Why You Need to Travel More. My Conversation with Journalist and Travel Expert Amy Nelson

Why you need to travel more — starting now — to lead a more rich and rewarding life. 
By Stephen Dupont, APR, vice president, Pocket Hercules

When you live in an interesting place like Mendota Heights, Minn., you’re bound to meet some interesting people.

And so it is with Amy Nelson, one of my neighbors, whom I recall meeting for the first time a number of years ago at Somerset Elementary (arguably the best elementary school in the world), where our daughters were enrolled as first graders.

In her role as travel editor for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Amy has brought to our little part of the world, stories from all over the world, and even our own backyard. Stories about the sounds, tastes, sights and experiences that feed the soul, and allow our imaginations to wonder and wander.

As one of her Facebook fans, it seems like Amy is in a perpetual state of travel. One day she’s in Iowa, the next she’s in Prague. Not New Prague, Minn., but Prague, the capital city of The Czech Republic, considered the Paris of Eastern Europe. She makes travel look so easy and fun! To me, the hidden message of her Facebook posts on travel say: “Put down the brochures, get off your laptops, go out there and just do it. Wherever you end up, there’s something new to learn.”

And so, over a cup of coffee at our nearby Caribou Coffee, I asked Amy: “What can travel do for us? How can it make us stronger and more confident? How can it re-energize us? How can it make us more informed? How can it help us lead more rich and rewarding lives?”

Here’s our conversation:

Stephen Dupont: It seems to me like you’ve traveled all over the world. Exactly how much have you’ve traveled and where have you traveled to?

Amy Nelson: I’ve been lucky enough to have visited about 25 countries — mainly in Western and Eastern Europe — as well as about 40 states in the United States.

I studied for a semester in Spain as a sophomore while attending the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. When I was 25, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Eric Sander, and I backpacked through Europe for three months. We started in Amsterdam and traveled eastward to Turkey and circled back up through Hungary, Romania and The Czech Republic.

Amy Nelson and her husband Eric Sander.

Right after I returned from that trip, I started graduate school at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in the journalism department and worked as a journalist and editor in the Twin Cities for the past 20 years. I was named the Travel section editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2006. It was my dream job as I had a chance to work with writers and do some travel writing myself. I left the job as Features editor — also overseeing home and garden, food, health and lifestyles coverage — in January and now am freelance travel writing and exploring the world. You can find my stories at http://amykaynelson.com/ or follow my travel-writing channel at https://twitter.com/@atmytravels.

Stephen Dupont: Did you travel much as a child? Is there a particular trip that you recall taking as a child that has inspired your travel as an adult?

Amy Nelson: My parents were great at taking us camping and fishing regionally, but we didn’t do too many “get on a plane and go somewhere” trips.

I recall roadtripping to St. Louis, Missouri, when I was about 10 and sleeping in the back of the station wagon, which was broiling hot. My wanderlust started after I decided to spend a semester abroad in Spain in 1989 as a sophomore in college. That’s what kickstarted it all. My parents were really surprised I was willing to take that adventure. I was kind of surprised too, but I’m so glad I did. It really was a life-changing semester.

Stephen Dupont: How have you incorporated travel as part of your marriage and raising your family?

Amy Nelson: My husband and I started traveling quite a bit with our kids when they were in elementary school. They are both in high school now. Our first international trip with them was when my son, now a 9th grader, was in 3rd grade and a friend was living in Lyon, France, on a Fulbright Scholarship. We went to visit her and have been traveling to Europe almost every year since. My kids are great travelers now and my husband travels a lot for work, about 12 weeks each year. When we travel with the kids, we ask them to plan a few days of our trips so they get to see what really interests them and also teach them how to research an area and be more invested in the journey.

My husband also earned his private pilot’s license as a hobby a few years ago. We like to take short trips to camp at state parks or just take a daytrip to see the fall colors.

Stephen Dupont: I remember a Facebook post where you and your family found your way to the highest point in Iowa. Why is it important to go to places like these?

Amy Nelson: We drove to the highest point in Iowa a few years ago over a weekend after we had just joined the Highpointers Club. It’s a national group of people interested in visiting the highest elevations in each state, some locations being way more difficult to visit than others, obviously.

