What’s the single most important travel skill you can possess? That was the question Jason Moore posed on a recent episode of Zero to Travel, one of my favorite travel podcasts.
As Jason noted, this most important travel skill is more than the basics of finding good deals on flights or knowing how to manage logistical challenges. Knowing how to open and stow those tray tables that fit in the arms of certain airline seats without pinching your fingers — while an important travel ability — probably isn’t at the top. What Jason was referring to is a skill that will make your travel easier but that also transcends travel.
The most important travel skill is more than a skill
So was I. But I paused listening to the podcast and spent time thinking of what, to me, is the most important travel skill. If it is a skill, then it has to be something anyone can develop, not one of those coveted quasi superpowers of travel like being able to sleep anywhere at any time, eat any food without getting sick or have a snappy comeback to any vendor pitch anywhere you go.
It could, however, be one of those traits that some people have greater natural affinity for but that others can learn. Examples include storytelling, scoring tickets to sold-out events or being a “dorm whisperer” (that ability to get your drunken hostel roommates to quiet down at 3:00 a.m. in such a way that they thank you rather than fight you).
In pondering this single most important travel skill, I remembered a list I made a while back of ten things (skills, attitudes or traits) you can take with you that will improve any trip. I’ll share that full list next time, but of those, three stood out as possible candidates for the most important travel skill you can possess.
The close runners up from that list are openness and flexibility. And honestly, I could easily make a case for either of those as deserving the top slot as the most important travel skill. But there’s one other that I’m going to suggest as being the most important travel skill.
Which one makes it to the top?
First, however, let’s start with Jason’s answer. It’s surprising and highly practical: personal finance. If you can’t manage your money well, you likely won’t have the funds to travel. It’s a great answer. But I want to go a bit deeper.
To be fair, Jason’s answer focuses on a pure skill. I’m going to cheat a bit and expand my answer to include something that some might consider more a trait than a skill. But I count it as a skill because it is something you can work on and improve. So with that caveat, what’s my answer?
To me, the most important travel skill you can possess is this: curiosity.
Curiosity includes the need to discover, that drive behind exploration. While it may be fatal to cats, curiosity motivates travelers to expand their understanding of the world, both around them and within them.
For some, being curious is enough. But for others, the quest for knowledge becomes something more.
Beyond mere curiosity
A few years ago, I heard a radio interview with an education specialist. She was berating the use of standardized testing to a point where the interviewer finally asked, “Well, standardized testing in schools may be bad, but do we have any alternative?” The specialist replied, “Yes. There’s a test that can measure the one skill that, if you have it, will pretty much guarantee success in a person’s life no matter what field that person goes into.”
That skill? Love of learning.
Love of learning is like the Super-Sized version of curiosity. You may be curious to know a particular fact or have an experience. But a lover of learning desires to gain knowledge for its own sake. When you develop a love of learning, you can pick up the knowledge needed in any profession—or place—you enter. It really is a powerful ability and one you can cultivate over a lifetime. Love of learning will help you push through challenges and setbacks because you have this hunger to always be gaining more knowledge and, as a result to always be growing.
For the traveler, while a love of learning is helpful, mere curiosity can be enough. If you’re curious, you can learn in a variety of ways even if you don’t think of yourself as a learner. Too often, we equate learning with book learning. But you can gain knowledge in so many other ways such as through hands-on experience, stories, literature and film, engaging with others, taking non-academic classes (e.g. cooking, car repair, glassblowing, etc.), mentors, or a host of other ways.
But what if you don’t like to learn?
If you don’t think of yourself as curious or a learner, I want to challenge you on that.
When I was in grad school, I shared an apartment with a guy who taught me an unexpected lesson. I was filling out job applications at the time and told him how much I hated the paperwork. “I’m just not detail oriented,” I told him.
He replied with this gem of wisdom: “Everyone is detail oriented when it is about something they like.” So true. We can all get lost in incredible details for work or hobbies that delight us. Same with learning.
Developing your curiosity means finding the areas that matter to you. For the traveler, this can show up in a variety of ways.
Start by knowing your Traveler Type
It shows up most apparently by knowing your Traveler Type. If you haven’t taken the Traveler Type quiz, go and try it. When you do, you’ll find there are, in general, five types of travelers: Beginners, Creators, Adventurers, Connectors and Learners. The last one is a no-brainer in terms of love of learning, but what about the others?
Beginners are constantly learning. That’s how you move beyond the beginners’ state. You could just remain in that newbie mode trip after trip, but that would be like an endless string of first dates: fun for a while, but ultimately not that fulfilling. In any field, travel included, you’ll derive more pleasure from it when you attain some degree of mastery. Mastery only occurs through practice. And in the long run, practice only works if you enjoy it — or if you’re the child of a Tiger Mom.
For Creators, every new creation is an act of discovery and that itself, if a form of learning. Creativity involves problem-solving which, in turn, requires curiosity.
Connectors, those who travel mostly to meet new people or spend time with those they know, need to be curious if they are to engage well with new people and go beyond a superficial level.
Adventurers tend to be curious about what new challenge lies beyond that next hill. They also need to be good at learning new skills. For example, you may be great at kayaking, but if you want to mountain climb, you’ll need to learn how to rappel. Adventurers make it clear that curiosity and learning aren’t limited to intellectual pursuits. Muscle memory comes about as an act of learning.
The most important travel skill is one that keeps on giving
You can travel without curiosity just like you can eat without enjoying food. But if you cultivate curiosity and even more, a love of learning, every trip opens up with even greater possibilities because you’ll never be bored. There is always something new to learn everywhere you go.
Great travelers are curious. About others, about places and cultures and about themselves. They are continually learning and growing. It is rarely easy, but the rewards more than make up for the effort. That’s why I believe curiosity is the most important travel skill or trait you can have.
Then come back next time when I’ll explain ten other skills or traits that I could argue are (almost) as important for the traveler.