Long-Term Travel Lessons from My 9-Month Backpacking Trip

by Editor
By Aleksandra Milewicz

In September last year, I finally did the thing I’d always dreamt of.

I quit my office job, gave up my apartment and bought a one-way ticket to travel the world.

Over the next nine months, I backpacked across ten countries having some of the most unique adventures of my life…and a couple of meltdowns along the way.

From the importance of slowing down to curbing my travel overachiever’s complex, here’s what I learned about being on the road for so long.

Pace yourself

Let’s be honest: travel is exhausting. 

There are long days on hot, sweaty buses. Red-eye flights. Stressful border crossings. Getting sick in unfamiliar places. Packing and unpacking your bag constantly. If you don’t give yourself time to rest, it quickly feels like too much.

I met people who started their trip with an actioned-packed itinerary and got burned out quickly. They would hunker down in one place for weeks or months, trying to muster the energy to hit the road again. There’s nothing wrong with staying somewhere long-term, but if your goal is to keep moving, here’s how to do it sustainably.

Be flexible. 

A rigid itinerary might give you a sense of security, but it’s the easiest way to exhaust yourself. Have a general idea of the regions you’d like to visit but don’t book too far ahead. 

That way, you can slow down when you need to…or pack up and leave if you don’t like the place. I typically wouldn’t have anything booked further than three nights unless there was an activity or a holiday I had to plan around (I learned the hard way that my easy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t fare well during Semana Santa, don’t make my mistake).

Take days off. 

Designate one day a week when you allow yourself a break from long-term travel. No buses. No tours. No must-sees to tick off. Chill in your hostel, read a book, cook a nice meal, work out. Just don’t do the touristy stuff.

Don’t rush through the good stuff. 

It’s rare for all the stars to align. If you find a place with a great vibe, cool people, affordable food, a comfy bed, or whatever makes your heart beat faster, stay longer.

Yes, even if there’s nothing more left “to do.” Those places are few and far between, and they will help you recharge your batteries.

Make peace with not seeing “everything”

I came to Oaxaca thinking four nights there should be plenty. I wanted to hit the famous street food spots, do a free walking tour, visit a few markets and go on a day trip.

After doing some research, I realized I could beat the crowds to Hierve el Agua — a stunning and overrun-by-tourists rock formation — if I stayed in the nearby town of Mitla.

Once in Mitla, I was a stone’s throw away from Santiago Matatlán, aka “World Capital Of Mezcal,” and some very cool caves, so it would have been a shame not to stay longer. Before I realized it, my four days in Oaxaca turned into two weeks, and I still left feeling like I hadn’t seen everything.

The bucket list is a many-headed monster. For every item ticked off, two more appear. You talk to people at your hostel or a friendly local at the restaurant, and just like that, you have five more places to see you’d never even heard of.

Being able to do everything is an illusion, no matter how long-term your travel. I guess it’s a happy problem: the world is just too big and amazing to squeeze it all in a single gap year (or probably even ten gap years, to be honest).

If you’re an overachiever like me, making peace with that will be challenging but essential.

Mix it up

Nothing spoils you like long-term travel. 

When you go on holiday for a week or two, everything is new and exciting. But the thrill of discovery inevitably wears off over time, and it gets harder and harder to find things that will blow you away. Trust me: if I got sick of eating tacos, you could get sick of anything.

I learned to notice the early signs of this. The times when I should be enjoying the moment, but instead, I catch myself comparing the thing in front of me to something better I’ve seen before. 

The times I’m getting frustrated about minor inconveniences that wouldn’t usually bother me. The general meh feeling sneaking into experiences. It means it’s time to shake it up.

Whether travelling to a new country or a change of landscape (believe me, there is no such thing as too much lounging on paradise beaches), I trust my gut and throw myself into something new.

I go from beaches to the mountains. From roughing it out to booking a few nights at a nicer place with good pillows and a hot shower. From obsessively chasing down the best local food spots to stuffing my face with chain pizza.

If variety is the spice of life, then the long-term traveller’s tolerance for heat is seriously high. Keep mixing it up, and don’t settle for a bland diet.

Bring something that makes you feel snug

Two months into the trip, I started feeling down. I hated the hostel I checked into, even though it was totally fine. I cried when the museum staff was rude to me. I was homesick and miserable, and nothing except staying in bed sounded good.

As much as it sucked, it was also totally normal. Most people go through a crisis or two when travelling long-term. Living without a routine is freeing, but boy, can it be confusing and overwhelming at times.

It helps to bring along something that you can anchor to amid long-term travel chaos, something that reminds you of home or generally makes you feel snug.

That might be a pillow pet for some, a journal for others, or having a few episodes of your favourite show downloaded on your phone and ready to save the day.

It may be less obvious: for my partner, it’s his favourite leaf tea and a steeper ball. Or rather, it’s the familiar ritual of having a nice cup of tea before bed. I’m all for packing light, but hey, there’s always room for one unessential item.

Aleksandra Milewicz is a brand copywriter based in London. When she’s not working, she’s either travelling or planning her next trip. She loves hunting down off-the-beaten-path destinations and quirky things to do wherever she goes.

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