4 Ways to Make Your Travels More Exciting, Guaranteed

Jon Levy Antarctica
Courtesy of Jon Levy
Courtesy of Jon Levy

Jon Levy has been force-fed by Kiefer Sutherland in the back booth of a Manhattan bar, has screamed for a medic as bulls trampled him in Pamplona, and has high-fived penguins at the South Pole. That is to say, he is a man with stories. Also, advice on how to live your next trip as an Indiana Jones film -- or at least as a beer commercial.

You don't need to go far to have an adventure, Levy says, or have a bulging bank account. But jet-setting doesn't hurt. He has hit roughly 30 countries so far, and is as likely to go with friends as he is to arrive solo and build a crew from scratch. "I don't care about bottle service," he says. "I care about having a fun life, not a luxurious life."

He wasn't always so outgoing. A self-described scrawny geek-turned-behavioral scientist, Levy spent his formative years listening to and analyzing the adventure stories so many travelers described as random happenings. Systems fascinated him; he studied computer science, math, and economics at NYU, and he stayed obsessed as he worked at a series of startups and media outreach jobs, traveling all the while.

Now 36, the native New Yorker has become a quasi-professional bon vivant. Gotham magazine has named him among the city's most successful bachelors, and he holds one of the city's most eclectic dinner parties at his Upper West Side pad, with guests such as Science Guy Bill Nye, the Winklevoss twins, and ex-Real World cast members. He has just compiled his armchair anthropology into a new book, The 2 AM Principle: Discover the Science of Adventure, titled on the premise that nothing good happens after 2am… except pretty much all the best stuff.

I reached him by phone to ask how to crank up a given trip to 11, or at least high single digits. His advice rolls into four steps you and your gang can adopt to make your nights lower-case epic. You're not going to remember any of this at 2:01am unless you read it a couple of times, so let's get to it.

Jon Levy
Maroon 5 Halloween Party in Los Angeles, California | Courtesy of Jon Levy

Pick your best squad

This is the first half of every heist comedy you've ever seen: In short, you have to bring the right people together. So choose carefully. "I've come to believe that the most important thing by far is curation," Levy says. "The fundamental element that defines the quality of our lives is the people around us."

There's scientific evidence to back this up. A person's chance of developing a smoking habit and odds for becoming obese both rise in relationship to where your friends stand. Conversely, if you want to end up in a debauched Jenga duel at 3am, you'll want a group of diverse skills and interests -- people who can engage, people who are fearless, people who know people. If you're going to make a hard cut somewhere, Levy suggests not relying on friends who bring a penchant for drama.

Jon Levy
Eating a Scorpion in Bangkok, Thailand | Courtesy of Jon Levy

Court danger to heighten your senses

You know how the world seems to get a little bit sunnier when you're on vacation? That's not just the relief of ditching the 9-to-5. Your brain actually rewards novel environments and experiences with a shiny burst of dopamine. "Fun," that nebulous sensation, has a chemical component.

Even more blissful, though, might be a phenomenon researchers call the "misattribution of arousal." Here's how it works. Say you're a dude standing on one side of a canyon, looking at a woman on the other side, and you can chose which of two bridges you want to cross: one a super-sturdy two-lane paved highway, and the other, a patchwork of frayed vines swaying 1,000ft above a raging river.

Which bridge should you use if you want to forge a romance on the other side? Science says take the near-death bridge, and you'll arrive mistaking mortal fear for true lurv.

"People confuse elevated heart rate and the adrenaline and the testosterone for attraction," Levy says. “I think that when we travel, there's a similar tendency for us to confuse the experience of being in a new environment with how happy we really are. You get a temporary boost, but it's not necessarily something that will last."

To keep that high going, you need to seek out physical or emotional novelty. That could mean swimming in icy waters or crashing a wedding reception, pretending to be a guest (Levy specialties, both). An adventure isn't an adventure if you make it through unchanged.

"There are internal struggles," Levy says. "Maybe you have a fear of heights, maybe there's a girl you really like and you want to ask her out. Society is actually rooting for you to conquer those boundaries."

Jon Levy
Spray Painting in Berlin, Germany | Courtesy of Jon Levy

Ratchet up the stakes

To propel an adventure to new heights, add challenges, intrigue, eurekas. That could mean something as simple as making a rule that no one is allowed to pay for their own drinks. Or it could mean inviting total strangers with you on international flights.

The latter is one reason you don't want to be caught in line behind Levy going through airport security, as he is wont to invite strangers along with him to wherever. On one occasion, he says, he invited an airline worker along before he even knew her name. She agreed if he paid for her flight. "So, right there in line I started going through my apps looking for flights to Tel Aviv," he says. "That started a ruckus in the other lines: People are waiting for me to move and staring at us. But 24 hours later she had her passport and we were traveling around Israel."

Not everyone has the sort of spare change to drop on a last-second ticket for a stranger. But don't shy away from that sort of friendly brinksmanship. If no one blinks, you wind up in a place where no reasonable person could go alone. Which can be fantastic.

Jon Levy
St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia | Courtesy of Jon Levy

But quit while you're ahead

No one wants to wear out their welcome, and at a certain point you need to make the call: turn in for the night, or keep looking for the next chapter. This can be your most crucial choice. Humans are hardwired to try to extend pleasurable experiences even as the elements that made them fun in the beginning evaporate. "You're still out at 4am thinking you're going to meet some girls, which is not going to happen at that point, so the night just deteriorates," Levy says. "Then you remember the entire experience as a less positive experience because we don't process duration of pleasure or pain -- we look back and process peaks of experience. You need to finish strong."

So take into account liabilities and assets when deciding the next move. If you're drinking? You can't drive. Are you with women who've spent the evening in heels? Maybe that two-mile walk to an iffy afterparty is a non-starter. In all cases, remember to end in style.

Moderation will help you make the most of your resources anyway. Even if you visit a new city every month of the year -- as Levy did in 2013 -- you don't need to be flush with cash. "It's not as expensive as you'd think," he says. "I crash at people's houses, anywhere I can. I've gone into new cities where I didn't know anyone, and the mission was to find someone to put me up for the night or sleep outside. The cost of food most places is similar to the cost of food at home, so really we're only talking about the costs of flights.

"Everyone has a different tolerance for extremes," he continues. "But I'm a strong believer that the scope and size of your life is in direct proportion to how uncomfortable you're willing to be."

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Peter Rugg is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in Complex, Vice, SB Nation, The Village Voice, SF Weekly, and Backpacker Magazine. On Twitter, he’s @petermrugg.