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29 things I learned from travelling around the world without flying

With my laptop as my office, I travelled through 37 countries on four continents and across the world’s biggest oceans.

Niall Doherty

A COUPLE OF months ago I returned to Ireland to complete a 44-month trip around the world without flying. The adventure took me through 37 countries on 4 continents and across the world’s biggest oceans. In lieu of taking any flights I took 99 buses, 82 trains, 70 taxis, 27 ferries, 21 tuk-tuks, 10 cars, 7 motorcycles, 3 bicycles, 3 cruises, a sailboat and a cargo ship.

With my laptop as my office, I worked online as a freelance web developer to fund my travels, stopping off in some countries for extended periods to get a good chunk of work done and build up my savings, before taking off again for a few crazy weeks on the road.

Here are 29 things I learned on my travels:

  • I won the lottery at birth, by virtue of being born a white male to good parents in the Western world and having easy access to a respectable education system. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re also more privileged than approximately 90% of the people alive on Earth right now. It’s not always easy to remember and appreciate, but it’s true. The opportunities we have compared to most are just incredible.
  • Travel won’t solve all your problems. It will just give you new ones.
  • You can’t judge a people by their government. I learned this in Iran, where the government has outlawed things like dancing, alcohol, free-flowing female hair, and unmarried men and women meeting privately. Everyone follows these rules publicly, but behind closed doors it’s a different story. Given what you see on the news, you might also be forgiven for thinking that Iran is a dangerous place, full of people who wish death to the West. But I spent ten days in that country and was absolutely floored by the generosity and kindness of the people.
  • You can communicate quite a lot without speaking the local language. You certainly aren’t going to starve to death or soil yourself because you don’t know how to say “food” or “toilet”.
  • The way you’re used to things being done at home isn’t necessarily the “right way” of doing things. It’s just one way. Most of your values have been shaped by growing up around that way of doing things.
  • It’s very expensive to travel by cargo ship. And slow. And boring. All in all, you’d want to be a bit mad to travel that way.
  • You’d be amazed by how many people are out there making a living from their laptops, and how many different ways they are doing it. I’ve met writers, sales people, artists, musicians, copywriters, marketers, bloggers, project managers, virtual assistants, web designers, programmers… all of them making good money online and able to live wherever they choose. Many of them aren’t all that computer savvy either. They just work hard and experiment until they find a way to make it happen.
  • You’d also be amazed by how many people manage to make the travel lifestyle work with kids in tow. And I daresay that those kids, in comparison with their stationary peers, come across happier, brighter, and better prepared for whatever the world might throw at them.
  • Everything is more intense in India.
  • The world is safer than you think. Through 37 countries in 44 months, only once was I hospitalised (altitude sickness in Bolivia) and only once was I the victim of a crime (some electronics stolen from my backpack in Venezuela). Most of the horror stories you hear usually begin with, “Well I was really drunk…” or “I was buying these drugs…” Avoiding drugs, excessive drunkenness, dark alleys and shady people will keep you away from 99% of trouble, at home or abroad.
  • None of your bank cards will work in Iran.
  • For quite a few people in foreign lands, when they think of Ireland, the first thing that still comes to mind is the IRA :-/
  • You can’t have an adventure when everything goes to plan. It’s only when things go wrong that something story-worthy happens :-)
  • Diarrhoea is worse than food poisoning.
  • A life of long-term solo travel is a life of solitude and loneliness. The longer you do it, the more you’ll feel the latter. After more than a thousand days of living that lifestyle, I now crave more stability and routine, and not having to say goodbye to people I’ve just begun to grow fond of.
  • Always check for an Adam’s apple.
  • Depending on who you ask, there are somewhere between 194 and 205 countries in the world. It would take a long time to visit them all, but even if you did, you still won’t have seen everywhere. Because visiting Moscow for a few days doesn’t mean you’ve really seen Russia, no more than visiting Dublin for a few days means you’ve really seen Ireland. Given that, we might as well accept that no matter how much we travel, we’re never going to see it all, so we might as well slow down and try appreciate what few parts of the world we do get to see. A lot of a little tops a little of a lot.
  • Bring a book. Better yet: lots of books. Better again: a Kindle.
  • Travel costs less than you think. Over the course of 3.5 years living in dozens of different countries and traveling between them, my expenses worked out to an average of €2,237 per month. I certainly wasn’t living the high life, but I wasn’t exactly roughing it either. (You can see detailed monthly finances from my travels by signing up here.)
  • If you don’t stay in any one place for very long, you’re under no obligation to pay taxes (unless you’re from the USA or Eritrea).
  • If you don’t like taking photos, take more than you’re comfortable with. You’ll enjoy looking back on them later.
  • If you do like taking photos, take less than you’re comfortable with. You’re never going to go through all of them.
  • Buy travel insurance. At the very least, get health coverage and make sure it includes evacuation. It will cost you at max €5/day and could well be a life-saver.
  • Be approachable and talk to strangers. But be assertive and tell people to back off if they make you uncomfortable. Most predators are looking for easy prey, someone afraid to speak up or make a scene. Make sure that’s not you.
  • You’re better off visiting a good friend in a “boring” place than visiting nobody in an “exciting” place. Some of my loneliest times on the road came while visiting “must-see” landmarks or attractions on my own.
  • Plan ahead, but don’t be a slave to the plan.
  • Text your mam every day and call your granny every once in a while.
  • I like to joke that the whole “no flying” thing was actually a terrible idea and I don’t recommend it. Seriously though, while it certainly proved to be a more challenging and adventurous way to travel, it was also a gigantic pain in the ass at times, and getting from A to B cost me way more than if I had taken a plane.
  • Spending 3.5 years traveling around the world without flying was the second time I uprooted my life to do something crazy. When I was 25 years old I moved to New Orleans because my favourite basketball team played there and I wanted to be closer to them. I spent three years living and working in that city and the fan website I started about the team led to a media credential so I got to interview players and coaches and sit courtside for free. I tell you this because the biggest thing I hope you’ll take aware from this article is that it’s entirely possible to live the bejesus out of whatever crazy dream you might have. I’ve done it twice, and I’ve got nothing you don’t have or can’t learn. Get out there and make it happen.

Niall Doherty writes big words, builds digital things, and occasionally helps people figure out how to live a travel lifestyle. He hails from Slieverue, County Kilkenny and now lives in Amsterdam. You can find out more about him over at ndoherty.com.

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Niall Doherty

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