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Travel Education When You Go Abroad

I’m not the only one who has said my travel education was much more lasting than my many years of formal education. I absorbed much more about geography, history, politics, and economics while backpacking around the world than I ever did cramming for tests. My educational travel continues to this day, every time I’m outside of the country where I grew up.

education through travel in Peru

Is it possible that spending a lot of time in other countries can rewire your brain? Can it make you smarter–or at least more knowledgeable about the world?

When you travel for weeks or months at a time—beyond bubble travel like cruises and gated resorts—you can’t help but notice patterns, trends, and differences in the culture. You’re in nature, in cities, in museums, and seeing attractions.

So history, religion, architecture, and even marine biology present themselves in everyday case studies. You are reading, listening, and absorbing things to do in Iceland for example, and hopefully getting insight from locals along the way. 

Educational Travel in a Class

You can also take advantage of local learning opportunities you never could at home. There are plenty of formal options for studying abroad, of course, but also many short-term options meant for just the sheer joy of learning.

During our first around-the-world trip we stumbled upon a batik workshop in Yogyakarta, Indonesia that offered classes several times per week. On one overcast, drizzly day, we learned the basics of how to create a batik painting and walked away with our own crude works of art. After hours of going through the multiple steps required to create them, we gained a great appreciation for the paintings and hand-made craft items we found in markets and museums from then on.

On the same trip, my wife Donna took a 1-day Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For about $20, students learn about all the key ingredients in Thai cooking, how basic dishes are prepared, and a hands-on introduction to exotic fruits that show up regularly in local markets. At lunch everyone ate what the class had prepared. 

On a later trip with our daughter we did another one. Then when I returned to Bangkok later for the conference, I did a third. I got a lot of insight into the local food and culture each time. 

Thai cooking class

While these introductory day courses are fun, many travelers opt for more immersion, or even formal certification. We met plenty of people studying massage, getting a scuba certification, learning Chinese calligraphy, or working toward a higher skill level in yoga or Buddhist meditation.

If you have the good fortune of being in one place for a while, take advantage of the learning opportunities. When I taught English as a second language in Korea, quite a few teachers attended Tae Kwon Do classes. Some English teachers in Japan learn intricate origami or how to conduct a tea ceremony.

Taking language classes in a foreign country is a popular and useful learning experience. In most of Latin America, it is easy to find a Spanish immersion course for a few hundred dollars per week, sometimes with room and board included. But why not combine it with something that gets you out of your seat? Learn the tango in Argentina, the merengue in the Dominican Republic, or the samba in Brazil. In most cases, the additional cost will be minimal and it will add another dimension to your language learning.

Think of all the short, inexpensive adult classes offered in the city where you live now. There is probably a similar long list where you’re going—just take a look around and start asking questions. Or check the listings at services like Airbnb Experiences, Eatwith, Viator, or GetYourGuide to get an idea of what’s on offer. 

Beyond all the fun and games, international learning experiences can be one of the best ways to give a possible career choice a trial run. Through a short-term volunteer program, you can be “in the trenches” and see if what sounded interesting and fulfilling in theory actually is in real life.

The book Volunteer Vacations, for example, has a categorized index in the back for different types of opportunities. Some of these include archeology, conservation, preservation and restoration, marine research, medical work, and even train maintenance. Some programs are obviously meant more for wealthy people trying to do a little good on a break, but many others cost a minimal amount to register and will cover your room and board.

Travel Education Through Open Eyes

In these times of “alternative facts,” closed-mindedness, and xenophobia, there’s a reason why frequent travelers and expats are so perplexed and angry. We are literally seeing the world from a different perspective than those who have seldom set foot outside of their comfort zone.

travel education in Cambodia

Politicians on both sides travel the world, but you usually could have missed their foreign visit while you took an afternoon nap. Politicians are always on a very fast, very orchestrated visit that is set up to ensure a safe and predictable jaunt. They’re in and out with motorcades and security details. The only things they know about foreign cultures are what they read in reports—and that’s assuming you’re talking about one who bothers to read.

Anyone who has traveled the world for a few months or a few years–outside of the confines of the military–knows that you tend to see things differently after you have spent months in foreign countries. Once you get back home, people who see the world in terms of black and white suddenly seem like cartoon characters. The aggressive and gleefull materialism around you now seems disconcerting and childish. Religious fanatics on all sides start looking like the same clan, but with different chants and costumes.

