HOW TO MASTER YOUR TRAVEL FEARS

I will confidently state every person who has dreamed of throwing it all in and disappearing into the world has a moment where they question themselves and likely every decision they have made that led to that point. I would also confidently state, for the vast majority of dreamers, this is the moment their dreams sink and drown, weighed down by an anchor of excuses. 

Even when the world delivers an almost perfect set of circumstances, removing all major obstacles, we must still face the final boss; fear. That sneaking, creeping emotion worming its way into the best laid plans, creating doubt and desperately grasping for something it can use to lock us into our comfort zone. 

Here is a list of the fears that will stop you from travelling if you let them. Have a read to make sure you are walking out the door with your bags packed, ready to face your new adventure. 

The Unknown

Starting with the big one! The Unknown. The What If Factor. The endless list of things that could happen. 

This is what will prevent most people from following through. Though there may be a huge list of excuses, more often than not these are masking the fear of the unknown. It is why people visit the same place over and over again, convincing themselves they go because they like it. It is what keeps people doing the same job over and over, even when they’re unhappy. It is what stops people from stepping out of their comfort zone and really seeing something new and interesting, even if they have always desired it. People are bloody weird.

Solo travel can be one of the most rewarding experiences

This is a legitimate fear and one that everyone must deal with. No matter who it is, I guarantee they have had a moment where they once hesitated because of uncertainty. The best way to minimise a fear of the unknown is preparation and confidence. 

  • Do your research. Know where you are going and what to expect. There are a lot of resources available, such as this blog, that can help you prepare. Who’d be foolish enough to take three pairs of jeans to Thailand in the middle of summer? Definitely not me. OK maybe me, but that was a long time ago. Learn from my mistakes. 
  • Early accommodation: I generally have my first few nights accommodation booked, at least. It saves me a lot of stress. 
  • Airport transfer. Especially if the flights are long and I can’t speak the local language. It is one less thing to think about when you first land in a strange country. 
  • Understand that all new experiences start here. Forgive yourself for being uncertain, but do not let those uncertainties stop you. Others have done it, why can't you?

Eventually you will be comfortable with more unknowns, with travelling slowly, and leaving more to chance. The only thing you can do is take the plunge, for better or worse. Those motivational posters are not wrong. In the end, we will only regret the chances we did not take. 

Being Alone

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
— Nelson Mandela

Solo travel is one of the most rewarding experiences you can undertake, yet also one of the most daunting when you first start out. Being alone is not scary in itself, but what can be scary is knowing you have only yourself to rely on, and if you’re anything like me, you may occasionally wish for someone a little more reliable on hand. 

Travelling alone can be life changing and the only way to truly see if you like it or not is to do it. You get to do what you want, when you want. You can stay in for a day if you choose, or stay out all night. You can change your plans whenever you feel for no other reason than you want to. You will learn a lot about yourself, not only your own ability, but you will return feeling confident and successful. 

There may be times when you feel lonely, but you do not have to stay alone for long. There are fellow travellers and friendly locals across the globe who are always keen to meet new people. Walk into any hostel or backpackers and you will make friends. 

Everything Going Wrong

No bullshit, bad times can happen. Travel, especially travel on a local level where you really get to know the culture, can be uncomfortable, intense and scary, but it doesn’t always have to be. You cannot force everything to go perfectly, but what you can do is make sure your attitude towards it doesn’t bring the whole trip down or stop it from ever happening. I have always found there are more good times than bad, or I wouldn't keep doing it. 

However, if things do turn a little sour, bad times usually make for good stories. If you listen to a group of travellers swapping tales, you’ll inevitably hear a few themes pop up; that time they got a tummy bug right before a six hour bus ride, the time they caught the wrong train and ended up on the shady side of town and didn’t know how to get back, or the time they had all their stuff stolen and didn’t change their undies for three days while they waited for money. 

Fear of Flying

Nervous flyer? I get it. I used to be as well. You have no control over this monstrous vehicle as it gathers tremendous speed and launches itself into the air, soaring thousands of feet above the ground. To top it off, if something happens there is literally nothing you can do. Yes. I know all about it. 

I got over my fear of flying by doing two things; schooling myself on hard facts, and learning to push myself out of my emotional fear loop. 

