5 Thoughts On Being “A Girl Who Travels,” In No Particular Order

1. I was talking yesterday with a friend about living abroad. It’s something she has always wanted to do on at least a low-burning level, but it’s something that just may not be in the cards. I told her that, as someone who had the good fortune to live in another country for several years, I could not encourage anyone to do something more. If living abroad is something you even think you want, I believe doing everything in your power to make it financially and logistically possible, even for just a year or so, is something you will never regret, and take with you for the rest of your life. We are on an island in America, culturally dominant and largely content with our tendency to radiate outward into the world. I believe there is a distinct benefit to being anywhere else for a while, to see other ways life is lived, and to watch that American radiation from the outside. If I had never lived in a socialist country, for example, I would never have become passionate about similar causes in America: only by seeing the dignity of life with a strong social safety net did I become convinced that America needed, and deserved, the same thing.

2. I am aware, though, that exhortations to live abroad, or even to travel more frequently, come with an enormous amount of privilege that is rarely acknowledged. I was able to live abroad initially by working a domestic job (I was an au pair) that covered my living costs while I attended school, and tutored English on the side for going-out money. That was, all things considered, a fairly accessible way to get out of the country, but also something that was open to me because I was a young, American woman who spoke the language and could therefore be picky about my placement. I was also in the position to save up enough money to make and buffer the trip, and had no real responsibilities (no kids, no mortgage, no boyfriend, even) to make me question the viability of the move. Relatively few people will ever find themselves in the right combination of lifestyle and financial freedoms to make a life abroad work, even temporarily. And for more frequent travel, the question becomes in many ways even more complex: it requires some kind of time off from work (ideally paid), a healthy emergency fund, a safety net in case things go wrong, as well as all the associated costs of making even a relatively-affordable international trip.

The truth is that many people will always, almost inherently, be left out of the conversation of “people who travel.” We talk about “travelers” — and often in a particularly gendered way — as if it were a mantle that anyone could take on, as if it were merely a question of shifting a few priorities and changing one’s mindset. And while I firmly believe that there are ways to make more-frequent travel a possibility, the idea of becoming “someone who travels” in any kind of personality-defining sense is simply out of the question for most Americans.

3. Part of the problem comes from our need to make travel an all-encompassing, personally-branded experience. We see the perfectly-curated images, the shots of a passport on a thigh gap in an airport terminal, the tweets humblebragging about the exchange rate or the metro system, and we immediately tack on so many associated costs with the act of traveling. It’s not enough to simply discover a new place: one must do it in the right way, with the right supplies and the right photos in the right Instagram-worthy restaurants. And I’m as guilty of this as anyone, to a degree — who doesn’t love to share beautiful travel photos! — but I wonder if the presentation of travel, particularly when infected by the travel-blogging industry which passes off paid advertisements as offhand snapshots, isn’t creating a sort of arms race. Our need to make travel fit into a perfect, well-groomed package only makes it more expensive, more logistically demanding, and more easy to feel like a disappointment if it doesn’t live up to immaculate standards. The line between “sharing a beautiful, meaningful travel experience” and “adding to a warped perception of what travel must look like” is incredibly blurry, and while it’s no one individual’s responsibility to temper it, it does feel like a problem that is only getting worse.

4. Social media also makes it so that the wave-like trends of travel have gone from gentle pushes to all-out tsunamis that can inadvertently crush the locals. Cuba has become one of the biggest destinations to see in bright, colorful Instagrams now that the travel-ban has been lifted, to the point that actual Cubans are experiencing mass food shortages as a result of the unprecedented influx of American tourists. And while Iceland isn’t in danger of going hungry, their country — largely due to several strategic IcelandAir campaigns — is leading to locals feeling exasperated and even resentful of the unsustainable levels of tourism drowning out their day-to-day experiences. We now have more access than ever to details about everything our friends, colleagues, and favorite bloggers are doing with their vacation time, and it’s leading to an even more heightened sense of “things to check off.” “Have you done [this or that country]?” is a thing I’ve heard more than once, and the framing of travel this way — targeted trips to hip destinations, the way one might check out the new restaurant that just got a rave in the times — feels like one of the worst ways to travel, both as a personal experience and as it impacts the locals in one of said destinations. I worry sometimes that becoming the “girl who travels” is more and more about crossing off a certain amount of arbitrary destinations, sights, and experiences on a list, rather than exploring the world on one’s own terms.

