Coming Home from a RTW Trip: Adjusting Your Expectations

On a RTW trip we arrive in countless foreign, strange locations with nothing but an out-of-date guidebook and a general idea of where the cheap hostels are. Yet often, the most intimidating and unanticipated destination to which we travel is back home. This is likely because the return can be packed tighter with rigid expectations than your 50 liter pack: we need to get a job, we want to assimilate seamlessly back into our former lives, we feel compelled to equal the contemporaries we left behind in social and career status.

But when we are preparing for a trip, expectations rarely make the packing list. The best traveler is an empty Moleskine page, completely without preconceptions of a place, its culture, and its people. Things rarely go according to plan, and in fact we often welcome and even appreciate the wrinkles, rips, and rain stains in the travel map because they often lead to the most unexpected and satisfying experiences.

But why we are so tolerant of change and unpredictability on the road when back home these things seem so stressful and discouraging?

Much of it probably has to do with responsibility. On the overnight buses and multi-day boat trips, it’s really only you, your curiosity, and your open return ticket, whereas back home it’s also your rent, your cell phone, your car, your email account, your cubicle, and your addiction to caffeine. But beyond that, when we are traveling, there is far more acceptance of the plan being not to have a plan because agendas are often what cause stress and disappointment, and that is decidedly not what traveling is about. So if we can take our travel mindset and the lessons it teaches us and apply it to our return home, the experience can be far less nerve-racking and intimidating.

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I’ll be returning in a few months after two years abroad, smashing like a Toyota crash dummy into a concrete wall of expectations that is two years behind most of my friends – not to mention where I thought I’d be at this point in my life career-wise. Part of me questions if I made the right decision to travel, if I’ll feel out of place or left behind in an American society that encourages immediate absorption into the work world.

But the other part of me has been conversing with long term travelers for the past two years and has realized that though we may brag about how many borders we’ve crossed or who has the most horrific visa story, there really isn’t a sense of competition and superiority. Most indie travelers realize that the trip isn’t about expectations and checkpoints, but how you internalize your experiences and how they make you a better person. We may not have gotten a recent promotion or salary bump, but would we have made the decision to engage in RTW travel if we really valued these as significant contributions to our personal development? In the end, we chose to visit new cultures and broaden our worldview while others chose to advance their career and enrich their home life. It’s important to recognize that, like traveling, it’s not a contest.

Most indie travelers realize that the trip isn’t about expectations and checkpoints, but how you internalize your experiences and how they make you a better person.

Though admittedly, this is difficult to do when faced with one of the greatest pressures and expectations of returning home after a RTW trip – getting a job (because of a dwindling bank account, the need to survive, and the urge to validate the decision to travel) – even though a job means a desk, a schedule, and only a prescribed, standard amount of vacation days. A job can be conformity, turning you into a functioning cog in the machine of the American dream, and we can grow to resent a job because it often represents a completely different mindset and lifestyle from the one we adopt when we travel. This could be the greatest argument for pursuing that ultimate of cliches, “get a job that makes you happy.”

And perhaps what we learn most abroad is that the pursuit of happiness takes many forms. Whether it’s a three day trek to a UNESCO site, or an eight month journey for spiritual maturity, or a lifelong pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee, our fulfillment when we travel is typically not about money. Traveling puts into perspective the idea that the prestigious title and corresponding salary may pale in comparison to the occupation that keeps the snooze button idle.

Still, when we head home we may be expecting or hoping for a certain salary to achieve a desired standard of living. You may have enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle before you left, or you may have lived and traveled abroad in areas where your home currency was very strong. But as long term travelers, we have contentedly survived months with just a backpack, a dingy hostel room, a cold shower, and three pairs of underwear. Often the pride of a nomad is how little they can carry and still function. That 70L pack rarely fits into the taxi trunk and packing your closet causes back problems, yet we hardly ever apply the “pack-light” or “one-bag” philosophy to our everyday lives.

Honestly, how many possessions and promotions and status-reinforcements do we really need? When we finally do return home from time spent wandering, we may not be equal to our peers in all regards, we may not have the perfect job organized and we may not be able to dine out or buy cocktails or live in a three-room apartment. But we did travel. And in doing so, we learned to disregard our expectations and accept circumstances as they come, viewing our life and our journeys like a window seat, not necessarily knowing or planning what’s coming next, but keeping our eyes and minds open and anticipating nonetheless.

Have you traveled long-term before?  How did you deal with expectations when you returned home?  Comment below to share your experience.

Check out the following articles and resources to assist you when coming home from a big trip:

Every week, on “Round the World Wednesday” we share tips for planning, budgeting and selecting a route, plus advice on where to go and what to see and do all around the world.

