If you want travel anxiety tips, why not go to a proven travel expert?
If you’re a fan of travel bloggers (and who isn’t, right?), you’ll probably have heard of Matt Kepnes – aka Nomadic Matt. In 2005, he decided to give up his job, and travel the world. 70 countries later, he’s one of the world’s best-known travel bloggers, travel experts, and authors – his book How To Travel the World on $50 A Day is one of my absolute favourite travel books. It’s certainly opened my eyes to travelling on a budget, in order to travel longer and smarter!
Matt’s newest book, Ten Years A Nomad, is an autobiographical account of the last ten years of travel – and when I read it, I was struck by how many of the themes are familiar to those of us who suffer with travel anxiety. Feelings of fear of the unknown, a sensation of insecurity, and experiences of panic attacks and depression on the road. It’s proof that everyone goes through those emotions, no matter how experienced you are.
Because I’m a lucky bunny, I was recently offered the opportunity to interview Matt, and I really wanted to ask about his experiences with travel anxiety and related issues, and to see what travel anxiety tips he has. To hear his thoughts on anxiety about traveling, and how best to push out of your comfort zone.
Well, Matt really delivered! So settle back, and read an interview with Nomadic Matt – and learn some truly excellent travel anxiety tips at the same time!
An interview with Nomadic Matt
Hi, Matt! What was the biggest inspiration for you in taking that first step into travel?
My initial desire to learn how to travel the world was inspired by a group of backpackers in Thailand. At the time, I was working an office job in the US. Like most people, I was jumping through the hoops on my way to the American Dream: I went to college, got an office job, and was on schedule to eventually buy a house and have 2.5 children.
But after meeting a group of backpackers in Chiang Mai, I realized long term travel was possible – and something I wanted to try.
As soon as I got home from Thailand I worked as much overtime as I could, saved all my money, finished my MBA, and then left for a year-long trip around the world. There was no going back once I caught the travel bug. One day just turned to another and somehow a decade went by — and I’m still traveling the world.
And it all started because I met a group of backpackers in Thailand.
In Ten Years A Nomad, you wrote about feeling petrified when you first arrived in Costa Rica, and again for your first solo trip to Prague. Did you experience feelings of anxiety in the lead up to those trips, and what did you say to yourself in order to go through with it?
Of course! I would constantly flip-flop between being anxious or scared to being excited. Back then, planning a trip was much harder than it is now. There were no blogs or websites you could use to help. You just had guidebooks (which were often out of date) and a few web forums. That was it. There was no social media, no sharing economy, no Google Maps to help you get around. You had to figure all that out in advance. And that was incredibly daunting at times.
But it was also exciting when the pieces started to fit together.
What didn’t help my anxiety was when people started to doubt or second guess my choice. I didn’t really have a community of people I could rely on for information or support (there were no Facebook groups about travel back then) so that was a little tiring and kept me on edge at times. All the “what if…” questions people asked certainly didn’t help.
That is actually part of the reason why I’ve started a travel community called The Nomadic Network. It’s an online and offline community where travelers can meet and get tips from one another. We have an awesome Facebook group, an online forum, and we host in-person meet-ups in cities all around the world. I’m hoping that other travelers with anxiety can use the group to gain confidence and stay motivated as they plan their own adventures.
What were your biggest fears when you set out as a nomad? Did they ever actually come to pass?
My biggest fears were the same sorts of things most travelers fret about: getting lost, getting scammed, and not being able to meet people.
And all of them came true at one point or another. But I also learned that all of them weren’t nearly as frightening as I expected.
People get scammed. Getting lost is inevitable. Loneliness happens. None of those thing are the end of the world. And the more you travel, the more you get used to them happening. Travel isn’t a vacation, after all. On a vacation, everything goes as planned. It’s a time to rest and relax (and that’s perfectly ok — we all need vacations here and there).
But that’s not what travel is.
Travel is a chance to see the world on its own terms. Just like life back home, hiccups will happen. Things won’t go as planned. But you’ll learn from them. You’ll grow as a person and be better equipped to handle them the next time they happen. They can be frustrating but that’s just par for the course. You can’t have the good without the bad so just enjoy it for what it is: an adventure.
What’s the best way for fellow introverts to break out of their shells when travelling, and truly connect with other travelers or locals?
If you’re not comfortable initiating a conversation just yet, the best thing you can do is make it easy for people to approach you. Don’t sit around on your laptop with headphones in or be on your smartphone all the time when you’re lounging in the hostel dorm. Look open and friendly and people will naturally want to chat with you. Body language is important so try to look relaxed and at ease. That will make people much more likely to say hi, chat, or even ask you to join them when they go out for food or to a bar.