Some facts: 

  • Turbulence won’t bring a plane down. It is only annoying. That is it. You can bump around all you want but the plane will stay in the air. If it makes you nervous and you want to experience the least amount of turbulence, fly in the morning and get a seat over the wings. The ground hasn’t heated in the morning, so there is less rising air and seats over the wings generally get tossed around the least.
  • Driving is way scarier than flying a plane. People do not believe this because they know how to drive and when they do, they’re in control. However, drivers do not go through anywhere near the amount of training pilots do, and other people on the road generally drive like assholes.  
  • Your plane won’t fall apart in midair. It can lose parts, panels and an engine, it will stay flying. Only catastrophic damage to the plane will bring it down and the likelihood of that happening are so minute to be laughable. 
  • The chances of something going wrong are incredibly small. Tiny. Microbial. You are more likely to get struck by lightning. Do you walk around scared of being struck by lightning? I hope not. 

When I was getting over my fear of flying, I started to look at what I was thinking when I was getting scared. Generally, I was starting out tense. You know what I was really afraid of? The fear. I wasn't so much afraid of flying, I was anxious about how the fear of flying would make me feel. A fear of fear. 

So, as the plane was taking off, I was waiting for every tiny little bump or tilt, and with it I felt the pending fear. I began to be more afraid of the fear.

I tried breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. They helped, kinda. But in the end, I had to use the mental equivalent of blunt force trauma. As soon as I started getting anxious, I mentally grabbed myself and screamed “stop being such a fucking crybaby. This is not you”. With some surprise, I found this worked for me. Avoid yelling out loud obviously. People on planes prefer you don't yell obscenities at yourself. 

However you do it, stop overthinking it. There is absolutely no point in going over every possible thing that can go wrong. You have to stop yourself from getting caught in those loops. I know it is easier said than done, however there is a wealth of information available written by people who have dedicated their lives to facing this fear. 

Getting lost 

One would think, having travelled a reasonable amount and moved cities so many times during my life, that I would be adept at navigating cities. Embarrassingly, this is not the case. I get so excited at being in a new place, I throw my bags into my room, slam the door shut, and run down the street with a look of blissful delight on my stupid face. When it comes time to return, I find one shoe store looks as bland to me as another, and streets which look familiar, actually aren't. 

Again, the key is simple preparation tips. 

  • Use Google Maps to save all the key points in the area. Here is some information on this and downloading offline maps
  • Get your hotel or hostel to write down the address and directions in the local language. Keep this safe! Remember though, not all taxi drivers are able to read. This isn't their fault. 
  • Walk in circles around where you are staying and make note of some landmarks, such as coffee shops, cheese stores, and dodgy alleyways. Get to know the area. Take it from me, it is rather embarrassing asking for directions to a place you are standing out front of. 
  • Keep track of how far you travel when you leave. If you know you walked for twenty minutes in one direction, it makes sense it would be similar when returning. 

Once you have a fair idea of how to get back, then you are free to wander and explore. You will often find the best places to see are off the main trails, and sometimes it takes a bit of getting lost to find them. 

Cultural Differences

When I was young I was taught it was rude to rest your elbows on the table. I still did it, because its a stupid rule from when tabletops weren't nailed down, so resting your weight on it could be disastrous for the dinner the kitchen staff had laboured over all day. Yes, in my fantasy past, I had kitchen staff who cook for me. 

The sheer number of these cultural rules would be impossible for visitors to learn, much less understand. I also assume some of our neighbours could rest their elbows on the table without getting clobbered with a wooden spoon, proving there are individual differences as well. 

You will never be learn all the cultural rules, but you should make an effort to learn major ones and understand the basis for them. Once you are in the country, it helps to follow what the locals are doing, and to keep your eyes open. For example, if shoes have been left outside, takes yours off before you enter. 

Foreign Languages

You hear stories of how Parisians will ignore you unless you can speak perfect French. I have never found that to be the case. In actual fact, I found people in Paris to be reasonable in the way of most cities, where they are generally too busy to deal with a backpacker trying to buy 6 kilograms of cheese.

When travelling to a new country, you should spend a few minutes learning some of the local language. You should be able to learn common pleasantries in a few minutes of online searching. Write them down in a simple list along with "Sorry, I do not understand", "Where is a toilet?", "I need a taxi" and "I would like a double scotch, neat". 

You will get further with locals if you make an effort, not only to speak the few words you know, but also to learn. If someone uses a term, ask them what it means and add it to your small vocabulary. Attitudes towards you change when people see you want to learn more about them. 

You will inevitably run into a situation where you will be surprised by cultural differences, or language will be a barrier, but a good attitude, some understanding, and a bit of interpretive dance will go a long way. 

Getting Hurt or Worse

I have had conversations with people who refuse to do risky things, such as leap out of planes, ice climb into a crevasse on a glacier, or travel to places that do not have 'adequate' hospital facilities. In fairness, many of these people have adult responsibilities that make me scream "SMOKE BOMB" and dive out an open window. I believe there are too many things to experience in this world to limit yourself by worrying too much about injury. 

