- Cassie De Pecol has traveled to all 193 sovereign nations in addition to Taiwan, Kosovo, and Palestine.
- She completed her trip around the world in slightly over 18 months, breaking the record at the time.
- These are some of her top travel tips — from her favorite airlines to how to stay safe as a solo traveler.
This as-told-to essay is based on conversations with 33-year-old Cassie De Pecol, a travel influencer who previously held the Guinness World Record for traveling to every country in the world in the fastest time in 2017 (her record has since been broken). She is the author of “Expedition 196” and the founder of Her International, a non-profit organization that funds female-driven businesses addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Growing up, I didn’t actually travel at all besides to Canada, where my mom is from.
It wasn’t till the age of 18 that I booked a one-way ticket to Costa Rica for school. From there, I never looked back.
After I finished my studies, I went to Nicaragua, traveled throughout Latin America, and went backpacking across Europe. Then I ran out of money. I had traveled around backpacking in about 25 countries, working odd jobs here and there.
I worked in hotels and hostels cleaning toilets, making beds — whatever needed to be done — and they would give me a free room and board in exchange. I also had a blog and would reach out to try to write for other people’s blogs to help me make small amounts of cash to keep me going. Sometimes they would pay me $100 bucks for the month and I’d use that to buy my next flight. So that’s how I was able to sustain a very small income at the time.
I wish I had known about credit cards and credit card points sooner. But back then I couldn’t even qualify for a card if I wanted to, so I used platforms like Workaway.info to find jobs in exchange for free housing.
When I came home, I was approaching my mid-twenties and didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, but knew I loved to travel.
I’m one to have very outlandish ideas and I very much follow the “you only live once” sort of mindset. So I decided to go after the Guinness World Record for traveling to every country in the fastest amount of time.
How I traveled to 193 countries in just over 18 months
The trip started when I was 25 and ended when I was 27. It took around a year and a half of trying to figure out all the logistics. There were the flights and the political situations, weather patterns — I looked into it all.
I strategically started with the most expensive places, since I had enough money to start out, and then figured out the rest later on. I had saved roughly $10,000 from working two babysitting jobs 80 hours a week. I also relied on a couple of credit cards with great travel rewards incentives.
It’s a bit challenging to calculate the total cost of the trip as I received free hotels, experiences, flights, etc., but the trip landed somewhere around the $110,000 mark. AIG was an important sponsor and really looked out for my safety, offering me kidnap and ransom insurance as well.
The Asia-Pacific and Oceanic regions were the most expensive, so that’s where I started out. Then I went to Europe. At this point, I was running out of money and knew Europe was much easier to travel on a budget.
I was also meeting with university students and Ministers of Tourism, getting speaking engagements and planting trees and such. So that also required planning around.
For countries like North Korea and Yemen, I had to be more strategic in my planning. To get into North Korea as an American tourist you need to pay $1,000 just for the minimum three-day visa, and you have to fly in on their airline.
I was the only Westerner in my tour group. I stayed at the same hotel that Otto Warmbier, the American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months, stayed in. This was just six months after that whole ordeal happened, so I was walking on eggshells the whole time. I mean, the people were nice and the tour guide was nice. It was definitely an experience — but one I wouldn’t do again.
None of my speaking engagements during the expedition were paid. I poured myself into my work pro-bono and wasn’t making an income. I knew it would pay off eventually, but it was a big struggle financially to give out free work.
I wasn’t allowed to spend more than 14 days in a country. So when I ran out of money, I would fly home to Connecticut to my parents’ house and go to New York for conferences and networking events to try to secure funding from brands and investors. It was really a pedal-to-the-metal situation so I could secure funding and take off within two weeks.
That part was really challenging and put a damper on the experience — It was kind of depressing to finish this trip around the world so quickly. But it was also so invigorating to see the whole world and want to spend more time in these places.
10 lessons I learned while traveling around the world
1. Be a traveler, not a tourist
I always try to support the local economy by staying in local hotels instead of big corporate chains. Also, going off the beaten path and visiting local communities and supporting them as opposed to just mainstream tourist activities.
