How Can I Convince my Friends to Travel Overseas?

Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world

10.05.09 | 1:42 PM ET

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

I’ve unsuccessfully tried all the major arguments to encourage my scaredy-cat American friends to travel internationally. I’ve told them I’ve traveled around the world without incident. I’ve told them that travel overseas is no more dangerous statistically than driving across your hometown. I’ve told them how Europeans and Australians think nothing of traveling in developing countries with their children in tow. But no matter which tack I take, the reaction is usually a rote certainty that “travel to Destination X is dangerous.” I drop the matter, not wanting to be rude.

What am I doing wrong?  How can I convince my friends to travel abroad?

—Paul, Sherman Oaks, California

Dear Paul,

Your arguments are all reasonable, accurate and time-tested, but I think what’s going on here is that your friends don’t really want to travel overseas.

To those of us who love international travel—those of us who’ve been transformed by it and have become addicted to it—this notion might seem astonishing. Who on earth wouldn’t want to travel the world? Well, in reality, lots of people. In fact, those of us who love travel may well come off as the weird ones sometimes—and it’s a good idea to tread carefully with our travel-love when we’re around friends and family. Earlier this year, Elisabeth Eaves wrote a great essay in these pages about wanderlust, noting how “I couldn’t look at the glossy cover of a travel magazine, or browse the travel section of a bookstore, without getting a lump in my throat.” I’ve had that same lump in my throat, and odds are you have too. But many people haven’t, and needling them with information and justification won’t change that.

This isn’t to say that your friends can’t still be won over—but often this is a gradual, subtle process. Just as an evangelical Christian is more likely to win converts by living joyfully in his faith than by droning on about salvation, the best way to win over travel skeptics is to humbly allow your overseas journeys to deepen your life. Over the course of many years, as you return from exotic places energized and inspired—with your body (and bank account) intact—your friends may start to take an interest. Once they start barraging you with questions of how and when and where (instead of just why), odds are they’re seriously starting to consider their own international trips.

A good strategy at this point is to answer the “who” question for them—i.e. offer to have them meet up with you during one of your own journeys. Your companionship and confidence will help allay their fears on that initial overseas trip, and odds are they’ll catch the travel bug in the process. I’ve seen this happen with none other than my own parents, who didn’t own passports until I talked them into visiting me in Korea a little over 10 years ago. A few years later they joined me in China and Mongolia, and a few years after that they joined me in Paris and Prague. Now, in their 60s, they’ve become salty overseas travelers, eagerly looking forward to their next journey.

So in the end you’ll just want to be patient with your friends. Some of them may never travel overseas, and that’s fine. But for those who may yet be converted, your best strategy is to quietly enjoy your own international travels, and keep at it until your friends can’t help but want to join the adventure.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


10 Comments for How Can I Convince my Friends to Travel Overseas?

Maya Northen 10.05.09 | 2:04 PM ET

As a travel planner, I see my share of clients who either do not like to travel overseas or are afraid to. Then they have to for some reason or another and end up falling in love with it. One of the major reasons I hear for people not wanting to travel is their fear of not knowing the language, the customs, the food, etc. My suggestion is to start them off with something “easy” such as London - or the English countryside for those who aren’t into cities.The food is, for the most part, relatively familiar and though the accent can be tricky at times, we speak the same language and they have many customs and shops similar to our own (just don’t have them rent a car and have drive on the opposite side of the road!).  If you ease them in with a seemingly “less scary” foreign experience, chances are they will enjoy it despite themselves and want to slowly get more adventurous with their destinations.

Another thing that works for me is pictures, pictures and more pictures! When I went to Southern Africa this year, so many friends were concerned and wondered why I would go there. Then I showed them my pictures and they were awestruck. I guess the scenery, images of Cape Town and up close shots of the Big 5 animals wasn’t the image they had in their mind. Now they are much more interested in Southern Africa as a destination!

Sorry for the long response :-) I hope this helps!!

Trisha Miller 10.05.09 | 2:13 PM ET

Maya beat me to the point I was going to share - pictures!  If Paul would share photos of some of the highlights of his trips - especially those that show people having a good time - it would go a long way to convincing his friends to join him on a trip.  I hope for their sake that he succeeds!

Steve Trent 10.05.09 | 8:49 PM ET

I think it is fascinating how to some people the thought of world travel is the most exciting prospect, and to others it is incredibly intimidating. I have been a dedicated backpacking for 5 years now, and I don’t see a reason that i will stop anytime soon. It is the most amazing and highly addictive experience I could ever imagine.

