Confessions of an Obsessive Traveler
Sal Lavallo is one of the youngest Americans to visit every country on earth. The 27-year-old veteran globetrotter shares his hard-earned tips for packing, transportation, and discovering the best the world has to offer.
At age 27, Sal Lavallo believes he’s one of the youngest Americans to visit all 193 countries in the world. “My friends make fun of me because my WhatsApp number is always changing,” he laughs, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks to a serious stash of airline miles and points from SPG and Marriott Rewards and the goodwill of friends who provided couches for crashing and insights for exploring, he capped off his 10-year journey in November, celebrating the milestone achievement with a big bash in Malta. Here, the inveterate traveler gives us the scoop on his on-the-road style—where he goes, how he packs, and what he never misses.
Q: Do you like to check your bags, or fit everything into a carry-on?
A: A lot of people bring a lot of gear that they need to check, and if you’re a fashionista and you want to have a lot of clothes, that’s fine—I would never be like, “It’s gospel to only have one carry-on,” but I do travel light. It’s faster and it’s easier, though I do always wind up needing to borrow jackets from people. I never have good winter clothes because they’re so bulky.
Q: Any packing tips for making the transition to the carry-on life?
A: One thing that will always get you in trouble with the carry-on is the toiletries, because a lot of them are liquid and they might be too big, or one country might say gels and lotions are ok and one might not. So unless you’re really dedicated to one brand and can buy travel sizes, stock up at hotels.
The other thing I always say is that you should pack like a puzzle. it should always be the exact same way so that you can instantly look down and see if a piece is missing. If my bag was with you right now, I could tell you exactly where everything is because it’s always exactly there—it takes me one second to open it and see if there’s a hole and something missing. It’s kinda like Tetris.
Q: Is there anything that always goes in your bag, regardless of your destination?
A: I’m notoriously low-tech, but I always have my camera and my zoom lens, and I always need my Kindle—I love reading, and obviously bringing 10 books around all over the world would be difficult. I also have a small tablet that’s occasionally used when I need to have a computer. I bring a lot of adapters, because I never know where I’m going to be and which one’s going to be useful, so I have universal adapters and other specific ones. Oh, and hand sanitizer.
Q: How do you stay connected when you’re overseas?
A: I don’t have a global data plan at all. If I’m in a country long enough, or if I think that I’ll need a phone, then I’ll buy a SIM card if it’s easy—some countries it’s really difficult to do. For a couple of months, I had a Nauru number. Nauru’s the smallest country in the world, only 11,000 people, and I was there for a week so I had a SIM card. Even if you’re out of the country, if you’re roaming, the cell-phone company’s push SMSs can be sent to you, so for like six months, I was getting all the news from this small island country in the Pacific.
Q: Do you have a travel playlist?
A: I don’t have any music on my phone. I do a lot of traveling by land, so really long buses and taxis and cars, and I really like to focus on the present and look out the window rather than, like, jamming out to Jay-Z while I’m in Guinea.
Q: Do you prefer to use public transportation?
A: Between cities for sure. I love being on buses because you get to see the rural areas, the trade happening, what the trucks going by are carrying—you get a better sense of the country when you’re on the road. And then within a city, I really love to walk. I’ll often land in the place and do a big two- or three-hour walk around. On foot is best because you can stop whenever you want, go into little nooks and crannies and figure everything out. Just ask how much it would cost for a taxi back, so in case you get lost you can stop a cab and you’re easily back.
Q: What do you like to look for in a new city?
A: I’m really interested in development and identity and culture, so I love to go to markets to see what’s being sold, whether they’re imports or exports, how local are they, because that tells you a lot about a place. I also like to go any kind of art exhibit, especially contemporary art, because I feel like you get a really good sense of the pulse of a society by looking at the contemporary art, what issues are being discussed, and where it’s being exhibited. I’m usually being hosted or shown around by friends, so I try to ask for their recommendations and do the off-the-beaten path things that might not be the best tourism sites.
Q: How do you find good things to do when you don’t know anyone in a particular destination?
A: It’s amazing when you travel how much people want to help you. If I’m staying at a hotel, I’ll talk to the concierge—they’re nice to everybody, but if you stick to a loyalty program and have status, they’re extra-nice then. One time, a concierge got off work early and guided me around town because he didn’t like the plan I’d set for myself. I’ve made friends just, like, in a restaurant because people will hear you speaking English, and they want to practice and come talk to you. Then you just have to be open. Too many people get nervous when they’re approached and assume everyone’s trying to con them, but that’s almost certainly rarely the case.
A GLOBETROTTER’S ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
I have a large Osprey hiking backpack and a small Jansport school backpack. Depending on the length of trip, I’ll decide which to bring.
The Personal Item
I use a small Nikon camera bag I got with the D3300. It has two clasps, but one has been broken for a year ?
The Day Bag
I have a canvas bag that I use when I’m walking around the city, with two rope straps that tighten the opening. One of the worst things about getting mugged is that you can dislocate your shoulder if someone pulls something off of you, so it’s always better if the strap is rope or stronger than the bag—if someone tries to tear it off you, they rip open the bag instead of ripping it off of you, and it just falls on the ground. I’ve used this one so much it’s full of holes.
One 250mm Nikon zoom that came with the camera.
It’s an Egyptian-made one. I bought it because it said Microsoft really big on the box, and I thought that meant it was a Microsoft one, but it really just runs Microsoft.
I buy the cheap ones at little markets.
I always have one or two of the small bottles, no favorite brand.