The Joy of Travel: 15 Little Things that Make Meaningful Travelers Smile

by Julia Zaremba

Leave the Mona Lisa and midday tours of the Colosseum to the white-socked tourists; meaningful travelers know that the magic of places goes far beyond the highlighted itineraries of guide books. In fact, once travel becomes synonymous with living, it’s the little things that make a big difference and bring travelers joy.

When living out of a backpack, especially for longer stretches of time, ancient monuments sometimes pale in comparison to the surprises and luxuries of everyday life. Whether it’s crossing paths with future best friends, unexpected stopovers that turn into trip highlights, or just a good dose of hygiene, globetrotters with a purpose take more pleasure in things working out (or things going horribly wrong, take your pick) than in another walking tour or pub crawl.

Girl hiking through a forest
Living out of a backpack means sometimes you skip the big landmarks and are blessed with unique memories to call all your own. These are the things that make us smile.

Been there, drank that, got a t-shirt, time to move on to bigger (or, smaller) things. Here are 15 joys of travel that, without fail, put a big, goofy grin on any diehard traveler’s face:

1. Knowing which bus to get on after a night out.

Each city has its own network of buses, subways, metros, traghetti, noris, and jeepneys, but they don’t always come marked clearly. Sometimes, a list of handwritten destinations scribbled on neon paper needs to be deciphered as buses race past, drivers need to be hailed down, and jumps need to be timed to the microsecond. Sometimes, it’s metro nets with 12 different lines and 195 different stations. When you finally know how to get from Point A to Point B without consulting a map, you might as well call yourself a native of that city.

2. Clean, dry clothes.

Socks smelling like Mom’s detergent are always great, but it’s even more rewarding after a week of hiking through muddy cloud forests, when soaked clothes have had plenty of time to start sprouting mold in zip-lock bags. There are some stains and odors where hand-washing just ain’t gonna cut it.

3. Running into friends on the other side of the world.

It’s always a great reminder how beautiful and small the world is, when you run into that overnight BFF from Zurich in Istanbul three weeks later. It’s even better when it happens so often that you stop to question it (but keep on being baffled by it).

Budapest, Hungary
That feeling of waking up in a new city after a long night of traveling.

4. Free, hidden museum exhibitions.

Who knew that abandoned train stations or local libraries had such awesome art displays? No one, it seems, which makes them even cooler. When the exhibition space is just as interesting as the gallery display inside, it’s a good attraction and one of the joys of travel that few people fully understand.

5. Speaking in a language you didn’t know you knew.

After a couple of weeks of language classes and real-world practice en las calles, you can finally order the correct smoothie from the fruit vendor. And while it’s more fun to memorize fruits and colors than to learn numbers, there’s a whole new world of possibilities when you can haggle at the local market, so keep flipping those flashcards over and play another round of vocab bingo.

6. Ordering coffee correctly.

Every country has their own breakfast coffee order: un tinto, un cappuccino, un café au lait, kawa czarna, ein Kaffeeand, it always comes in its own bean-to-milk ratio, cup size, and morning snack accompaniment. When you start the morning out with the right order at the bar’s counter, the rest of the day is a breeze.

Street art in London, England
Stumbling across a hidden (sometimes not so hidden) piece of museum-worthy artwork.

7. “Thank you” cards with crayon scribbles.

After volunteering with children or teaching an art classthere’s nothing that makes the heart swell and eyes fog up as much as a card of appreciation made out of construction paper. Those sticky-fingered kids will leave a huge smile on your face long after the last day of school, and you suddenly understand why every parent has a wallet full of photos and stories to brag about.

8. Waking up in a new city.

Whether it’s a night bus pulling into the terminal at dawn or just getting in late, performing the zombie shuffle into a hostel, and getting the first glance of a city the next morning, there’s something magical about starting your day in a place you know absolutely nothing about that brings travelers joy. Bonjour!

9. Kids that laugh at your corny jokes in front of the classroom.

We all know that most kids in English classes don’t want to be there, so when your ridiculous lesson plan is greeted with enthusiasm or students continue conversations outside of class hours, you’re more proud than Professor Keating when the classroom stands on top of their desks. This will tell you exactly what your ESL students think of you.

10. New stamps on the passport.

Bonus point if they’re in an alphabet you can’t read or were obtained on buses at border crossings. How could this not be one of the best joys of travel?

Barista at a coffee shop
Ordering the perfect cup of coffee in the local language.

11. Rain that waits until the right moment.

When the heavens open up and the rain starts to pour as soon as you finish your 25 kilometer hike or curl up in the train’s window seat, you can’t help but feel triumphant.

12. Rain that doesn’t wait.

Getting caught in the rain while hitchhiking might not seem like fun in the moment, but that dry bed and warm cup of tea always tastes better afterward. And, somehow, nostalgic narration and journaling is always better with raindrops.

13. Family dinners.

Family is a relative term. Whether it’s a potluck dinner at the hostel or home-cooked ratatouille with your host mom (yes, this really is one of the perks of living with a host family), delicious memories last long after food has been digested. There are few things that bond people more than passing down top-secret family recipes or sharing a bottle of malbec produced in the finca you’re staying at, so don’t ever turn down an invitation for a meal.

14. Stars that fade with the sunrise.

Late night conversations with strangers, hammock sessions, and long beach strolls are even better when there’s a sunrise to admire at the end. It’s amazing how, sometimes, shared sleep deprivation fills us with more energy than we had before.

Girl taking a photo of a sunrise
Long starry nights followed by a picture-perfect sunrise

15. Hearing your favorite song.

We end up adopting many special songs associated with places and travel experiences, but there’s an unparalleled thrill upon hearing your favorite song on the other side of the world (even more so if it’s some obscure indie recording, not just a Top 40 hit). Whether the beat drops into a familiar rhythm at a nightclub, the lyrics break through a crowded colectivo ride, or opening guitar chords echo through an empty, tucked-away café in the early morning, all sorts of nostalgia begins to bubble up and you’ll understand the joy of travel on a whole new level.

Travel is more than destinations; travel is the string of moments that make the journey. Both on a geographic and personal level, it’s the collection of milestones that create the odyssey for travelers with a purpose.

To travel is to discover, but trips don’t have to be big or extravagant to make for good memories and bring travelers joy. In fact, it’s the simple things that give us warm, fuzzy feelings every day on the road. So, slow down, play in the rain, take a look around, make a new friend, try a strange food, have faith in the moment, take in the joy of traveling, and smile.

Pledge yourself to meaningful travel by signing the Meaningful Travel Manifesto today!