If you’re willing to take the first step, try starting a conversation. Smile and say hi to people in your hostel or hotel. If a conversation starts, ask people questions. Travelers love talking about themselves and their experiences so ask for some tips or advice. That will get the ball rolling.
You don’t need to do this all at once either. Start with what you’re comfortable with. A smile. A friendly hello. Before you get confident in social situations you’ll need to grow your “extrovert” muscles and that will take time. Make an effort when you can and, eventually, you’ll start to become more comfortable and confident. It worked for me and I’m positive it will work for you too. It will just take time and practice.
A lot of travel anxiety sufferers don’t like to feel as if things are beyond their control when they travel, and making plans for their time away is one way of feeling as if things are more controlled. What are some ways that people can feel more in control when they’re in unfamiliar surroundings, without having plans that are too firmly set in stone?
I love to plan my trips. I like to read books and outline itineraries and gorge on blog posts and suggestions from friends. But I’ve also come to learn that all of that goes out the window as soon as you touch down in a new destination.
My advice to travelers who like to plan is to keep their plans open. Don’t plan every day down to the hour because you’ll just end up rushed and disappointed. Things don’t run smoothly on the road. Instead, just plan 1 or 2 things per day. That way, you have time to be flexible while still sticking to your original outline — and you’ll be able to make changes if you need to as well. Chances are you’ll get lots of new tips and suggestions once you arrive so keep room for that in your schedule.
In short, plan to have your plans change. If you can create a flexible schedule you’ll be able to have a much more relaxed trip.
As an experienced nomad, what would you say are your top three tips on what to do if something unexpected happens, or if something goes wrong abroad?
First, I try to assess the situation objectively. How bad is it? Not how bad do I feel but how bad is the situation?
For example, if I missed my train, am I able to catch a new one? Sure, I’ll be out the money for a new ticket but it’s not the end of the world.
If I got scammed for a few bucks, does it really matter or am I just annoyed?
Try to assess the seriousness of the situation in the grand scheme of things. Some problems, like theft, will be more serious than missing a bus or getting ripped off. Try to keep that perspective when the going gets tough.
Second, I look for a silver lining. If I missed a train, well now I have more time to explore the destination where I am. If I got scammed, well now I have a good story to tell and I can pass on my advice to other travelers so they don’t get scammed as well. Every experience has a lesson in it. Try to find it. It will make you feel better about the whole thing.
Third, buy travel insurance. I never leave home without it because things do go wrong from time to time. I’ve been robbed, I’ve popped an eardrum while diving, and I’ve even been stabbed. Bad things, unfortunately, can happen.
It’s for those experiences that you’ll want to have good travel insurance. While bad experiences are few and far between, it’s much better to be safe than sorry. Nine times out of ten when things go wrong you’ll just be dealing with a small scam or a taxi driver ripping you off or a missed connection. But every now and then a big problem will come along. That’s when you’ll be glad to have travel insurance.
If you’re a travel hacker, most travel credit cards include some form of insurance. But there are lots of other companies you can use to help you stay safe in an emergency, from World Nomads (my go-to choice) to Medjet to Insure My Trip. Find a company that works for you — the peace of mind is worth it.
You’ve written about your experiences with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks during your time in Argentina. Do you think that travel helps these conditions – and if so, why?
When you’ve just started traveling, it will likely make these conditions worse because you’ll be forced to deal with them in new countries and foreign environments. And that can be challenging. I think that travel forces you to find a way to cope with these conditions — because either you find a way to deal with them or you end up just staying home.
Travel is a trial by fire in many ways, but the nice thing about it is that you can set the pace for yourself. Feeling anxious? Spend a day by yourself away from the crowds. Catch up on Netflix. Read a book. Take care of yourself and then dive back into your travels.
Additionally, social media makes it easy to stay in touch with friends and family so you don’t feel so isolated. You can also use it to connect with other locals and travelers so you have a small social circle to rely on in case you’re feeling overwhelmed.
As long as you give yourself space and travel slowly, you can use travel as a tool to help you overcome some of these issues (as much as they can be overcome) and create better coping mechanisms to help you take control of your life as best you can.
One of the parts of Ten Years A Nomad that I empathized with the most was when you described your feelings of being nerdy and insecure, back before you started travelling. Do you think that travel has made you a different person? A better person?
Definitely. While I am still quite introverted, travel has helped me break out of my shell and be much more comfortable and active in social situations. I still love my time alone but travel has helped me become more outgoing.
And I do think travel makes us better people too. We learn new skills and become more confident and adaptable. We learn to accept and appreciate the differences between cultures. At the end of the day, people are just looking to live a happy and fulfilling life. Travel reminds is that the differences are all superficial.
