I learned about travel stress on a first trip the hard way.
My first solo vagabonding trip (and first time out of the United States) in 2006 started with a one-way flight to Bangkok. I didn’t have a plan, smartphone, or guidebook. As a complete newbie, I thought the best approach was just to charge in head first and “John Wayne” things until I figured them out—the same approach I took to other challenges in life.
Unsurprisingly, Bangkok kicked my butt the first week.
As we all know, flights are often the cheapest into big cities; many new travelers begin their trips in urban jungles. But as I quickly learned, sorting through culture shock while jetlagged in an unfamiliar Asian capital of 10 million people is not ideal.
I felt as though I had paid Delta handsomely to open the hellgates of suffering and they obliged.
I arrived late, so my first impression of Thailand—and solo, independent travel—was Khao San Road at midnight. If you aren’t familiar, Southeast Asia’s backpacker epicenter used to be even more chaotic than it is now after decades of cleanup attempts by authorities.
Within my inaugural 30 minutes there, I saw drunk travelers puking, peeing, and fighting in the alley near my hotel, if that tells you anything.
In a newbie move, I had booked a Chinese budget hotel online instead of a hostel. I didn’t meet or speak to anyone—not a single person—for three or four days. I would scurry out of the hotel to eat, look around a bit, then hurry back to hide or nap. Honestly, I was a wreck.
At one point, deeply exhausted by stress and jetlag, I looked myself in the mirror and said, “Greg, this sucks.” I was dangerously close to throwing in the towel, admitting defeat, and booking a flight home. I figured I should salvage my travel savings and go somewhere domestic—somewhere more familiar and less challenging to navigate.
Fighting Back Against Travel Stress
I packed early the next morning and walked to a small bus station. Out of desperation, I decided to see one more place in Thailand before aborting my trip. Thank goodness I did.
The attendant behind the glass at the station didn’t speak any English. She wanted to be helpful but wasn’t used to dealing with farang (foreigners). She pointed to a large map of Thailand on the wall, but the destinations were only labeled in Thai.
I knew I needed to go somewhere much smaller and closer to nature but didn’t want to get too far from Bangkok. I still planned to return and buy a ticket home if things didn’t go well.
Retreat and Recover
To this day, I’m not sure if I pointed to Kanchanaburi on the map or if the attendant chose for me. Maybe she was from there. The small town three hours or so west of Bangkok was most famous for the Bridge Over the River Kwai, but I didn’t know that at the time. I noted that it was situated on a river near a national park, not too far from Burma.
Later that afternoon, I was bouncing along on an old “chicken” bus with terrible suspension. I held my giant, overpacked backpack in my lap because I was afraid to put it in the hold with the other luggage—in Thailand, of all places. That’s how bad of a traveler I was.
I got off the bus in Kanchanaburi as I did in Bangkok, with no plan. Fortunately, a friendly English couple at the bus station saw that I was lost and came to my rescue. They directed me to the Jolly Frog, a cheap guesthouse with a beautiful garden on the banks of the river.
Another early travel lesson learned: Listen to other travelers. I overpaid for a songthaew taxi truck to the Jolly Frog, and there in a peaceful setting, I “found my legs.”
Other travelers taught me how to negotiate in Thai, my jetlag and shyness went away, and my confidence soared. I spent a week there cycling around town, trying new food, and learning more Thai culture each day.
When I left Kanchanaburi, my self-efficacy was where it should have been. Instead of feeling like a victim, I felt in control of my outcomes. The rest of my trip developed into one of the best memories of my life. It was a formative time and set me on a completely new path that I’m still walking today.
Don’t Give Up Too Soon
I still shudder when thinking what would have happened if I had given in to fear and aborted too soon. I’d probably be back in a stressful corporate cubicle rather than helping people escape theirs.
Fear of the unknown is real, biological, and it manipulates us on a daily basis. You can rest assured, either consciously or otherwise, fear of the unknown is providing resistance when you want to do something novel.
Recognizing when fear is controlling your decisions and then pushing through are two of the best things you can do for yourself.
When I returned to Bangkok later on that trip, I was ready to dance. The grungy City of Angels wasn’t as intimidating and welcomed me with open arms. It became one of my favorite places.
Some Lessons Learned About Travel Stress
- Biology Rules: We are all subject to the forces of biology, especially hormones and neurotransmitters. Increased stress, sleep deprivation, and other challenges travelers face will literally change what you perceive as reality. They can jade first impressions about a place and make you doubt yourself.
- Listen to Other Travelers: Although a smartphone can help with instant information and comforting words from home, don’t let it become a digital crutch. Instead, put it away long enough to break the ice with other travelers; listen for their recommendations. Unlike online reviews that are frequently jaded or gamed, the traveler network is up to date and you can verify the source.
How to Beat Travel Stress on a First Trip
- Know It Gets Easier: Know and accept ahead of time that the first few days in an unfamiliar place will be challenging. Always keep in mind that your trip will become easier as you learn more each day.
- Enjoy Being a “Freshman” Again: Frequently remind yourself of how our first endeavors in life are often stressful until we become more experienced. Being a freshman, starting a new job, moving to a new city, joining the military, starting as a rookie on a sports team—all are toughest at the beginning until you “earn your stripes.” Independent travel is no different. Be proud of the progress you make through the learning curve.
- Start Small: Although most international flights arrive in the biggest cities, you don’t have to stay there! If anxiety is a real issue, you’ll be better served by getting out of larger cities quickly. Retreat to an island, national park, or smaller town where you can regroup and learn “the ropes” of a new culture. You can always return to the big city later when you’re better prepared. Your retreat isn’t failure or cowardice; it’s a tactical withdrawal to achieve victory later.
- Plan a Little But Not Too Much: You can do some due diligence without creating preconceived notions. Avoid the temptation to over reasearch a place. Have your first few nights booked ahead of time, but plan to move after exploring other neighborhoods.
- Have Some Privacy: Hostels are great for meeting fellow travelers, but you’ll probably need some personal space (and sleep) on your first few nights. Finding a private room in a hostel or guesthouse can be a good compromise for getting rest without isolating yourself too much.
- Start Slowly: Don’t plan a lot of activities on your first three days. Flexibility is your friend until you get some traction and beat jetlag.
- Learn From the Veterans: Make an extra effort to meet some people during your first few days. Experienced travelers will almost invariably be happy and willing to help with advice about local scams, places to go, and how to limit some of the travel stress on your first trip.
In parting, remember how one of the best ways to prevent travel stress and anxiety is by learning to lean into discomfort.
Condition your mind slowly over time by doing things that trigger your amygdala. Taking cold showers is one effective option that’s growing in popularity.
Once you hit the road, you’ll be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’ll have much less travel stress on a first trip.