Travel Is Not An Achievement

It’s not the life-defining experience we make it out to be


I’ve been traveling since before I was old enough to understand the concept. I started flying alone to see Grandma as soon as I met the airlines’ age minimum, me and my little five-year-old carry-on bag proudly striding down the jet bridge like I owned the place.

I studied abroad. I backpacked alone through Europe. I visited 20-some odd countries by the time I was in my mid-20s. I later worked as a consultant and was on a plane several times a week, racking up miles and spending vacation days in other countries. I am well-acquainted with the world of air travel.

And at some point along the way, probably when I sat down and thought about what I wanted and still saw “30 countries by 30” on the list, I realized that I didn’t really get that much out of traveling. It conflicted with a lot of other more important goals on my list — saving, building a business, etc. — and didn’t, even in its own right, provide much value. It shouldn’t be a top goal.

Because travel is, in and of itself, a bit meaningless.

Travel is not an accomplishment

It’s embarrassing when grown-ass adults talk about travel like there’s some kind of “I got on a plane” accolade. Participation awards for “I went there too.”

“I been LOTS of places.”

Guys, travel is not an achievement.

It’s not even that hard. The highest barrier is probably cost, and the most effort that really involves is like, saving. There’s no application process. There’s no “failure” rate. It doesn’t even really take any meaningful work. Compared to so many other things in life, “travel” is a damn cakewalk.

You decide you want to go somewhere. You pick a place. Maybe do a lil research; consult a guidebook (optional.) Then ya book it. And then you go.

And yeah, for some of us, some of those steps are scary. They are work. So sure, we should travel enough that we realize this isn’t the tough stuff in life.

But then we should move on to real things.

Probably this very low barrier to entry and very low bar for effort is precisely why so many people glorify it — it’s just enough of a break in routine to feel like something, but not enough to be too strenuous. Enough to feel like we did something, without ever actually doing something.

But that doesn’t actually make it an accomplishment.

Travel is little more than a running tally

— Countries are not ours to “collect”

Having that literal stamp collection — all tidily organized in a neato little book to tote around — makes us feel good. And safe. All warm and tingly inside.

But because travel isn’t an accomplishment, those messy stamps and mental checklists are nothing better than boxed memorabilia. It may make us feel nice and cozy, but it’s totally meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

When we tally up travel, we’re pretty much as “cool” as Steve Carell’s character in 40 Year Old Virgin. Or that weird great aunt with her Precious Moments figurines.


Travel does not automatically expand you as a human being

Unless what you needed help “expanding” with was getting the fuck out of your own car, or neighborhood, or routine.

But:

  1. Most people could try more without traveling.
  2. Most people don’t try enough while traveling.

For most of us, our idea of “travel” is that it has to be English-speaking countries or countries where there’s a strong English-speaking tourist economy. Then we need to put ourselves up in a comfy hotel and eat foods well within our comfort zone — or justenough outside of it that we “tried.” Not enough to actually change who we are or improve us as human beings, living among other people on the planet. Just enough that we can look at them a little.

But hey, we were technically there. (One more for the tally!)

Travel is just expensive escapism

Almost as expensive as functional alcoholism.

Penelope Trunk wrote a fantastic post about this back in 2009, in which she pointed out,

“People who love their lives don’t leave.”

If you were deeply engaged in your life, had meaning and excitement and value in your everyday, “Would you want to leave all that behind for two weeks? What would be the point?”

“If you are excited about your life, you do your life. If you are not excited about your life, you travel to get away from it.”

She concludes,

“The things you are aiming to accomplish while you travel are generally things you could accomplish on a deeper level if you stayed home and made changes to your life instead of running away.”

Travel is just consumerism

Other countries and cultures are not ours to consume. The world is not our personal petting zoo.

Often people travel because they just need a way to spend their money. They work these jobs they don’t like to afford themselves things they might want, but they don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about what that might be. They travel because they hear other people travel and they don’t have any other, better ideas, so they do too.

How to travel

Because we still will.

The key, really, is to travel either mindfully or with honesty — though, ideally, it’s with both.

If nothing else, perhaps we can at least travel honestly — and recognize travel for the low-risk, low-reward entertainment that it often is, and not pretend it’s anything more.

Above that, maybe we travel with mindfulness— to go somewhere with a real reason other than “it’s so cheap we can live like kings!” or “I hear it’s amazing” or “I’ve always wanted to!” To at least indulge in the local culture with something more than the arms-length distancing of a purveyor. To approach other people as people, and to engage.

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