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Appreciating Differences: Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Nonconformity

What does the world look like after you’ve visited over 180 countries? For Chris Guillebeau, the author of The Art of Nonconformity blog, it’s full of cultural differences and possibilities. Guillebeau started the site in 2008 and promptly set a goal to visit every country in the world by his 35th birthday. Here, he talks to AFAR about travel hacking, setting priorities, and what’s next after he dunks his travel bucket list.

How did you catch the travel bug?
In 2002, I moved to West Africa, where I spent four years volunteering for a medical charity. I lived in Sierra Leone and Liberia and a few other countries in the region and started traveling both independently and on behalf of the organization. In 2006, I moved to Seattle for grad school, and I started traveling during every school break—for 10 days, two weeks, whatever time I had. And then in 2008, I started The Art of Nonconformity Blog and made the goal to visit every country in the world. I had been to between 50 and 100 countries by then and I had the idea to pursue this quest and write about it.

That’s a big goal. What compelled you?
The more I traveled the more I enjoyed it. I really thrived on the unfamiliarity and the culture shock, as well as the feeling of being at home in a place I’d never been. I found it addicting. I’ve always been big on goal setting and crafting projects around my goals, so that’s how this idea turned into a project.

I hear you’re a bit of a travel hacker. How do you take advantage of frequent flyer miles and round-the-world airline tickets to make travel more affordable and efficient?
Like a lot of travelers, I had accrued frequent flyer miles but never did a whole lot with them. But then I started learning about this other world of travel hacking, like earning frequent flyer miles without actually flying. So I started getting credit card bonuses; I started buying large blocks of frequent flyer miles on Ebay; and then I discovered creative redemptions, such as free stopovers. There was one time when I came back to the U.S. from Benin, Africa, through Paris, Washington D.C., and then Alabama to see family. Long story short, I got a free stopover in Seattle—on the other side of the country—with the same first-class ticket. And the whole thing cost about $1400, when an economy ticket from Benin to Alabama was around $1500. (Check out Chris’s story of turning $500 into more than 300,000 frequent flyer miles.)

So how many countries have you visited to date?
I’ve been to 183 countries, with 10 to go to reach my goal of 193 by my 35th birthday (April 7, 2013). It was 192 and then South Sudan became a country last summer. I used to be able to go on a trip and hit five countries, but it’s become progressively more difficult. Now, I’m repositioning from the other side of the world to get into a country or I run into a Visa issue. But I am on track, and it’s really fun.

How much do you prepare before a trip?
I usually have an itinerary fairly set, especially for more far-off countries. They generally have limited flights, so I’ll know when I’m getting there and when I’m leaving. I might know where I’m staying the first night or two, but after that, I try to keep the time I’m there quite open. I like to go for walks. I’m a runner, so I run in most countries and explore. I often meet my readers, who’ll pick me up and take me around, which I really enjoy. I feel like I get a much better experience that way than when I read all the guidebooks and plan something on my own.

What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned from your travels?
Travelers often say that people are the same all over the world. But I think cultures really are quite different and that sometimes we conflate the similarities too much. The differences aren’t necessarily bad; they’re interesting and fun. Discovering them is one of the best parts about travel. I’ve also thought a lot about priorities and values. It’s always good to ask yourself questions like if time and money were no object, what would you do with your life? Something that I learned early on is that I value experiences more than stuff, so I’ve made it a priority to see the world rather than own things.

Any advice for people who might be thinking about embarking on their own unconventional journey one day?
I would say don’t wait for one day. You don’t have to go to 20 countries in a year, but there’s probably one place that you’d like to go. When you ask people the question about what they’d do if they had no responsibilities, even people who don’t identify as travelers will say something about travel. So I always try to push people a little to make their one trip happen, not in the distant future, but maybe in three months. Even if you’re only saving a few dollars a day, over the course of a few months, you could probably make it happen. People often want the whole picture before they take the small step. I’m a big fan of taking that small step.

What’s next for you after visiting every country in the world?
People have been asking that for a long time, and I never understood what the big deal was until maybe a year ago. I thought I’d just keep traveling and writing books, which is true. But I do think some things will be different because I’ve had this focus for so long. So what will be next? I’m really not sure. What I do know is that it will involve traveling and connecting with people.