Vagabonding by Rolf Potts: Summary, Lessons, and Notes

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“The value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport when you get home — and the slow nuanced experience of a single country is always better than the hurried, superficial experience of forty countries.”

Rating: 8/10

Related: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day

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Short Summary

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts is a good primer on long-term travel. Contains actionable advice on all stages of a trip: before leaving, on the road, adjusting to long-term travel, and returning home. A must-read book if you want to take time off from your normal life to travel the world on your own terms.

Getting Started

Vagabonding: taking an extended time-out from your normal life to travel the world on your own terms. It begins when you stop making excuses and start saving money

“Constructive quitting”: negotiating with your employer for special sabbaticals and long-term leaves of absence

Simplify your life for vagabonding:

  1. Stop expansion. Don’t add any new possessions to your life
  2. Rein in your routine. Live more humbly and invest the difference into your travel fund
  3. Reduce clutter. Downsize what you already own (and sell it to make extra money)

The goal of preparation is not knowing exactly where you’ll go but being confident nonetheless that you’ll get there. Your attitude is more important than your itinerary.

“The value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport. The slow, nuanced experience of a single country is always better than the hurried, superficial experience of forty countries.”

Traveling solo gives you complete independence. This inspires you to meet people and find experiences that you normally wouldn’t have sought. You can always hook up with other travelers for a few days/weeks as you go.

Traveling with someone allows you to share the challenges and triumphs of travel and save money. Go on short road trips with your potential partner before you go vagabonding together.

Travel with a small bag and carry as little as possible.

If you think you have just enough money to travel for six months, plan on traveling for four months.

On the Road

Slow down on your first days on the road. Ease into your travels.

The secret to staying intrigued on the road is: Don’t set limits.

Life on the road:

  • Independent-travel circuits provide a built-in support group and are a great place to start
  • If in doubt about what to do in a place, just start walking through your new environment
  • Don’t make too many arrangements at once as it stunts your spontaneity. Only make advance reservations for one trip at a time
  • Wash your own clothes with shampoo. Bring a small bungee cord to use as a drying line
  • Rooms are easy to find so don’t bother with reservations. Exceptions: local festivals, high tourist season, or when you’re arriving at night
  • Never check into a room without asking to see it first
  • Don’t put your bags into the trunk of a taxi, as this is often used as a bargaining chip by dodgy taxi drivers
  • Pre-trip immunizations are vital

Bargaining:

  • You can negotiate almost everything
  • Let the merchant make the first offer — and don’t respond by offering half the price and haggling from there
  • Instead, see if the merchant will make another, lower offer before you start making bids
  • Never offer a price on an item and then refuse to pay it

Meet Your Neighbors

Vagabonding revolves around the people you meet on the road — and the attitude you take into these encounters can make or break your entire travel experience.

To know how to conscientiously spend money on the road, watch what the locals do.

Be sure to carry photos of yourself, your hometown, and your family to show to people on the road.

How to bridge the “language gap”:

  • Speak slowly, simply, and clearly
  • Be patient and try to figure out mispronounced words from the context of what is being said
  • Compliment anyone brave (and helpful) enough to try his or her English on you
  • Develop a knack for cross-cultural small talk
  • Commit a few words and phrases of the local language to memory

Get into Adventures

Travel in a way that adventures find you. To do so, you need to overcome the protective habits of home and open yourself up to unpredictability. To do things you normally wouldn’t consider.

Food:

  • If you can cook it, boil it, or peel it, you can eat it — otherwise, forget it
  • Look for establishments with lots of customers and healthy-looking employees
  • When ordering meat, make sure it’s well cooked. Be wary of milk, “beef”, leafy salads, and shellfish
  • Avoid non-purified water (ice included) and make sure your bottled water is sealed
  • Keep in mind that a restaurant’s food isn’t necessarily healthy (or clean, or tasty) merely because the place has an English-language menu and serves up pizza, club sandwiches, or an “American” breakfast
  • If you have traveler’s diarrhea, keep well hydrated and eat bland foods (rice, bread, yogurt) for a few days, until it improves

Crime and scams:

  • Avoid bringing expensive or irreplaceable items
  • Don’t flaunt what wealth you do have
  • Keep cash in discreet places like a money belt, a sock, or a hidden pocket. Be wary of public distractions and dense crowds. This is where pickpockets tend to operate
  • When staying at a hotel or guesthouse, keep your extra cash in the safe
  • Be wary of pushy new “friends” who insist on giving you free shopping or sightseeing tours.

The Long Run

Vagabonding is a rediscovery of reality itself.

As your days stretch into weeks and months, let go of your pre-trip stereotypes and exchange two-dimensional expectations for living people, living places, and living life.

Fall into a nightly ritual of partying and you might overlook the subtlety of places, stunt your travel creativity, and trap yourself in the patterns of home.

Creativity is particularly important after you’ve been on the road for a long time, because inevitably you’ll fall into a kind of road routine.

How to mix your travels:

  • Change your scenery. If you’ve mainly been visiting cities, hit the countryside (and vice-versa)
  • Acquire or improvise your own transportation
  • Settle down on an appealing place for a few weeks or months to get to know it better
  • Volunteer work is a great, inexpensive way to get to know a place
  • Always challenge yourself to try new things and keep learning

Coming Home

Returning home can be weird and unsettling. Everything will look like it did but feel completely different at the same time.

It’s hard for friends to relate to your travel experiences because they don’t share the values that took you out on the road in the first place. So remember to keep your stories short and save the best bits for yourself.

Hitting the road to get travel out of your system rarely works, so the best remedy upon returning home is to make travel a part of your system.

As for the practical challenges of “reentry” into your home life (moving in, finding a job, starting a routine), confront them all as new adventures.

Written by

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