How I Travel: Rolf Potts

By Steve Bramucci   |   June 20th, 2014   |   Comments ()

Rolf Potts: Career Vagabond

Rolf Potts is one of the world’s most beloved and accomplished travel writers. His work is incisive, funny and always marked by the author’s genuine affection for the characters he meets. Rolf’s books “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” are available online and at book stores.

Information and links to more of his writing can be found at and He teaches classes in the summers at the Paris Writing Workshop, and his book, Vagabonding, tops our list of Top 101 Books for Independent Travel.

This week we asked Rolf to share his travel philosophy with us for the “How I Travel” series.

I didn’t have a passport until I was 25

My first exotic travel experience was going to Colorado from Kansas at age six.

I’d never seen mountains before. I’ve been addicted to new landscapes ever since.

I didn’t see the ocean until I was 15 years old.

I didn’t have a passport until I was 25. I always tell people it doesn’t matter when you start traveling, or what your background is like. The world is out there for everyone to enjoy: You just need to stop making excuses and start planning your journey. I’ve gotten emails from 73-year-olds who are vagabonding for the first time and have never felt happier.

Rolf at Machu Picchu

Travel inspiration

It’s hard to beat Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”

I can think of no piece of writing that better evokes travel’s visceral power to make you feel alive.

The most amazing traveler I ever met was Mr. Benny, a 61-year-old Burmese refugee who cut my hair when I was living in Thailand.

The world is out there for everyone to enjoy: You just need to stop making excuses and start planning your journey.

I think of him (and refugees like him) whenever I get too cocky thinking about the places I’ve been. It’s one thing to go out and live adventures for fun and self-enrichment; it’s another to thing to go out and live adventures to feed your family. Mr. Benny merited two chapters in my new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. He was a more remarkable man than any of those North Face-wearing big shots who paddle oceans or scale Everest.

Want to travel like Rolf?
Want to travel like Rolf?

The importance of listening

I’m not an extrovert at home, but I tend to meet people constantly when I travel.

The secret is to take a genuine interest in everyone you meet, and be a good listener. It’s easy to forget how listening is the most important strategy when you’re getting to know people.

Rolf in Ethiopia

I can still be a “hopeless newbie”

As much as I’ve traveled over the years, I can’t help but feel like a hopeless newbie whenever I fly into a new place at the beginning of a trip.

This is actually a kind of cool feeling — like I’m continually re-experiencing the raw disorientation of a beginning vagabonder. I’d never want to feel too complacent on the road.

On the importance (or lack thereof) of guidebooks

As you become more experienced in travel, you learn to rely less on guidebooks. You also learn to better appreciate the meticulous effort that goes into researching them.

It’s remarkable how just a bit of culturally specific information can help you avoid misunderstandings.

If you’re going to read any section of a guidebook, read the pages about cultural and religious norms. It’s remarkable how just a bit of culturally specific information can help you avoid misunderstandings.

Rolf in the Greek Islands

A good, long walk and slowing down

Never underestimate the joy of a good long walk when you arrive at a place. Walking provides a great pace at which to get a feel for the city, to explore random neighborhoods, to meet people by accident, to get lost for a while until you can find your way back to your starting point. Walking enables you to be your own best guide when discovering a new place.

Learn to slow down on the road. It’s hard to stress this enough, especially to first-time vagabonders.

Not having a plan and trying new things

When people ask me where my next big journey will be, I say “Africa.”

I know that’s incredibly vague, but I prefer it that way. I’ll figure out the specifics once I get there.

You don’t become a travel expert by being flawless in your travels, but by trying new things and being willing to make mistakes.

One of these days, some random Vagabonding reader is going to recognize me while I’m making a fool of myself in some exotic corner of the world.

You don’t become a travel expert by being flawless in your travels, but by trying new things and being willing to make mistakes.

Rolf in Cuba

Some of the best experiences cost the least

I once paid the equivalent of 40 cents to stay in a guesthouse in Yangthang, India. It was up in the Himalayas, in Himachal Pradesh, just a few miles as the crow flies from Tibet. I shared a four-bed room with three Indian truck drivers, and if you needed to take a crap you had to go outside and squat behind rocks in the icy mountain air. My bed was warm, though, and I got a good night’s sleep.