What would you say to someone who may feel discouraged from travelling due to a fear of being scammed in a foreign country?
I think perspective is the most important thing in this situation. After all, most scams are only for a few bucks. The taxi driver charges you $10 instead of $8. The woman at the market you haggle with insists that $20 is the lowest she can go when she could have gone down to $15. At the end of the day, it’s just a few bucks here and there so I wouldn’t let that stop anyone from traveling.
Besides, there are likely tons of scams where you’re from too! I’ve seen three-card monte in cities in North America, I’ve been called by hundreds of fake companies trying to scam me and get my bank details, and I’ve had taxi drivers in the US take the long way to a destination to earn a higher fare. Scams are everywhere. Staying home won’t protect you from them — it will just keep you from making your travel dreams a reality.
I’m of the opinion that most people in the world are thoroughly decent, and welcoming of travellers! What is the biggest single act of kindness you’ve ever received from a stranger when travelling?
I’ve been fortunate in that, over the past decade of travel, I’ve had tons of people go out of their way to help me. When I was in Amsterdam, I had a group of locals invite me out and show me around the city. They didn’t have to do it — I was just some tourist to them. But they took me under their wing and made me feel at home which drastically changed my trip and my experiences there.
And when I was backpacking Iceland, I ended up getting stranded in the West Fjords, far from the main tourist sites. I would have been stuck for an entire day but a local picked me up and gave me a ride. He didn’t speak any English and he certainly didn’t have to give me a lift. But he did. He put himself out there to help someone in need. I’ll never forget that.
At the end of the day, you’ll meet far more nice people than scammers on the road. People all generally good. They want to help. The more I travel, the more that fact is proven true.
If you could recommend one destination for a newbie traveller to start their travel journey where would you choose?
Thailand. I think it’s the best place for a new traveler to start out. It has hectic cities, serene villages, lush jungles, amazing beaches, delicious food, a fun nightlife, and it’s quite affordable and safe. You’ll get a healthy dose of culture shock but not so much that it will feel overwhelming. It’s also a huge travel hub so it’s very easy to meet people there.
If you’re more of an outdoorsy person or looking for something a little less daunting, backpacking Australia or New Zealand would also be good places to start. Both countries are safe, have English as their primary language, and still have lots of travelers so it’s easy to meet people.
If you could speak to someone who’d love to travel but suffers from travel anxiety, or doesn’t feel confident in their own ability, what would you say to them to encourage them to see the world?
The only way you’re going to gain that confidence is by taking the leap. You don’t need to head off into the unknown though. You can start small. For example, if you’re from the US, book a short trip to Canada or Mexico. Somewhere close and relatively familiar. From there, you can start to travel for longer and to places further afield.
If you wanted to run a marathon you wouldn’t just sign up and then run it immediately. You’d start with smaller runs. You’d train and prepare. Travel is the same. Every trip you take will grow your confidence and make you more comfortable on the road. You just need to work at it. It might feel be scary when things won’t go as a planned, but you’ll manage. You’ll learn. And in time, you’ll become a confident traveler. It won’t happen overnight so just aim for progress, not perfection. You’ll get there eventually.
Why you need these travel anxiety tips
Firstly, a huge thank you to Matt Kepnes for agreeing to be interviewed – I really appreciate it!
As you can see, even the most experienced globetrotter has to start somewhere. And nearly all of them will have experienced travel anxiety at some point. It isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s simply your brain responding to an uncertain situation, and trying to make sure that you’re going to be safe. But as you can see from Matt’s answers, uncertainty is just part of travel… a temporary part. The more you travel, the faster you overcome those fears, and the sooner you’ll feel less uncertain.
Matt’s travel anxiety tips prove to us all that you can overcome the travel fears you might feel, overcome the problems you might face when you’re abroad, and (if you want to) become a nomadic world traveler too!
Want more travel anxiety tips? I’ve got you covered, with guides on everything from making a pre-travel anxiety-busting kit, what to do if you have a panic attack when traveling, airport anxiety, food anxiety, and more!
I really hope you’ve enjoyed these travel anxiety tips; it’s been an exciting process being able to interview Matt! And I think you’ll agree that he’s got some excellent, and rather reassuring, advice.
If you have enjoyed this, then I can happily sleep at night on a pillow of happy clouds, like a particularly smiley sloth. How about giving it a share? There’s a selection of lovely social media buttons over there on the left, or you can pin the below images to Pinterest. Sharing travel anxiety tips so that someone else can benefit from them provides you with good karma, and fantastic hair.
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