In this month’s One-on-One blog, ExpertFlyer talks with Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to visit every sovereign nation in the world (193 countries as defined by the United Nations list of member states). Lee is aiming to become the youngest person to visit all 321 countries and unique destinations on Earth as noted by the Travelers Century Club list. At 35, with 307 total countries under his belt, Lee is well on his way to beating the record holder who was 37 years, 9 months and 17 days old when he completed his journey.
In addition to his status as a global adventurer, Lee is a popular travel writer, travel expert, and television personality. He appears regularly on the Fox News Channel, as well as the Travel Channel, NBC, CBS, CNN, BBC, ESPN and many others. He’s also been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Discovery Channel, Sky Scanner, Travel Zoo, Smart Money, Slate, OK! Magazine, Peter Greenberg radio, among others.
“The best advice I can give travelers is to bring cash in multiple currencies and denominations as cash remains king in many places around the world.”
– Lee Abbamonte, travel expert, blogger and TV personality
How old were you when you started traveling? When and how did it become a goal to visit every country in the world?
I left the country for the first time when I was 20 years old in 1998, to study abroad in London my junior year of college. It changed my life immeasurably. It never became a goal until about 2006-07 when a friend emailed me about a record to be the youngest to visit every country. So I decided to go for it as I was already more than half way there simply by chance and that I loved to travel and had done so already quite extensively.
When do you think you’ll reach your 321st country and final destination and which country are you saving for last?
Well in terms of finishing the Travelers Century Club list, I should be down to two by March 2014 as I have 9 planned for this fall and another 3 in March. The last 2 are subject to governmental permit and approvals. It is a real bureaucratic process that has been a real thorn in my side the past few years. For each destination, Wake Island (Pacific Ocean) and the British Indian Ocean Territory, I have had 2 separate trips cancelled on me in the past few years. This has been quite frustrating but I am continuing to move forward with it and I have some feelers out there now for those permits. If all else fails, I may just wing it!
Do you have a specific order or method for deciding when and where you go next?
Not really, I have always just gone where I felt like going and then when I started consciously trying to go everywhere I would base my trips on need plus where the weather was going to be good as well.
Once you’ve achieved this tremendous feat and earn your new title as “the youngest person to visit all 321 countries and unique destinations on Earth,” what’s next?
I will be doing a book after I finish that list and will be doing a lot more television with hopefully my own syndicated show. Additionally, I will be doing many more speaking engagements, etc.
We recently talked with Matt Gross, former “Frugal Traveler” columnist for the New York Times, and he called out Turkey, Republic of Georgia, Greece, Vietnam, Argentina and East Africa as great destinations for solo travelers who want to mingle with the locals because of their friendliness and hospitality. Can you add your picks to this list and what your experience was?
Those are all fine picks with good people although I may take Vietnam off the list. However, I would add Armenia, Libya, Tajikistan, Namibia, Morocco and probably too many others to list to be honest. I think most people in the world are at their core, good and the same as we are. I love meeting people from around the world and often times I find the people in the most politically scorned countries or most impoverished are the nicest and most hospitable.
By now, you have this world traveling thing down pat. Knowing what you know now, what are the best pieces of travel wisdom you can impart on less experienced international travelers?
The best advice I can give people are these thoughts: Bring cash (multiple currencies and denominations) as cash is king in many places around the world; Learn the basics in the language of the country or region you’re visiting as that can really endear you to locals; use common sense and don’t be “that guy aka the ugly American”; do your research and know where and what you want to do beforehand but leave time for things you didn’t know about.
Everyone wants to know what the best deals are. So, dollar for dollar, which destinations offer exceptional affordability AND a safe, wonderful, and comfortable travel experience?
Obviously, it depends on your budget and how you travel but all in all Southeast Asia is still the cheapest and safest area to visit. There are so many tourists there now that’s it’s not like it once was but it is still fun and exciting. Also, South America is still good value, perhaps with the pre World Cup/Olympics Brazil as you get to see and do so much for a relatively cheap price tag. Also in Eastern Europe the dollar still holds some clout and you can see and do a lot for peanuts compared to Western Europe.
Are there any destinations that you have sworn off of and why?
Ahhh, the age old question. There are few places I wouldn’t go back to. I always use Nigeria as my general answer to a question like this as I had an awful experience in Lagos when I was there a few years ago. However, that’s not to say I would never go back. In fact, I would like to go back sometime to change my opinion of it. Some others that I feel the same way about are Jamaica and Albania.
Who is your preferred airline carrier(s)?
I believe the best airline in the world is Singapore Airlines. I fly them whenever I can and usually stick to Star Alliance carriers if possible because of miles and upgrades etc. That said, I do not believe that all Star Alliance carriers are in the same hemisphere as Singapore Airlines. I truly believe that ALL US carriers have a lot of work to do to catch up or least compare with many of the great Asian and Middle Eastern airlines.
How have you leveraged your frequent flier miles to get around the world in greater comfort and for less cost?
I have earned about 4.5 million miles in my travels and I have used all but a few hundred thousand to date. I have used them to upgrade to first class, to get free flights and other deals, perks, etc. Miles and points are great ways to earn free travel. I am also very keen on hotel points.
Tell us your most memorable destinations and what made them special?
When you’ve traveled as much as I have there are too many to mention and that is a good thing but some that have really stuck out to me are summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; Sneaking into Eastern Libya during the war under cover of gunfire to reach my 193rd and final country when I was 32 years old; Seeing the amazing desert scenery in Namibia and climbing the world’s highest sand dune and then sprint down ¾ of a mile straight down into Deadvlei; Attending a 30th wedding anniversary (vodka) party at a local family’s house in Armenia who I met on a bus; cruising around the unreal rock islands of Palau and jellyfish lake; backpacking around Europe as a kid with my friends multiple times-some of the best times of my life.
Follow Lee on Twitter @leeabbamonte and on facebook.com/leeabbamonte.