9 ways to scratch your travel itch without leaving home
If you’re like me, you frequently struggle with some serious wanderlust. Itchy feet. An insatiable desire to get out and see the world.
But sometimes, it’s not possible to leave. Too many obligations at home. Not enough cash to comfortably spend. Not enough vacation time.
I’m a huge advocate for travel, so this may sound weird coming from me. Especially because when I hear “I can’t afford it,” I will be the first to try to bust wide open any misconceptions you are harboring about how expensive travel has to be. Hell, the very article that launched this blog was all about that.
But I am also a realist, and a person with professional obligations. What tied me in one place used to be my full-time office job, which told me which decidedly unergonomic chair to put my butt in and for how many minimum hours per day. Now it’s my consulting clients, who are all currently local to me in Dallas, and my husband, who does work one of those stable full-time office jobs, thank Christ. And my 10 year old cat, who probably wouldn’t embrace life on the road.
As much as I love my life (especially now that I work for myself), I can’t travel full-time right now, or become an expat, though I hope to one day.
And even if you are lucky and do have a lot of vacation time and money to burn, there will still be days in between trips that find you sitting at your desk under fluorescent bulbs, compulsively checking Kayak, pinning Rio de Janeiro articles to your “Travel Ideas” Pinterest board, and aching from somewhere deep inside to sip from a straw plunged into a fuzzy coconut under the beating Ipanema sun.
You are dying to get out there, and see the world, and you will! But so help you Sallie Mae, you have to be here, right now, despite it all.
Here are some practical ways I’ve learned to satiate your wanderlust and tide you over until you can actually step foot onto a humming 747 bound for your dream destination, bag and itinerary in hand.
1. Meet people from other countries.
One of the best parts of traveling, for me, is the chance it creates to meet new people. There is nothing more disappointing to me than a trip in which I only interacted with other travelers, or had one-dimensional exchanges with hospitality and tourism professionals - no interesting encounters with locals, no deeper conversations. Human beings thrive on personal connection, and for me there are few things more exciting on a trip than spending time with someone who has lived a life quite different from - and yet similar to - my own.
Guess what? You can make that happen without ever leaving town. Even if you live in a smaller city. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere with no one around, the internet has made us all neighbors.
Start by looking on Meetup for upcoming events that celebrate the food or culture of the country you’re dying to visit or see again. Search Facebook events near you for similarly themed events. Go to them, and be open and friendly.
Or, you can go one level up.
About a year and a half ago, I made a decision that changed my life. After a friend inspired me, I became a Family Mentor with the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency. In this volunteer role, I committed to spending 2 hours a week mentoring and coaching a newly arrived refugee family for 6 months.
It began with nervous meetings in their small apartment and a lot of Pictionary-like gesturing with tepid English lessons. It evolved into a friendship with a young, energetic and enterprising family including the mother, an impressively bright and STEM-educated woman my own age, who taught me about their home country in the Middle East, their foods, and traditions. She became not just a friend, but a sister, and now we have a family-like bond that will last a hell of a lot longer than any vacation. And I didn’t even have to leave Dallas for it.
Go to rescue.org and see if they have a branch in your town. I learned that a surprising amount of refugees are placed in smaller cities in Texas because of their agrarian backgrounds, so don’t assume because you don’t live in NYC that your town hasn’t rolled out a welcome mat of some kind. If the IRC isn’t there, there may be another organization helping to resettle refugees. Just look and see what you find.
2. Practice other languages.
Borrow from the first tip above and find a language practice partner - ostensibly one of the best ways to meet people from another country. Yes, you’ll practice speaking each others’ languages, but you’ll probably wind up with a friend, too.
Before my first trip to Colombia in 2011, I looked on a language exchange website for a Colombian I could meet up with to practice speaking each others' languages. The woman I met ended up picking me up from the airport, then showing me around Bogota. Five years later, she and her husband came to my wedding in Cartagena.
You can also practice solo and still feel immersed in another country, and like you’re making progress towards a travel goal. Because you are!
