Long-term travel monotony & how to avoid it

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ April 30th, 2012. Updated on May 6th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » How to live overseas » Long-term travel.
Tourists at the Grand Palace in Bangkok

No longer able to face this? Maybe you're suffering from travel monotony or just "templed out"

Monotony and travel should not go hand in hand

It’s something few people get to experience. Both long-term travel and travel monotony. The latter has rarely been written about and is perhaps experienced even less frequently. But it’s there, and it’s better to know about it than be caught off guard.

I’ve dealt with both and can tell you travel monotony comes at you from many different sides.

An unexplored condition of the long-term travelers mind

And to a lesser extent people living overseas.

What is travel monotony?

It’s that forgettable shadowy passenger that follows you around to each town you visit. The one that makes your bags that bit heavier on any given day. The passenger that hugs close to you when it’s just that bit too hot of a day. The passenger that pulls at your temperament when someone local  either doesn’t understand you or is possibly trying to cheat you.

It’s when you arrive into a new town and don’t want to get up in the morning to explore it. It’s when you lose interest in talking about new cultures.

It’s when travel isn’t fun any more. It’s when inspiration is no longer there. It’s when travel becomes a routine. 

Travel monotony or monotonous routine?

There’s a key element here that one needs to comprehend.

Many long-term travelers work to sustain their travels.

While many people think of long-term travel in terms of a forever vacation. Or a life without responsibilities. The truth is if you are working to sustain your long-term travel then you are probably doing what everybody back home is doing too. You are working; and most likely working in a day-to-day routine.

So yes, you guessed it. The routine monotony of work is one of the key elements in understanding travel monotony and long-term travel.

There is another key factor which needs to be addressed before knowing how to deal with all this. And that is the “been there done that” mentality.

Long-term travel means you’ve seen it all

The airports, the overland crossings, the taxis, buses, reception desks, language barriers and the packing. No matter the country once you encounter them all on a regular long-term basis it all gets rather repetitive and dare I say monotonous or boring very quickly.

There you are looking at another guide-book page of must see places in the big city and day trips out-of-town and all that goes through your mind is “what an effort.”

The mere idea of another new food to try sends your stomachs taste memories of a plain old beef burger or fresh salad rattling to your brain.

This is quite simply the psychological effects of routine clashing with new experience. It’s rare to see them go hand in hand let alone experience them. So we need to learn how to deal with it to avoid becoming depressed or at best bored.

Breaking the monotonous routine

So you’re traveling long-term or living abroad and working to make ends meet but frustrated at being pinned down with the same old 9-5 type slog. Or in the case of many long-term traveler occupations that involve communicating with different parts of the world in other time-zones:   the 2am-10am schedule. Or perhaps the delightful time-zone work-shift of 10pm-1am, and then 6am- 10am. Adding 4pm to 7pm for the early birds depending on where you are.

Then mix it all up whenever you move into a new zone.

Who needs a regular sleep pattern when traveling long-term? And if you have a partner traveling with you then there’s a whole new balancing act to consider …

 Meanwhile here are a few ideas based on what I’ve done to break the monotony:

Filipino barbecue

Tired of random meats on a stick!

Hide away for two weeks at a time working non-stop. Then spend four weeks traveling. Or work one solid month, and then travel for three. It’s like shift-work but for long-term travelers.

Get a real job. Yes, stop your insistent internet related work and do something else. It doesn’t matter what so long as it breaks your routine up and puts food on your plate.

Example: work at the front desk of a hostel. Terribly unexciting I know but if you’ve been cooped up staring at a laptop for months every night it’s very refreshing!

Offer to teach someone conversational English for a week in exchange for money, food or lodging.

Find some people from your own linguistic region and talk to them about anything other than travel or work. Yes, a plain old conversation about nothing can break things up.

Remember these aren’t career paths or money-making ideas. These are simply things that will break the monotony of your long-term travel workload.

Breaking the monotonous “seen it all” routine

Go outside your comfort zone. The only reason you feel like that castle or temple is so boring is probably because you’ve been visiting castles and temples for the past few months.

It’s call being “templed out”.

Yes, my phrase. And to get over it means you need stop visiting temple after temple!

