Worldwide traveler Ryan Cowden launches Travel Advisor Business

Fri. January 3, 2020 6:17 AM by Ross Forman

After a series of 9-to-5 jobs, Ryan Cowden realized that wasn't the life for him. He wanted to continue exploring, on his own terms rather than those of an employer. And ideally, it would be done from anywhere but Chicago during the city's rough winters.

"I started looking around and realized that, no, the Internet had not killed the role of 'Travel Agents,' as many trade publications noted. I even noticed friends and family tagging their agents on social media," Cowden said. "At a recent seminar, a Royal Caribbean representative noted the share of their bookings by agents over the past several years was growing.

"For those who like to book their own, the amount of info out there is daunting. With so much needing to be vetted, plus figuring out the little things of where you should stay or justifying costs of one option over another, it becomes quite stressful. That is where a travel advisor, the new industry title, comes into the equation."

Cowden, 42, who lives in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, is now a travel advisor and started his own business, Avid Nomad Travel. His traveling resume includes six years as a flight attendant for United Airlines, based in New York City, London and Chicago. Plus, he has traveled to 6 continents, 52 countries and 103 UNESCO sites. He also has had a haircut in at least 27 countries and currently has a "rather odd beard trim" done in Shanghai, he said, laughing.

Cowden is now able to book just about any type of travel for clients, from safaris to cruises, including Atlantis, as well as resort stays, local daytrips, group travel, and more.

"Having been to a wide variety of places, even if it is just a hotel in the right location, I can do that," he said. "What I ultimately think may be a specialty is to plan out the more independent-minded trips. I recently sent a client on a piecemeal trip to Singapore, across Java and ending in Bali. When he first asked me about it, he was overwhelmed and didn't have the time to dedicate to putting it together. I took on the research needed for such a trip of a lifetime and had been to some of those destinations myself.

"His photos on Facebook were amazing I want to go."

Cowden, an Ohio native, has lived in Chicago since late-2004.

He said his immediate goals are to "continue learning the various ways I can help others get the most out of where they want to go, which options fit the best, and of course learning about destinations.

"Most people think of 'tours' as the big groups following someone with a flag. There is that element which makes sense for some, but there are tons more independent-minded experiential tours, geared to small groups or even private travel. They may include cooking or wine-tasting courses, docent-led museum or gallery visits, sailing lessons, dive trips or have an accompanying Egyptologist.

"One thing I never really thought about in starting this was learning client management software. I was a public sector employee, (so) there were different software programs and functions at work. Changing course and learning those programs has taken a bit of time."

Long-term, Cowden said he just wants to continue helping others experience the world, as he's been able to do.

"Mark Twain is credited with saying, 'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,' and I agree with that," said Cowden, who is willing to take the many hours' worth of guesswork out of travel planning – for others. "I have direct contacts for when things sometimes go wrong, which is something you will not get if booking through a search engine online, for example. Combine that with my own practical travel experiences, I can help you make the most of your travels."

Cowden has strength with experiential trips and is very familiar with Latin America and Iberia, among many other destinations.

"I've been to (many) of the most common LGBT destinations, (be it for) Pride weekends, or passing through a few LGBT-friendly destinations or parties on a multi-stop adventure, there is a pretty good chance I have been there and have practical insights," he said. "Additionally, having been fortunate enough to have lived in such diverse cities, I have friends or contacts from what feels like everywhere around the globe. When I've had a quick question about where to go out or if somewhere is still the place to be, a WhatsApp message usually returns honest and up-to-date info."

Cowden certainly is a world traveler. He spent last winter living in Colombia and just recently returned from 12 days in China.

"The City Planner in me was snapping pictures non-stop (in China)," Cowden said of his visit to China. "People often talk about the future of cities and such, well, the future has arrived there. Granted, there is a different political and legal system at work. But we frequently get a rather distorted view of what China is today. Beijing's air was clean, with blue skies, solar panels on rooftops everywhere and new trees planted all over to combat the encroaching desert and remedy greenhouse emissions, for example. They are also splashing down serious cash on a personal level, too. Even the smaller city Suzhou, had two Gucci shops, and I also saw Prada, Cartier, Hermes, you name it. It felt like there were five of each of them in central Shanghai, let alone how many high-rise shopping malls or small commercial lanes we passed."

"But the most striking thing about Beijing, a city of about 20 million, and it took a day or so before we realized what it was, was the silence. City buses, the millions of motorized scooters and bikes, private vehicles, small cargo trucks, they were overwhelmingly electric or hybrids, so almost no engine noise. Add to it the pristine pavements meant there are no potholes or uneven manhole covers to cause the loud crashing sounds or swerving traffic we're so used to on Chicago's streets."

"I also think they are quite good at hiding the warts (as) there are cameras and an occasional drone everywhere, so beggars, homeless and people selling things were nowhere to be found or were very subtle."

Cowden, an admitted history buff, added: "The Forbidden City and Terracotta Army were spectacular, but the small medieval walled city of Pingyao was perhaps my favorite. China has a fascinating history; one we know so little (about) in the west."

Also this past summer, Cowden attended Toronto Pride, again.

