moving on to Bulgaria and Istanbul. But after a week in Romania I had met such wonderful people and had really enjoyed every place I visited that I simply made a sudden decision to stop and throw down my bags for a while. And I chose Bucharest because that’s where most of the people I met were living.
I certainly never imagined that I would end up spending so much time in Romania but that’s the beauty of travel – there’s always surprises and you never know what will happen once you cross the border into your next destination!
Any questions about choosing a destination, preparing for a destination or deciding how long to stay in one place? Let me know in the comments!