Photograph by Matt Cosby

Read Caption

Joe Foley in Boston, Massachusetts

Photograph by Matt Cosby

Traveler of the Year: Joe Foley

The Disrupter—This globe-trotter is one for the road

Traveling with Teen Spirit

For Joe Foley—a high schooler from Newton, Massachusetts, with a serious case of wanderlust—online fantasy games opened up an interest in exploring the real world. Foley suggested to his parents that the Internet can provide a safety net for solo travelers. To his surprise, they agreed, and in the past two years, he’s been on 11 solo trips, including weeklong getaways in Iceland and Spain, a backpacking trek from Helsinki to Paris, and two jaunts to Japan.

This is a story about how determination helped turn a challenge into a superpower. Foley, now 18, grew up with Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder that can make social interaction difficult. While the syndrome can be especially taxing for teens, Foley discovered that it offers benefits to travelers. “Asperger’s can help me,” he says. “As a foreigner in a non-English-speaking country, I’m not expected to converse fluently to begin with. I often find it easier to talk to people who don’t speak great English, and I love to practice local language skills. And I become obsessive about countries, their histories, and cultures, and memorizing subway and hiking maps.”

Along with his positive spirit, technology helped pave his way toward independence. Now wrapping up high school, the digital nomad tracks his trips on his blog, The Travels of JoFo.

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: What motivates you to travel?

Joe Foley: I’ve always had a fundamental wanderlust. I’ve always wanted to be someone who gets out there and does fun stuff in the world. I also used to be quite a geek who played a lot of [role-playing] games (World of Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragons-type stuff) on the computer and I remember wishing the real world had some sort of way to explore and meet people and go on adventures the way those games did. And now I’ve realized that travel is the closest thing in the real world to a fantasy adventure in those games—except that it’s better since it’s real.

NGT: What do you like most about travel?

JF: Exploring ruined cities, other countries, and seeing really cool landscapes is a lot of fun. Some of the old architecture in Europe reminds me a lot of the games I used to play, except it’s way better. I love reading about the history of wherever I go, as well as trying local food and learning some words in the language.

NGT: How did you start traveling solo?

JF: I started by going to another English-speaking country, Scotland, and when my parents saw I could handle it fine, I went to other places. Since then I've done weeklong getaways to Iceland, Spain, the Netherlands, the Baltics, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria. I've loved every single trip.

NGT: How has Asperger’s syndrome affected your travels?

JF: I can't say for sure because I’ve never traveled without it, so I have nothing to compare it to. But based on what others have told me about Asperger's and my personality, I think it helps me in some ways and it’s rarely a big challenge. I can become obsessive or feel anxious, but for the most part I’d say Asperger's has only a positive or neutral impact on my travels.

NGT: Do you have any blogging tips?

JF: Try to find every little thing in the world interesting—even common experiences and technologies we take for granted often have a historical backstory to tell. No part of the world has ever been or will ever be without problems, so an optimistic outlook on issues always helps.

NGT: What has travel taught you?

JF: Travelers in the 21st century are lucky, so while you shouldn’t overlook bad things in the world, you should have a positive attitude. We live in an extraordinary time where communication is instantaneous, information is abundant, and most travel is safer than ever before. Your airplane flight may be more crowded, overpriced, and the seats smaller than in the past, but hey, you’re a passenger on a beautiful machine that's 30,000 feet in the sky, and there are many other people like you who have this opportunity. So don’t complain about the seat. Just be thankful and amazed that this technology exists.

NGT: What’s your best travel advice?

JF: The world is not as dangerous as a lot of people think. I'm amazed at how many people I meet who are afraid to travel to other parts of the world simply because of one bad news story, or because of language differences. So get out there and enjoy your time on this planet. Go on adventures; have great experiences. Don’t be content with just sitting around all day, all year. That’s not what you should be on this planet for.

NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?

JF: To travel with passion and purpose is to appreciate cultures, love the world, and have great experiences.