Go visit a hospital for sick children, it’s a reality check. Visit a prison or a refugee camp. You might need to get the name of an inmate but it shouldn’t be too hard and again it’s one big reality check.

Don’t like these things? Tough. Go visit another temple and tell me who had a more interesting day. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it less interesting. And guess what, you’ve just shattered your monotonous day.

Visiting the same old sites

Tired of meeting people who are excited by a day trip to climb a nearby mountain, village trek or yet another museum? Me too. Happens all the time. I do one of several things. I try to find at least one interesting person in a group that can converse about anything other than where we are going. The conversation alone will be worth it.

Or I simply opt not to go. Simple as that. Just because everyone else is going, doesn’t mean I have too.

Here’s an example. The Everest Base Camp trek is no big deal in the peak season for many people. I’d absolutely hate to do it in peak season though! With the trails full of people and with only the odd challenge of finding a good tea house to stay in it’s simply not my thing. So I opted not to go during peak season and went during the off-peak winter season.

Any regrets? None whatsoever.

Making life exciting

Even with travel, if we’ve been doing it a long time, it can become routine. And just like people back home we need to add a little extra excitement or adrenaline rush into our day-to-day lives to make us feel alive. This is normal, and natural.

Our DNA is set up a little differently to how we live our lives today.

Where once we might have encountered a mountain lion while out hunting for dinner, today our biggest challenge is finding a good parking spot.

So we now most commonly counter all this by injecting some adventure into our lives in the form of hobbies. Be it watching a movie, playing a video game, going on hikes or whatever we feel gives us that feeling of being alive!

This is very much a neglected part of long-term travel.

Embrace pet projects when traveling long-term

You’re long-term traveling or living abroad. One of the things that a regular lifestyle has that’s often neglected in long-term travel are indeed hobbies. Yes those things we do for enjoyment at weekends or in the evening to make us feel good. These things that are so often put on the back burner when traveling.

Abandoned building in Romania

One of my hobbies while traveling is urban exploration

Used to play computer games back home? Feel guilty having them on your “work” laptop or playing them instead of embracing the new culture you’re around? Don’t be. Install a game and enjoy a night of blowing the heads off aliens.

Find a local gym. Yes, find a gym. They are everywhere and if you are long-term traveling the chances are you’re really not that fit anymore. Walking around a city all day doesn’t count. And being fit makes you feel better anyway.

Go and make a big deal out of movie premier. Yes, just because you are traveling doesn’t mean you can’t go and watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster and escape from reality for a while.

Urban Exploration. Yes well okay this is my own portable hobby. I like to explore abandoned buildings.  And yes there’s a lot of us out there. It’s really a great way to break up the monotony of long-term travel as every place is new and unexplored.

What’s more you’d be surprised how searching for an online forum for your hobby in a new country will bring you many great and new friends!

Had a hobby back home? Great, now either kick-start it again, or if that’s not possible find a new portable hobby.

All of the above takes a little effort. You’ve just got to weigh up the balance of which is more important: monotony or breaking it.

Linking routine and the seen it all mentality to overcome monotonous long-term travel

The solutions I adhere to work for me. Why? Because the solutions involve going outside ones comfort zone. It’s not easy to encounter monotony when you start to do things you don’t normally do.

Give it a chance. Hate it, love it, embrace it. You’ll soon appreciate your old travel ways again. And when the monotony sneaks up again, you’ll know what to do about it.

This is an additional feature article dealing with long-term travel monotony 

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Speak your mind, all opinions welcome - leave a comment below

29 Great responses to Long-term travel monotony & how to avoid it

  1. Barbara says:

    So true! After 21 European countries, I really did start to get bored seeing “the same old cities”. I had to go for the unusual, visit a small town, or just do some normal non-sightseeing stuff for a while. Isn’t it interesting, though? Travel burn out. Who would have thought? :)

  2. Great ideas Dave, I’ll come to you for advice should the monotony kick-in ;)

    ..and hey, I didn’t know you were into urbex? Cool, it’s one of my favourite things to do when travelling (or when at home, for that matter!).

    Nate

  3. After my years on the road I have to say that I’m rarely bored as I always find the excitement of new places and experiences still very intense.

