What's Your Travel Philosophy?
I met up with a friend recently who travels a lot more often than I do. Her work schedule is more flexible than mine, and she uses that flexibility to travel as much as possible around the world. Naturally, we always talk about travel when we get together: where she has been, where she is planning to go next and who she is going with.
And every single time we have one of those conversations, I’m shocked at how differently we think about travel.
Different Travel Philosophies
When I went on my first international trip, I remember being in awe of everything I saw and everywhere I went... but I don’t remember a lot of specifics about that trip. In 10 days, I visited Paris, London and Madrid. This was a typical high school group trip to Europe from the US at the time: every minute of every day was scheduled, including meals. Our group always traveled together, generally using methods of transportation completely opposite from what the locals use (think private buses everywhere). We toured every monument and museum in a pack (the kind of group that annoys you thoroughly if you’re an experienced traveler).
Although I did almost everything that a tourist is ‘supposed to do’ in these major European capitals in the 2-3 days I spent in each one, I had an underlying feeling the entire time (even though it was my very first trip abroad):
I can’t wait to come back here and actually experience these cities.
And that is exactly what I’ve been trying to do ever since.
My Travel Philosophy
1) Experiencing > Seeing.
I often read discussions online by travel bloggers and aspiring travelers about how long you really need in a city.
“You really only need 2 days in Vienna.”
“3 days is plenty for London.”
“You’ll run out of things to do in Berlin if you are there for more than 4 days.”
I get it: when you have limited time off work to travel, you want to use it efficiently. It’s a problem I’ve been dealing with (and writing about here on the blog) for years, so I completely understand the conundrum. Flights are expensive, and you want to get as much bang for your buck as possible.
But does it follow that getting bang for your buck means seeing as many cities and countries as you possibly can, in the shortest amount of time possible?
That depends on your travel philosophy.
If you have what is probably the more common philosophy about travel (like my friend mentioned in the introduction) then travel is about seeing new places. You want to spend the minimum amount of time you need to spend in each city to see what it is you are supposed to see there (generally “what you are supposed to see” will include all the tourist hotspots and most instagrammable viewpoints). Also, you will always prioritize new places you haven’t been over places you’ve been before.
To be fair, most people start out their life as a traveler with this philosophy. When I was younger, it was certainly the way that I structured most of my trips. I never prioritized time to just be in another country, because I didn’t realize until I had been traveling for a while that what I actually love about travel is experiencing a new place, instead of just seeing it. Experiencing a place involves learning about it, getting around it the same way the locals do, meeting people from other countries, finding hidden gems, getting off the beaten path, avoiding tourist traps, being creatively inspired (see below), doing quite a bit of aimless wandering and generally realizing that something like a city (or a culture) can’t be summarized by any quantity of tourist hotspots.
If your philosophy is that travel is about experiencing places, you know something that may not align with mainstream travel advice: there isn’t ever going to be enough time. Because you’re going to have a problem with falling in love with the places you visit and the people you meet in those places (if we can call that a problem) and you’ll want to go back to visit them again, even if you’ve already been and they won’t increase your country count. You also know that experiencing a new place fully can take months, years or a lifetime, so the argument about whether 2 days or 4 days is enough time is irrelevant. Put simply, if quality of the time you spend traveling is more important to you than the quantity of places you see, you’ll have different priorities than someone who is interested in increasing their country count first and foremost.
2) There is no travel finish line.
Aside from the conundrum about efficiency (using your limited time off to get as much bang for your buck as possible), there is another underlying theme to this discussion about what constitutes “enough” time in each city or country you visit: that discussion is built on the premise that at some point, you’ll be done traveling.
If what you love about travel is experiencing, being in and learning about a different place than the place you grew up, instead of building a country count that is as large as possible, there isn’t any arbitrary endpoint that applies to you. Even if you were to see every single one of the 195 countries in the world, you wouldn’t be finished traveling.
Because what you love is being in a new place, not passing through it.
The quality of time you spend, not the quantity of places you see.
Unfortunately, things can happen that can cause you to have to stop traveling, no matter how much you love to travel: medical concerns, a change in financial situation or a change in lifestyle preventing you from having the time to travel that you once had. With that in mind, I think it is fair (and smart) to ask ourselves questions about what we will regret about the time that we were able to spend traveling:
Will you regret not seeing every country in the world?
