x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Practical Traveller's fantastical five-year plan

Serial traveller and new columnist Chris Guillebeau explains why he's undertaken a voyage to visit every nation on Earth.

Chris Guillebeau - Departures. Courtesy Stephanie ZitoThanks to his love of airports, Chris Guillebeau sometimes changes his flight to make sure he has enough time to experience all the facilities on offer. Courtesy of Stephanie Zito
Chris Guillebeau - Departures. Courtesy Stephanie ZitoThanks to his love of airports, Chris Guillebeau sometimes changes his flight to make sure he has enough time to experience all the facilities on offer. Courtesy of Stephanie Zito

Chris Guillebeau lives what he calls an "alternative" lifestyle. Several times a year, typically for two or three weeks at a time, he leaves the comfort of his home in Portland on the west coast of the United States for a new adventure. Sometimes he'll go to places he's been before, but he'll always visit several new countries, usually on at least two different continents. He doesn't backpack or visit the usual list of tourist sites or eat particularly strange food. He'll walk, run, lie on park benches and stay in business hotels or cheap guest houses. Last year he earned a million air miles and points, and in the past decade has gained nearly 1,000 passport stamps. He works as he travels, stopping every few days to answer hundreds of e-mails and conduct meetings and interviews over the phone and internet.

When I talk to him by phone on a layover in Seoul, Guillebeau sounds like an ordinary guy, clear-headed and chirpy, which strikes me as unlikely, given the circumstances. He's just flown from Portland to Los Angeles to Honolulu to Majuru, the tiny capital of the Marshall Islands, from where he also visited Micronesia and Palau. Tomorrow, he's off to Uzbekistan; after that, he'll fly on to Australia before heading back to the United States. And the best thing about all of this, apart from the fact that he's ticked off five new countries, is that "almost all of it is free".

Guillebeau is a travel demon, on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world before his 35th birthday in April 2013, he's already at number 160 (out of almost 200). With no parental support or sponsorship, he has become an expert at working the system. His flights to the Marshall Islands were paid for with Continental air miles; his side trip to Uzbekistan was courtesy of Delta miles, and his Australia flights with Qantas were booked through a partnership with American Airlines. His complimentary stay at the Westin in Seoul was obtained using Starwood Preferred Guest points.

Guillebeau's wanderlust perhaps has its roots in early childhood, when he left the United States to live in the Philippines with his mother and stepfather, who was deployed there with the American Air Force. "Living off-base was probably the best part of the deployment, since I wasn't sheltered and learned to ride jeepneys up and down the street by myself when I was seven years old," he says.

Yet, the focus of his challenge came far more recently, after the events of September 11, 2001. "Everyone in the world seemed a bit depressed," Guillebeau says. "I wanted to make a difference and was inspired by a story I read on the internet about a surgeon who had gone to live and work in West Africa for 17 years. I thought if he can do that I can certainly do a few years. Going to post-conflict zones was completely different to anything I'd done before."

Guillebeau spent four years in West Africa working for a charity during which time, he says, he became "more comfortable with travel and with the process of travel". "I found that I really enjoyed planning and sorting all the details out. I had to go to Benin and I figured out that it would cost about the same amount of money to fly back to Europe and then to South Africa and on to Benin than to go from where I was, and then I realised that I could also visit Budapest and Prague for the same price at the same time." He started listing the countries he'd been to and it was 26 or 27. "I thought it would be really fun to visit 100. Then as I got closer to 100, I realised it wasn't difficult at all. It was so easy to visit Lichtenstein from Zurich, for example, and when I was in Singapore it was easy to get to Indonesia and Malaysia. I got close to 100 much sooner than expected. It was when I was on a boat from Hong Kong to Macau that I first had the thought of trying to visit every country in the world."

For simplicity's sake, Guillebeau uses the United Nations' list of member states, which currently stands at 193. Despite his time spent in Africa, Guillebeau says the continent is still the biggest challenge. "It all comes down to visas," he says. "Sudan has always been hard to get a visa for as an American and now there's South Sudan too. The embassy for Guinea Bissau is in Senegal, so I'm having to get a fixer to help with that."

Guillebeau has two passports, which helps with visa processing, and is driven on by a "love of travel for travel's sake", which includes a love of airports. Rather than always look for the shortest connecting time between flights, Guillebeau will sometimes change his flight to make sure he has time to experience all of the facilities on offer.

Having previously been a musician, Guillebeau has always supported himself, first by selling coffee on Ebay and then by selling a series of publications called "Unconventional Guides", including a "Guide to Travel Hacking", which shows you how to accumulate points without even flying or spending much money, through his blog. "I didn't want to work for someone else so I just learned to support myself by any means necessary," he says. "I don't own a house or a car and I didn't have a lot of debt so I didn't need a lot. I started writing about my trips and found that everyone was asking the same kind of questions so although I carried on with my blog, which is free to access, I also started working on more structured resources which I could sell."

Last year, Penguin published Guillebeau's first book, The Art of Non-Conformity, which is about "setting your own rules, living your own life and changing the world". His next book, The $100 Start-Up, "a business book for non-businesspeople", will be released next spring. Next week in this section of The National on Saturday, he will begin a weekly column in which he will offer an insight into both his journeys and what travel has taught him.

So, back to the challenge. With just 33 countries left to visit, Guillebeau has been to most countries in the Middle East apart from Yemen. "I might try that next year," he says. The UAE is a popular hub: earlier this year he flew from Dubai to both Kabul and Kish Island in Iran. "I would love to go back and do Iran properly one day," he says, wistfully. "I love Jordan and Syria, especially the old city of Damascus. It was great and I was treated very well." Jordan was Guillebeau's first experience of the Middle East. "I found that it was a very easy place to integrate yourself into a different culture and everyone was very hospitable. I think when you travel you realise that everything you've heard before, while it may not necessarily have been negative, has come with a particular slant. That's where I feel travel is a force for good, in countering prejudice. I've now been to Jordan three or four times. It's like when I went to China for the first time: there are more layers to a place than you expect."

What has been his favourite country so far? It's the question well-travelled people loathe but people love to ask. "I appreciate a lot of different places for different reasons, but I would probably pick a country like South Africa." He thinks for a moment. "But I also really liked Macedonia, Lithuania, Jordan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Chile." Guillebeau aims to finish his challenge just in time for his 35th birthday in April 2013. "I'm trying to work ahead in case of any disasters," he admits, adding that he wants his final country to be Norway.

One of the most surprising things about Guillebeau is that he is married. What does his wife Jolie, an artist back home in Portland, make of all his time away? "It's definitely a conversation but we've been together 15 years and we work it out between us. She likes travel but not in the way I like it, so we go on holidays, usually cruises."

Won't he ever stop travelling the world and settle for normal family holidays only? "I hope to God no," he says. "My life now feels like a normal life."

Chris Guillebeau blogs at www.chrisguillebeau.com. Read his first column for The National, The Case for Adventure, next week.

rbehan@thenational.ae