"Church Street is sort of (Toronto's) Halsted Street, and the event is a mix of Market Days and Pride Fest. There also are plenty of parties to suit just about every interest. The city rolls out a rainbow welcome from the moment you arrive, starting at the airport, on the trains, around downtown, LED rainbow-lit high-rises and of course within the neighborhoods."

"The only other places I've seen it to that extend (such a welcome for) Pride weekends are Madrid, San Francisco and Tel Aviv."

Cowden has fall trips confirmed to Spain, Panama and Colombia.

He also will be traveling some upcoming weekends to watch his beloved Ohio State University football team.

"Last winter I had a chance to 'move' to Bogota," he explained. "I wanted to improve Spanish, but I also wanted to do something different, particularly one that involved escaping winter, so with the help of a good friend, I did. It is a spectacular country and of course it has had a rough past that they are working hard to move beyond, especially Medellin. Cartagena is an explosion of Colonial Caribbean colors while the coffee region around Salento is stunning. Bogota has great museums, food and a club scene that is ...intense."

Cowden has strong ties to Chicago's LGBT community, having formerly worked at Crew for years and having played multiple sports in the city's predominantly-LGBT sports associations.

He also served on the board of the Scarlet & Gay, Ohio State's GLBT Alumni Society.

Now Boarding, The Life of a Flight Attendant

After flying around the world for work, Cowden enjoyed countless fun nights in any number of cities with his co-workers. Flight attendant life also led to a quirky schedule while living in London when he had one-month paid vacation, thus went backpacking around Europe, Asia, Brazil or Central America, plus at least a week or two off every month to explore.

What was the best part of being a flight attendant?

The friendships made and time off, he said.

"London was a different experience than most bases, 100 of us, mostly in our 20s, transferred in at the same time, joining a large part of the base that were multi-national Europeans or from the Commonwealth, all similar in age," he said. "Add to it the significant number of former Pan Am flight attendants in base, many with the incredible stories. One quite famously and heroically, survived the Tenerife accident, then by chance swapped out of Pan Am 103. Others told of the magical layovers in Rio, Fiji or Nairobi of the late-1960s and '70s."

"There was a collegial, family dynamic; I'm still friends with quite a few."

Cowden said his worst flight attendant-related stories centered around passengers, naturally. "Some people lose their minds at the door of the plane, for some reason," he said. "In the pre-social media era, it was unbelievable to most. Now, few doubt the stories."

Cowden also recalls flying one of the first flights to leave London's Heathrow Airport, bound for the U.S. after 9/11.

"Everyone on the left side of the 747 could see lower Manhattan and the smoke 30,000 feet below. Then (there was) the acrid smoke hanging in the Potomac Valley on that layover, too," he said.

While flying for work, he also flew for fun and adventures, including visits to India, South Africa, Australia, Thailand, Mexico, Guatemala and all over Europe.

"Not every trip is the same, or for the same reason," Cowden said. "Sometimes you do need to kick back and disconnect on a cruise, at a resort or in the wilderness, escaping and recharging, something we don't do well in the U.S. Sometimes it is a Pride weekend or circuit party."

"Traveling also should be about the experience and learning a bit about a place or people. Getting away from the tourist hotspots is usually the best way to accomplish this, you don't usually have to go far, either. Sometimes, it can be a bit of a challenge, maybe even distressing to some, but those brief glimpses beyond the usual tourist sites will help travelers gain perspective beyond what they are accustomed too."

Find more about Avid Nomad Travel on Facebook, or:

Around The World With ...Ryan Cowden

Favorite Chicago Restaurants: Buona Terra or Masa Azul, both in Logan Square.

Favorite Airport: "Changi in Singapore, though I really like Bogota's new airport, particularly the name, El Dorado."

Least Favorite Airport: "LaGuardia in New York, though LAX and Philadelphia are close behind."

Favorite Beach: Es Cavallet in Ibiza or Playa Chiquita in Costa Rica

Destination You Still Want To Visit: Egypt

Preferred Airplane Seat: Window

Always Travels With: "A book or The Economist."

It's A Fact: "My undergrad majors were International Studies and History, and then (I earned) a Master of City Planning. I'll usually try to get a feel for the city, daily life as much as I can, what infrastructure projects are there, the history, architecture, culture etc. I always try to find local markets while meandering on foot in between neighborhoods, sites or museums. I'll find a café, plaza, pub or vantage point to watch the world go by. I definitely have my favorite things to do in more frequently visited places when I go back. In the past couple of years, I've been doing some hiking and diving, and of course if it is a party trip, then it is typically time with friends."

Top 5 Travel Tips:

1. Plan the big things early; waiting too long usually means more stress and higher prices. Also, check the weather and seasons.

2. Try to avoid peak travel times. "Maybe it can't be helped, or a big event is the reason to go in the first place, but it is usually more authentic outside of those times."

3. Don't schedule every minute of the day; leave time to meander or find a spot to observe the place in which you find yourself. Pop into that market, bakery, rooftop terrace or follow a trail along the river. Whatever it is, leave time for the spontaneity."

4. "Most of my travel has been solo, (so) don't be afraid to go (solo); you'll be glad you did."

5. Look at current events plus some history of a destination. "It gives context to the people and the place, where they've been and where they may be headed. It doesn't have to be a history textbook, but travelers will improve their experience with a little effort."