After 30 Countries, I Realize I’ve Barely Traveled

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how i visited 30 countries by age 30Greetings from Aruba, the 30th country on my world travels. I landed yesterday, touching down into a colorful airport with live band jamming next to the baggage carousel.

“Ma’am, are you bringing any alcohol into the country?,” a customs agent asked me.

“No, sir,” I replied.

He scoffed. “You’re no fun.”

I promised myself that I’d travel to 30 countries before turning 30. Aruba is country #30, and I’m visiting just in the nick of time: I’ll turn 30 later this month.

Travel, of course, is a deeper experience than a country-count, so I want to take a moment to explain why I set this goal:

#1: Exploration.
I’m the type of person who will find a “favorite spot” and return again and again. (I have a short list of places that I’ve visited 6-10 times). This goal forces me to explore new countries, rather than just re-visit my old favorites.

#2: Depth.
This goal also forces me to travel slowly, exploring with greater depth. I must spend a minimum of one week in each country for it to “count;” short visits don’t qualify. You can’t get a sense of a place if you’re only there for a few days.

(Even one week is barely-sufficient. I originally wanted to set the goal for “minimum of one month,” but that felt too long, especially for smaller nations. Even still, I aim to spend between 3-4 weeks in most countries that I visit, so that I can sink deeper into the local culture.)

#3: Opportunity.
I live in the era of airplanes and laptops. How cool is that?!

Never in history has travel been so easily available to the masses – especially to those of us who have U.S. citizenship and who are educated enough to be knowledge-workers. This goal reminds me to take advantage of that overwhelming opportunity.

How Going Against the Herd Can Save You Hundreds

Several people have asked me why I chose Aruba as my 30th destination. The obvious answer: Because it’s Aruba. Why wouldn’t I?

our home in aruba

The more nuanced answer:

#1: Cheap Flights.

At $400 for a round-trip ticket (from Atlanta), it’s cheaper to fly to the Caribbean than it is to fly to San Francisco or Seattle.

#2: Cheap Accommodation.

Hotels have massive amounts of overhead: full-time desk and cleaning staff, bookkeepers and accountants, lawyers and legal fees, conference sponsorships and industry association dues. When you stay at a hotel, you’re “taxed” to support that overhead.

Sidestep this by staying at a local’s home. The free route is through Couchsurfing.com, which facilitates cultural exchange by letting travelers stay with local hosts. (I’ve couchsurfed across Europe, Israel and Australia; I’ve also opened my home to couchsurfers from across the globe).

This time, I wanted a private residence, so I rented a gorgeous two-story home with floor-to-ceiling windows, 25-foot vaulted ceilings, exposed wood beams, a zen rock garden and a rooftop patio. Total cost: $60 per night. That’s a splurge; if I were budget traveling, I could stay elsewhere for half that price (or couchsurf for free).

I’m renting it from a Dutch woman who came to Aruba ten years ago to become a scuba-diving instructor. Eventually she decided she wanted a “professional” job, so she snagged an accounting degree and began managing the finances of an Aruban aloe-vera company. She lives next door and runs this vacation rental as her “side gig.”

#3: Low Season.

“But I thought Aruba was expensive!” you might be saying.

Why is everything so cheap? Two words: low season. Most people can’t travel in mid-October: jobs or school confine them. They compete for airfare and accommodation during the holiday season, when all the prices skyrocket.

By cultivating a freedom-packed lifestyle, I can arrive when there’s low demand and take advantage of lower prices. Then I head home before swarms of holiday travelers descend upon a spot.

If you follow the pack, you’ll pay a premium. But if you go against the grain, you can save hundreds.

#4: Strong Internet.

Here’s a cold, hard truth about location independence:

When you earn a living from your laptop, your internet connectivity is your lifeline. And let’s face it: the jungles of Borneo aren’t known for their great wifi hotspots.

When I’m choosing a travel destination, strong and ubiquitous internet connectivity is my first consideration. (Unless, of course, I decide to disconnect completely.)

#5: Fascinating Culture.

Before I started exploring the Caribbean, I imagined this space as “just a bunch of sand and sailboats.” But that’s a gross oversimplification. The culture is a fascinating blend of Dutch, French, Spanish, West African, and a Caribbean flavor that’s entirely of its own.

After I realized this, I explored a half-dozen Caribbean islands. But the more islands I visit, the more I realize that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

That’s why traveling is so addictive. Traveling to 30 countries has made me acutely aware that I’ve seen very little of this world.

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25 Responses to “After 30 Countries, I Realize I’ve Barely Traveled”

  1. Joel @ SaveOutsidetheBox
    01. Oct, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    I dig your style Paula! Congrats on hitting your goal of 30 before 30! I’m interested to know where your 31st travel spot will be. May I suggest South Africa? It’s out of this world awesome!

    • Afford Anything
      01. Oct, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

      @Joel — I’ve wanted to go to South Africa and Lesotho for years. I think I’ve dreamed about going to South Africa / Lesotho ever since I was in high school. It’s high, high on my list of places-to-visit-soon.

  2. Janice@Californian in Exile
    01. Oct, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Wow – I love that you set the goal of 30 countries before your 30th birthday (congratulations on making it, BTW!). And if I had to stay in a country at least one week, then I’ve barely traveled at all – four countries, by your definition. But I do agree, you really can’t get to know a place if you’re only there 2-3 days. That’s why I loved being in Italy this summer. We went all over the country but were there a total of 10 days. It’s the only way to really appreciate a place.

