This is what we do: My husband monitors travel sites and email subscription services for super-cheap flights or error fares. Sometimes one of us travels for work and the other tags along. When we find a good deal, we make a split-second decision—because great airfares don’t last long—and then start planning. We’re both freelance writers, so we have some flexibility in terms of scheduling. We watch hotel prices, and often book rooms using points, free nights and other discounts. We plan carefully, and if we decide that a trip might involve stops in multiple cities, we price our transportation options. We check exchange rates on currency. We read up on attractions, look for deals, and seek out free walking tours.
In the past few years, we’ve been to mountains, beaches, massive cities and isolated towns you could speed through in a blink. We’ve been all over the U.S. and to a dozen or so countries. That means long flights, wandering dazedly through strange places, sometimes not knowing what or where we’ll be eating next or exactly when we’ll make it to our next destination. But it also means volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and warm friendly strangers from all over the world.
And it means memories we’ll treasure forever. Our friends think it’s kind of kitschy, but my husband, Mike, and I collect magnets from the places we go. We arrange them on the side of the fridge that faces our table in the kitchen, so that when we’re sitting together we can see the collection, which reminds us of some of our happiest times.
With us, travel is always interesting. I am not a flexible person. I like to eat, work and exercise all at the same times, every day. Historically I haven’t reacted particularly well to disruptions in my schedule. Mike is not a planner. He functions best on the fly. His spontaneity can be annoying—to me, it seems ridiculous how his laissez-faire approach to any given day somehow results in eventual productivity. But when we’re exploring somewhere new, it works. Together we’ve tracked down a lost laptop on a bus in the Irish countryside, figured out how to change a tire on a French minivan and found our way when we were dumped into the rippling masses of humanity in Tokyo’s city center.
On each trip I’ve taken, I’ve been surprised by new places and the people I’ve met there. I’ve learned something different every day—sometimes every hour, and sometimes even more frequently than that. And every time I come back home, I’m even more convinced that travel is, without a doubt, the best investment you can make.
Some part of the benefit is purely financial. There are experiences and lessons you learn on the road that can be directly applied to business and investment. You witness firsthand new trends, or the way old trends have shown up in new places, or the way some trends seem nearly universal. You see for yourself new styles of clothing, where young professionals are shopping, which brands are popular in different places. In some countries, you need only to scan a busy street to get a clear sense of what might soon be popular in the U.S., and which American exports might be the next big thing somewhere else. (In Portugal, we were surprised when a woman in her 20s told us how much she loves Guy Fieri.)
If you’re looking to invest in a specific product or market, keeping an eye on how an idea is received outside our country gives a good indication of just how scalable it is. You’ll also see up close how politics or various laws affect an area’s economy, like legal marijuana in Colorado or legal prostitution in Amsterdam. You can also peruse real estate listings—there’s no better way to get a sense of a place’s property values than by visiting in person. You never know when you might discover a great investment opportunity, whether it’s a potential vacation home in a seldom-visited tropical paradise or a loft in a busy city that you might want to flip or rent out.
If you’re interested in the restaurant business, this is the perfect chance to note what thrives overseas, be it individual dishes, types of cuisine or certain franchises. Observant travelers probably could have predicted the rising food trends like raw fish salads otherwise known as poke or Halal food. Or food trucks, which are all over Europe now. Think about sushi: Fifty years ago, most Americans didn’t even know what it was; now it’s so ubiquitous you can buy it in grocery stores. The best way to identify the next sushi is to see it for yourself.
Of course, the investment in travel goes well beyond money. There’s a reason the word worldly is equated with sophistication and wisdom, and why memoirs featuring travel (e.g., Eat, Pray, Love) are so popular. Mark Twain once said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Learning about other cultures and individuals doesn’t just teach universal lessons and introduce us to new ways of thinking, it creates common ground. It can literally calm you. In 2013 the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported a study that found students who traveled abroad showed increases in positive personality traits, including openness to experience and emotional stability.
Unfamiliar moments help us grow. That’s how we acquire new habits, new tastes in food, and new interests we might take back home and share with those around us. Learning to be curious about and gain knowledge from people will aid you in every aspect of your life. Figuring out how to communicate with strangers with whom you have no common tongue will not only aid you in your navigations of their country, but in your personal life, too. And those skills translate directly into the office or boardroom. Good communication is important regardless of the setting or language.
