California second-grade teacher becomes rare traveler to visit every country in the world

A schoolteacher in the San Francisco area has joined the elite ranks of humans who have visited every nation on Earth.

Lucy Hsu, who teaches second grade in San Jose, California, has officially visited 193 nations.

Most travel clubs and groups use the number of nations as 193 because that’s how many nations are members of the United Nations, Hsu explains.

Hsu, as NBC Bay Area first reported, visited the last country on her list, Syria, in May 2023.

She says she waited a long time for Syria to be open again to Americans (the United States Department of State put the country on its “Do Not Travel” list months after Hsu visited). When she finally traveled there, she was bracing herself “to make sure nothing happens.”

“When we got into Syria … I felt really excited, obviously, and a little bit surreal,” she tells TODAY.com “I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. I felt very calm. Like there was a sense of calm that ‘Oh, I’ve reached my goal.’”

There is no official tally of who has visited every country in the world but it’s estimated to be somewhere around 400.

Lucy Hsu
Hsu at the historic site of Palmyra in Syria, the 193rd country she visited.Courtesy Lucy Hsu

The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Hsu says she didn’t travel much as a child and got her first passport at 23.

“Growing up, it was a very modest upbringing and we never went anywhere,” Hsu says, but before going back to school for her master’s degree, she decided to get her passport and go backpacking through Europe. From there, she caught the travel bug and made it a goal to travel every summer.

As her country count climbed higher and higher, she figured out how to keep her costs low and give back at the same time.

“I realized if I planned my summers properly, I could travel on a low budget and see a couple of countries that are clustered together,” she explains. “And then I realized by the time I’d traveled for five or six years, I’d reached probably 60-70 countries.”

She says she discovered networks of other international travelers in various clubs who offered tips and new destination goals. She joined the Century Club — which has the goal of hitting 100 countries — and then once she reached that goal, Hsu figured she would keep going.

Lucy Hsu
Hsu skydives in Dubai.Courtesy Lucy Hsu
Lucy Hsu
Hsu visits Hegra (also known as Mada’in Salih) in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Lucy Hsu

“And I just thought, ‘Well, how could I go to 193? Is it possible?” she says. “Then I realized, ‘Oh, you actually can go to Afghanistan safely. And you can actually go to Iran and North Korea safely.’ So why not?”

How is Hsu able to afford so much travel?

Hsu, 42, says that the biggest question people ask her is how she’s able to afford to travel so much.

She says it’s through a variety of cost-saving strategies but her biggest one is by signing up to do volunteer exchange programs and homestays.

She says she uses Workaway — a subscription-based website that connects volunteers with vetted organizations — to find hosts and opportunities.

She says she’s done many different types of cultural exchanges but mostly ones “geared towards education and working with children because that’s my profession and that’s my passion.”Courtesy Lucy Hsu

Lucy Hsu
Hsu teaching in Pakistan.Courtesy Lucy Hsu

Hsu adds that she is a “low-key traveler” and often stays in hostels using a website called HostelWorld — and has even found deals working at hostels in exchange for her room and board.

She offered a few other suggestions for traveling on a smaller budget, including earning credit card points to rack up rewards.

Hsu says she has also taken low-cost buses across borders and trains while on her travels.

She says it’s important to her to help people realize that travel is more attainable than they might think.

Lucy Hsu
Hsu at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.Courtesy Lucy Hsu

“There’s still a lot of misconceptions about travel being unattainable … or that it’s very unsafe or unaffordable,” she says.

But now, she says, she’s learned how to make trips happen and wants to spread the knowledge — especially as, Hsu notes, there are so few minority women in her international travel community.

“Travel is attainable if you’ve learned ways to do it in a budget-conscious way. And those methods are out there if you want to research,” she says. “Travel is less unattainable than people think.”

Lucy Hsu
Hsu on a “gorilla trek” in the Congo.Courtesy Lucy Hsu

Hsu’s favorite countries out of 193

Hsu says it’s hard to choose her favorite trips because she’s had so many wonderful experiences but Mongolia stands out in her mind.

“It’s really this land of undiscovered adventure,” she says, explaining she stayed a few days in the Gobi Desert in a yurt with a local family. She reminisced about riding the family’s camels in the morning and sliding down sand dunes with the children.

She also mentioned her love for her “Kenyan family” whom she stayed with for several months one summer and traveled around Eastern Africa.

“The thing that really reminds me of the value of travel is just a sense of gratitude for how much we have in our world. Yet we’re often unsatisfied because we want more,” she says.

“And I think those lessons I bring home to me when you want to complain about you know, there’s traffic or the weather sucks today, or my internet’s down and then you realize, ‘OK, let’s stop for a moment. There’s people living happily with none of those things.’”

Hsu’s tips for staying safe as a solo traveler or going to less touristy destinations

Hsu says the key to staying safe while traveling is to do your research ahead of time. For example, she says when she was debating going to North Korea, she initially thought it “sounds like a really stupid idea.”

“But once you do the research, then you realize, ‘Oh, there’s actually three companies that have been taking travelers to North Korea for eight years,’” she says.

She says relying on her network of fellow experienced travelers for recommendations for things like guides, drivers and translators, also made her feel safe, along with following the local rules.

Lucy Hsu
Hsu riding a camel in Sudan, where there are more pyramids than anywhere in the world, Courtesy Lucy Hsu

Where is Hsu off to next?

Even though she’s now traveled to every nation (and Antarctica!), Hsu still has big plans for the future. She’s interested in traveling on a cargo ship, she says, and has several new cities and regions in countries she’s previously visited that she would like to see.

“It’s like what they say: ‘The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know much,” she laughs. “And the more I travel, the more I realize I haven’t seen anything yet.”

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