In the midst of this global pandemic American tourists are finding themselves, for the first time, not wanted around the world. At this moment residents of the United States are not allowed to enter the European Union, and more than 90 other countries are totally close to Americans and other nationalities. And, with this administration’s unbelievably inept handling of the situation, it’s doubtful that things will get much better until a vaccine is available (and this is assuming people will get it, which at this point seems doubtful).
This situation has made me reflect on the personal experiences Alan and I have had with the different passports we travel the world with: his Mexican, mine Italian. Over and over we have been made painfully aware of how those two little books, identical in every way except their covers, are perceived very differently by the world. One seen usually as a threat to be cautious around, the other welcomed with open arms.
It is understood, although not generally talked about, that passports have a ranking. Some passports are more valuable than others. Some get you into more countries without costly and complicated visa applications and let you stay for longer, while others require careful vetting and limited stays. I have both a Venezuelan and an Italian passport, and I would (almost) never choose to travel with my Venezuelan one, because it is generally considered a “less valuable” passport. The truth is that the lowest on the list your country is the more of a threat you are thought to be… the less valuable of a tourist you are. Oh, and I say I would “almost never” use my Venezuelan passport because there are in fact some countries that consider a Venezuelan passport “better” than an Italian, can you guess which ones? … Russia and Iran are two of them, so obviously politics plays a part on this game as well.
On the Passport Index, a methodology that ranks passports based on their global mobility (basically the amount of countries for which your passport has visa-free and visa on arrival privileges), Italy is ranked as #18, while Venezuela ranks as #87. This second-class citizen reality is all the more obvious to us because Alan doesn’t have a second passport, so he travels with his Mexican one, which is #67 on the ranking. Solely based on that little book the treatment he gets is exponentially worst than the treatment I get when we travel – every single time – not only when applying to visas, but also while going through immigration at airports and really in any situation in which we have to show our passports.
We applied to visas to Nigeria together and had the exact same application. I got a multi entry visa, he got a single entry. Every time we go through Europe Alan gets interrogated and harassed; lately I just go with him on the regular immigration line (instead of the EU one) and we have a lot less issues when I hand them both passports. South Africa requires Mexican citizens to physically go to a consulate to apply for a visa and get your fingerprints, even if you don’t live near one (we didn’t). I didn’t even need a visa.
There are plenty of other examples, and have been other places, such as Russia, that we wanted to go to and then decided against it due to visa requirements for Alan. Basically, it’s much harder to travel for him than it is for me. Similarly, if you hold an American passport, whether you realize or not, you have doors open for you in ways other nationalities do not. Sure, it’s not the “best” passport to have for traveling (way to go, Japan & New Zealand), but it is up there. Still, the US State Department estimates that only 42% of the population have one (21% owned one in 2004, and only 3% in 1989.) When I started meeting people without a passport, in my early years in the United States while living in Texas, I was dumfounded. Wait, people don’t get passport soon after they are born? how do they travel?… well, they don’t. Most Americans just don’t travel internationally, and even if they do most follow the script of one 2-week vacation a year to an all-inclusive hotel.
With Europe’s covid ban, the United States passport has dropped significantly in its mobility score, now ranked as #52. Basically, under the current EU ban, Americans have around the same level of travel freedom as citizens of Mexico, so now you know how Alan feels ;). So, my point with all of this? TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT! When things get back to normal, and they will get back to normal at some point, know that you, my American friend, are very lucky indeed. Go out and use this luck to open your mind by doing one of the most rewarding things you can do in your life – TRAVEL. But HOW to travel more? I have been to more than 50 countries and have spent more than 700 days out of the past 5 years outside of the US (~40% of the time!). So, I think I am pretty used to traveling pretty often :). Here are 8 things I have learned along the way:
- Take it lightly. There is no need to plan a trip for months and months in advanced and have a strict daily itinerary. Traveling doesn’t have to be a lot of work to enjoy it. Be ok with not seeing everything in a place, you can always go back :). The moment you realize you can enjoy trips without dedicating a lot of work to plan for them, or even if you miss some “must see” stuff, you will find a lot more opportunities to travel in your day to day life. All you need is an airplane ticket and a place to stay. Everything else you can figure out once you are there (or on your way!). We usually get a travel book (we like Lonely Planet, although we almost never open it until we get to our destination), we book a few tours or plan to join free ones (specific to what we like and what the place is known for – food, street art, history, or swimming with white sharks ;)), and we do lots of internet research and cross-validation while there (in most cases for where to eat). But, mostly, we try to go with the flow, we follow recommendations from local people and other travelers, and we don’t worry about seeing everything.
- Be flexible. Forget about the “standard” way of traveling, get rid of the “once a year vacation” mindset. You can travel a lot more often than that, you just have to be more flexible: with the dates you travel, with where you go, and with how you travel. You have friends on a place you haven’t been to? book a ticket there! You see an airfair deal to somewhere you haven’t heard about? book it! You have a long weekend? tag a few days off and make it a week!
- Expect nothing. To truly enjoy what a place has to offer, you have to let go of your expectations. Every place on earth has something magical to give, you just have to be open to seeking and finding it. Expecting something very specific about a place is bound for disappointment. Of course you will like some places more than others, but if you expect nothing specific, you will have a good time wherever you go. Your only expectation should be to learn and find ways to enjoy your stay. If you enjoy every trip you do, you will want to do more of them 🙂
- Know yourself. Understand what you enjoy and seek it wherever you go. For us it’s nature, food, adventure, and culture. Everywhere we go we prioritize these things – finding the best local food, chilling in green spaces, going on a heart pounding adventure, visiting museums about the local history, and talking to and learning from locals. Think about what experiences you enjoy the most, and seek those types of experiences everywhere you go.
- Make traveling a way of life. To truly experience places in a deeper way: stay for longer. Don’t get stuck on the tired definition of “a vacation”. Traveling doesn’t have to be one straight week off work. Think of traveling as a way of living, why not go 3 weeks (or 3 months!) to a place and work from there while taking weekends and a few days here and there? You will get to be in a place for longer, and get to experience it more as a local. With remote work now becoming common place, this will be even easier to pull off.
- Talk to locals. Talking and learning from locals is not only an important part of the traveling experience, but I promise it will make you want to travel more so you can continue to learn, and continue to be challenged by other cultures and other ways of thinking. I know this can be hard, but here are three ways to do it: 1. talk to Uber/cab drivers, some of the most interesting conversations I have had happened in an Uber, 2. talk to your airbnb host (if there is no self-check in :)), 3. book tours and talk to the guides and other travelers (almost everywhere you will find “free walking tours” of the city, and of course many others)
- Shake your fear. Forget about all the things you have heard about a place you might want to visit. Throw stereotypes out of the window. Don’t go on internet rabbit holes about whether a place is dangerous. As long as there is no active war or big internal struggle, just buy a ticket, book a place to stay, and go. I am not saying you shouldn’t be careful, just don’t let fear stop you.
- Invest in traveling with ease. Get things in place to help you travel with ease. I guarantee doing these things will make you much more willing to go through the traveling grind. Specifically, apply for Global Entry and Pre-TSA (if your state borders Canada go for Nexus as it includes all the above and it’s cheaper). I also highly recommend Google Fi for your phone carrier; forget about changing sim cards, in fact forget about sim cards all together. They partner with cell phone carriers around the world and just connect to the nearest tower. Having internet the moment you land is priceless.
In summary, GET OUT THERE! (safely) ;), and send your tips my way!