Travel is Not a Contest (& Other Reasons to Embrace Slow Travel)

So much of modern culture pushes us at a frenetic pace. Americans seem to be the worst of the bunch, with 30% of people not taking their allotted vacation time and 37% not taking more than a week a year. For the rest, a sad 33%, we tend to vacation the same way we live: at warp speed with emphasis on performance and “box checking.” Hence, the proliferation of tours that cram three countries and five cities into two weeks and keep travelers moving on an itinerary that feels like anything but vacation.

Sure, they get home with a lot of nice pictures, but have they accumulated much else in terms of experience, depth or personal growth?

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Whether or not you have the “luxury” of adequate time off, may I suggest that you find a way to take it anyway? If you only get a week, take it, but don’t take it at warp speed. Here are five reasons that slow-travel is a great idea; if you can, take at least a month!

1. Speed is stressful and stress is killing us

Most people live their lives at warp speed, shuttling between work, home and extracurricular activities. Juggling kids, volunteer work and community involvement; life just never seems to slow down. Success is measured by number of spaces occupied in our day planners and the level of stress we can manage and still not collapse beneath the weight.

Stress is a major contributor to disease, as well as mental and physical health disorders. Everyone agrees that we need to reduce it in order to improve quality of life and that tipping the balance away from “work” in favor of “life” in the “work-life balance” is an important goal. Yet, many folks take their frenetic pace on vacation and travel as intensely as they live life at home. This is not healthy!

In order to be restful, and rejuvenating to our souls, time off should be time spent differently. That doesn’t mean you need to spend seven straight days on a beach, but it does mean that, by slowing down, spending your time differently, and intentionally breaking out of your “home patterns” you may find you return rested, even if you’ve still done a lot.

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One week is a great start, if that’s all you can manage, but don’t try to cram a train trip across Europe into that one week. Instead, rent an apartment in Marseille or Rome or Barcelona and visit the city markets one day at a time. Two weeks is better, and you’ll be able to begin to feel the rhythms of your new place.

Read about why it’s not crazy to quit your job and travel

2. It’s not a contest

You’ve heard it in the common room of every youth hostel, or bellied up to the bar your first night on that island beach in Belize, “Where have you been? How many countries have you visited?… here’s my list,” and then we set out to one-up each other. This is wrong. Travelers, especially avid travelers, tend to act like it’s a contest. Number of countries, cities, amusement parks, national monuments, museums, or wonders of the world visited is not what matters.

Travel should not be about filling in that world map tattoo on your shoulder fastest. It’s not about bigger, better, or faster. Nor is it about pushing more pins into the map on your wall than your parents did. What is it about? Authenticity. Who defines that? You do.

We know people who’ve gone “round the world” in three months. We know others who have goals to set foot in every country by a certain date. Still others who pride themselves on visiting the biggest, the best, or the fastest something. None of these goals is wrong, quite the contrary, what a cool idea: to spend a lifetime pursuing a big dream. The problem comes when we begin to measure ourselves, or others, by those lists.

We spent a whole year cycling through ten European countries. Some people think that’s an amazing amount to see in a year. Other can’t believe we wasted all that time when we could have seen so much more. Neither opinion matters. What matters is that we did it our way, in our time, and grew according to our own passions and bents during that time and since.

Resist the urge to enter the contest.

Discover the stupid travel arguments we should stop having

3. Go deep instead of wide

An expat friend of ours who’s been in one place for 12 years discusses the need for going “deep instead of wide” for a while, at least once in your life. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a broad sampling from all of the continents. Diversity is to be encouraged. However, he’s got an excellent point.

It’s easy to become jaded the more one travels. It’s easy to see every backpacker ghetto, in every one horse town listed in Lonely Planet, as a carbon copy of the last one. It’s easy to start feeling pretty smug about what you’ve seen or done and where you’ve been, because you’ve been so many places.

The antidote? Rent a little casita and dig into a place where you don’t speak the language. You’ll be forced to become part of the community, and you won’t be able to go running to the hostel desk for help the next time you get stuck in some way. This is where the real learning often begins.

But, to do that takes time. It won’t happen on a one or two week vacation. In our experience, it takes about a month to really settle into a place and begin to find your groove. It’s not something most people can do very often, but it’s life changing when you can. Every traveler should try to do it once, at least.

Going deep instead of wide can change your life.

Discover why the world is best explored on foot

4. Be present

I’ll never forget sitting in the laundry room of a campground in Vienna listening to a bus full of young people tick their sites off “the list.” They were three weeks into a three month tour from London to Beijing; not an unimpressive trip. We’d spent the entire three weeks of their trip in Vienna. They couldn’t believe how slow we were going. I couldn’t believe how fast they were going.

I remember thinking, “You guys have taken a lot of picture postcards, but have you actually been anywhere?”

Another reason to travel slowly? It’s easier to be present in the moment. We live in a society that is forever focused on what’s “next” or what we’ve already accomplished and most of us miss the moment we’re in; the only moment we’ll ever have.

Perhaps the most important life skill to develop is presence, whether we ever leave our hometowns or not. To learn to be in a moment, to experience it, for better or for worse, fully, without distraction is a worthwhile goal.