Or will you regret not experiencing the countries you are able to visit?
Will you regret missing a famous monument in the city you’re visiting next?
Or will you regret missing out on the opportunity to have a 5-hour dinner with new friends you met locally?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to these questions: just the answer that is right for you.
3) What you love to do when you travel should shape your travel philosophy.
I love to take pictures. Photography has been an important part of my life from the very beginning, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Since photography is one of my favorite components of travel, my priorities will be different than someone who doesn’t care about photography or who defines photography as taking pictures of the same Insta-famous spots that everyone else does, at the same time of year everyone else does. Because of my love of photography, I’ll generally avoid destinations that are overrun with tourists during high season and will instead structure most visits to these places in the off season (which also tends to help me stay on budget).
Another important component of travel for me personally is food. Restaurants, bars, markets and street food vendors are something I’ll spend some time researching when I can, because local cuisine is one of the most important components of experiencing a new culture. Many countries in the world spend serious quality time over meals: preparing the food, enjoying the food and enjoying the company of people with you at the meal can take quite a long time, depending on where you are in the world. Based on my travel philosophy, this is time well spent and entirely worth it. However, if your travel philosophy is to see as much as possible as quickly as possible, you may choose to spend this time differently.
Ask yourself what you love doing the most when you travel, and make sure that your travels are structured in such a way that you have time for those things you love.
4) Drawing inspiration from travel (and taking time for creativity and introspection while traveling) isn’t a waste of your time.
Since this is a post about travel philosophies, I’m going to take the opportunity to get a bit philosophical in this last section.
Learning about other cultures isn’t the only reason that travel is important.
The most important lessons travel teaches you are the ones you learn about yourself.
I have several friends that describe themselves as outgoing, goal-oriented and/or Type-A, and the excuse they tend to give for never slowing down to experience things or think through a place while they are traveling is that slowing down doesn’t fit their personality. Unfortunately, this seemingly logical explanation is generally followed by some level of shade thrown at the people who prioritize differently. This negative commentary is usually built on an idea that taking time to be alone, be inspired, create, reset, brainstorm, think, read, talk to people, write or learn lessons about yourself is somehow “boring” or “a waste of time”.
Here’s the thing: I’ll be the first to agree that your travel philosophy should fit your personality and your priorities. However, I’m not going to agree that your personality is a free pass for never figuring out how to be alone. Learning to spend time with your thoughts is a core component of figuring out what you believe about the world and your place in it.
And that lesson is never a waste of time.
Are There Good and Bad Travel Philosophies?
The answer to that question depends on your values.
There is certainly a logical argument to be made that country hopping every 24 to 48 hours is less sustainable from an environmental perspective than slower travel. After all, crossing borders every two days involves a lot more transportation than staying in one place for a week. Seeing everything in a major city in two days also generally involves more transportation, because if you are prioritizing seeing as much as you can in as short of an amount of time as you can, walking doesn’t make sense (since walking is slow).
There is also a logical argument to be made about budgets: slower travel is generally cheaper. Less transportation contributes to this fact, but it’s also easier to save money on other things when you are in a place longer (for example: weekly rates on accommodation are generally cheaper than nightly rates, and if you are staying in a place for a while it makes more sense to go to the market or grocery for food to prepare yourself, which can save more money than eating out exclusively).
While these arguments are something to consider, in my opinion there isn’t an inherently good or bad travel philosophy or travel style.
What makes a travel philosophy bad for you is if it doesn’t align with your values.
And it’s important to keep in mind that those values can change.
The way you feel about travel at this point in your life may not be the way you used to feel about it (that’s certainly true for me). On the other hand, you may not feel the same way you do about travel right now for the rest of your life. You also may not know how you feel about travel, because you haven’t really had the opportunity to travel much yet: and that’s fine too. Living and learning is part of the process.
This is one of those posts I wrote for myself as much as for my readers: because I was trying to figure out how or why my friend and I think so differently about travel. However, the answer to that question doesn’t really matter as much as I may have thought it did in the beginning.
What really matters is that you are making decisions that align with your values, and you are also giving others the space to make decisions that align with theirs.
Because at the end of the day, that is what travel is all about.