Some highpoints are an easy drive up or a relatively easy walk, others require months of planning for hiking and permits (Denali). Some are on private property so are only open a few times a year (Charles Mound, Ill.).

Highest point in Illinois.

Some members of the group have visited all 50 states, which amazes me. You don’t have to be a member of the club; you theoretically could just visit them on your own.  But it’s interesting to be part of the group that features profiles of members and offers tips on each location in its newsletter.

Since Iowa, we’ve visited the highest points in Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois, but not Minnesota, yet. Getting to each site is not a must-do for me right now — but when we are traveling, it’s something to keep in mind to check out if we are nearby the location or looking for something unique to do while on the road. We are geocachers as well, which offers a similar thing to do as a family to make travel more interesting and engaging.

Stephen Dupont: Is travel best when you do it with others you love or care about?

Amy Nelson: In general, yes… Making those memories together and having a shared experience is always a benefit. I’m sure my kids will remember the Thanksgiving we spent in Paris over the many Thanksgivings we’ve spent in Minnesota, but travel can be stressful and frustrating and overwhelming, too.

Everyone has a different travel style — some people just want to chill out on a beach for a week, others want to visit every museum there is or make sure they hit all the highlights. Figuring out which style you prefer and accommodating others can definitely be challenging.

Stephen Dupont: How has travel informed your work? Do you feel travel is helpful in gathering new ideas, new perspectives, or new stories?

Amy Nelson: Along with my degrees in journalism, I have a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, so travel definitely lets me practice my lacking second-language skills. And, of course, it helped with my job as travel editor. But more importantly, yes, any travel helps broaden your horizons, just meeting new people and learning about their cultures and our similarities and differences helps shape coverage and broadens my awareness of the world.

Stephen Dupont: Do you feel travel is necessary to keep learning? To stay curious?

Amy Nelson: For me, it definitely helps, but I realize it’s not necessary for everyone. It’s sort of one of those phenomena where you don’t realize how much you don’t know until you do it. I’ve worked with some colleagues over the years who maybe don’t have the luxury or means to travel like I have — or it’s just not their “thing” like I’ve made it a priority for me — and they are still excellent at staying curious and challenging themselves to keep learning. I also have met some travelers over the years who are in this foreign location for their job and not necessarily as a journey or vacation. They have no desire to explore the city they are in or to meet the residents. They stay in their hotel room and order room service and get their work done. That’s just their style or personality, but for them travel isn’t required to remain curious.

Stephen Dupont: Has traveling helped you in understanding economic or political events? Has it given you more context to understanding complex issues?  

Amy Nelson: Absolutely. Nationalism with #Brexit; immigration with Syria and Greece; World War I and II history throughout Europe. We were in France right after the United States election of President Donald Trump and had a very interesting conversation with a restaurant owner on his views of our country. I initially expected him to poke fun at us Americans for electing a reality TV star and political outsider, but he had some valid points to contradict that.

We also were visiting a Jewish cemetery in the Czech Republic just last month when some Jewish cemeteries in the United States were vandalized. Just knowing that history in Prague and elsewhere made that news more personal, more impactful. My daughter also had the opportunity to live in Sarajevo last year during her high school year abroad and she has such a great understanding of that conflict and about that area of the world now and has been sharing.

Prague, The Czech Republic. Photo by Amy Nelson

Stephen Dupont: How has traveling abroad made you feel about being an American? One of my friends, the president of a local company, says that after traveling to some parts of the world (such as walking through a giant factory in China), he feels like he’s won the lottery for having been born in America.

Amy Nelson: The first time I realized that traveling as an American can be seen as negative thing was when we backpacked through Europe. I wondered why everyone had Canadian patches on their backpacks but nobody had American flags. It led to some interesting conversations and surprised me because I hadn’t felt any of that negative view when I had lived earlier in Spain. So that’s a long way of saying I do feel lucky and grateful to be traveling as an American and I know with that comes a responsibility to represent Americans in a good light.

