Just Dive In! How to Travel (and Live) Without Regret

A quick spot of Googling told me that it was H. Jackson Brown, Jr. who said “you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did”. I’d never heard of Brown before but I’ve quoted his wise words hundreds of times, and most often when I’m talking about traveling.

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You’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did.

When you’re traveling, you’re faced with constant choices. And more than in any other situation, you often don’t have a chance to come back and try your second choice, because you’ve traveled on further. It’s inevitable that you’ll have some regrets from your travels. I’ve sure got mine. Here’s hoping you can learn something from my examples and at least have a few less regrets than you might otherwise have from your future travels.

Regret #1: Not Traveling More in My Early 20s, or Studying Abroad

I’m only in my early 30s now, but I think that even that decade has made a difference and students have a lot more opportunities to study abroad now. Somehow I got caught up in finishing university and getting a “good” job and a mortgage and then getting a “better” job so I could pay off the mortgage faster. I’d always wanted to travel, but something stopped me, until I was 25 and some amazing light bulb went off in my head and I dropped everything and left.

Sometimes I wish that I’d also used more of those earlier, totally carefree years to travel more. Now that I’m a bit on the settled down side but still have so many traveling dreams, I wonder just how many more of these I could have already fulfilled if I had traveled more often when I was between 18 and 25.

Lesson #1: If you’re lucky enough to be a decade (or more) younger than me, TRAVEL! If you get the chance to study abroad, take it. Pick the most exotic or weird place you can study at and go. You’ll never regret it.

Regrets from Paris © hair in ze soup

Regret #2: Not Eating More Local Food in Vietnam

I’m a bit over-cautious when it comes to eating local food — not because of eating unusual stuff (I’ve done my fair share of that), but because I don’t want to get ill. My first trip to a place where you get warned about drinking the water or eating street stall food was in Vietnam, and I think it was the second night there that I shared a train cabin with a Japanese girl who’d just spent a week in hospital on a drip because she’d got so dehydrated after eating some bad street food. So I avoided it and lived on Vietnamese-French bakery food for most of the trip.

My conservative approach to street food has lessened a bit over time, but there’s still quite a few trips I’ve taken where I’ve wished afterwards that I’d tried more of the local cuisine. Local food teaches you not only to appreciate new dishes (which you can later recreate at home to relive your travels through your taste buds) but it also teaches you about the local culture, and the process of asking about it and eating it often puts you in contact with the locals in a much closer way.

Lesson #2: Be sensible and careful about eating local food, but don’t be over-cautious. And not just about food — being over-cautious in general can really ruin a trip. If you’re too worried about stuff, just stay home.

Regret #3: Not Spending the Cash on a Day Trip to Cairo

In a strange blip on my travel radar, I once spent a week at a resort by the Red Sea. I had just started a new job in Germany and was really low on cash, so I took a day trip to Luxor but declined the chance to go to Cairo as well. It wasn’t just the cash — it would’ve been a really long trip, especially because all vehicles with tourists had to go in a very slow-moving convey for security reasons — but I also was trying to keep a bit of money for my move to Germany.

Today, of course, I know I had enough money, and I know that it costs a whole lot more to get to see the Pyramids from where I’m sitting in Western Australia.

Lesson #3: Don’t spend your entire life savings on traveling, but be prepared to spend money on trips which are important to you. And definitely remember that you may never have the chance again.

Regret #4: Not Learning More Slovak While I Had the Chance

Learning a language as an adult is a horrifyingly difficult task. German comes easy to me because I started learning it as an eight-year-old; Japanese and Slovak, both of which I tried to learn after the age of 25, are extraordinarily difficult.

