Coronavirus Update: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that people who are fully vaccinated can resume travel “at low risk to themselves.” It continues to ask non-vaccinated Americans to avoid nonessential travel. For more information, visit the CDC website.
As travel restrictions loosen, some of us are feeling more comfortable hopping on a plane. In this episode of The Girlfriend: In Conversation, travel blogger, public speaker and influencer Jessica Nabongo shares how to travel safely, where to find the best ticket deals and which travel apps are her favorites.
Nabongo, who’s traveled to all 195 countries, becoming the first black woman to have documented this feat in October 2019, hopes her experiences inspire others to open their hearts to adventure.
“I’ve been traveling internationally from a really young age, and you know, growing up in a house with encyclopedias and atlases, I’ve always been curious about the world, and I feel like, to some extent, my parents fed that curiosity,” she tells host Shelley Emling. “So by the time I graduated from high school, I had been to seven countries and one territory.”
The Girlfriend: In Conversation audio series is a special collaboration between The Girlfriend, AARP’s free weekly digital newsletter for Gen X women, and AARP Members Only Access, which features content available only to AARP members.
Photo of Jessica Nabongo by Justine Millhouse.
[00:00:03] Shelley Emling: Welcome back, everyone, to The Girlfriend: In Conversation. I'm Shelley Emling, the editor of The Girlfriend, AARP's free weekly digital newsletter for Gen X women. Today we're speaking with Jessica Nabongo. Jessica Nabongo, who is also known as The Catch Me If You Can, has traveled to all 195 countries, and she became the first Black woman to have documented this feat, in October 2019. And she's not even yet 40. Her thecatchmeifyoucan.com website describes Jessica as a wanderlust, writer, entrepreneur, public speaker and travel influencer who is, at her core, a dreamer who wants to use her story to inspire others to travel and experience the world around them. Welcome, Jessica.
[00:00:54] Jessica Nabongo: Thank you so much. Wow, that was such a great introduction.
[00:00:58] Shelley Emling: Well you're very impressive. It writes itself.
[00:01:02] Jessica Nabongo: Thank you.
[00:01:04] Shelley Emling: So I know that you were born in Detroit, to parents from Uganda, and in the first few years after college, I believe you started and ended a career in pharmaceutical sales, then moved to Japan to teach English and completed a graduate degree at the London School of Economics. So when did the travel bug first bite you, and how did this whole journey to visit and photograph every country in the world actually get started?
[00:01:30] Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, it started well before that. My parents love to travel, and so they made it a regular part of our lives growing up. My first international trip, I was 4, and I just went across the Detroit River to Canada. But my first transatlantic trip was when I was 6, and we were visiting family in London, and then we went onto visit family in Uganda. So I've been traveling internationally from a really young age. Growing up in a house with encyclopedias and atlases, I've always been curious about the world, and I feel like to some extent my parents fed that curiosity. So by the time I graduated from high school, I had been to seven countries and one territory.
[00:02:18] Shelley Emling: Wow.
[00:02:19] Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, pretty early.
[00:02:22] Shelley Emling: So I have to get this question out of the way that you're probably tired of answering. What are your top three destinations to visit within the United States?
[00:02:30] Jessica Nabongo: Oh, that's one that I do love to answer. I feel like the U.S. has so much to offer, and people don't spend enough time enjoying it. But I would say my top three — OK, I know for sure number one is Utah. For sure.
[00:02:49] Shelley Emling: Beautiful.
[00:02:51] Jessica Nabongo: From north to south, I think Utah is just a really amazing state: really great people, amazing cuisine, hotels, outdoor adventures. I love Maine as well. Last summer I had the chance to go to Acadia, which is really far up in Maine. But I love Kennebunkport, which is closer to the border with New Hampshire. So love, love, love Maine. Last, I might be a little bit skewed, but definitely California, and maybe Rhode Island because of these oysters that I ate in Rhode Island.
[00:03:25] Shelley Emling: Wonderful. I love oysters. So I know you cited those places, but is there any place in the United States that you consider a must-see that Americans for whatever reason seem to always miss visiting?
