Sal Lavallo has seen it all through travel. Literally. From bats in his soup to the borders of more than 100 countries, he’s experienced more in 27 years than most people would ever dream of in a lifetime.
That includes visiting 193 countries—every country in the world. Yes, all of them.
“It was never intentional,” Lavallo says of the major accomplishment. “I really just like to see new places.”
The goal to visit every country wasn’t about checking off a box and completing a task—a life goal of many, Lavallo stresses.
“It was more so to find out what I could learn from all of these places,” Lavallo told Marriott TRAVELER while in New York City.
Timing, of course, played a role. Not everyone has the opportunity to traverse the globe at a moment’s notice. But Lavallo found himself with some free time after leaving his job in Abu Dhabi, where he worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co.
I think the main issue a lot of people have while traveling is that they do what they think they should do, and not what they want to do.
Life changing moment
“I was really thinking about next steps in my life,” he says. “The way that my firm works is that a contract ends at a specific time. So at the completion of my last project I was thinking about what my options were.”
Lavallo was traveling four days a week for work, taking advantage of opportunities along the way to learn new things. He took boxing lessons, danced through ballet classes and improved his Spanish and Swahili. As one does.
In 2016, he decided to spend six months traveling and just relaxing. Those six months turned into a year.” At the end of that year I had already been to 150 countries,” Lavallo says. “That’s when I said, ‘Okay, let’s finish. Let’s visit every country in the world.'”
And finish he did, making Malta his last stop in November, with the Le Méridien St. Julians Hotel & Spa throwing Lavallo a lavish party to celebrate his big achievement, complete with balloons with “193,” and a cake shaped like the world. He was joined by his parents.
“It was just the most perfect ending that I could have asked for—to be surrounded by the people I love and be so comfortable in a place like that,” Lavallo says. “It was amazing. Everyone was joking around saying it was like my wedding day and nothing could go wrong. I lost my wallet too, but I didn’t even care. I was just so happy.”
Lavallo was already pretty well versed in travel, having visited Germany and Italy, where his mother and father are from. He attended United World College, a boarding school in New Mexico, with 200 students from 90 different countries. This early exposure to the world’s diversity helped to mold Lavallo’s view of it and only made him curious to know more.
That includes the impact of borders on a nation and its people. “What I’m most fascinated about is how there is this literal fake line in the sand, and then on one side you have to use different money, speak a different language,” Lavallo says. “Some of these places it’s shocking, the shift. In West Africa it’s really interesting because the way colonialism worked, you go from French and British to Portuguese and back to British, so it’s very confusing—it’s kind of mind boggling how much it can shift simply by where a random border was drawn 100 years ago.”
First time out of the country
Lavallo’s first foreign trip took him to China and Japan with his father when he was 13. He already had been to 44 states in the U.S. by that time, “so my parents encouraged us to pick an international destination to visit,” he says. “I wanted a totally different experience, so I suggested Japan. Because we were already traveling so far, my father recommended that we visit China, as well. And we did. It was amazing.”
After graduating from UWC, and then New York University, he spent three years working in Abu Dhabi, before leaving his job and packing his bags. His plan? To not only visit every country in the world, but really experience each one too.
“I wanted a real plethora of experiences to look back on,” Lavallo says. “Because I studied economic development and identity, and because I later worked in those fields, I always like to compare. For example, there are 14 or so countries in the Pacific, but each one has its own unique culture. So, for me, it’s not about checking the box and seeing all 14, it’s really all about seeing what the difference is economically, culturally or philosophically.”
I ate a bat once. The fur, the wings, the teeth, the eyes. All in a stew.
Expression of ‘human happiness’
Culturally, Lavallo has a major interest in dance. He considers it “the most beautiful expression of human happiness.”
“I’ve always danced,” Lavallo says. “In boarding school my closest friend was from Trinidad, and so she taught me Caribbean dance. I also learned a lot of Latin dancing because there were a lot of Latinos in the school. It was so exciting to see how much people loved it in their own different way. I always joke around and say that everybody dances, and that dance really does unite us. So, it’s been a big part of my travels—learning about it. I’m always happy to get on the dance floor.”
Most unforgettable wow moment
During his journey, Lavallo was somewhat expecting the people of North Korea to be “kind of alien,” he says. “I was afraid that they would be totally different and that I wasn’t going to be able to connect with them at all. But then I had this really great night out with my guide. It was a night of just talking and hanging out, and there was this realization that, no matter what, we are similar, and that there are always similarities and we can really connect with anyone.
“Those are always my wow moments, when you connect deeply with someone that you had previously felt was so different from you.”
Naturally, Lavallo has some helpful travel tips he’s learned along the way.
Join a loyalty program … or two. For Lavallo, he’s both a Marriott Rewards and SPG member for hotels, and regularly flies United and Etihad airlines.
“Really, it’s just all about loyalty to one or two because you’ll be rewarded more,” he says. “You also need to think about if you want to maximize for value or if you want to maximize for a tier. I would rather use my points to get Platinum rather than to use my points to stay at nicer places.”
Make a checklist but don’t strictly stick to it. “I always say you should plan ten amazing things and if only one of them turns out you’re still doing something amazing,” Lavallo says.
When lost, “Never be afraid to ask someone for help,” he says. “You’d be surprised at how many times that will lead to a new friendship.”
I always say you should plan ten amazing things and if only one of them turns out you're still doing something amazing.
Don’t overplan. “I think the main issue a lot of people have while traveling is that they do what they think they should do, and not what they want to do,” Lavallo says.
The first thing Lavallo does when he checks into a hotel is ask a concierge for a map and tips on where to go in the area.
“Then I’ll spend hours walking around, maybe stop somewhere for food, always trying to find a local spot,” he says. “If you wander like that you’re going to be much more surprised and often see things that you never would have otherwise.”
When trying to get rid of a local currency,—spare change, that is—”spend it before you get to the airport,” Lavallo says. If you can’t “it’s kind of fun to dictate your final meal based on how much money you have left.”
Stay awhile. Lavallo has spent two or more months in 15 countries. “That really allows you to intimately know a place,” he says.” Abu Dhabi has been my base for the past six years but in that time I also lived for six months in Nairobi and I return there a lot. I own a small farm in Tanzania so I go there every year.”
As far as packing, “I pack pretty light,” Lavallo says. “I think you should always pack a bathing suit. You can always borrow a jacket from somebody. I’m infamously bad at preplanning for weather, though. For instance, when I moved to India someone was like, ‘Do you have your rain coat for the monsoons?’ and I was like, ‘What?!'”
While he prefers West African food for its different stews of chicken and fish, he’s also a fan of Ethiopian cuisine, even when he’s back home in New York and Abu Dhabi.
That hasn’t stopped him from expanding his palette, though.
“I ate a bat once—the fur, the wings, the teeth, the eyes—all in a stew,” he says.
Now that his world travels are complete, and he’s crossed off visiting every country in the world off his to do list—whether he intended to or not—Lavallo is figuring out what to do next.
“I do want to settle down for a bit, buy a house and get a regular job and be normal,” he says. “Though, I still think I’ll do a bit of traveling.”
That could mean revisiting some of his favorite countries.
“People think that I must only be going to new countries but, really, 60-70% of my time is spent returning to places,” Lavallo says. “I’ve spent a lot time in the UAE, in Kenya, Tanzania, Germany—and all of them feel like home and visiting them really re-energizes me to get back out there and see new places.”