My advice to travelers? Get lost


Just go.

I wish someone had told me that when I was 22 and starting my career as a consumer advocate.

Just go. Take a gap year. Follow your passion. Have an adventure.

I had my opportunity. A scrappy travel magazine offered me a summer internship after I graduated. Not a typical summer job. When I landed in Juneau, I’d be issued a backpack, a tent, and a laptop computer. My assignment: To find and report human interest stories in remote Alaskan fishing villages.

I turned down the job in favor of a safer gig at a financial newswire. Sadly, the magazine folded a few years later.

I regretted the summer I never was able to spend exploring the last frontier. Looking back, I would’ve told my 22-year-old self: “Go for it. What do you have to lose?”

But opportunity came knocking again a few years later, on a mid-career academic scholarship. I found myself in post-Cold War Germany with the unexpected security of a regular stipend, subsidized housing, and inexpensive transportation.

I could have traveled anywhere — to Spain, Norway or Russia. Instead, I stayed in Frankfurt most of the year.

It was still a good year, but it could’ve been so much better. If only I’d looked adventure squarely in the eye and said, “I accept the challenge.”

But it wasn’t until I became a consumer advocate specializing in travel cases that my regret deepened. That’s when I began fielding questions from readers who had made the same mistakes I had, but on a bigger scale and with longer-lasting consequences. These were the hard-working folks who, like me, yearned to travel, but postponed their trips for too long.

They needed a sure thing. Instead of taking a gap year, they found employment. They married and had kids and vacationed infrequently. They saved for retirement, hoping to maybe embrace the nomadic lifestyle after they collected their safe pension checks.

Many of them successfully spent their golden years crisscrossing America in an RV or sailing around the world.

But for some, it was too late. They’d run down the clock. They were no longer able to hike into the Grand Canyon, or spend an afternoon strolling through Paris, or swim in the surf in Maui. They were in walkers and wheelchairs.

Immobilized by chronic illness, they spent what should’ve been their traveling years in rest homes, waiting for the end.

And I know, because they turned to me for help with a refund on that nonrefundable airline ticket or for a do-over on that dream cruise, even when they weren’t insured.

That’s one of the reasons I gave up my safe job as a syndicated radio host several years ago, turned my back on a column at a prestigious newspaper, and told my family: “No more waiting. Let’s go now.”

Travel enriches you. It enlightens you. Travel makes you a better person.

I wanted my children to be better people. I wanted to be a better person, too.

So if I could talk to my 22-year-old self, I would say, “Chris, get lost. Go to Alaska. See where that takes you.”

I’d say, “If you’re ever in Europe for a year, get out and explore. Be a gypsy. Meet new people. Learn a couple of languages.”

By the way, I finally took my own advice. For the last five years I’ve been on an open-ended trip around the world with my family. I went all in, taking my children out of school and enrolling them in a virtual education program. I downsized my earthly possessions and packed everything into a suitcase.

It’s been an incredible experience. And I know the best is yet to come.

This is from a commencement speech I wrote for a LinkedIn project. Not that anyone would ever ask me to give a commencement speech, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Fishplate

    When I was 22, I had a Volkswagen Campmobile and no place to be. I took your advice, and had an adventure…and then another, and another. Didn’t cost much in those days.

    Since then, getting lost is my usual standard of vacation planning. Go somewhere with the first night and the last planned, and then let Nature take its course.

  • Nigel Appleby

    Just what I’ve beeb sayng for years. Before I retired as an insurance broker I saw way too many people who had saved hard to travel during their retirement and something happened. By the way we started following my own advice years ago, long before retirement and are still doing so.

  • VoR61

    I too have enjoyed travel since becoming an empty nester. Nothing on the scale you’ve experienced, but about 3/4 of the states and over 250 places.

    But none of that has compared to the gifts I’ve been given in my parents, wife, children, and grandchildren. A lotta tough times, and more than my fair share of flaws and failures. Woulda, coulda, shoulda …

    All the travel in the world wouldn’t be enough in trade for the love and laughter I’ve received from all of them. And watching my children/grandchildren grow is a daily privilege. I have the best job on the planet.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see the Great Wall of China, the castles of Germany, the canals of Venice, and much more. Much more though, I “got lost” in the amazing world of my family: the wonderment of holding my grandchildren, or hearing my daughter say thanks as only she can; finding new ways to bless my beautiful bride; or just hearing the words Dad or Grampa.

    So, I would certainly tell my 22 year old self to wise up. To lose the arrogance that would get me in so much trouble. But the path I did take has led to more adventure than all the trips a man could take. And yes, the best IS yet to come, and I can hardly wait …

  • omgstfualready

    My ex was raised kinda like that and he grew into an adult that hated change and only craved a stable existence and it was next to impossible to get him to travel (even changing the furniture in a room was a fight).

  • ChristinasCucina

    Well said. I spent 9 weeks in Europe one summer during college. I told my boss (at a photo lab) I needed 9 weeks off, and he said, “no” so I told him I quit. He realized it was better to have me back after 9 weeks than never, so he let me have the time off. One of the best things I ever did, and I was able to visit Sicily, which was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, yet have not been able to return to exactly due to all the reasons you posted above. I wrote about visiting Sicily and posted old pics in my Arancini recipe on my blog.