[00:03:38] Jessica Nabongo: That's a good question. I personally love Montana, which some people might hear me saying right now: Montana, what do you mean? But Glacier National Park, which is on the border with Canada, is absolutely stunning. And there's a property there called The Ranch at Rock Creek, which I absolutely loved. It's a luxury resort just in the middle of Montana, so that's a really interesting prospect. But yeah, I think Montana's a state that more people should visit.
[00:04:12] Shelley Emling: My middle child is going to graduate school in New Mexico, and drove across the country and went through Montana a couple weeks ago, and told me that Bozeman is his all-time favorite city now in the country.
[00:04:24] Jessica Nabongo: Oh, I love it. Yeah, I love that.
[00:04:27] Shelley Emling: So after 9/11, people wondered whether anyone would still travel, and now we're in a world where we're battered by this pandemic — I mean, coming out of it somewhat. Anxiety about travel is rising again. So what would you tell people who are afraid to get back out there and start seeing the world again?
[00:04:46] Jessica Nabongo: Well it's really interesting, because I've been traveling through the pandemic, and I just got back to the U.S. last night, and my goodness. I texted a friend, and I said, “Americans are outside.” Travel seems to be almost back at 2019 levels. Honestly, I would just tell people be safe — when you're traveling, wear your mask, social distance to the extent possible. But I don't think we need to be too afraid anymore. You know, of course, I recommend the vaccine. I've been vaccinated — it makes me feel a lot more comfortable when I leave my house. But I'm still exercising precaution in terms of social distancing and wearing my mask. But I have not contracted COVID the entire time, and since March of 2020, I've probably been on more than 60 flights. So it's definitely possible to be safe. I do want us to start to lose the fear. Be safe, be responsible, but we can really sort of let go of some of that fear.
[00:05:53] Shelley Emling: Right. You said people are starting to travel again. So for a long time there we saw really low airfares, because not many people were traveling. But now we're seeing prices start to rise again. How do you suggest people find the best deals if they want to travel in 2021 and then into 2022?
[00:06:12] Jessica Nabongo: I love you say rise, because I would use the word skyrocket. I feel compared to, even in the first quarter of the year, prices are skyrocketing. So one thing I recommend is sign up for websites like TheFlightDeal.com, SecretFlying.com and AirfareSpot.com. Those are great newsletters you can sign up for, and they'll send you flight deals every single day. I always say, chase the deal, not the destination. So if you're just interested in traveling and you want to sort of keep an open mind, if you see a cheap deal from your city to another country, just take that. Then do your research around that country and plan your trip based on the cost instead of the actual destination.
[00:07:06] Shelley Emling: Right. So are there certain destinations that this year and next are perfect for visiting as we emerge from this pandemic cocoon? Maybe some places that might be perfect to visit because there's not a lot of tourists there right now.
[00:07:21] Jessica Nabongo: That's interesting. Definitely, and I think it depends, honestly, on how many COVID tests you want to take. For example, Mexico is wide open. You don't need to take a COVID test, but there’s a ton of tourists there. I went to Anguilla in April, which was stunning, but we had to test before we went, we had to test when we landed, and we had to quarantine until we got our test results. Then, of course, you have to test before you leave. But there were not very many people in Anguilla, and it was amazing because the beaches were almost empty. So it really just is going to be dependent on how many COVID tests you want to take and what, really, your desire is to see. One website that I love is Iata, I-a-t-a, which is International Aviation & Tourism Authority, [A1] I think. It’s great because from there you can see very easily the country requirements for entry. So that's been really helpful for me during this time.
[00:08:29] Shelley Emling: Well, just to let you know, my family and I, we're going to Tanzania next month for the first time.
[00:08:34] Jessica Nabongo: Oh, amazing.
[00:08:35] Shelley Emling: And we're checking. Right now, there's no two-week quarantine in place for when you land or anything like that, so we do have to take a lot of COVID tests. But I've been told that there's nobody traveling there right now, so when tourists do come there, they're kind of treated like kings and queens. So we're looking forward to that.
[00:08:54] Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, it's amazing, and I mean, honestly, I've taken, I don't even know, probably more than 30 COVID tests at this time, and it's not so bad, because the thing to remember is that it's to keep everyone safe. To keep the people in the destination safe, and to keep each other safe.