I do have some recommendations. Travel insurance should be an essential component of your holiday plans. Ensure you are covered in the event of a medical emergency. I have more information on Travel Insurance here. Mitigate risk as you normally would. Maybe avoid trying snake handling with king cobras in a tiny village without a hospital. You should be aware of your surroundings, including the weather. Read reviews, and check on safety records. Know your own limits, but be prepared to push yourself a little. Weigh up the risks before you do anything silly, like getting on a leaking, overcrowded ferry during a hurricane if you cannot swim. 

Getting Scammed or Robbed

I grew up in New Zealand, one of the safest, least corrupt countries in the world, which means every place I visit is more dangerous or corrupt than home. I have had to change the way I think. 

Simple fact, you are probably going to get scammed, if you haven't already. Whether it be a taxi ride costing double what it should or an official at an airport charge you a 'fine' for something he made up on the spot. Minimise the chances of this happening by being aware of the local scams and staying alert. For example, ask the hotel how much it should cost to get a taxi from the airport, and never leave your bags unattended, or let anyone touch them. 

You can minimise the chances of being robbed by taking some practical steps and being alert:

  • Be careful at night. Yeah, I know. I have all the best advice. 
  • Look poor and hide your toys. Do not walk around with your expensive camera hanging from your neck. I know it is more convenient, but it screams "I'm a tourist, please take away all my nice things."
  • Walk like a local. Be confident, even when you are uncertain. If you are lost, do not show it. Act like you want to know the fastest way to get somewhere, rather than looking like a puppy out in the rain. 
  • Act like a local. Pay attention. Are they carrying packs on their backs? Do they leave phones on the table? Are they cautiously watching anyone close to them? Use this information to adapt how you act.
  • Watch for pick pockets and know how they work. Be careful when people bump into you, or spill something on you. Be aware of things being placed on you, like a scarf or an animal. Know where your wallet is and do not finger it constantly. Wear tighter clothing or carry a money belt. 

Important note: if you are robbed, think of your own personal safety first

If it does happen, you can minimise the impact in a few ways. I have two bank cards and I keep them in separate places along with emergency cash. Lock valuables in a safe and only carry what you need. If you are going out on the town, carry cash. Have a decoy wallet and phone. Make sure you have a back up plan and keep the phone number to your bank handy so you can cancel any lost or stolen credit cards promptly. 

Running Out of Money

People often worry about running out of money while they are away. Avoid this by doing good research, have a budget plan, and add in contingency. 

If you have a trip planned and you know your itinerary, you can consider prepaying as much as possible. While it may not save you money, it can take the stress away if you have accommodation, travel and perhaps meals prepaid. You do, however, run the risk of cancellation fees if you make any changes. 

Budget tips: Don't spend all your money. If you are spending too much, stop. Know what is expensive before you land. Often it is alcohol. If you want to drink, stash some in your pack before you fly. Next is often food. Shop at supermarkets and find some good cheap meals. Rice, tuna and veges. Make lots. Take some with you for lunch. Leave buying presents til the end of the trip.  

If you do start going over budget, you should make a list of cheap activities. There are usually free tours, city walks, gardens or public buildings that are free or very cheap to do. There is no shame in being cheap if you are travelling on a budget, especially if you are travelling for a while. It can make months worth of difference to the length of your trip. 

Homesickness

You will probably get homesick. I know I do. I miss my family and my friends. I miss coffee from the local cafe. Most of all, I miss my bed. Unfortunately, there isn't much to be done about it. The reality is, you will probably miss home sometimes, in between all the Instagram snaps and Facebook posts showing how amazing you and your life is the reality is travel isn't glamorous all the time. 

Luckily for us in the digital age, we can use the magic of technology to contact home at almost any time. Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, whatever you choose. You can now contact home and chat with them whenever you want. Be warned though. some people aren't very sympathetic to homesickness if you wake them at three in the morning because you felt lonely while sipping an espresso at a cafe in Paris. 

Failure

If you are planning a long trip away, there is always the possibility of failure. Whether you burned through too much of your money buying rounds in Patong, or missed your puppy Schnauzer too much and wanted cuddles, there is the chance you will head home much earlier than expected. It happens. While it may be that long term travel isn't for you, I sincerely recommend holding out as long as possible before making the choice to go home. 

In the end, I would ask myself one question; in the years to come, will you regret going home? If the answer is yes, then try stay. Ride it out for as long as you can. If you still leave, then you will at least have given it a good attempt and, if you choose to try again, you will have experience and know what to expect. 

Whoever you are, wherever you come from, if you are being held back from travelling by your fears, do something towards getting past them. Do not let them stop you from living the life you wanted. Happy travelling everyone!