The three countries and five cities in fourteen days tour is going to make it almost impossible to truly be present in any one moment for very long. Slowing down, trying to “see less” and “be more,” is an excellent way to develop presence in your journey.

Read Long Term Travel as Education and let BootsnAll help you plan your RTW trip

5. Understanding takes time

Most people would say that one of the reasons they travel is to learn. Learning happens in layers. We learn from the outer onion skin of guidebooks and websites, we go deeper by visiting museums and cultural events. Very few take the time to go even deeper by developing connections with locals, relationships with individuals or roles in communities.

Developing understanding takes time. My sixth grade goddaughter wrote an excellent paper about Guatemala and feels that she “knows” a lot about the place. She knows less than the kids we met in Antigua, who have not written a paper, but whose parents took them south to volunteer in an orphanage over Christmas holiday. Those kids know less still than the foreign children who live half of their lives in the puebla we wintered in. The difference? Time spent.

It’s completely possible to check a place off your list and really have never “been there” at all. If it’s all about the contest then I can almost guarantee that a person has barely breached the outer layer of the onion. There’s just no substitute for setting aside travel agendas and itineraries in exchange for interactions with real people who make up a culture. Take the necessary time, at least once in this lifetime, to slow down, to learn, to digest, and allow a new place to change who you are, from the inside out. Isn’t this why we begin traveling in the first place?

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Leave a Comment

  • Penny Mercier said at 2013-08-25T17:54:43+0000: Jennifer - Lovely writing. Content A+
  • Keith Miller said at 2013-06-19T17:34:27+0000: Dear Jennifer: Thank you for your article! You are so right. It's sad how 'task oriented' travelers can be- even young travelers......or perhaps, ESPecially, young travelers. That always seems at odds with my ,(perhaps romanticized) view of backpackers and the sort of vagabond life style. When people ask me for travel advice or if I'm asked to write or speak on the subject, I usually include two words of advise: " Slow Down!" As for me, I hunker down to paint and draw and absorb a place. That's my only job. I generally explain my philosophy by saying, "Well, you see, I'm a very Lazy traveler!"
  • Alison's Adventures said at 2013-06-21T11:25:12+0000: After breaking my back snowboarding in France, I've been FORCED to travel slow - as a 21 year old backpacker, the transition hasn't been easy. Please check out my blog for a sweet source of inspiration - To all of those injured, tired, and disrupted travellers out there - you are not alone. You can still travel. You just might have to travel differently. I have broken bones and metal holding my spine straight, yet I'm still living abroad. What's your excuse?
  • Gabriel Roger said at 2012-07-27T22:01:28+0000: Well done. Inspirational as well.
  • Off The Path Travel said at 2012-07-27T17:10:50+0000: Agreed! Travel shouldn't be about ego and knocking places off a list. It's more impressive when you meet a person who has spent time in a few countries and really learned about the places they have traveled. Definitely agree about going to places you can't speak the language. The first time I ever traveled, I did that. Ended up learning to speak fluent Thai and truly falling in love with the culture. Never got the backpacker circuit going from tourist ghetto to tourist ghetto. Travel to experience, not to say you've done it!
  • Alex Ivory said at 2012-07-29T20:43:53+0000: Touche! Three cheers for s~l~o~w t~r~a~v~e~l! Travel light and wear a smile.
  • Chasing Travel said at 2012-07-27T11:12:59+0000: Couldn't agree more. And these pictures are unreal!
  • Oui In France said at 2012-07-27T11:30:16+0000: Love the tips, especially the "be present" one. So often we get lost in the day to day counting down the time until the next big thing. But that big thing comes and goes, becomes a distant memory and we're still there waiting for the next thing. Slowing down is hard to do but probably one of the most rewarding things once you figure out how to do it.
  • Kim Pidcock said at 2011-08-05T06:33:52+0000: Wonderfully put, if only more people thought like this. Loved the photograph with the table set with yummy and the snow covered mountains in the background, wish I was there now.
  • Kerrin James Sheldon said at 2011-08-04T19:04:23+0000: This is a great article. Completely agree. I've traveled to a few places for just a week or two, but the year I spent teaching and living in China is by far my most memorable travel experience. I deliberately didn't leave the country during my few months of vacation and as a result saw tons of that country. I (sort of) learned the language, ate all sorts of food, and made some really good friends that I still chat with today. Hooray for foreign-living and slowww travel.
  • Mariko Yokokura said at 2011-08-13T18:37:04+0000: This website proves I am right! Thanks, Brad :)
  • Backpack With Brock said at 2011-08-08T03:54:40+0000: Love this! I like the idea of going deep instead of wide. My first big trip was fast, like a taste test (the world being the buffet). Now that I know what I like and don't like, I can go back and spend more time on each place.
  • Rannie Lim said at 2011-08-05T06:18:02+0000: I totally agree.. it's not where you go, it's how you feel.. excellent article =).
  • Nellie Reyes said at 2011-08-05T16:12:49+0000: Hmmm... good read. I usually forget to be in the moment.
  • Megan Varano said at 2011-08-04T17:01:08+0000: This was a really lovely article.
  • Jennifer Miller said at 2011-08-06T11:34:37+0000: Thanks for the Love everyone... we've been on the road full time for three and a half years now... and slow travel is a game changer for sure. Blessings.