Being even the slightest bit familiar with the language of the country you’ll eventually travel to is so helpful, even if you’re nowhere near conversational. Even attempting to speak the language will endear you to others.
Take it from my husband and me, who speak zero French (miro, vivimos en Tejas), but shouted “Bonjour!” or “Bonsoir!” to every restaurant or shop owner whose threshold we crossed in Paris, and said not just “merci” but “merci beaucoup” as we left. Just this, and traveling during offseason, and we found Parisians to be among the most friendly people we’ve ever encountered. And that’s a high bar, because we’ve been to Colombia and Brazil.
If you have the ability to take lessons in person, do it, but you can also just download language podcasts, apps and audiobooks and practice on your commute, too. Whatever gets your brain swimming with another language will help you once you land there - and it will help you calm your restless feet in the meantime, too.
3. Experiment with recipes from your favorite countries.
They call the gut the “second brain” for a reason. And if you asked mine, it would tell you all about the trips I’ve taken, the meals I’ve had, and the wine I washed it down with, a memory as clear as the one upstairs.
This one’s easy. What’s better than eating delicious food from a destination you’re dying to go back to (or see for the first time)? But if you can't find a really, truly authentic restaurant, try replicating the cuisine on your own. Dig out recipes from trusted sources - ideally from the country whose food you're craving. Then, seek out ingredients from local, smaller grocers - especially ones that specialize in the type of cuisine you’re making, if you can.
When my husband and I returned from our trip to Vietnam and Thailand, he went on a Vietnamese and Thai cooking tear that I don’t think he’s fully resolved. But rather than go to Whole Foods or our usual grocer and pay something exorbitant to find 90% of the necessary ingredients (where the f*%&! is the lemongrass!?), we go to the Asian grocery stores in north Dallas and the nearby suburbs, where we pay an extremely reasonable price for fresher ingredients - and we get everything we need and then some, thanksverymuch.
4. Watch foreign films.
Nothing will immerse you in a destination quite like watching a movie from that place. Yes, this likely means you have to read the movie, but the sound of a language you don’t understand is probably more beautiful to the ears than American English anyway.
Plus, after spending four months in Italy as a college student, there’s just something so nostalgic about hearing sing-songy, passionate conversations in Italian, with the distinctive and chipper “wee-er-wee-ERRR, wee-er-wee-ERRR” of Italian sirens floating into deeper and softer pitch in the background.
Chances are, the famous directors from a country you’re craving have captured something essential about your destination - the way people interact, the mood of the film, the way it ends. Pedro Almodóvar and Spain are intrinsically linked for me. I cannot think of Spain without faintly recalling the chaotic frenzy of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” or without Penelope Cruz, set against the bright red floral cover of “Volver” surfacing somewhere in the background of my memory. When I miss Spain, I watch his movies.
5. Surround yourself with mementos and beautiful things from your travels.
I’m not a huge fan of souvenirs. Unless you really dig deep and have a specific shopping mission (or you’re like, an AFAR writer led around by a local insider), most of what you'll find is cheap yet overpriced tchotchke crap - almost no matter where you are.
But there are a few finds I’ve found worth it to indulge in. Especially if they’re small enough to fit in my carry-on luggage, or they can roll or fold up, like the decorative red pillowcases I bought in Chiang Mai that now grace our sofa and add a bright pop of cat-hair-covered color to our neutral living room. Or the blown-glass cat paperweight I bought in Venice at 19 that graces our IKEA shelf next to travel guidebooks. Or - most conveniently - the photos I took on our trips and framed with each Aaron Brothers buy one, get one for a penny frame sale. Nothing takes up less room in luggage than a photo you took on your phone, which is why those are my favorite souvenirs.
While you’re traveling, focus your souvenir-buying on home goods you can decorate your place with, or on the photographs you take. Then, make a point of surrounding yourself with those pictures and the beautiful things you bought on your trips. If it doesn’t scratch a travel itch, it’ll at least help you feel more at home at home.