[00:09:11] Shelley Emling: So again, this is The Girlfriend: In Conversation with Jessica Nabongo, formerly known as The Catch Me If You Can, who has traveled to all 195 countries, and she became the first Black woman to have documented this feat, in October 2019. So Jessica, I'm curious as to whether you would recommend certain destinations that are well suited for the solo female traveler?
[00:09:36] Jessica Nabongo: That's really interesting. Whenever people ask me for recommendations, I'm, like, well it depends on what you want to do. So I've actually traveled to 89 countries solo, and across six continents. So I would say that it's more dependent on the individual person and where your comfort lies. For a lot of women who may be embarking on their first solo trip, maybe they want to start with countries where English is the language that's spoken to feel a little more comfortable. Or if they speak a second language, like Spanish or French, then use that to sort of guide you. But I am here to say 98 percent of the countries in the world, you can visit as a woman solo and not have any issues. As someone who's done it, that's what I would say.
[00:10:27] Shelley Emling: So The Girlfriend from AARP is all about female friendship and female bonds and, and making friends and keeping friends. Are there certain girls’ trips that you've taken that you'll never forget, and what makes a girls’ trip memorable?
[00:10:42] Jessica Nabongo: A few years ago, some girlfriends and I rented a house in Martha's Vineyard. That was amazing. My trip to Anguilla was with a girlfriend of mine for her birthday. I think for me, it's just the love and support that you feel from your girlfriends, you know? I think it's unlike a lot of other relationships. It's hyping each other up when you have that win and celebrating those wins together. That's, for me, what always makes for great memories. So when I'm with my girls, if there is a group of four or more of us, I love to rent houses, so that we have that community feel versus the hotel, where we're all in our separate rooms. We can wake up in the morning, cook breakfast together, hang out in the living room or at the pool together. That's what makes the best trip for me.
[00:11:29] Shelley Emling: That’s a really good tip, to get a house together instead of hotel rooms and be separate, and then you can wake up together like you said, have breakfast. That's a good tip. And that leads me ask, if someone is celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary and they want to host a destination gathering for family and friends — you know, a large number — can you recommend one or two places to check out for a destination event?
[00:11:57] Jessica Nabongo: Honestly, I'm a huge fan of Mexico. I feel like it's affordable, it's close, because a lot of times when you're planning trips like that, you want to make sure that it's within a variety of budgets. And then, I've done trips all over the place — I do a lot of group trips. I've done Panama, which was fantastic. We went to Bocas del Toro, which are some islands that you fly to from Panama City. I love Cartagena, Colombia. Cuba, which I don't think we can get into right now. And then October 2019, my last country was the Seychelles, and there was 55 of us there celebrating.
[00:12:36] Shelley Emling: Really?
[00:12:37] Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, it was amazing.
[00:12:40] Shelley Emling: I've never been there, what's it like?
[00:12:42] Jessica Nabongo: The Seychelles — they're off the coast of East Africa, off the coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. Really beautiful. I think it's Africa's least populated country. But really beautiful, definitely unique terrain. La Digue is a very unique island. I've never seen anything like it in the world in terms of the rock formations and the water. So yeah, a very beautiful country.
[00:13:06] Shelley Emling: So it sounds like you've traveled consistently throughout the pandemic. I keep reading about how people are getting frustrated on flights — the lines are long, flights are getting canceled. People were sick of wearing the masks for a six-hour flight, whatever the case may be. I mean, what do you tell people that are a little bit like, oh, I don't want to start flying again. It's just become a real hassle, and even more so now.
[00:13:29] Jessica Nabongo: You know what's interesting, because again, March 10 was my last flight before the shutdown, and then I flew in mid-May for my birthday. That was when airports were ghost towns, and there were five people on the plane. And so I have seen it progress month after month, and now I almost feel like people are on their bad behavior. I'm a little bit concerned about that. I think the biggest thing is, if you are going out, just remember your manners. I know it's frustrating, especially now that airports are overwhelmed, but I think the most important thing is to be kind and be patient. Yesterday I had an issue. There was someone on the plane who wasn't wearing their mask, and on the jetway, which is a tight, close space. I just social distanced. So while everyone else was jam-packed in the jetway, I created space between myself and that person, so I could feel more comfortable. A lot of times it's just creating your own safe environment so that you feel comfortable.