    Having said that, I do get over-saturated by new experiences during long overland trips of 6-months-plus and need to slow down periodically. So I stop to work (and to cash-up, too) or have reclusive art creation holidays and meantime restrict myself to small localized trips until I get restless enough for the road again.

    I personally find English teaching good for my ‘slower travel periods’, settling into a new place to immerse a bit within local culture for awhile while working 15-25 hours per week maximum so to have lots of spare-time for hobbies (like sorting out image archives or making art or …)

    Still, my main hobby remains travel; so the road always beckons …

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

  4. Good stuff as usual. Despite what many people may think, it’s pretty easy to get into a monotonous routine when doing long-term travel. You hear about travellers getting “templed out”. I found that just staying put in one area for a while helped. The ever-changing trains, buses, hostels, guesthouses all combine to take the excitement and joy out of travel. Just staying put helped to revive the sense of adventure again.
    John

    • Strange how we all function a little differently. If I stay in one place too long I don’t really want to move. I quickly find nice places to eat, good internet and start to make friends.

      Of course it’s not always like that. And it does take a certain type of place that makes me want to stay that bit longer.

  5. Jason says:

    A great insight into a way of life that very few will ever have to deal with. I’ve met allot of travellers, from all walks of life and in all aspects of the travel world. Many say they would love to travel indefinitely (given the chance), but I feel if it were put before them. Most would fail.

    Extreme long term travel, like what yourself Dave and Michael (and a few others) are doing is quite rare, and I feel it’s suited to a certain type of person.

    Maybe it’s a skill that can be learned, or maybe it’s something that is inherently installed into our DNA. Who knows, but I know after almost 5 years of almost constant travel. I was burned out and needed a break from that way of life.

    What I do feel is that with modern technology, it may be far easier to live long term on the road today that of yesteryear. Being able to stay in contact with friends and family may seem like a pain to those on short term trips, but for those on long term, open ended journeys it can help you feel connected. I’m not sure if you fall into that basket Dave, but I feel it would have helped me over the journey.

    • Some good points there Jason. And I’d like to address a couple as I think they are interesting.

      To me it’s kind of strange and annoying to read people say they’ve been traveling for “x” amount of years only to read they’ve been spending “x” amount of time at home with mom & dad. It’s kinda of like saying I’ve been traveling 32 years because I’ve been traveling since I was born. Am I off the track there? Or am I the only one this term nags at?

      The secondary thing your comment resonates is that throughout writing this article I couldn’t help but wonder who would actually “get it”. Certainly people such as yourself and Michael would. But as a whole I wonder how many people have actually, really, felt this, and worked through it?

      Lastly to answer your question about technology being a help or not? Hmmm. Yes, and no. I started off with only a laptop, email and online storage. Now I think there’s not much I don’t have. It’s a hindrance only because of worrying and carrying equipment constantly.

      When I went to Everest Base Camp I did wonder … “what will happen when I’m offline?” I certainly don’t have a mass of assistants to help me out. I was offline for two days this week and when I logged in I had over 40 emails waiting. That bit is not good.

      I also don’t think guidebooks have become good enough to work on phones yet to warrant not having a paper based one somewhere. Especially for remote traveling. So, as much as I like technology. It is much like the 1990′s office going paperless. It’s actually more work at this stage.

      A good comment Jason, I enjoyed it hence I wrote a lot back!

  6. I think it depends on the person as well. Not everyone is cut out for a continual life on the road, and some people take to it better than others. There’s routine in anything and everything we do as humans.

    In my opinion, it takes more strength of character to break away from the routine of suburbia than it does to overcome the rigors of travel, but then again my primary passion for doing what I do as a full-time expat/nomad keeps me going. That, and I am so passionately against ever being locked into a cubicle that I am always looking for new ways to move the career ahead…and those have always been ideas related to the next country.

    Sure, some things get old…like the never-ending chain of taxi drivers trying to get you for a few extra coins, the never-ending line of gypsies and pickpockets looking for a quick win and you stand out with your camera and your foreign gear…but the lure of the open road overcomes all of that, for me.

  7. When I saw this title on Twitter I thought “First World Problem” – lol. But it’s true long-term travel can cause burnout and monotony. When you wrote “if you are working to sustain your long-term travel then you are probably doing what everybody back home is doing too” it reminded me of working as a freelancer/self-employed writer. It sounds free and possibly a bit glamorous but is a real hustle! You end up working more than at a 9-to-5.