  • Jeff Kolker

    A quote to live by…..

    “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

    I can testify to the sentiment….

  • Dutchess

    Having a lot of immediate and extended family in Europe meant we traveled a lot. I was 17 when I took my first solo adventure abroad. We had just spent a couple weeks with family and I convinced my parents that I wanted to stay longer and go to Paris, alone, for 2 weeks after they went home. I promised to call my uncle (in Holland) every day to check in and they conceded.

    I took the train to Paris from my family’s house in Holland and found a hotel. This is back when you could show up at the train station and go to a little booth in the reception hall and they would find you a hotel. I scored a bed at a family owned hotel at the foot of the Sacré Coeur. I was very excited, and a little nervous to be on my own in a foreign country for the first time with no chaperon.

    I arrived a little late but decided to walk up to the Sacré Coeur and explore my neighborhood a little. Not knowing the city I walked a little bit too far and ended up in the red light district where I was hounded by barkers trying to get me to go into strip clubs, prostitutes were grabbing my arm and trying to pull me aside or into one of the many adult movie houses on the strip. I was overwhelmed and I went back to my hotel frightened and wanting to go home. But I didn’t give up, I gave myself a pep talk and said I wouldn’t let the city get the best of me. It is still one of my most memorable trips ever. I still remember the hot chocolate and the fresh baguette with butter the hotel delivered to my room each morning. I remember seeing the Louvre and Versailles for the first time and the view from the Eiffel Tower. From that moment on I was hooked on travel and can’t get enough.

  • naoma

    When I was 9 I told my Mother I’d see the world. She said “no one from here ever goes anywhere.” Tiny hick town in western Pennsylvania. She lived to see me travel a lot but “If she could see me now…” (like the song – I’ve been everywhere I ever wanted to go). Follow your dreams. And I now “repeat my favorites.”

  • Dcochran3

    My daughter Lisa spent one semester in France finishing college and thoroughly enjoyed the “foreign” experience. Years later she decided when her daughter was about 6 that she would raise her in France for a few years to get an international view of the world. They lived on a Buddhist commune in Limoges for two years, took trips everywhere. Then finished with a year in Normandy. Time will tell the value.

  • omgstfualready

    I live in a tiny hick town in western PA and you’re right! I am not from here and people think I’m always on the go when I’m not even close to traveling as much as I’d like (work and no money keeps me grounded, literally).

  • pplaresilly

    In 1978 when I was 16 yrs old my mother put me and my 14 yr old cousin on a Greyhound Bus from Pittsburgh PA to Los Angeles CA. It took two and a half days and was the best cross country trip of my life!!!!! That was truly an experience that can not be compared to any other trips/vacations/walkabouts that I have taken these past 36 years.

  • Christopher Elliott

    My parents did almost exactly the same thing to me in 1983. Amazing experience!

  • Name

    I was lucky to leave home when I was 22, only Minneapolis to Denver but it allowed me to spend the rest of my life doing whatever I pleased because I knew it would all work out.

  • Travelnut

    I think we all look wistfully on the things we didn’t have or didn’t get to do… “the road less traveled”.

    My parents did travel some but most of their vacation days they had to use to travel back to our home state of Alabama to see relatives. In 1994, they took their longest vacation ever – three weeks. They came back so happy that they did it. About six months later, my dad had an accident that incapacitated him until his death in 2003. They never traveled again. That is what taught me the lesson to travel as much as I can now, while I’m still young and healthy – you never know when you might never travel again. I’ve been to 20 countries so far in Europe, South America, and the Carribbean islands, and next month will be the 21st (Scotland). Still lots of places on the bucket list. I didn’t intern in a foreign country but I did move from Texas to Washington D.C. after college, for five years, and I did travel quite a bit in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.

    I’ve been to Frankfurt several times. Nice enough place to live but not much touristy to do there. I hope you at least got to Wiesbaden.

  • KetchumResident

    When I was a kid in Buffalo, NY, I couldn’t wait to get outta town. I was accepted into a college year abroad program at Oxford University, England, and at age 19, embarked upon the Great European Tour. What a blast! Travel is surely one of the best experiences of a lifetime.

  • Gringolitis

    Wow, I did go on my adventure. This was back in the early 70s. I had graduated from college, was living the high life in Manhattan, but was dissatisfied. While keeping my full time job, I got my taxi license and drove three times a week, Friday night, and Saturday/Sunday days. First, that in itself was an adventure, but I saved my money, bought a new Fiat to be picked up in Torino, Italy, and traveled Europe and Morocco for 14 fabulous months, with my girlfriend. I was 23 when we started, and it changed my life forever. At the time, I didn’t understand what various retired American and Euro couples we met who said, “Boy, we wish we had done the same thing at your age.” Now I know. Wound up getting jobs that had me living overseas for 15 years, and then traveling internationally constantly.