Passports and polyglots: Two NYU Abu Dhabi students on cheap, ethical travel

Through their Instagram account, @passportsandpolyglots, NYU Abu Dhabi juniors Colleen Mader and Xander Christou document their travels and share their tips.

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The creators of @passportsandpolyglots, an Instagram account created by two NYU Abu Dhabi juniors to document their study away experience. (Courtesy of @passportsandpolyglots)

Juliana Guarracino, Abroad Editor

Earlier this year while backpacking through the Balkans, NYU Abu Dhabi juniors Colleen Mader and Xander Christou made two friends from Kosovo on a bus ride from North Macedonia. They got food, played Uno and hung out until they had to part ways. 

A month later, now studying abroad at NYU Buenos Aires, Mader and Christou learned that their Kosovan friends were so inspired by their travels that they booked their first-ever flight a trip to Istanbul, one of the few countries open to people with passports from Kosovo and without a certain type of visa. For Mader and Christou, it’s moments like this that make sharing their experiences and love for travel so special.

Through @passportsandpolyglots — an Instagram account dedicated to their travels — Mader and Christou not only document their adventures as a couple, but also as students looking to see the world on a budget. Together, they have traveled to 24 countries.

“I didn’t travel growing up, and I always thought it was something only for rich people,” Mader said. “Then, when I was able to find a way to get into it and start doing it and for it to be cheaper and more sustainable, I went off. I wish other people who are not in super high income situations or don’t have how much money they think they need to travel — I would love it if they can see that they can do it and have this opportunity.”

The Instagram account initially started as a joke in December of 2021, before the two were dating, but in May, after a few trips abroad together, they decided to make it a serious travel account. Now, the pair share recommendations with fellow travelers, while updating and educating their families and friends on the countries they visit.

Except for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, which are all on their list for next year, the couple has visited every country in the Gulf Cooperation Council. During this past semester, they also visited a number of countries in Latin America, including Paraguay and Colombia.

“Sometimes, even when we tell our parents we are going to Colombia, for example, my dad was like ‘be careful,’ all this stuff, and it’s because people just have all these misconceptions,” Christou said. 

In sharing their trips to places that may be less touristy, they hope to eliminate stereotypes and even encourage others to visit. 

“Respecting the place and the people we are traveling to is something that we try to focus on and set ourselves apart from others, in the way we travel and in the way we share a place,” Christou said. 

For Mader and Christou, the people are the essence of their travels. The way they portray the countries that they visit is a huge part of their content creation process. Learning the languages of the places they visit is also a part of how they aim to travel more ethically, and part of why the account includes not just passports, but also polyglots.

“When I go to a place where I speak the language, the experience is so rich,” said Mader, who speaks English, Arabic, French and Spanish. 

Similarly, Christou speaks English, Greek, Spanish and Arabic. Their love for Arabic is part of what initially connected the two when they met at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Though they have been studying abroad this semester, most of their traveling has been from their home campus. With low-cost Wizz Air flights to dozens of countries only an hour away, studying in Abu Dhabi is also part of what allows them to travel on a low budget. The two joked that maybe one day Wizz Air could sponsor them.

“Being in Abu Dhabi gives us this unique ability to be in a really central location between Asia, Africa and Europe,” Christou said.

“And in the Middle East too,” Mader added. “There’s no way I could have afforded this much travel if I didn’t live in Abu Dhabi.”

While they don’t intend to be full-time travel influencers in the future, having the account has been a fun side hustle for Mader and Christou — one that they hope they can use in the future to give back to the countries they visit, and to maybe earn a free flight or two.

Contact Juliana Guarracino at [email protected]