Travel Tips From the Youngest American to Visit Every Country in the World
Meet travel expert Lee Abbamonte, who's been to over 300 countries plus the North and South Poles.
The most important thing about traveling, Abbamonte says, is living in the moment. "Stop and look around. It's hard to appreciate something if you're always looking ahead."
“It was never my goal to visit every country in the world,” Lee Abbamonte says with a laugh, “until it became a goal.” This expert traveler, multimedia personality and author first left the U.S. at age 20, to study abroad. "Then I got the travel itch. By the time I was 32, I’d visited all the countries in the world and was the youngest American to do so.”
That's not to say Abbamonte was constantly on the road. He funded everything himself, so he was either working or in school part of the time. "I traveled whenever I could, taking long trips during breaks or when I had flex time or vacation and had the money to go.” He didn't set his goal of becoming a global adventurer until he'd already visited about 2/3 of the countries on the map.
Abbamonte, who once worked on Wall Street, now makes his living from writing, speaking (he was a featured speaker at the 2018 New York Times Travel Show) and posting about his journeys. He’s been hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro, bungee-jumping in South Africa and whitewater rafting in Zimbabwe. In Guatemala, he climbed ancient temples, and he's made a couple of trips to the Antarctic to see the Emperor penguins he adores. His worst experience? Enduring a miserable, 300-nautical-mile boat ride from Samoa during a storm that had most of the passengers hanging over the railing.
Abbamonte prefers destinations that offer lots of things to do. "Australia, Argentina, Japan and Thailand have mountains and beaches and different landscapes, excellent food and different cultures."
No matter what, he pushes on. "Never sacrifice an experience." He knows there are dangerous hot spots around the world; he’s been in some of them. In Libya, during the Arab Spring, he was caught in the crossfire between Libyan rebels and Chinese smugglers at the border to Egypt.
He was riding, he recalls, in a minivan with a UN diplomat. “We tried to convince the border guards I was traveling as a humanitarian dentist because I had straight teeth and a U.S. passport. But we were stopped and had to wait several hours.” When they were finally waved on, gunfire broke out and they had to drive through it. “I went out of the country with a bang.”
What's his attitude about dangerous places now? "You could walk out of a New York apartment and get hit by a bus. You can't live your life in fear. I'm not going to let it stop me."
He's been to other countries many travelers would avoid, such as Iran, Israel and Afghanistan, because he likes talking to "real people." "Being on the ground," he says, gives him a feel for their governments and leaders.
"I'd say the most interesting place I've been was North Korea. You know a lot of what you're seeing is propaganda, but it was fascinating. There was a microphone hanging from a lighting fixture in my room, one of the strangest things I've ever seen. I knew it probably didn't work, and I looked at it like a bit of a joke. But I knew it wasn't a joke. It was like they thought I was going to transmit like a spy."
Stepping out of your comfort zone, Abbamonte believes, makes you a true traveler, and he recommends interacting with locals. "Go out in the street or start talking to someone in a bar or restaurant, that sort of thing. I"m not talking about engaging with a bartender, waiter or taxi driver."
"I like adventures that help me learn, and I like good food, wine and the finer things in life. I always want to be surprised."
Lee Abbamonte's Top Travel Tips:
1: “Research, research, research” before you go. Know what you want to do and see. Allow time for things you haven't planned on doing, too. Abbamonte never takes tours, although he arranges some experiences and activities with guides and outfitters in advance. He also finds his own lodgings. Heading out on your own, he says, helps you remember more about your trip.
2: “Carry cash in different currencies.” Many places don’t take anything except cash, and "U.S. cash is king." Credit cards may not work and ATMs may not be available.
3: Don’t be afraid to try something new, from foods (Abbamonte admits he doesn’t always want to know what he’s eating) to taking transportation you wouldn’t normally take. “Have an open mind. I’m excited to go everywhere, but I have no expectations."
4: If you don’t speak the language, at least know how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you.” Letting them know you’re trying goes a long way, Abbamonte says, adding you’ll find more people speak English than you might expect.
5: Know the history of where you are and know about what you'll be doing. That way, you'll have a more profound experience. “Knowing about a place makes it come alive."
What does Abbamonte wish he’d known when he first started traveling? “The most important thing is to stop and look around. I find younger travelers are almost traveling for Instagram or Facebook (to put up posts). There’s no problem with that, but if you fly all the way to Japan and you’re just posting pictures, and then going to the hotel to chat with friends back home—that drives me crazy. Realize how cool what you’re doing is.”
In the end, he says, “There’s no right or wrong in travel. It’s your trip and your money, so if you’re happy with it, it’s a successful trip. Travel is personal to you.”