  8. Anis says:

    I’ve never gone through travel burnout- the longest I’ve ever travelled non-stop was one month. That’s pretty pathetic compared to what you or some of your commentators have done so I can’t really contribute much, but I suspect it’s only possible for independent travellers to experience burnout. I can’t imagine travel writers/bloggers who’ve been going on luxury tours or Press trips for the past 10 years to experience travel monotony. Or is that an unfair statement to make? :P

    • I don’t think that’s an unfair statement at all! I can only hazard a guess that you are correct in saying it would indeed break the monotony of travel. Then again, from what I’ve heard, many of these trips are not too stimulating in terms of independent travel. But for a first timer, yes, I would imagine it would break the monotony of something else :)

  9. Ooh, I hate monotony with a passion. It’s forcing yourself to make your relationship with life, a place, a person, a hobby… work, when it’s no longer new or exciting. It challenges you to go deeper when you just want to drift. It’s a ticking clock feeling I hate. Death.

    I’m not going to pretend to know how you feel as a long-term traveler. You probably live a non-standard monotony. I know after passing through Asia, some things start to feel repetitive and a little too similar or familiar. I like what you said about ‘templed out’. Hilarious but true.

    Living as an expat, may be a tweak different than a long-term traveler. Maybe. But I’m no long-term expat. Although monotony is inevitable (& comes in fits and starts) life as an expat on the whole was exciting even when it was boring or upsetting. There was always a challenge around the corner and the objective was to assimilate and go deeper into the environment; where every little tick is a mystery and hidden key to unlock understanding… of how to make your life work smoother. Most of the time, you’re gunning for understanding, a sense of stability and mastery and this takes time. More than a year. In that sense, monotony didn’t feel burdensome.

    As travelers, that’s a journey that doesn’t feel as accessible unless you’ve been in a place for a while. Everything is novelty & stays at that level.

    Excellent piece though, Dave! Always learning something new with you.

    • Very much agree with your opening paragraph. Though personally I liken the word content with death in such a scenario. A slight exaggeration, but sitting around with the same old thing day after day … no thanks. The only exception is when someone jumps out at you and says here’s death, are you ready. Then one suddenly see’s content in a whole knew light!

      Expat’s are surely different to long-term travelers. There are more bridges than with short term travelers of course. And the expat term change. People keep telling me their expats when they’ve been overseas in a country for only 3 months. Technically they may be expats, but I always look at expats as people living long-term or permanently overseas.

      I really think the key to all of this is to just mix things up a little. Keep on challenging oneself.

      • “People keep telling me their expats when they’ve been overseas in a country for only 3 months. ”

        ha ha.. I find that funny too. I think people need to award their emotional endurance. And it sounds really cool to call yourself an “expat” vs. something like “squatter”. Hey, I kinda like that term~ “I ‘squatted’ in India for 3 months! (toilet puns aside)” It’s like when people count their airport layovers. Everyone needs a personal myth, a way to feel great in their minds. If they challenged their norm, then they are.

        But it’s still annoying to those who worked longer and harder at it.

        ‘Long-term travel’ is as vague. This is where I get semiotically challenged. There’s your kind of Bear Grillis long-term (ha ha), RTW trippers long-term and my whimpy version (i.e 7 months of non-stop travel after Korea..). I always feel like I’d offend with my definition, but as a 2-3 week sprinter, that was my tolerance for marathon travel.

        Peoples’ approximations with definitions are weird; their reliance on them, even weirder.

        • Yes your right with people trying to award their emotional endurance and using terms like expat quite loosely. Much like the overland traveler who’s done nothing but book everything through a tour agent.

          So yes, maybe it’s about time to lay down some non-relative terminology. I’ve had a rough draft for a while. Time to conclude it I think. Incoming article on the way … Let’s see how your approximations with definitions differ from mine!

  10. ps guess that makes you … jaded.

  11. Tyrhone says:

    Great article, I go through these stages on a fairly regular basis. Love the hobby thing, for me it is learning guitar, writing a book, and working on a game. All newish experiences, and I get to do them between site seeing which as you say, does keep it quite fresh.

    Thanks for the tips :)