Once you’ve seen true poverty and a struggle to feed one’s family, people living on the government dole in the US, Canada, or Europe don’t seem to have it too bad. Once you’ve seen much of the world’s population using an outhouse, hauling water from a well, and cooking over wood coals, the struggle to buy a nicer BMW seems rather insignificant. The whining over “good jobs” moving to India or Indonesia seems preposterous when you see how those workers can do the same thing but for less than ten dollars a day. 

But most importantly, by traveling you gain that broad liberal arts education that most schools aim for but seldom achieve. When you are moving from city to city and country to country, geography is not some esoteric concept represented by dots and lines on a world map. Geography is suddenly something you experience every week.

History is not some regurgitated set of facts to be forgotten once the test is finished. Instead, it is a living breathing past that affects most of what you see and experience. Architecture is not some study of styles and building materials and dead people. It’s something you see and feel and walk inside to experience for yourself. You learn about linguistics, economics, world literature, and political science during your educational travel, all without even furrowing your brow.

education through travel Bulgaria

You don’t learn about the religions of the world from some dry textbook. You hear the call to prayer from a mosque, you see Buddhist monks with begging bowls streaming to the temple at dawn, you see the Hindus bathing in the Ganges and sprinkling flower petals into the water. You learn what makes these religions what they are and see how they affect the lives of everyday people.

At some point you wonder about a profound question: What would happen if the fundamentalist Hindus had been born on a farm in Alabama? Or if the right-wing Christians of America had been born in the deserts of Algeria? Or if the Zionist Jews had been born in southern India instead of Eastern Europe or Russia?

Would they believe that culture’s overriding faith just as strongly? Or would they be just as brainwashed, but in a whole different faith?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but by being an educated traveler I recognize the questions in the first place. I’ve learned a lot from circling the globe multiple times and taking other jaunts to places besides a package tour beach resort. Mostly I’ve learned that the world is far more complicated than most non-travelers think it is, and that no, we are not all alike. At a basic level yes, most of us want to survive, be happy, be healthy, and take care of our family. After that though, values diverge quickly

As Russians continually show us, we don’t even “all want freedom.” Some people just want some stability they can count on. As fanatical Muslims show us, the desire to blow up someone of a slightly different form of the same religion can be stronger than the fundamental will to live.

Does Travel Make You Smarter?

travel education in nature

Travelers do seem to have their eyes, ears, and minds open wider. It’s a natural side effect of seeing other places through the people who grew up in very different circumstances. The synapses are firing more when each day brings a new set of sights, sounds, and smells we haven’t encountered before. 

When I first started writing about this idea back in the ’00s in a column I had in Transitions Abroad, there wasn’t really any solid evidence though that travel makes you smarter. Inherently we travelers thought so, but we didn’t have any study to point to proving it. 

In the years since, researchers have looked into this and confirmed the validity. This study was especially conclusive. 

Those who were asked to recall their thoughts and experiences living abroad were able to solve over 50% more problems than those who weren’t primed. They discovered that creative enhancement was considerably higher for students who said they had adjusted to the foreign country they visited. In other words, students who are accustomed to international situations were better problem solvers and had higher creative improvement than those who had no experience abroad.

Here’s the source material

This one is rather dry to read, but it showed that more time in nature tends to make a person’s brain work better. You can get into nature regularly near where you live, of course, but long-term travelers tend to get out into nature more than your average worker going to an office each day. 

Other studies have found that travelers tend to have higher life satisfaction scores and a study on chimps in Uganda found that the ones who traveled farther on a regular basis “were more resourceful and intelligent than those who didn’t.” This study on retired people found that those who travel have 75 percent higher rates of mental stimulation, and 82 percent have an increased ability to “get things done.

So pack up the travelers backpack and go learn something! Take advantage of natural opportunities for a travel education. And hey, for Americans, travel is much cheaper than the university. 


Friday 1st of December 2023

Love it. Another good article and timely for me as I just arrived in Australia yesterday and am co-leading a university study abroad trip next week. I love reading the articles my students are sharing and what they want to do while here. The whatsapp group is so lively with their excitement and our course discussions about social issues are so much more engaged and intense than "normal" courses are. It's really amazing to see how people pull together and how much we all learn from new places but for students who may not have traveled out of the US before, it's truly life changing.

Tim Leffel

Tuesday 12th of December 2023

Thanks for sharing this story, great to hear!


Monday 27th of November 2023

Amazing articles, very helpful and informative. Thanks for sharing it