Photo credits: AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker, Robert S. Donovan





Leave a Comment

  • Meandering Woods said at 2012-05-16T10:24:39+0000: After coming back from a 3-month RTW trip in 2007 (http://meanderingwoods.com/2007/01), life seemed underwhelming. I didn't have that adrenaline rush of being on the road and master of my own destiny. There was no dodging Mafiosi and corrupt cops, haggling with street vendors, barely catching trains, excitement of the new place you're going, etc.To your point about responsibility, I found I hadn't shed it on the trip, but shifted it. My responsibility when traveling was to myself and those around me. When I was back, it was to my job and the trappings of living in the US. Ultimately that's what led me to go back out on the road for a longer trip.Planning and strategy led me to a job that had me traveling, developing skills that I could use anywhere and connections to be able to sell those skills. I set a goal to be back traveling in 5 years and made it. Although truthfully I could have been ready in just two, but I didn't realize how easy it really was to do.But if you're tired of being on the road and want to come to a more stable and settled life, that's certainly understandable. I found that I took charge of your life more after the traveling than I did before, and you probably will too. The harrowing experiences teach you to embrace a challenge and overcome it. The planning and making your own direction teach you to go where you feel is right, not just where the herd goes. And the knowledge that you spent the last 2 years completely in charge will give you the confidence to succeed without fear.
  • Janice Nason said at 2012-08-17T15:39:33+0000: I was laid off in Sept 2011, and took my severance with me to Asia where I traveled for 3 months. I came home, waiting for that "I've figured out who I am and what my purpose is" feeling to come to me, to help me decide what jobs I should now be applying for to help me be in the right place for my lilfe. I know I've changed, I can feel it, but I can't see the changes and have no idea what I should be doing for work. As soon as I returned home I started planning my next trip, obsessively, to Africa. After 3 months home I headed back out to Africa for a month. Now that the money is gone and I need to start worrying about mortgage payments, I'm still having a hard time coming to terms with being tied to a real job again, getting the standard American 12-15 vacation days per year, and losing any hope for freedom that travel allows. I know I need to be a big girl and just get a job, but it's the committing to saying goodbye to the ability to travel freely and often that's hard. I've decided to get involved with the couchsurfing.com community, in an attempt to stay connected with travelers and still make those connections that you'd likely not make in your 'normal' life.
  • Carmen Miller said at 2012-08-08T14:50:11+0000: After living abroad for 6 years, I have been back home in Australia now for 6 months, and am still finding it hard to adjust..it's kind of hard to explain, but feeling disconnected, isolated and a bit cut off from my old life I guess. The old kicks I used to get out of things at home aren't there anymore. We all change and grow as people as we travel, and I suppose our views and expectations change as well.Thank you so so much for this article, you have literally hit the nail on the head for how I'm feeling right now. I thought that feeling this way was 'selfish', I have seen so much and had so many great experiences, explaining how I feel to my friends and family back home somehow makes me feel like I'm ungrateful.I have a few travelling friends who have moved back home after years away as well, and they all basically had the same feelings. And when I say 'So when did it get better?' they say, 'It doesn't. You just make new friends, find new things to keep you happy and get involved in activities that engage you.' Feeling like going away again would be taking the 'easy way out'.. so for the time being, I'm on solid ground.
  • Enjoy The Journey said at 2012-05-16T14:27:11+0000: We have just decided that we need to return home in the next month, this is hugely unexpected as are travel plans have always been open-ended. And after 8 months on the road we've seen some fabulous things and realised that a nomadic lifestyle is definitely for us. But in order to take our business to the next level and deliver a large contract we need to get back to England. As a commitment to our nomadic life-style we are planning to house-sit when we get back, meaning we'll still be experiencing new things, new cities, but in our own country. Although we'll need to enter into contracts for a car and a phone, keeping these as minimal as possible will ensure we get back on the road after a few months of living at home.I agree with the comment below, traveling gives you the confidence to take charge of your life and find your own direction. There will certainly be no more desk jobs for us, and staying away from annual rental contracts means we can pick up and leave whenever we please. I don't think we'll ever live a 'normal' life again. http://enjoythejourney.org.uk/
  • Toni DeBella said at 2012-05-16T14:43:50+0000: Greg, I arrived back to the US after 3 months abroad and although I was not trekking on Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was living in a different culture and language. I didn't want to come back home, but making money was a imperative. I tried to have a positive attitude and be pragmatic about the "reentry" into American life, but it always puts me into a weird space. You are correct when you say that traveling is a mind-set, a way of being that opens you up to the next new experience and renders you self-reliant. Coming home gives me a feeling that "I've been here, done that" and I long for the road again. I started working a job just 5 days after returning and surprisingly I am feeling better about things. There is something to be said about have a fixed schedule and being productive that gets you in the right frame of mind. I am working towards another trip in 6 months and I think I can make it happen....November through January return to Italy! Meandering Woods is correct - after what you have accomplished traveling around the world, Greg, you can do anything! Welcome home.
  • Heather Hopkins said at 2012-05-16T20:00:34+0000: Thank you very much for writing this article. It seems this is a rarely discussed experience among travellers, although something we have all witnessed - "how long till we can leave again?". I have been struggling with homecoming 'sad' for a while. Our family slow travelled (and settled for some time) overseas for over three years. Family responsibilities brought us back home to Canada and I have had a difficult time adjusting. The reasons mentioned by you and in the other comments really struck a chord for me. I also notice that I feel socially connected in a great way when I'm travelling - really 'out there' - and 'normal life' feels more isolating. Also, the sense of novelty and interest in daily activities is difficult to muster, no matter how hard I try! :) Looking forward to reading more comments, and thanks again!