Traveling also affords space to dream. A 2015 article in The Atlantic titled “For a More Creative Brain, Travel” argued that traveling and soaking up foreign experiences increases cognitive flexibility, an important part of creativity. And it makes sense: When you’re away from your daily to-do list, when you know an auto-response is catching your emails, your perspective changes. You’re surrounded by newness; you’re inundated with sights, sounds and smells you’ve never experienced before. Time seems to slow. And it gives your brain the chance to make connections that you might never make at home. You can see long-term projects in an all-new light.
And then there are the memories. Everywhere we go, we take photos with our cameras but also with our minds. When the day-to-day grind seems stressful, we can close our eyes and go back to that rocky landscape in Iceland, back to that quaint green pasture in Ireland, back to a moment we had in a restaurant in Barcelona. We also have our collection of magnets, something that reminds us of better times and better places.
It might seem silly, but when we look at the refrigerator, we actually feel closer. This has been examined by professionals: A study from the U.S. Travel Association reported that relationships between couples who travel together last longer. There’s a bond of trust that forms when your spouse is the only person you know in an entire country. Traveling has deepened our partnership and our understanding of each other. It’s taught us how to work together.
A lot of that working together comes in handy when we’re faced with the most challenging (and, ultimately, most rewarding) part of traveling: problem-solving.
In the fall of 2014, my not-yet-husband and I had been together awhile and were starting to seriously consider marriage.
It was at this stage of our relationship that we were careening down the left side of the road through parts of the United Kingdom that managed to be both rural and full of other cars. My husband was driving; I was watching the curb to make sure that he didn’t get too close to it. We’d just nervously embarked on our first big trip together.
The internet will tell you that it’s easy to drive on the other side of the road. You’ll have no problem, the internet says.
The internet is lying. Mike popped our rental car’s left front tire 15 minutes after we drove off the lot in what can best be described as an epic curb check. It sounded like a shotgun blast. We got out of the car and looked at the tire. Cars whooshed by us.
We began to panic. After a few minutes, though, we realized we wouldn’t be stranded on the side of the road forever: Eventually we’d figure something out. Mike went back into the car and sat in a catatonic state while I ran up my international phone bill—and was finally able to get someone on the line. That led to finding a towing company, which collected our battered vehicle and brought it to a shop for repair. This was incredibly stressful at the time, but the drama was almost immediately forgotten when later that evening we were relaxing by a fire in the ornate drawing room of a bed-and-breakfast in the Welsh countryside.
Another time my husband left a bag on an Irish bus, and we went through the same type of steps: panic, figuring out what to do, solving the problem, forgetting all about that initial stress and congratulating ourselves over drinks.
The team-building and problem-solving inspired by these chaotic moments can be life-changing. Whether it’s a lost bag or a popped rental car tire or getting lost in a Japanese rail station and realizing that, no matter how long you stare at the sign, you cannot read Japanese writing. Tribulations while traveling trigger a kind of on-your-feet thinking that doesn’t surface much in everyday life. After all, you’re in a strange place, surrounded by strangers. Nothing could be further from your comfort zone.
Weirdly, though, it feels kind of… good. It’s rewarding. It’s like this particular kind of problem-solving activates a part of your brain that, while going through the routines of your everyday back-home life, you don’t often get a chance to use. Sometimes this sort of problem-solving demands a little creativity; often it requires communication. But tapping into this no-holds-barred kind of critical thinking opens your mind. And you’ll find that, once you get back home, you’ll be more eager to think critically about the problems around you and discover surprising solutions.
My husband and I have such a good time traveling, I’ve learned, not despite our differences but because of them. Yes, I’m the uptight stressed one, and he’s the infuriatingly open-to-whatever one. But fortunately, we’re able to blend our personalities to create the perfect tourist. As I often explain to Mike, being flexible is not the same thing as not having a plan. Before we leave to travel, we (and by “we” I mean “mostly me”) compile detailed lists, with addresses and maps, of attractions and sights to see. Then he reads the list and does additional background research, so we know everything we’d like to see or accomplish in any given place and a little about where we are. The formula for a good trip is one part planning and one part flexibility.
And this applies to everyday life, traveling or not. The more I travel, the more I learn flexibility. The more he travels, the more my husband sees how life can run a little more smoothly with a plan.
When it comes down to it, the most important investment you make when you travel is in yourself. Taking yourself out of your usual setting can show you a lot about what you need, what you value and how you act in new situations. You’ll learn what you miss most about home and what you’ve often been taking for granted.
So if you want to improve yourself, if you want to improve the way you think and what you know about the world and how close you feel to the people around you, do yourself a favor. Do some research and book a trip. Just don’t forget to bring home a magnet.
Written by Tara Nieuwesteeg