The summer of resurgent travel continues, and with that comes new experiences, epic adventures, and yes, probably a few delayed flights. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or you’re hitting the road for the first time, every trip presents a slew of opportunities to enjoy, meals to indulge in, and challenges to overcome.
The ups and downs of travel are inevitable. In fact, they’re part of the mystery and magic of travel, in general. So to help you gear up for your next big trip, we spoke with Sebastian Modak, the Editor-At-Large at Lonely Planet.
We covered everything from his best packing hacks to budget travel tips to making friends in new places. Modak even shares his biggest travel mistake and why he travels in the first place. Check out the full conversation below, and catch Modak on the latest episode of You Gotta Go, an Uproxx Life travel series on Instagram Live, on Wednesday, July 13 at 12 pm PST.
You are extremely well-traveled, but there are tons of people who have never even gone out of the country. What would you say to someone who might be nervous about going abroad for the first time? Do you have any advice for them?
I think the first thing would be that it’s natural to be nervous. It’s a big step out of your comfort zone. And I think it’s okay to be nervous, especially with how inundated we are on social media with people who are just seemingly effortlessly trancing around the world and doing these incredibly cool experiences. It can feel intimidating or offputting when you’re doing your first international trip, and you can be pretty nervous about it. Explore the limits of your comfort zone and try not to step too far out of it on your first trip. If you’re an introvert and you’re more comfortable alone, maybe you try to do a more nature-based trip outside of the country.
If you’re the opposite, maybe you go to another big city, like the one that you live in and you explore that way, but you’re taking a smaller step than it might be if you’re living in a small town in Montana and you decide to go to Tokyo as your first international trip. It’s very different. And some people might want that. So it really depends on what you’re looking for. One of the things that I believe in, and that Lonely Planet really believes in and we’ve always put forward, is that there are an infinite variety of types of travelers. It can take a while to figure out who you are. So I would say, if you’re a little bit nervous about it, try doing something closer to your comfort zone. That doesn’t necessarily need to mean closer to home. I’m not saying go to Canada if you’re in the US and it’s your first international trip. I’m just saying in terms of the type of things you’re looking for and the type of environment you want to be in. Think about that as a stepping stone in terms of finding something a little closer to home.
What would be your top tips for making the absolute most out of every trip, whether that’s international or domestic, but without burning yourself out?
It’s easy to burn out. Especially when you’re starting out traveling internationally, you get so excited. You feel like you gotta pack in the day with a jam-packed itinerary — you’re gonna have breakfast here, you’re gonna go to this museum and have lunch here — and you think you need to have everything figured out. My biggest piece of advice would be to go with the flow and don’t be afraid to spend two hours sitting at a cafe, watching the world go by. Give yourself the space to really be in a place and experience it beyond just a list of things to do.
Social media and stuff are very easy to get lost in. I need to get as much content as possible. I need to show people I’m doing all this cool stuff. But I think it’s important to put the camera down, put the phone down and just be for a little while. I mean, even I who do this for a living when I’m traveling somewhere new and I have to get photos and videos and be interviewing people and doing all these things, I’ll still give myself like four hours where I leave the camera at the hotel room. I leave the phone in my pocket and I just wander around and maybe I post up at a bar and talk to a couple of strangers. Maybe I go to a bookshop. Maybe I just walk aimlessly without really knowing where I’m going. I think that’s such a good way to not burn out is reminding yourself that you’re having this new experience, but you’re also not gonna experience it unless you give yourself a space to experience it. I find it’s really important to be intentional about that and not get carried away with a jampacked itinerary and checklists and posting up a storm on Instagram.
What about really getting to know the culture and history of a specific destination? What are your techniques there?
I think one of the main things I’ve learned, and I say this as a travel journalist for Lonely Planet where our job is to know things, is that the first step is to realize how little you know. I think oftentimes we go in having done our research, we’ve read all the books, we’ve got a list of things to do. We’ve read the history, maybe we’ve even read some novels from that country, and we go with those preconceptions. But I think if you’re gonna open yourself up to the culture, really learn about it, the first step is admitting your own ignorance. You’re never gonna know about a place to the level of someone who’s born and raised there. Who’s lived it every day, who is from there. You’re never gonna know a place the same way they do.
