Myth Busting #2: Long Term Travel is Irresponsible / by Amy Thibodeau

Japanese Lanterns
Japanese Lanterns

This post is part of a series focused on busting myths related to long term travel. You might also want to read my post on How to Maintain a Career and Take on Long Term Travel.

Everyone has an opinion.

I wonder if it's a throw back to the days when many people went from being nomadic to being sedentary. Instead of being off on our own with a select few people and filling our days with the task of survival, we grouped into villages, we built long term shelters, we planted food and begin to collect things to make our lives easier. With this new organized living came rules, roles and social responsibility. If Bob didn't do his duty, it might mean the village went hungry or worse. If Jane violated the social rules and caused animosity, people might die. Our business was collective, survival depended on it.

Although many of us still live in sedentary organized societies, we have also managed to cultivate the right to individual choice and direction. Instead of everything being for the greater community, now we mainly work to earn money to make ourselves and our immediate family more comfortable. There are laws and rules but beyond that, we like to make our own decisions about what will make us happy, prosperous and fulfilled. Even though most people acknowledge our right to self-determination, there is still a lot of judgement: why aren't you married, why don't you buy a house, why don't you have children, why are you getting a degree in something impractical, why are you wearing those clothes ...

We are mostly free to make our own choices, but others are also free to make assessments and offer sometimes unsolicited advice about our decisions. For the most part, this is fine and manageable and a lot of people offer their opinions because they genuinely care and are worried. But then there are the other people, I like to call them 'the schadenfreude' who, in their questioning, almost seem to be hoping for a bad outcome so they can say, "I told you so..."

Long term travel is something that many people find incomprehensible, especially if the person undertaking a long journey is over the age of 22 and under the age of 65. Surely you are meant to travel the world either when you are just out of university or once you've retired - or, if you're very lucky, maybe you'll become one of the wealthy elite or win the lottery and then you can do what you like. 'Normal' people are meant to fulfill a life plan assigned at birth. For most of us that means: complete school (including university or college) by the age of about 22, look for an entrance level job in a lucrative and secure career and spend the rest of your 20s trying to climb the career ladder, get married sometime in your mid-20s, buy a house, a car and other items that are meant to root you to the community, get a dog, have babies, work hard, take a few vacations a year, repeat, save money, invest, hope to have enough to live comfortably when you retire and hope to have maybe 20 healthy years at the end of your life doing what you want.

The only thing wrong with this plan is that even if it isn't what you want, it is still imposed on most people to the point where it doesn't really feel like a choice. I have a fairly supportive group of family and friends and I've never had marriage or kids as a part of my plan, but I always felt that unless I had a solid, stable career and some investments like a home, that I was somehow not succeeding at life. Looking around, there were really not that many role models who had traveled long term or created a location independent lifestyle to look up to - it just didn't seem like an option.

Especially now, when so many people are unemployed and are fighting with everything in them to hold onto their homes, it seems frivolous to give up a secure job to travel. It seems selfish and irresponsible and when you tell people you are going to do it (for me, at the age of 32) you can almost see fear creep into their eyes as though they've seen your future and it involves selling 'The Big Issue' outside of a Tesco. Others are simply annoyed in a 'what gives you the right' kind of way. And some people are generally excited for you - I love those people.

Long Term Travel May Be the Most Responsible Thing You Can Do

Long term travel is not for everyone. It can be stressful, tiresome and lonely and is not a solution for those looking to run away from a problem. If you are depressed in Springfield, you're probably going to be depressed in Tokyo. But wow! If you decide it's something you want to do, long term travel can also be exciting, fulfilling, inspire great ideas, forge friendships ... If you've decided it's something you want to do, the last thing that should stop you is the notion that it is irresponsible.