I met a guy in Queenstown, NZ last week actually, who claimed to be writing a book about this very topic. he gave me his website if anyone wants to check it out. http://www.beyondthevacation.com
It seems like he hasn’t got a publisher yet, but from the pages I read, it seemed really interesting. Long live the world traveler!
Take care my friends!

Andy 10.06.09 | 12:33 AM ET

In America you can drive forever and see a huge range of landscapes and enjoy a variety of different climates all without leaving the country. If you want to run from the law you can go to Mexico, and if you want to run from the army you can go to Canada (lol) ... but that’s as far outside the country as you might need to travel.

brian 10.06.09 | 11:10 AM ET

I think the best thing you can do is have the time of your life on your trips. Your natural happiness about traveling will come through when you talk to your friends.

You also have to realize that you can talk until you are blue in the face but some won’t convince THEMSELVES to travel internationally. There is nothing you can really do about that.

Kathleen 10.06.09 | 5:37 PM ET

Although my sister enjoys traveling, it was like pulling teeth to get my brother-in-law to go out of the country.  He was pretty much entrenched in his “absolutely not!” mode.  We finally managed to get him to London (everyone speaks English) by renting a timeshare that provided a “safe,” comfortable “home” in a strange land.  We rented a very reasonable timeshare from http://www.redweek.com at the Odessa Wharf on the Thames River.  Staying there was more fun than popcorn, especially the Ship and Whale Pub that was right next door. The owners were so friendly that when we went to leave my brother-in-law insisted on stopping by to say good-by to them!

Christine Myers 10.10.09 | 11:40 AM ET

As Jenna Schnuer points out in her Chinatowns post, the diversity of American life makes cultural exchange an everyday possibility.
Here are some baby steps that reluctant travelers might enjoy.
1. Celebrate together. Honor the holidays of different traditions: Indian Sikhs, Vietnamese Catholics, Hmong Buddhists, Orthodox Greeks.
2. Arts performances. Watch for a Celtic dance troupe,  Senegalese ballet, Taiko drummers,  Korean choir.
3. Language Exchange. Once you’re learning another language, practice with someone who is learning English.
4. Practice communication. Go to the farmer’s market to meet farmers, artisans, or someone outside your daily life.
5. Welcome foreign visitors. Contact your local community college to find a foreign student to invite to dinner.
6. Help out. Take advantage of organized service opportunities to build bonds.
7. Travel exchange. Try a road trip to a different part of the U.S. and arrange a ‘homestay.’
8. Study Geography. Use GoogleEarth to take a good look at any place in the news as well as see others’ photos.

phi phi 10.11.09 | 4:27 PM ET

Show them the pictures or videos!

Steve Sayre 10.16.09 | 7:09 PM ET

Andy - are you joking? Is the extent of your international travel Mexico and Canada?  If so, I suggest trying another continent.  You might discover a few things.

My partner and I have traveled extensively overseas (R, your book Vagabonding was a major inspiration, btw), and we regularly invite friends to travel with us.  After several major attempts to enlist friends to accompany us - including creation of full itineraries that included hotel options and tours - and *still* meeting with resistance, we gave up.  You can lead a horse to water….although in this case, we couldn’t even do that.  The excuses were all BS:  I have to work, I can’t take the time off, my mother/father/grandmother/whatever is ill and I need to be around.

The only person who has ever joined has joined us on our travels overseas is our friend Katrine, who’s from France.  (Is anyone surprised?)  When we set up plans to travel, we don’t even hint that we’d welcome some company.  Besides, I don’t want to travel with a high-maintenance somewhat-reluctant gringo who doesn’t see the value of cultural exploration, adventure, or personal challenges.

Andy 10.17.09 | 12:33 PM ET

Steve ... remember ... the journey is the destination. Perceiving a location as exotic or worthwhile is all about the perspective you have when you arrive there. It doesn’t matter where you go, or what you do when you travel if the intent is to share new experiences with valued friends in new settings and situations. You can just as easily do that by focusing on what is new about your experiences when you travel in the good ole USA where your friends might have a better comfort level. Be like water and BEND my friend. It isn’t as if the US, Mexico and Canada aren’t CHOCK FULL of natural wonders. The North American continent boasts landscape and scenery that can’t even be approached by that anywhere else on God’s “used to be green” earth. So add a little flexibility to your itinerary ... I’d be surprised if your friends didn’t pick up on the fact that its no longer “all about where Steve wants to go” and become more encouraged to come along. You might also derive personal benefit from having taken the rare opportunity to do something truly different from what sounds like your normal “modus operandi” ... i.e. to accommodate rather than to push.

As for me ... I’ve traveled well beyond the shores of North America ... and in fact will likely travel completely around the world by the end of this summer. But then again I belong to the worldwide tribe of nomads who travel and blog their wanderings for people of all other tribes to share.

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