Technology and modern travel

I’m a little bewildered by hostel-lobbies that have free wi-fi. I take advantage of the service as readily as anyone, but I feel like it can redirect the collective energy of a hostel environment into screens and keyboards instead of the immediate moment. No doubt electronic technology will continue to transform travel — but I hope hostels will always be a place where you can make lifelong friends through the simple act of sitting and talking face-to-face in the common room.

Simple travel tips

  • Always wash your hands before you eat. Such a simple ritual, but so easy to forget. Get into this habit, and it will exponentially improve your health on the road.
  • The smaller your pack, the less tempted you are to bring unnecessary gear on the road. It’s amazing how little you need to travel well — and the longer you’re on the road, the less you need.
  • Don’t let the unfamiliarity of foreign tongues keep you from traveling abroad. I’m horrible at picking up languages. But even lousy linguists can use language skills on the road. Everywhere I go, I try to memorize a few dozen phrases to get by — and even a small effort to speak a local language can open doors.
  • I love to travel solo, because it forces me to seek new experiences.
  • In this way, I am rarely alone.
  • Travel is a great way of being alive in the world. It forces you to appreciate each new day, each new moment. It challenges you to look beyond yourself, to encounter new cultures and new contexts, even if they’re two blocks from your home.

Rolf in the Falklands

I’m not much of a beach guy. Beaches can be gorgeous and fun most anyplace in the world, but I find I can never linger too long in once place with my toes in the sand. I prefer to wander inland and meet people.

Travel forces you to appreciate each new day, each new moment.

No matter where I’ve traveled in the world, I’ll always be a sucker for a North American road trip.

“How I Travel” is a BootsnAll series publishing every Friday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. 

All photographs provided by Rolf Potts and may not be used without permission

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Older comments on How I Travel: Rolf Potts

Eric Bayne
19 January 2010

Nicely put. I am 45 and just got my passport last summer. I put it to work within a week–I view all those empty pages as a challenge. I figure i will never be able to afford to vagabond for a year, so I might as well do it now.

Sean Keener
20 January 2010

Nice on Eric. I’m pumped that you are going for it. And BS – you could afford a year of vagabonding if that was your #1 goal! 🙂

Eric Bayne
20 January 2010

Yeah, I know. I’m just kvetching.

21 January 2010

Awesome article and very inspirational! Keep the words from the road coming!

22 January 2010

A great inspiration as I get ready to embark (Feb. 8) for my journeys to the unknown

23 January 2010

Just love the word ‘exotic’ associated with Colorado and Kansas!
Rolf, you’re a sucker for ye’ good old road trip eh? Don’t blame you with that one- must be part of the American genetic make-up.

Jacquie Whitt
23 January 2010

Travel like a sponge. (except when it’s raining)

Michael Phillips
24 January 2010

I love the idea of knowing the philosophy that experienced travelers use to make their way through the world. Post more of these!

24 January 2010

I’m glad you liked the article, Michael – and don’t worry, we’ll be posting more. Look for a new “How I Travel” article every Tuesday!

Trisha Miller
26 January 2010

Love the travel philosophy – much like my own. I’m an introvert at home, but love to take every opportunity when I’m traveling to learn something new, which generally involves meeting new people and really paying attention. It’s true that I travel with my laptop, but I only bring it out in the early morning or late at night, when no one else is around to talk to anyway.

Great idea for a series Jessica – I’ll be looking forward to reading more!

31 January 2010

My best friend and I have decided to leave the hubbies and kids for a trip cross country. Any place you’ve been that you would recommend? Traveling during the summer months and prefer off the beaten path for most if it if able.

02 February 2010

I could not agree more with “Never underestimate the joy of a good long walk when you arrive at a place.”

In fact, the main reason I travel is so I can go for a long walk somewhere new.

02 February 2010

Great article, great suggestions. Unfortunately most people can not understand how cool it is to travel and even less so on how can you travel with a small luggage. After travelling up to a month with carry on only,I am converted to the theory of taking half the luggage and twice the money.