The word “travel” often evokes idyllic images of open roads, breathtaking landscapes, and distant, bustling cities. Travelers and creatives on Instagram make their journeys through these far-flung places seem effortless. However, what we don’t see, what goes on behind the lens, is often the uncomfortable truth about travel. Whether planning for months on the road or a quick trip abroad, learning to accept the unexpected is the first step in having a great trip.

Here are three tips to bear in mind for getting the most out of your next adventure!

Living to let go

Rearview mirror of a vanAs my partner and I were planning a month-long road trip around the United States, we couldn’t help daydreaming about long stretches of open road, beautiful mountain hikes, and awe-inspiring photographic opportunities. Our social media feeds had instilled in us what we thought was a clear picture of what waited for us on the road. But as we set out in our rented camper van to traverse the length and breadth of the U.S., we were faced with the hidden truth that not only is traveling difficult; it’s often an experience that is completely out of your hands.

What we hadn’t thought about while fawning over the perfectly curated images from our favorite Instagrammers was the simple fact that life on the road is precarious. We take a lot for granted in our sedentary lives, but traveling often breaks down expectations and barriers that we carry with us, making us more comfortable living without the amenities we take for granted. This letting go of what’s controllable and familiar helps us foster better connections with the people we meet thereafter.

A person gazes out over the desert
A person looks up at a steep rock face

A van sits parked in the desert with large rocks behind

Being comfortable with the uncomfortable aspects of travel is vital for getting the most out of your experience. Living out of a backpack stored in the back of a van for a couple of months demanded that we let go of the polished versions of ourselves that we can perfect and maintain within the confines of routine life. After nearly a week of wet-wipe “showers” and simple food, it dawned on us that to live by the essentials is liberating in its own smelly way. We found ourselves appreciating the elements of our lives that had become unconscious by force of habit. A morning coffee turned from a humdrum necessity to a wonderful wake-up ritual. We’d each sleepily gather around the ashes of the previous evening’s campfire to recount our wild dreams from the night before and map out the day ahead. Something so simple now took on new significance in our leaner lives.

Allow the unforeseen

The world moves around us, not for us. This was made ferociously clear as we ended the first leg of our road trip on the drive through northern Texas, from Dallas to Amarillo. We landed in Dallas in the evening, having just come from New Orleans, and our plan was to head north to Montana from Amarillo. We realized that we needed to make up the extra time spent reveling in the sweaty delights of the south with a night drive toward New Mexico, so, as the sun set, we bundled our gear into the van and set out, weary but ready for the night ahead.

Or so we thought. Just a couple of hours outside of Dallas, we saw small spears of lightning on the horizon. Pulling over, we sat on the roof of the car and gazed at the intermittent flashes dancing far away into the night.

Clouds signal an impending storm
Lightning strikes in the background

Soon, the distant rumble of thunder began to creep overhead and eventually, the storm crashed above us and torrential rain began to flood the highway, which was all but invisible save for what our headlights could illuminate through thick sheets of water. With worry nagging at our minds and water sloshing at our tires, we drove cautiously through the darkness. As the lightning struck the road around us, we came to understand that worrying was our mistake. To get through this storm, we had to relax and find the thrill in the experience. We turned up our favorite album, Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut, and — without phone service or sight of another vehicle — persevered against the raging elements. The storm was out of our control, but how we felt about it was not.

Opening ourselves to the unforeseen allowed us to find the delight in what would have been an otherwise uncomfortable experience. Despite our worries, we found solidarity in the chaos. Once we’d cleared the worst of the weather and reached our camp in the serene quiet of the Rita Blanca National Grasslands, we jubilantly remembered the previous night’s drive.

All of this showed that, sometimes, the most incredible experiences arise from the uncontrollable and that it’s the mindset, not the itinerary, that makes travel so worth the while.

Listen to the locals

Halfway through our trip, after finding it difficult to book a place to stay in Aspen, we rented a room from a couple we’d found on Airbnb. As we parked outside and went to greet our hosts for the first time, we were a little apprehensive, having never done something like this before. We soon realized, however, that we had no reason to be nervous, as we received a warm welcome. Over a cold drink in the evening sun, we got to know our hosts better while enjoying the views and hearing the experiences of those very different to ourselves. The talk soon turned to our plans to head north, and our hosts told us that they could show us the roads less traveled.

They recommended heading west through Castle Valley in southern Utah and down to Arches National Park before turning north toward Salt Lake City. As we all pored over old road maps, our hosts even pointed out an obscure region in eastern Utah called Nine Mile Canyon, an isolated valley road scattered with petroglyphs from ancient Native American societies.

The next day, with warm hearts and full bellies, we set out upon our revised route. While it’s always helpful to have a general direction, it’s important to revel in what you find along the way. GPS is an amazing tool, but don’t let it rule your ride, as it might have you miss out on what could be some of your most treasured memories.

The route to Arches, following the directions we’d sketched out the night before, was nothing short of spectacular. Along the way, we drove through empty, winding canyons; nearly got our van stuck in the desert after the GPS tried to take us off road toward a ghost town; and found the perfect spot to watch the sunset from our campsite in the desert. Overall, the locations our gracious hosts had recommended proved wonderful. From then on, we took every opportunity to chat with the locals, who each had their own story to tell and guidance to give.

So, when planning your next adventure, remember to allow yourself the headspace to live in the world you’re traveling through and truly take it all in. It might just make all the difference when you look back.