I think maybe the word your friend meant was “privileged.” Which we are. But I refuse to feel guilty about having the opportunity to learn from other cultures and countries. It’s a great gift to travel, absorb, learn, and share. I try to leave a positive impression as an American, too. So if my dinner at a highly rated restaurant wasn’t that great, I likely won’t mention it. But if the kebab shop on the corner or the draught beer that stick in my memory are worth writing about. I will do that.

Stephen Dupont: Which places have provided the most inspiration to you?

Amy Nelson: The places that are the most different from my life in Minnesota: Spain because it was my first full immersion into a different country and culture; Japan for its crazy, frenetic sea of humanity that seemed like overwhelming chaos until I realized everyone else knew and followed a certain code and then it was fine; Turkey for exposing me to a completely different religion and lifestyle, shocking me a bit at its treatment of women.

One of the most memorable and sobering locations was touring the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. I had read and watched many stories of the Holocaust, but visiting the physical location was a haunting experience.

Stephen Dupont: When I travel, I like to experience local foods. And I like to pick up local newspapers and try to understand what’s important to people in the locations I’m visiting. Do you have any rituals that you engage in when you travel to a new city?

Amy Nelson: One of my favorite things to do is find a local grocery store or market and just walk the aisles and look at the different products and their prices. I try to do this on every trip and even ask other shoppers what something is if I can’t tell from the packaging. I’ve gotten really good at pantomiming “eat?” I’ve discovered $45 square watermelons in Japan, $2 bottles of wine in France and $10 reindeer bites in Sweden. A friend recently pointed out that grocery shopping still remains one of the truly different shopping experiences in a foreign land, and I realized she’s right. It’s easy to find a Gap, Nike or Zara in nearly every big city. A different friend who travels quite a bit and is a marathon runner says she loves to take a run in each city she visits to see the sites and explore the city. I’m not that ambitious, but I love that idea as a way to explore a new place.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Food and dining too are universal unifiers, right? Everyone has to eat and some do food better than others. I look for restaurants that look like they are filled with locals instead of mostly tourists. I like to figure out ahead of time what dishes that locale is known for and order those. Some of my best travel memories are based on meals I’ve shared: discovering that fresh avocadoes with sour cream are spectacular at a flat in Paris or when we had to order a second “miracle” pizza with fried eggs on top at a café in Croatia.

I like your idea of picking up the newspapers too. I haven’t really done that, though I should! If we have rented a car, I do find it fascinating to surf the channels and listen to the ethnic music or the pop music. I’ve noticed it seems like European deejays all sound the same — with a pumping bass sound and then a scream before the next song.

Stephen Dupont: For someone who is feeling stuck in their life or their career, what’s the one place to which you would recommend a trip to “re-fill the well?”

Amy Nelson: That’s a tough one because everyone recharges differently: maybe it’s something active like a bike trip across Ireland, or a spiritual journey to an ashram in India or helping others like volunteering in Haiti (none of which I’ve done, though would love to.)

Prague, The Czech Republic

But, if you want a destination recommendation, I’d have to say Prague, Czech Republic, where I just returned from in February. It’s really the perfect place to “sample” Europe — it’s walkable, friendly, extremely clean, safe, gorgeous and still relatively cheap. My husband and I had visited there in 1995 when we backpacked through Europe and even then it was being touted for its beauty as it emerged from Russian rule, but this last visit made me realize how well it has progressed. During the last few days of our week there in February, we did a few things that weren’t as “touristy” and got a better sense of what Prague and its people are really like. It was remarkable.

Stephen Dupont: What is the best meal that you’ve ever had while traveling?

Amy Nelson: I love this question because it’s the best one to ask as an ice-breaker with anyone who travels. The replies are varied, fascinating and diverse. I have two answers: Goulash in Budapest in this tiny restaurant we discovered along the way. It was so great that we went back a few days later to the same place and realized we got the tourist menu the second time and it wasn’t nearly as good. I wonder if that first meal seemed so remarkable just because I compared it the second time or if I’d still remember it without that second visit. The other fantastic meal was at The French Laundry in Napa years ago. It was perfection, as it should be for the price!

Stephen Dupont: You’ve traveled by car, train, and plane? Maybe you’ve biked or motorcycled? And certainly, you’ve walked and taken public transportation (buses, subways).  Do you have a preference in how you travel and does the mode of travel matter to the learning experience?