Admitting that can be tough for experienced travelers or globetrotters, but I think admitting that is the first step to asking the right questions and meeting people. If you’re curious and you wanna know about a place, you have to first admit that you don’t know anything. I think that’s really hard to do, especially the more traveled you are. I’m not trying to say anything bad about travelers in general, but I think the more we travel, the more we’re like, “oh, I got this. I know how to navigate an airport. I know how to live. I’ve negotiated with taxi drivers. I’m doing all these things. I’m good. I got this. I know my way around.” But I think the first step to really engaging with a place and immersing yourself in it is admitting how little you do know.
No matter how much you travel or how well experienced you are, things can go wrong when you’re on the road. Can you share a story about your own biggest travel mistake and what you learned from it?
I think a big and complicated one is identifying your threshold for risk. We associate travel with risk. You’re taking a risk. The moment you step out of your comfort zone, the moment you step out from home. Of course, there’s a lot you can use do to minimize that risk, right? You can do your reading and know about some safety concerns or whatever else, but you’re still taking a risk. The moment you’re going into a place where maybe you don’t speak a language, you don’t know your way around, where you’re alone, which I think is a good thing. I think it’s important to take those risks. And I think what’s important is figuring out what your own personal threshold for risk is.
I think depends on so many factors. You know, I’ve been able to do things as a straight dude that I think a lot of people can’t. There are just a lot of things you gotta take into consideration when you’re traveling in terms of identity and prejudices and everything else. But I’ve also crossed that threshold a few times in different ways. I remember one time when I was trying to get to this place in Ontario, a rural part of Ontario on Lake Superior. I had to drive from Detroit and it was the middle of winter and I just got slammed by this crazy winter storm. Oh, wow. And I kept driving and I was like, “you know what? This is part of the adventure. I just gotta get there tonight. ”
And I drove for 12 hours through white-out conditions. I was the only one on the roads. When I got to the other side, even the Canadians who know a thing or two about driving in the snow were like, “you drove through that, really? Probably shouldn’t have done that.” There was a real wake-up call for me where I was like, oh, damn, you’re right. To be alone on those roads at two in the morning not being able to see anything and kind of sliding my way across the highway. It was just a moment of realizing I’m not invincible. And I had long associated travel with taking these big risks. And every once in a while you gotta pull the reins a little bit and be like, okay, that was too much.
Now I had a better understanding of what I am and what I’m not comfortable with doing. So the next time this comes around, I can make a more informed choice. So that would be one of my biggest learnings is that your threshold for risk is always gonna be different. I think this is also something that can come up when you’re traveling with other people, especially friends who maybe have a different threshold than you do and all of a sudden they’re trying to do something that maybe you’re not comfortable with and you feel pressured into it or whatever else. I think it’s very important to know what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not comfortable with. I want to push myself and I wanna push myself with my own boundaries and limitations. It’s a learning process. It’s a give-and-take process that takes time, takes repeated travel experiences to realize kind of where you fall on things.
What are a few of your best money-saving hacks for the budget traveler?
There are a lot of resources out there. I mean, Lonely Planet being a good one. We’ve always been in the business of budget travel as well as understanding that people have different ideas for travel. We kind of started really as a resource for backpackers, and I think while we’ve expanded, we’re still very much interested in that form of travel. But beyond that, the answer is always the more local you go, the cheaper things are gonna be. If you’re going into a place, you have to understand that people live there, right? Not everyone there is on vacation. People live there, they go out to eat on their lunch break. They go out for drinks at the end of the day with friends, and they do things that you might also want to do, but they’ll do it in a much more affordable way than if you’re just following the tourism hit list.
So follow the locals’ lead. Ask the questions. You’ll find pretty quickly that there’s this incredible little noodle stock that a lot of people go to for a $3 bowl of noodles when the Four Seasons down the street is doing the same bowl of noodles for $25. Or you’ll get invited out for drinks with people who show you the local spots instead of the cocktail bar that made it on the “top 10 bars in the world” list because of some crazy molecular mixology that they do. I’m not trying to hate on the places that are popular with tourists because they are popular for a reason. But I think especially if you’re budget conscious, your best bet is figuring out what locals do, where locals go, where they eat, where they drink, and where they spend their time. They’re all not functioning with vacation budgets, they’re functioning with life budgets. They’re functioning in their daily life.
What’s something that comes in handy while traveling, but that most people probably don’t think about packing?