Let's break this one down. What does it really mean to be irresponsible? According to the World Dictionary, two of the characteristics of irresponsible behavior are:

  • not responsible, answerable, or accountable to higher authority
  • not showing or done with due care for the consequences of one's actions or attitudes; reckless

In order to address the first definition, it is important to have a clear understanding of why you've chosen long term travel. There is no right or wrong reason, but understanding your own motivation is a crucial element to being able to explain them to family and friends. Although it's critically important to me that the people who matter to me feel like their opinions are valued, for me there is no higher authority than my own inner voice. If, by choosing long-term travel you believe you are following your intuition, then you are not being irresponsible, you are just choosing to put your needs first. If this isn't specific enough I would ask: if you are an adult, which higher authority should you be answering to and why? Whose vision for your life is more important than your own?

I would never advocate taking on long term travel with recklessness - in fact, in this particular moment in our history, it is almost impossible to be reckless about traveling. There are a crazy amount of visa regulations, then there's booking 'around-the-world' tickets, ensuring you meet all entry requirements, insurance, budgeting for your trip ... and this doesn't even touch on the logistics of working while on the road, if that's part of your plan. Although there are certainly some exceptions, I would argue that reckless long term travel is almost impossible. If anything planning a long term trip teaches you the value of due care and diligence because a lack of planning could lead to customs issues, horrible accommodations and sometimes worse.

Maybe twenty years ago you could hop on a place to South East Asia with very little preparation, but it isn't quite as easy these days. Our time in Asia includes stops in Japan, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and possibly Cambodia. Each of these countries has different requirements - Thailand, for example, doesn't require a visa for tourists arriving by air who plan to stay for 30 days or less. But if you plan to arrive overland, you can only stay for 15 days without a visa. If you want to stay for longer, you need to prearrange it at an embassy - and when you arrange it, you need to decide whether you want to only enter and exit the country once or multiple times. Japan, Laos and Vietnam all have different and potentially equally as confusing rules and restrictions. If you haven't done your research, it could end up costing you a lot of money and time. Long term travelers are many things, but irresponsible is not one of them.

But What About My [Kids, Car, House, Pets]?

My situation is fairly simple in many ways. Although my fiancee owns a home and part of a business in the UK, we found ways of dealing with them and we don't have kids or pets. The house is co-owned with someone who has an interest in selling it, so it's been on the market and she is willing to handle the hassle of estate agents and all of that. The business had the provision for my partner to take a year off as a sabbatical. We were lucky in this regard.

Part of being able to travel long term is looking at the things in your life that keep you stationary and being realistic about your options. Can you sell or rent your house out? Is it possible to take your child with you on a longer term trip? Do you have people you can trust who would be willing to care for you pet? None of these have easy solutions, but they are also not deal breakers.

A few months before I moved to the UK from Canada, I would have thought it was impossible. I co-owned a house, had pets, had a stable job that I enjoyed ... I felt very much trapped in a life I was completely responsible for building. It wasn't easy, but I managed to find a solution to all of these things - I even found good homes for my pets (who I still miss). I've never had children, but there are plenty of examples of people who undertake travel with babies and children - Lea and John Woodward of the popular Location Independent website are one example of people with a child who are making it work and have devoted an entire section of their website to how it is possible.

But I won't lie to you: there is a transaction that happens when you take on long term travel and you have to sacrifice some things in return for others. Sometimes I miss my lovely London flat and the comfort of being able to predict and control my days. I can't even imagine what this would be like with a child and I have enormous respect for people who manage to find ways to take it on.

The point though is that there are many excuses and very few reasons that long term travel should be impossible for you. If you've decided it's what you want there are a lot of resources out there to help you do what you need to do to get on the road with everything responsibly taken care of.

Hundreds of years ago when many of our ancestors were still living a nomadic life, they were not irresponsible - they still cared for their children, sought out food and shelter and created their own version of community. Choosing to take on long term travel requires a lot of planning and perseverance - just because it also coincides with something that is exciting and fulfilling does not make it crazy, wrong or irresponsible. The question is not whether you can make it work, but how.

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Mary Oliver.