[00:14:36] Shelley Emling: Right. The cancellation of flights seems to be a big issue right now. I mean, is that something you're seeing more and more of, that flights are getting canceled? And what should somebody do if their flight is canceled 30 minutes before they're supposed to take off for the airport?
[00:14:50] Jessica Nabongo: I've been hearing about it — it's something that's been on the rise. I was actually out of the country for six weeks, so I hadn't known about this widespread cancellation. I think, again, it's about patience and gratitude. For me, life always comes back to that, and I know it can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you're so excited. I saw somebody jumped out of a plane when they said that it was canceled. I think just being grateful and having gratitude around the ability to be able to travel when many people can't. We suffered so much loss as a global community over the last 18 months, so I think you really have to just try to focus and come from a place of gratitude. So even when it's frustrating, just try to roll with the punch and just try to figure out how to manage it, but from a place of grace and gratitude.
[00:15:42] Shelley Emling: Very good advice. I know you've lived on four continents, I believe. Is that right?
[00:15:48] Jessica Nabongo: Yes.
[00:15:49] Shelley Emling: Where do you most feel at home and why? And/or where would you like to call home?
[00:15:54] Jessica Nabongo: I find home in people. Honestly, there’s so many places that I feel at home that I've never lived. I can think about Jordan, how my tour guide really became a close friend, or a similar thing in Bhutan. Cuba feels very much like home — I feel very connected to the people in Cuba. Same with Cartagena. For six weeks, I was at the Four Seasons in Mexico, and they are —that feels like family and that definitely feels like home now. I was writing my book from there. So for me, home is in people more than a physical place, because when someone's house burns down or something, they go and they create a new home. But I think it's about your community, the people who you're sharing the home with. That, for me, matters more than the physical location.
[00:16:48] Shelley Emling: Right. I'm curious, do you speak other languages?
[00:16:51] Jessica Nabongo: I speak French. My Spanish has been improving. And Italian. I used to speak Italian, so I still have some remnants of my Italian. And before, I was speaking Japanese, but I left there over 10 years ago.
[00:17:07] Shelley Emling: So earlier this year, I believe you hosted an online Earth Day concert for National Geographic that featured everybody from Willie Nelson to Ziggy Marley. What was that experience like?
[00:17:20] Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, that was so amazing. It was Earth Day Eve, so it was like New Year's Eve, but for the planet. And it was a really amazing experience. I am all about sustainable travel, promoting the reduction of single-use plastic, and those are things that are near and dear to my heart. So when National Geographic reached out to me to host it, I was incredibly excited. It was great to hear all of the concerts. I really enjoy my fashions, so for my finale dress I wore a dress that was made from over 70 reused plastic bottles. It was a really fun experience.
[00:17:59] Shelley Emling: That's amazing. So you mentioned the book earlier. Tell us about the book you're working on for National Geographic. I think it includes 100 stories from 100 different countries, and it also features your photography. So tell us about that and when might that be available.
[00:18:15] Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, I'm super excited about it. I've been to 195 countries, chose 100 countries, places that made my heart smile, places where I had really impactful travel and some of my favorite countries in the world. And we're including my photography, both pictures of me and mostly pictures that I've taken in all of these countries. So super excited. It goes on presale on Amazon September 3, and it will be published May 3.
[00:18:45] Shelley Emling: May 3.
[00:18:46] Jessica Nabongo: Yep, by National Geographic.
[00:18:48] Shelley Emling: Fantastic. When it comes to travel apps, I was looking at your website, and I'm pretty sure you have a few favorites. I believe one is Mobile Passport. Can you talk a little bit about your favorite travel apps that those of us who like to travel might want to try?
[00:19:02] Jessica Nabongo: Yes. Definitely Mobile Passport. TripIt is also a really good app, especially if you're flying multiple airlines, because it can pull in all of your hotel information, rental cars, airlines. So that's a really great app. And then I love Units Plus, which gives me easy access to a currency converter, as well as a mileage-to-kilometer converter, pounds and kilos, that sort of thing. And then I would say probably one that I used the most before is called Mark O'Travel, which is a place that I use to record everywhere that I go, so I can easily see how many countries I've been to, how many territories, etc.
[00:19:46] Shelley Emling: What does Mobile Passport do?