Amy Nelson: I have traveled via all those modes, including, ahem, crashing a moped in Greece. But over the years I’ve discovered one of my favorite things to do is to get on a public bus and either figure out my route ahead of time or just ride for several blocks to get a sense of the neighborhood and see the sites. I’ve found the subways in most large cities to be efficient and easy to navigate, but I don’t like going under the city miss seeing the storefronts, restaurants, urban gardens and parks on the surface.

Stephen Dupont: What are the three most valuable lessons you’ve learned through your travels?

Amy Nelson: I would boil it down to these three:

  1. Realize that your actions are representing your home country or state. Act respectful.
  2. Even if you’re completely lost, trust that the world is a good place and people will help you.
  3. You’ll never regret the adventures or experiences you take — only the ones you don’t.

And, if I could add a fourth: Sometimes those travel horror stories, like getting robbed in Spain or food poisoning in Washington, D.C., will be the most memorable part of your trip.

Stephen Dupont: What do you feel are the best travel blogs or websites to research your next trip? Are there any travel guides or books that you recommend?

Travel expert Rick Steves

Amy Nelson: I’ve been using Rick Steves for nearly 30 years now and it still does travel right. In 1995, when my husband and I were planning our backpacking tour, I sent the Rick Steves organization our itinerary and I still recall all the notes and advice they offered. This was just as the Internet was emerging, so we had to pack heavy travel books as part of our trip. When I was in Prague last month, I downloaded his walking tour podcast of Prague and spent two hours listening to that while I walked the route. It was the perfect way to see the city.

I also really like Atlas Obscura and to hit a few of their oddball suggestions.

I also subscribe to a number of online newsletters, there are so many out there!

Diehard Packers fans at Lambeau Field.

Stephen Dupont: When you travel to a foreign country, do you attempt to learn some basic phrases to make it easier to travel?

Amy Nelson: Yes, it’s just rude not to. My favorite response to a Frenchman last year when I asked, “Parlez vous anglais?” was, “Yes, but my French is better.” He had me there.

Stephen Dupont: Do you have any favorite books, movies, or TV programs about traveling that you would recommend?

Amy Nelson: “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr for French; “Paris, je t’amie” for French; anything with “Globe Trekker” host Ian Wright.

Stephen Dupont: Tell me a bit about the traveling high school your daughter attended?

Amy Nelson: She attended Think Global School (TGS) as a sophomore in high school and our son has applied to attend next year. It’s an incredible program. It’s a traveling high school, so each quarter they live and study in a different country. Our daughter lived in Great Britain, Sweden, Bosnia and Italy for about three months each. Next year, if my son is accepted, he will live in Botswana, Japan, India and Spain. Giving them this global education is a gift, for sure. They study with other teens from around the world and experience immersive cultural events such as feeding reindeer at the Arctic Circle or picking produce at a local farm. My daughter’s favorite location was living in Sarajevo and learning the history and culture of Bosnia. She’s keenly aware of international conflicts now and really can put them in perspective, something I certainly couldn’t do at age 16.

Beyond TGS and traveling together as a family, we have become involved in the Rotary Youth Exchange program, currently hosting a high school junior from Japan in our house and then sending our daughter to France this summer also as part of that program. It’s a great organization that recognizes the benefits of international exchanges.

Stephen Dupont: Thank you for sharing your passion for travel with us Amy.

Amy Nelson: You’re welcome. Thank you so much for including me and letting me reflect on what I love to do!

For more stories like this, visit www.stephendupont.co.

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis.  Contact Stephen Dupont at www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont or visit stephendupont.co.

3 comments

  1. This was an inspiring post. I enjoyed reading about the different locales Amy has visited, as well as her insights from traveling. I have always found travel to be the best way to see and experience the world and to grow as a person.

    Q&As can be dull but your questions led to a story. I couldn’t stop reading, and now I want to book a trip!

  2. First of all I would like to thank you for sharing such a great blog. This post will be really helpful to many people who are planning to travel the beautiful Prague. There are lot of beautiful sites one should visit during Prague tour. But I think you have missed out one popular most popular location that is Prague zoo. Prague zoo is a must visit site.

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