But no matter how difficult these languages are, it’s a whole lot easier to learn them while you’re living in the country where it’s spoken. And while I think I made a decent effort with Japanese while I lived in Osaka, and still remember a reasonable amount, I regret not making more of an effort to keep up with Slovak classes when I lived in Bratislava. Classes were provided for free by my employer, and I certainly wasn’t so rushed off my feet that I didn’t have time to attend them. Of course, it was pretty easy to tell myself that I wouldn’t need Slovak in the future, but now I have a lot of Slovak and Czech students and friends and would love to be able to use their language more, rather than just picking up one out of every twenty words they say.

Lesson #4: Don’t slack off when you get challenged. I think the real reason I quit learning Slovak was I was too lazy to study a bit at home and I started getting lost in class. But life is about challenges and whether it’s a language or another cultural hobby, it’s really worth sticking to.

Just Dive In, Maldives © notsogoodphotography

Regret #5: Not Being Brave Enough to Go Scuba Diving (Anywhere)

I’m not good with adventure travel. I can mentally go beyond my comfort zone with relative ease, but doing something that’s physically challenging has always been a weak point and you’ll definitely never catch me bungee jumping or skydiving. But one physical activity I think I should have tried more often is getting a scuba diving license.

There’s been no shortage of places I could have done it, and I still could here in Perth. This would have given me a whole new perspective on a lot of destinations and instead of just snorkeling in the Red Sea I could have really got to know what’s under the water.

Lesson #5: Be braver than me. Push your physical limits as well as your mental ones — within reason of course. Please don’t take my advice and turn into one of those adrenalin freaks who gets themselves killed while on holiday. See, there you go, I’m getting anxious already.

What Are Your Regrets?

I’m sure that every traveler has some regrets, mostly because traveling involves a lot of choices. But I’m also sure that non-travelers probably have more regrets, if they’re honest with themselves. One thing that I really noticed when I was traveling, and sending regular email updates out to all my friends, was the number of people who’d reply with a message like, “Thanks for your exciting news, I’m living vicariously through you, since I can’t do what you’re doing”. It used to make me mad that they were missing out on so much and didn’t seem to realize they could change things if they wanted — and I wonder now how many of them regret that.

Whether you regret not going on a trip your friend invited you on, or you regret spending too much time in the internet café emailing your significant other and not enough time out getting to know a new place, or anything in between, let me know in the comments. And if you’re finding it hard to decide whether to go traveling or not, just promise me you won’t make a decision you regret one day.

  1. Nice article. Great to read, too, because reading what you’ve written sounds exactly like what I’ve said to uncountable people when they ask why I’m traveling. The regret quote and “just dive in” sentiment is the basis for the entire “About” page on my blog and has, more or less, a lot to do with why I left in the first place.

    5 months in, I haven’t had too many regrets on the road thus far. Though usually if I do, they’re along the lines of, “Oh, come on, Nathan. Why didn’t you just start talking to those people? There’s nothing to lose.” Conversely, I can’t even imagine how much I’d be kicking myself right now (much less in 20 years from now!) if I didn’t quit my job and take the plunge.

    Thanks! :)

  2. Amanda, you have totally echoed my own feelings about travel. I managed to make it part of my profession to travel to all 391 of America’s national parks (I write books for FalconGuides), and the only things I regret are the things about which I chickened out. Not climbing the last 200 feet to the top of Sentinel Dome (9,100 feet) in Yosemite National Park tops my list of regrets—how ridiculous to suddenly be seized by fear of heights when that 360-degree panorama of the Sierra Mountains came into view! To this day, every time panic grips me as I near a summit, I grit my teeth and say, “Remember Sentinel Dome!” and I keep going. Good for you for facing your own fears (within logical reason)!

  3. What a great post, Amanda! Every one of these lessons applies, not just to travel, but to life in general.

    One of the greatest bits of advice I’ve ever received is that our biggest moments of personal growth come when we put ourselves in uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations. You might be scared, nervous, anxious, etc. in the moment. But you’ll often remember those moments for the rest of your life. Those are the moments that often indelibly change us.