It’s a great question. I think this is well-celebrated among people who travel often, but I think it’s can be a revelation for those who are kind of just getting their feet wet, so to speak. And that is packing cubes. It’s such a game-changer. And I am like the least organized person on earth in general, but having my stuff packed away in cubes is just a game-changer in terms of not leaving things behind because you know where everything lives and saving space because you have it all kind of compressed into compartments. That really opened up the whole world of more efficient travel for me when I started using packing cubes. So that’s one thing that I think people overlook and don’t necessarily go for.
Another thing I’ve talked endlessly about over the years for travel is merino wool. Merino wool is this fabric that’s a type of wool and they make a lot of performance gear out of it, like shirts and socks. But the stuff is magic. I swear to you, it keeps you warm when it’s cold, it cools you down when it’s hot. It has moisture-wicking properties and it’s all-natural. I traveled the world for a full year and I had like three shirts in my bag and they were all merino wool and that’s all I needed. So that is also a game-changer. Packing cubes and merino wool. I will spread that gospel on my dying days.
How do you make an ultra-long flight ess miserable?
There’s no sure way. And I think I’ve heard all the good advice from doctors and stuff where it’s like, “stay hydrated, wear compression socks, make sure to get up and move around and walk a few laps of the plane every 20 minutes. All that stuff is probably true, but also if you need two or three glasses of wine just to fall asleep and get through the next 12 hours, do it. I follow some of that advice. I definitely gotta keep moving. I’m six-foot-two, and being in an economy class seat for 17 hours can be pretty rough on the body. So getting up and moving around I think is super important. But if you follow all the advice of every doctor out there, it can end up feeling even less enjoyable because you feel like you’re following this military routine to get through this experience.
But my answer to that question is more like whatever is gonna make you feel less miserable in the moment, do that. So if you need to download a show so you can binge-watch something for 12 hours even though the conventional wisdom is you should be sleeping to get on the right time schedule, do that. If you need a glass of wine or two. do that. I think it’s whatever’s gonna make you feel most comfortable and happiest. If you have to suffer a little bit on the other side and take an extra nap, do that. I don’t ascribe to being as healthy as possible, right? Do all these right things and drink four gallons of beat juice before you get on the plane or whatever. I think that’s overthinking it a bit. The answer should be whatever makes you feel happiest, do that because it can be a pretty miserable experience. And then also, yes, it can be a miserable experience, but just remind yourself how lucky you are.
In this metal tube shooting through the air, going across the world. You’re gonna go to the other side and just suddenly immerse yourself in this incredible new culture and meet these incredibly new people and see this incredible planet you live on. Just remind yourself of that. When there’s a baby screaming behind you and someone’s foot is up on the seat next to you and you’re feeling miserable, just put things into perspective.
So once you actually get to your destination, specifically for solo travelers, you can often find yourself getting a little bit lonely. Do you have any techniques for making friends on the road?
My number one tip, and I said this before but in another context, is to put the damn phone away. I think it’s like if you’re sitting at a bar in a new city and you’re staring at your phone because you’re lonely and you want to use that social crutch to scroll Instagram or whatever, no one’s gonna talk to you cause you look busy. You look like you’re doing something, even if you’re really not. You’re not comfortable, you know, being alone somewhere. No one’s gonna talk to you. As soon as you put that phone down and you just look up and look around, someone’s probably gonna say hi. And the next thing you know, you’re meeting a local. I’ve literally had experiences where I’ve done that at a cafe or a bar or in a park.
And next thing I know I’m being invited to someone’s family’s home for dinner because they’re so excited that I’ve decided as a solo traveler to come to their part of the world. All it took for me was to just be present and not be so reliant on all of the social crutches that people tend to use, myself included. Being available is my number one tip. Of course, there are instances where maybe you’re in an uncomfortable situation and you need a way out. Then, yeah, totally take out the phone and pretend you have a phone call or do whatever you need to do to get out of it. But I think in general, I tend to immediately reach for my phone or a book or a notebook or whatever, just something to keep my mind occupied. But then you’re signaling that you’re off-limits, that you’re busy doing something else.
While if you just sit and be, I think a lot of people will come to you. Then, I think the next step is also something I kind of mentioned earlier, which is being intellectually available and curious by asking questions and by showing interest in the place that you’re in and the culture that you’re immersed in. Come in with as few preconceptions as possible and instead just come in with a very open mind. I think the rest will flow because that’s what’s gonna come across from that is that you’re just a good hand who likes to learn. And so next thing you know, you’ve made a new friend. It’s really just about what you put out into the universe, and as soon as you show that you’re interested, a lot flows from there. At least in my experience. That’s how I’ve met people.