2. Don’t rule out entire countries just because of one bad experience
I don’t think there are any countries that I wouldn’t go back to besides North Korea. Even if I had a kind of negative experience in a country, I would always give it a second or third chance because a lot of the time, it just depends on the circumstance, or the day, or who you’re with.
My top countries are always changing and it’s always so hard to pick when I’ve traveled to so many and had such great experiences. The most underrated country in my opinion is Pakistan. It’s a natural and culturally beautiful country with really kind people.
3. Take advantage of credit cards and points
If people have the opportunity to get a couple of credit cards that have good travel points programs, I would really recommend that. Specifically, the American Express Platinum, Chase Reserve, and Chase Preferred cards. I used Chase Reserve for my entire trip around the world and would use IHG Rewards Traveler Credit Card for hotels.
4. Know how to defend yourself in an emergency
As a solo female traveler, it was important to me to know how to defend myself. If you’re a really small woman and there’s a really big guy, it’s good to know what you have to do to save your own life.
I’m a huge advocate for women knowing Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art. Aside from that, just practice little things like not roaming the streets with headphones in, always being aware, not looking lost, and knowing where you’re going. Always let at least one friend or family member know where you are, don’t feel that you need to be kind and answer to everyone – your safety and sense of surroundings come first.
5. Pack door stoppers, mace, and a satellite GPS tracking device
There was a man who broke into my hotel room in Burkina Faso at three in the morning and it was really scary. I wish that I had brought one of those doorstoppers with me to prevent it. I also recommend bringing mace — you can pack it in your checked bag. One other thing I used was a satellite GPS tracking device with an SOS button. So if my phone can’t track me, at least this device can.
6. I found hotels are usually safer than Airbnbs for solo travelers
I used Airbnb maybe 10 times or so. I tried to stay in hotels more just because it tends to be safer for solo travel. They’ll have a shuttle from the airport, you’d have someone you can call down to at the front desk. There’s more security. So I felt safer and I also found better deals with hotels. It was actually more budget-friendly to stay in hotels than Airbnbs most of the time. But I did have some great experiences in the Airbnbs I did stay in.
7. Being humble and empathetic can help with culture shock
When I traveled outside North America for the first time when I was 18, it was a huge culture shock. The way I adjusted over time was just recognizing that these people are just like me – a human – trying to survive and make the best out of this life we’re given. Once I was able to humble myself, I was able to feel “at home” in even the most precarious of places, and that culture shock never came back.
All every human wants is a hot meal, a roof over their head, clean drinking water, and someone who loves them. Generally speaking, most people want to show you the beauty of the countries they live in, and get excited to show you. Connecting with communities from a grassroots level, supporting their endeavors and economies, and recognizing the humility in others and yourself can open up a world of contentment and inspiration. I did find most countries welcoming, if not the government, the people.
8. Do research to see how you can offset your carbon footprint
Sustainable travel is something I’m super passionate about. I think it’s important for people to see if they can offset their carbon footprint. Some Airlines have carbon footprint models that you can purchase, and certain organizations you can donate to in the country that you land in. I planted trees in countries that I landed in to offset the emissions, and stayed in sustainable and regenerative hotels.
9. If you can, pack light
For my trip around the world, I traveled with just a backpack. I had one outfit in there, maybe two pairs of leggings, two sports bras, plus supplements, and my camera equipment.
I prefer traveling lighter but it’s harder for me to travel lighter these days. So I definitely tend to check a bag more often than not. But when I was racing around the world, I wouldn’t have been able to wait at the baggage claim after every flight so it definitely worked out for me to travel that way.
10. Rack up those airline points:
My favorite US airline is Delta and my favorite international airline is probably Qatar, they’re both really great.
Get points, become members of all the hotel groups and airlines, and use your credit card for everything so you can use all the points you accumulate towards your travel. I’ve learned it actually doesn’t have to be that expensive to travel — you can do it on a budget.