  4. Thanks Nathan, Randi and Mike, glad you enjoyed this post. Now that it’s all written down in solid words I just have to work on remembering these ideas at the right moments!

  5. I laughed when I read that you woke up late – at 25! It took me ’til age 54.I looked up one day and realized I’d spent my life earning money and paying bills and had never done the things I’d always wanted. I walked away from my successful career, strapped on a backpack, and traveled solo around the world for 6 months. I can honestly say that I have no regrets. I almost always travel without reservations (even in Vietnam and Cambodia), leaving my schedule open to pursue opportunities as they arise. I’ve been scuba diving in exotic places and am an avid fan of street food vendors. I usually find I can get good recommendations for local restaurants (not the tourist ones) from my hotel or hostel. I continue to travel and chronicle my journey on my blog: http://holeinthedonut.com – I hope you will stop by to check it out. Happy travels.

  6. That’s a great post and one that everybody should read. I think the whole regret-thing goes beyond just travel, though. We should pursue whatever dreams we have. There’s no reason we should force ourselves to sit on the sidelines of life and think that we’re too old/poor/unintelligent/whatever to accomplish our goals.

  7. Not too late at all, Amanda.

    In fact, although I know you recommend starting out at 18, I think those years are an ideal time for university studies, figuring out who you are, and seeing if you’re the kind of soul who likes being grounded. I can definitely see the appeal of study abroad, but I personally don’t think it’s best to pursue for the entirety of your college experience. At the end of those four (or seven, for some of us) years, you’re that much more educated and prepared to take on the world.

  8. Recently, i have read a book “Karma diagnostics” by Sergey Lazarev. In his words he proved that you can learn as much as if you were travelling sitting in your room and meditating(praying). But different people choose different ways, times, places and have got different passions. In this concept age is not very important.

  9. Excellent article. I’m so glad I decided to study abroad my sophomore year of college, and am excited to live in Galway this summer and explore Ireland. Next year, once I graduate with my degree in film, I’m taking a camera and backpacking Asia for an undisclosed amount of time. So often I get thoughts in my head about why I shouldn’t do it – what if I can get a good job here? What if my friends forget about me and move on? What if I find a girl here that will stop me from traveling? And I think the hardest part of traveling is getting past those doubts. I took them one by one – I decided travel was so much more important to me than a job and money. If my friends are real friends, they’ll be for me every single time I come home – or they’ll come with me! And I’m more likely to find a love interest on the road who shares my passions for traveling. I don’t want to regret anything moving forward.

    One thing I regretted living in Germany during study abroad was not talking to more people – I feel like travel is just as much about getting to know the people in the room or bar stool or train seat next to you as it is seeing new places. There’s no reason to be shy – these people share the same passions you do, you’re bound to hit it off more often than not, and will undoubtedly learn from each person you come in contact with. Yes – I will be much more socially fearless in my travels to come. Thanks again!

  10. I cut my long hair off at 25. To reflect my mature age. Someone should have slapped me. I wasted every single day until I turned 40.
    I had plans to “one day” do all the things I was afraid to. Now those people are dead and the chance is gone forever.

  11. Great post. I don’t have really have any regrets thus far, but I’m trying to do everything to avoid your Regret #1, I’m traveling as much as I can and when I can. Also, I’m always planning a new trip, this is a lifestyle.

  12. Great post and comments, I am so happy I took the leap and did a study abroad in college, it was a scary experience, but changed my life forever only in good ways. It also sparked my total love of travel, and now have just started my own blog!

  13. Let me see, we are 66 and 67 and did not start full time travel until 2014. 1. Should have started when I was 20 as you did. 2. Not going to Luxor and the White Desert in Egypt so now I have to go back. 3. Going to Israel and not being able to go to Petra so now I have to go back. Visiting Mongolia for 90 days and not seeing it all so now I have to go back. This list could get endless so I will cut it short. I should have started earlier and done a better job at times.

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