I agree. I would argue that some of my very best travel experiences come from just being alone and making friends with the locals around me. It definitely leads to unique opportunities. So, how do you feel about Lonely Planet’s legacy and how it has shaped the common travel routes and trails around the world.
For me personally, it’s a real honor to have joined the team because I, like so many people, grew up on Lonely Planet. I mean, when I was traveling as a kid, which I did a lot extensively because my parents were living around the world, my mom always had a Lonely Planet book wherever place we were going and would read from it. That legacy definitely speaks to me in a lot of ways. But honestly, what most excites me is what we’re doing now and what’s looking ahead. I kind of mentioned this earlier, but I think one of the biggest things that I think we’re trying to do as we navigate a new landscape of travel that we’re all trying to figure out is getting past the “what” of travel, which we’ve always done very well. Which is like where to eat, where to stay, what to do, all these things.
But I think what we’re starting to really dip our toes into and what we’re starting to really lean into is getting at the “why” of travel and the “how” of travel. It’s like, why are we even leaving our homes in the first place? And how are we interacting with places once we’re there? I think that’s gonna be the future of conversations around travel and that’s at least what’s in front of my mind. How do we be more responsible travelers? How do we be more conscious of our impact as travelers? I love that all your questions here were about meeting people and engaging with places and things like that because that really is, I think, the answer to why we travel. That’s what we’re trying to do, to really get into it with features that we’re working on and assigning. When we launched our best travel campaign earlier this year, it was the same kind of thing.
We really had to have a reason why each of these places was on the list. I think that’s a great direction for travel to be going into, just thinking more critically. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on a beach with a cocktail and a good book and relaxing, but that can’t be the be-all and end-all of travel. The word vacation comes from vacating, right? We’re not just trying to unplug. We’re also trying to plug in. That’s really where Lonely Planet is headed. That’s what I’m excited about is the stories that we get to tell through that.
Well, now I’m curious, what is your why? Why did you start traveling and why do you continue to travel?
I think there are two main things that I’ve come to realize about why I travel. One is to just have my mind blown. To feel my depth, the limits of my perception to be broken open by the beauty of this world and by like the fragility of it and what we have left of it — and the importance to preserve that. I think the main one is people…I’ve been to dozens and dozens of countries around the world. I’ve had these incredible experiences. I’ve seen solar eclipses and I’ve scuba-dived with dolphins and I’ve done all these amazing things. But when I think back to the travel experiences that really changed me, that really reoriented my mind, that really threw me for a loop, I always say good people. It’s always the people I met.
It’s, you know, the guy I met who surprised me with this drive across town. The next thing we knew, I was seeing this tradition that not a lot of tourists get to see because he just trusted me with that. Or the woman in Denmark who invited me to her home. And next thing I knew, I felt like I was part of this family in the middle of nowhere in Denmark. These experiences. That’s what I think of when I think back to my most formative travel moments.
So that’s why I travel now is to have more of those moments — those moments of connection, those moments where I could be talking to a 75-year-old who grew up in Soviet Russia, and we just have completely different world views, but we’re sharing a bottle of grappa and laughing and making jokes and having a good time. That’s why I travel. And I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years. I don’t think that was always the case. You know, I was definitely chasing other things at other times. I was chasing bragging nights. I was chasing good photos. I was chasing all these things that I think we do travel for sometimes. I realized, “Hey, wait. What are the moments that really make me want to go back out there and travel more?” And they all involve other people. So that’s my firm answer on that.
I think as travelers, it’s important to have those moments of reflection where we look back and really consider why we do what we do.
I think we’re in a moment where more of us are doing that. I think the last two years have been absolutely disrupted in that sense, where we’ve been given a moment where we literally couldn’t travel. I definitely don’t have the impression that all of a sudden all these enlightened travelers are gonna be more intentional about our decisions. But I do think for a lot of people, it gave the opportunity to be self-reflective and self-critical about travel. We didn’t always have the opportunity before because we were moving so fast and after each trip, we were booking the next. We weren’t even thinking about why the hell we were doing it. I think the last two years have been like hitting the pause and the reset button in that sense. I think it’s no coincidence that in the last few years, Lonely Planet has kind of reoriented itself and started thinking about those questions as well. We’re not just doing that in isolation. Hopefully, we’re doing that because a lot of people are having those same thoughts and the same conversation.