6. Go on more road trips.
When I got laid off from my full-time marketing job this year and started a consulting business, I wasn’t sure what kind of punishment I was doling out to my travel life. It’s quite ironic, having all this time and freedom (butt in what chair!?) but limited cash flow and a husband/travel partner with his own vacation time limitations. Especially because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a whole lot more picky about how I travel.
But really quickly, I found a way to go somewhere and do something I’d probably never have done if I were still in my cushy job, with limited time off but cash to burn on a really fun and exciting trip somewhere halfway across the world.
I took a road trip from Dallas to Santa Fe with my mom, stopping halfway to hike Palo Duro Canyon. Despite being just a long weekend, and on a modest budget, it was just the break I needed. And whatever adrenaline rush I missed from lack of culture shock, I got with the liberation of the open road.
If money is a concern of yours (one I haven’t already assuaged), and time is too, take a closer look at the trips you can take within driving distance. I live in the ridiculously large state of Texas, where it’s often 5+ hours of driving just to leave the state. But within 9 or 10 hours, I can be in either Santa Fe or New Orleans. Chances are, you can get somewhere interesting for just a few hours on the road.
7. Dig your heels into wherever you are.
This isn’t exactly “be a tourist in your own town” advice, but close. The idea is this:
Whatever it is you like to do on trips, do more of that at home.
Chances are that when you’re traveling, you’re not spending a ton of time in your hotel or Airbnb. You’re soaking up every ounce of each day, exploring, eating new foods. You're making a point of trying things you have no idea if you’ll like (well, you should, anyway), because the goal is simply to experience as much as possible.
If traveling finds you wandering the halls of art museums, make a point of visiting your own. If you love to sample street food in other countries, find an under-the-radar mom and pop international restaurant or the most authentic taco truck. If you never eat out at home, but find yourself dining at high-end restaurants when you travel, treat yourself to a reservation at one of the most creative restaurants in your city.
On vacation, I do a hell of a lot more walking than I do at home. So I see my city with new eyes when I wander it on foot. Explore aimlessly, without an agenda. Hang out in parks. Spend time outside.
Sometimes all it takes is a break in your routine to feel more energized by your hometown.
8. Build a life you don’t need to escape from.
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don't need to escape from.” - Seth Godin
My defenses immediately went up when I first heard this quote, so I knew he was onto something. I love my life, and I love to travel. I don’t think that wanderlust is a sign that you hate your life. It’s a sign that you want more than what you have here and now, which is completely normal because you should. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page,” and all that.
But it’s also true that some of my most desperate travel cravings were motivated at least in part by heavier-than-normal seasons of stress and anxiety. Of quarter-life crises, and feeling trapped in jobs that weren’t right for me. Of me being way too hard on myself. When I got older, got better jobs, and mellowed out a little, my travel daydreams became more motivated by a craving for culture shock and adventure than by a sharp and urgent desperation to escape.
If your wanderlust feels heavy or weighed down by anxiety, it’s worth asking if you are running to or from something. What kind of life do you really, truly want - in 1 year, 5 years, 10 or 20 years? What will you need to change to make that happen, and what’s one baby step you can take towards that now?
9. Start planning your next trip!
Studies say the happiest part of your vacation happens before you ever leave. That just anticipating your trip is more pleasurable than actually taking it. Whether you agree or not, they’re onto something. Personally, I love dreaming about my upcoming trips, searching for hotels, and figuring out what I’ll do when I’m there. It tides me over until I can actually get there and gives me something fun to look forward to when the drudgery of daily life has me feeling bored.
This is why last-minute deals aren’t always the best - they leave you no time to dream about your trip!
Just because you can't travel right this moment doesn't mean you can't look forward to a future trip. So book something far out - both to enjoy the planning and to give yourself time to save up, or get time off, or whatever else is holding you back from traveling now - and get planning.
And if you don’t really know where to get started with planning a trip, I made a free workbook that should help. Check it out below.
What are some of your other favorite ways to scratch your travel itch when you can’t leave home?
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