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7 Tips to Travel Well on the Road and In Life

On the Road

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” ~Buddha

I have this thing about road trips. I love them, can’t get enough of them. I could never step on another airplane for as long as I live and be perfectly fine with that—but I love having all the experiences that can only happen on the road.

Like my mom and I sleeping in our car in the parking lot of a closed motel on our way to Sedona, Arizona. We foolishly decided to forego the hotel strip outside of Phoenix and look for something more “quaint”—until, at three in the morning, we realized we were in the middle of nowhere and the quaintest thing around were saguaro cactuses.

There’s something wonderful about having the experience of arriving somewhere understanding exactly what it took to get there; understanding the land, the people, the culture, and the weather in a way you can’t experience flying.

There’s also something about exploring the winding roads of my own country that intrigues me.

The small differences and similarities are fascinating. Driving from Tahoe City and ending up, after three hours on the road, in a tiny, one-horse town in Nevada eating BBQ and drinking beer with cowboys—these experiences keep the mind fresh and life interesting.

I love that the secrets to successful road trips are the same as the secrets to a successful life:

1. Be prepared.

On the road: Make sure the car has gas and you bring a charged cell phone, a change of clothes, maps, water, maybe a snack, and your sense of adventure.

In life: Plan for the basics (food, water, safe shelter, social support) but also anticipate that things might happen unexpectedly. Do what you can to have money saved up, build strong connections with others who will help you if you need it, and develop the skills to look after yourself (assertiveness, emotional regulation skills, and boundary-setting).

2. Be flexible.

On the road: Anything can happen and probably will. Save yourself some stress and don’t expect everything to happen exactly as you planned them. Remain flexible and open, and let the experiences in.

In life: The saying goes “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” By cultivating an open mind and heart, being aware of our own judgments and assumptions and working compassionately towards honesty and openness, we can learn to be flexible in any situation, no matter what.

3. Be nonjudgmental.

On the road: You will meet people you never thought existed (the Bush-loving cowboy, his Obama-loving fashionista wife, and their cute little Chihuahua, for example). To engage with anyone you meet, you’ll need to leave your judgments at the door. It’s easy to talk about being nonjudgmental, and hard to do it.

In life: Be compassionate with yourself for harboring judgments—we all do—but work to become aware of them and to let judgmental attitudes be a signal that you need to look at your own inner process.

4. Want to be where you are.

On the road: Road trips are about being open to new experiences—not getting somewhere. Throw out the schedule and just drive. Take that winding road that snakes around the hills because it looks beautiful, not because it takes you where you want to go. You won’t regret it, and there are always other roads to go on if that one disappoints.

In life: Cultivate deep acceptance and curiosity about where you are, rather than a drive to be somewhere else. Goals are good, but presence is just as important. Life happens now.

5. Keep a record.

On the road: Photos, journal entries, heck, even Facebook updates—memory is a fickle thing and we often only see our own progress when we trace it.

In life: A journal can help us realize both how much we’ve grown and the places where we’re still stagnant.

6. Pay attention.

On the road: Be present in the moment, because only then will you really experience it. The temperature, the feel of the air, the smells, the landscape, the buildings, the creatures you encounter, your own emotions and thoughts, the sense of movement. Don’t try to hold on, because you can’t, but let the experiences sink in.

In life: Let the good things that happen, even the small ones, sink in by sitting with the feelings of those moments for at least thirty seconds. This can actually change your brain chemistry and help your brain register good things more effectively.

7. Have a sense of humor.

On the road: Even when things are going badly, remember that someday you’ll be telling this story and laughing. It was irritating, at first, to be sleeping in a car in an empty motel parking lot—and even more irritating the next morning when the car wouldn’t start…that’s another story. But now we have something to laugh about with our friends and family.

In life: Even in the worst moments, remember that those hard feelings will pass and laughter will return. When there seems to be no humor anywhere, rent a funny movie or go to a comedy show. Laughter actually releases chemicals in the body that helps us heal, both physically and psychologically.

Photo by Moyan Brenn

Profile photo of Melissa Kirk

About Melissa Kirk

Melissa Kirk is an editor, writer, and blogger living in the SF bay area and attempting to go with the flow and roll with the punches as much as possible. She writes for Psychology Today and also has a personal blog.

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  • nora

    Hi Melissa, I really enjoyed the article. very inspiring. Just one minor note, I think there might be an error on the buddha quote. If i'm not mistaken it was “it is better to travel well than to arrive”. (:

  • woops! You're right! I'll ask Lori to fix that. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Paidia Karhite

    Amazing article, and I agree with every word. Just got back from 10 day solo adventure…with a few misadventures thrown in…but still worth every moment! –PaidiaK

  • Fixed!

  • Once, trapped in an Amtrak train at night in the middle of Florida that was running out of food (and worse…wine!), exhausted, hot, irritated, with my train-mates getting restless, after a 10-hour train ride that was supposed to take 6 hours (and ended up taking 13), I realized that a trip is only an adventure if, during it, you go down into the pit of hell at least once. Without that, it's just a trip!

  • coronalandscapelandscape

    Thanks for the interesting and informative post. I look forward to more in the future.

  • coronalandscapelandscape

    Thanks for the interesting and informative post. I look forward to more in the future.

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  • Marcus Mii

    I’m in love with this women! I could read her work for hours on end.

  • Really good guide, thank you!
    “Have a sense of humor” – great advice. Unfortunately, not realistic one. In most cases, a good sense of humor is an innate feature. Not all of us have it :(. Nevertheless, we still can remain optimistic during the trip, even when no one’s laughing at our jokes.

  • ThePerfectFamilyHoliday

    Thank you for the helpful tips.

    “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”