    • Afford Anything
      01. Oct, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

      @Janice — I’m glad you had such a great experience in Italy!! Keep it up. It’s amazing how much you can learn about the rest of the world — and about yourself — by immersing in another land.

  3. Michelle
    01. Oct, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    I love all of the traveling that you do. I’m really hoping to increase this very soon! :)

  4. Lance @ Money Life and More
    01. Oct, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    I liked what I’ve seen of the Caribbean, it is a beautiful place! Unfortunately I’ve only visited it on cruise ships so far which gives you almost no culture and just a few short hours in each stop. Now that I know flights are cheap from Atlanta, we might have to plan a trip in the next few years!

    • Afford Anything
      03. Oct, 2013 at 5:41 am #

      @Lance — Flights from Atlanta are incredibly cheap. $400 is on the high side (probably because Aruba is so close to Venezuela; it’s physically farther away). You can reach Sint Maarten, or Puerto Rico, or Jamaica, for as little as $200 – $250. Just be aware: there’s no baggage allowance; carry-on only.

  5. Emily @ Urban Departures
    01. Oct, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Hi, I just came across your blog today and spent a good part of it reading your posts. What a fascinating and inspiring life you lead! Congratulations on reaching your 30 before 30 goal! I have a similar exploration-depth-opportunity travel philosophy as yours. Every time I travel (well, except when cruising), I plan to remain in a country for at least a week, and how I wish I had the luxury of exploring a country for 3-4 weeks! I am home bound for awhile, so thank you for this post; I can live vicariously through you!

    (and the next destination is..?)

    • Afford Anything
      03. Oct, 2013 at 5:38 am #

      Glad you liked it, Emily! I have no idea where the next destination will be. I’m thinking possibly Colombia — I went there in 2010 and I feel like it’s time for a return visit.

  6. Mike
    02. Oct, 2013 at 5:30 am #

    A very inspiring post and great to see you tick off all 30. Travel really does broaden the mind and we’re looking forward to a lot of it once we reach financial independence…

  7. Grace Savides
    02. Oct, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    I’ve actually been wondering recently about Couchsurfing.com. It sounded cool, but I wasn’t sure if it was sketchy in practice. Glad to hear you’ve had good success with it.

    Every time I come to this blog it make me want to jump in an airplane. What would you say is the country that has surprised you the most in your travels? For better or for worse.

    • Afford Anything
      03. Oct, 2013 at 5:36 am #

      @Grace — I love Couchsurfing.com. I’ve met some amazing people and had great experiences. You can read reviews of hosts/guests on the site, so you have a better idea of who you’re going to meet.

      Myanmar (Burma) surprised me the most, in part because I had no idea what to expect when I went there. It’s beautiful. It’s one of my favorite destinations.

  8. Deia
    03. Oct, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    You made it! You reached your 30-by-30 goal! I’m not surprised it only makes you want to travel more, that seems to be the way it goes for travellers.

    You’ve got great travel tips here, by the way. Thanks!

  9. Michelle
    03. Oct, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    Paula, a huge congrats on achieving your goal. I can’t believe the ticket is so cheap from Atlanta. Would you feel comfortable sharing the rental information? I think that’s where I’ll take my mom for one of our next trips.

    • Afford Anything
      08. Oct, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

      @Michelle — Email me privately and I’ll give you her number. But in general, you can find these deals on VRBO.com, AirBnb.com, and any other website that facilitates peer-to-peer renting (staying at someone’s private house rather than a corporate spot that has a bunch of overhead).

  10. Andrew Hallam
    04. Oct, 2013 at 3:06 am #

    You might be surprised by the jungles of Borneo nowadays Paula. Much as changed. Internet access in the United States is in the dark ages compared to SE Asia. Every little remote chalet and guesthouse in North Thailand last winter (for example) had free Wi-Fi. I’m talking about dives costing $10-$15 per night. It’s much the same in Borneo. U.S. airports are (maddeningly) the only first world airports that seem to charge for Wi-Fi, and baggage carts! Those freaking baggage carts! That drives me nuts. When visiting the U.S. each summer to see my wife’s family, I load myself up like a mule out of spite…I’ll never pay for a baggage cart.

    Great to hear that you’ve taken an awesome trip. Keep us posted!

  11. Tiffany H. @CircusofHumaniT
    04. Oct, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    Well, I guess this answers my question about where you chose for country #30! Happy Birthday month and may the rum be with you. I hope the customs agent part of the story is true. $60 a night sounds like such a deal. Are you finding these types of things on vacation rental sites like VRBO?

    • Afford Anything
      08. Oct, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

      @Tiffany — I found that on Airbnb.com, which is similar to VRBO. (And yes, the customs agent part of the story is 100 percent true) :-)

  12. MakintheBacon
    05. Nov, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    Compared to a lot of people, you’re quite well travelled! :) I usually travel around September because I can’t get time off anyway during the summer due to not having enough seniority at my job. Everyone else already booked summer off.

    Now that the weather is getting colder, the idea of going to somewhere in Caribbean sounds wonderful.

    (I’ve only been to 15 countries).

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