Stefan, tell us something about your childhood and how the travel bug bit you.
My parents are workaholics and the one vacation was Disney World when I was 4.
I studied Mandarin Chinese in high school. Our junior year class trip to China lit the fuse.
The first trip I paid for was saving my caddying money to pay for my parents and I to go from Minneapolis to Wisconsin Dells for a weekend. That place is like another planet. A very tacky, fun planet.
When did you ‘decide’ to visit every country in the world? What was the reaction of people around you to this idea?
When I start something, I have to complete it. I don’t pick up new authors to TV shows lightly. I started with every province in China as a student. I arranged to only have classes Monday-Wednesday. Every Wednesday night I took a night train out, and Sunday a night train back, turning up for class smelling of second-hand smoke.
Then I got a job with a modest salary and could afford Southeast Asia.
Then a better job and more of Asia.
Somewhere around Turkmenistan I went all in.
Have you ever have moments when you have wanted to give up on the aim or when it has seemed pointless?
I have worked continuously (and that is limited to US vacation time, not European!). Packing so much into every trip is exhausting.
I go nights in a row on planes, buses, and trains, beating myself up with activities all day. The first time I drove a manual transmission without a teacher was an 18-hour day in Tunisia.
The few times I have traveled 3 weeks or more at a stretch I have realized too late I need to dial it back. Regardless, it only takes about a week back from the road that I am itching to set off on the next trip.
Of all the countries you visited, which ones surprised you most (positively and negatively) compared to what you were expecting in advance?
There are countries that I expected to be great and turned out greater, such as Iran, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Venezuela.
The biggest surprises for me have been Europe’s Atlantic islands, places I had no concept until I saw them on the Travelers’ Century Club list. The Faroes are among the most beautiful landscapes in the world. The Channel Islands give you British culture and French food – imagine the reverse! The Azores, Madeira, Canaries and so on are little-known to Americans. All are concentrated tastes of traditional European life.
On the less positive side, Saudi Arabia is about the only country that confirmed more stereotypes than it dispelled. I convinced my wife to go with me and the most interesting observations came from her experience.
Give us one travel story which really stands out for you.
Seeing the roadside Minnesota Water on the road into Monrovia, Liberia. Learning the history of Liberians who sought refuge in Minnesota during the 1990s civil war, while I was blithely unaware in high school. The Thinkers Village Guest House owner has siblings still in Minnesota just a few minutes away from my parents.
What do you think of the term ‘competitive travel’? Does it sum up what people like you do or is it a complete distortion?
Contriving travel gimmicks is not for me. A lot of this is a function of time and money. I am interested in how people achieve their travel goals within their own circumstances rather than trying to one-up others.
Take me as an example, my US passport gives me a huge advantage over many nationalities in terms of visas. I lived in China for 8 years and a female traveler who goes by the name Quail Nest wrote in her blog about the $2,000 Belize visa fee for P.R. China nationals, with $4,000 deposit! I have paid a lot for visas but never that much!
Travel can be a selfish pursuit so I most admire those who find admirable ways to benefit the people and places they encounter on the road.
Tell us a little about your blog and what you aim to achieve by it.
I blog at Rapid Travel Chai, which is about maximizing frequent flyer programs for our kind of travel. I would not have visited nearly as many countries without learning how to maximize these programs, often to an absurd degree.
The frequent flyer program subculture, particularly among Americans who take so little vacation, tends to the most conventional travel. The goal is to fly to Paris in business class over and over. I encourage readers to expand their horizons to the wide world.
I teach travel at public and private events such as Frequent Traveler University. I share my lectures at Slideshare. Teaching travel and hearing success stories is the most fulfilling thing I do. I am working to make this my full-time profession rather than part-time hobby.
You are also the Founder of the Facebook page ‘Every Passport Stamp’. Why did you develop this and how has it served the community since its inception?
I founded Every Passport Stamp to use the ubiquity of Facebook to connect fellow travelers who may not be aware of the community of us around the world. I got the idea in Nauru after I met a German, Thomas Brackmann, who is at around 140 countries and didn’t realize how many of us there are. I realized, I, too, only know a small number of the great travelers around the world.
Every Passport Stamp is list agnostic and non-commercial. Motivated travelers that seek to learn, help fellow travelers, and participate in the community are welcome. I see it as a convenient tool and adjunct to clubs such as Travelers’ Century Club and resources such as The Best Travelled.
The group excels at fast response, topical discussion. I met TBT founder Harry Mitsidis in person for the first time because he posted in the group when he was sitting in the famed Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul. It so happened I was just a few feet away at my usual spot!
So what are your travel plans now and how do you plan to get to the two sticky countries left for you – Syria and Yemen?
I won’t force Syria and Yemen with unnecessary risk or just to get a ticky-tack visit. I will go when I can see the ruins of Palmyra and the mountain villages of Yemen. The photos of Dhalamlam Mountain from AP Photographer Abduljabbar Zeyad’s visit last fall are incredible. I have been tempted by recent charter attempts at Socotra, though no operator has shown the ability to deliver and I don’t have the time and money for failed attempts.
My other two remaining UN countries are Turkey and Seychelles. Turkey because I won’t count my many transits, and Seychelles because it has never been on the way for me to anywhere. I plan to visit Turkey this spring and hold Seychelles for last.
I held Italy and Greece until a few months ago, wanting either to be last, then I ran out of patience and visited those fantastic countries. It would have been hard to visit San Marino without first visiting Italy unless I took skydiving lessons.
On the Travelers’ Century Club list I am at 293/325. This fall I am determined to finally make the schedule work for the Christmas Island red crab migration, along with Cocos Island.
I keep hoping a Midway Atoll or Wake Island commemoration charter will be a go. WWI and WWII sites among my most memorable travels.
And a final question we always ask – if you could invite four people from any period in human history to an imaginary dinner, who would they be and why?
Here’s the pressure to come up with something clever. I’ll go for the last person to close the tomb of China’s First Emperor to find out what is really inside. Why not the Stonehenge Architect, too? Add in the librarian at Alexandria with copies of all the books, and the builder of the Antikythera Mechanism.
The photographs accompanying this interview are from Stefan’s private collection and show him in Sudan, Turkmenistan, Tunisia, Liberia, Iran and Djibouti, and the Antikythera Mechanism at the National archaeological museum in Athens, Greece.