[00:19:48] Jessica Nabongo: Mobile Passport is amazing. There’s only certain airports that use it, but it basically lets you fast-track a really long immigration queue. I don't have global entry. I am applying for it today after standing in line at immigration last night for one hour, because Atlanta used to have Mobile Passport, and now they don't. And when I got to the immigration line, there were at least 500 people in front of me.
[00:20:16] Shelley Emling: Oh my gosh.
[00:20:16] Jessica Nabongo: Not fun at all. So Mobile Passport — you can look online to see which airports cover it, or where you can use it — but yeah, it's been a timesaver for me.
[00:20:28] Shelley Emling: So finally, after visiting all the countries of the world, what could possibly be on your bucket list? What’s left to accomplish?
[00:20:37] Jessica Nabongo: That's so funny. I mean, for me, I've been to every country in the world, but I haven’t been all over every country in the world, So there are still places in different countries that I want to see. I still have seven U.S. states that I want to visit; I've only been to 43 so far. Dying to get to Alaska. And you mentioned New Mexico — I really am looking forward to visiting New Mexico as well. There’s a ton of national parks in the U.S. that I want to see. So my bucket list is really long, and also, I probably have a list of 100 countries that I want to go back to. There's a lot that I still want to see.
[00:21:15] Shelley Emling: OK, so before we end, is there anything else that you'd like, any other tips that I have missed that you would like to share with the audience about your travels or traveling in general?
[00:21:23] Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, I mean, honestly, I am all about positive energy, and I think that we all have to make sure we're traveling with positive energy. And that means oftentimes removing your bias in advance of traveling. I think if we spend a lot of time watching the news and reading things online, there's a tendency in the West that there's a vilification of countries in Africa, countries in the Middle East. So I would just encourage people to travel with positive energy, because I feel like that's what's helped me survive getting to every country in the world, especially doing so much of it alone. Because the other funny thing is I've never had food poisoning, and people find that absolutely wild.
[00:22:11] Shelley Emling: I do find that wild.
[00:22:13] Jessica Nabongo: Because I eat everything. But I always say, my stomach is coated in positive energy, and I really mean that nothing can get to me. So I think that's really important: grace, gratitude and positivity.
[00:22:27] Shelley Emling: So do you buy guidebooks for every country before you go? Or no?
[00:22:30] Jessica Nabongo: Not at all.
[00:22:31] Shelley Emling: Not at all.
[00:22:31] Jessica Nabongo: No, I'm the kind of person, I just show up. Here are the things that I have to have before I land. I need to know where I'm sleeping, and I need to have an airport pickup arranged. I don't like landing in a country and trying to figure out public transportation or a taxi or whatever. I like to have that prearranged, so especially if you're traveling for 20 hours, I want to land, see my name on a placard, and know that I could just get to my hotel. And then orientate myself to the place. So a lot of times I'll ask taxi drivers, concierges at hotels. I go to dinner or something, I'll ask waiters or bartenders, and I'll say, what do you think I need to do in your country or your city? Because I feel like that's better than any guidebook could ever be.
[00:23:19] Shelley Emling: So you must be an excellent packer, I was just thinking. Do, do you check bags, or do you try to do carry-on?
[00:23:27] Jessica Nabongo: I check bags.
[00:23:28] Shelley Emling: You do check bags. OK.
[00:23:29] Jessica Nabongo: I do. I do. I take usually at least one checked bag. Then I have an expandable duffle bag that I put inside of my checked bag so that if I buy things, I have another bag to put them in, and then check on the way home.
[00:23:44] Shelley Emling: Excellent. Well thank you very much. I'm afraid we're about out of time, but please don't forget, everyone, to follow The Girlfriend on Facebook and Instagram, and subscribe to our free weekly newsletter at TheGirlfriend.com for all the very best in beauty, health, sex and life advice. And thanks to Jessica for joining us today. Be sure to check out her website by going to thecatchmeifyoucan.com. And thanks to all of you for listening. Thank you, Jessica, have a wonderful week.
[00:24:12] Jessica Nabongo: Thanks so much.
[00:24:15] Shelley Emling: For more episodes of The Girlfriend: In Conversation, visit aarp.org/thegirlfriendinconversation. I'm Shelley Emling, and thanks for listening.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
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July 29: Rachel Noble on Resilience
Aug. 5: Jessica Nabongo on Where to Find the Best Travel Deals
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