5. Ultimately, I think the most beneficial thing we could all do in the short-term is push ourselves to be more radically honest about the financial and logistical realities of travel, if we are lucky enough to do it frequently. I see people who are constantly jetting off to this or that place, conveniently omitting the out-of-frame benefactor who allows it to happen. And though I do not travel overly-frequently, I always make it a point to say that Marc’s job, which takes him out of town four days a week, leaves us with a substantial amount of hotel and airfare points that we can then use at our discretion. (Lauren and I also travel a decent amount for work, though always domestically.) The point is, travel is an expensive thing, point-blank. And not being honest about the realities of that only leads other people to feel maddeningly confused and insecure about their own inability to recreate it, even if they are responsible with money. To be a “girl who travels” is a deeply, fundamentally expensive thing. And even if non-wealthy people can do it, the less money one has, the more it requires serious rearranging and re-prioritizing in their lives. As someone who put herself into credit card debt as a dumb 20-year-old to travel “the right way” — aka, in a way I could not afford — I fully acknowledge that a huge part of it was because of how I saw so many friends traveling, unaware of the fact that their parents deemed it a sort of coming-of-age right to send them on expensive and photogenic tours of Europe during or immediately after college. Is it unfair that some people are just gifted, essentially, with the life of a “traveler”? Sure. But that’s no reason to gamble one’s future on a few photogenic weeks.

Image via Pexels

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  • Lauren

    Chelsea, when you say you “spoke the language” I’m assuming you mean you were already fluent in French when you moved to Paris – can I ask you how got there? As someone who’s been trying to get closer to fluency for 10ish years I’m always curious to hear how other people who didn’t grow up speaking French manage to get there.

    • chelseafagan

      I was fluent in French, yes. And I admit that I had a bit of a cheat code, in that I have Francophone family members who would speak with me and help me, but it was primarily learned through taking it all through school, diligently consuming French media, and going to French-speaking meetup groups as frequently as possible. If real immersion is not possible, I have always believed in recreating it to the best of your ability via media consumption and groups.

      • Hanna De Backer

        I just want to confirm the media consumption tip: I am a native Dutch speaker, but most of our media (music, television, movies) is in English because it is too small an audience to bother with duping everything. This results in most people being almost fluent in English before even starting formal English language education. I imagine it works the same with French!

        • Lauren

          Thanks for the tips! I’ve been trying the media consumption thing, but I’ve found I don’t like most French TV (I don’t like crime dramas) but I’m trash for French YouTube.

        • Magical Unicorn

          On the flipside, having lived in the Netherlands I never needed to learn Dutch because of this… and now I kind of regret it. Hup Holland!

      • vitadulcis

        Chelsea – if you were trying to learn French, are there any favourite TV shows/films/etc you’d recommend to a beginner (similar to the call you put out a little while ago for Spanish media)?

  • TreeTownGirl

    Totally get the issue with travel in Cuba– I would love to go but the warnings to “go now before the ‘charm’ wears off (i.e., Cubans replace their perhaps expensive-to-maintain classic cars with new ones)” come off so wrong-headed to me and indicate that someone’s motivations to travel to a certain place might be questionable IMO (like you, for the social media opportunities).

    That having been said, I’m now VERY motivated to read more about the rise of tourism in Iceland. Seems to me like this is not something that came about the way Cuba’s tourism influx did and that Iceland (as in, government) was probably actively encouraging tourism as a means of bolstering the economy. I guess my question is, how unsustainable is the current amount of tourism? In terms of displacement of locals vs. economic benefit to locals.

    I have no desire to travel to a place where I might be taking food out of a local’s mouth or staying in an apartment that rendered someone homeless so it could be made an airbnb… but if the local is just annoyed with my presence (which was sort of the vibe I got from the linked opinion piece)… well I’m going to feel a lot less guilt about that and respectfully enjoy my time there. I say that as someone that has dealt with the obnoxious tourists!

    • Lexie

      I am returning to Iceland in June because I am a bridesmaid in a close friend’s wedding. I first traveled there in 2012, I am so curious about how much the country has changed in five years. It really is a joke among my friends that there’s never a week without an IG posting about being in Iceland!

    • Maggie

      I went to Cuba in February after years of yearning to go before it “changed too much.” After going and spending time in both the beach-side resort and the cities, while also driving through the countryside, I am not so convinced things will change as fast as people in North America say. At the same time, the inequality between public and private sector workers, often being paid in different currencies, seems unsustainable. Bear in mind this is just my perception as a Canadian traveler who has studied Cuban history only briefly. Cuba is a fascinating place and it has to be one of my favourite places I’ve ever traveled but it pains me to think that my presence there contributes to hardship for the local people who were so kind to me.

  • Summer

    You’ve raised some valid points here, but I have a lot of feelings about #5, mainly because it does not suggest that a viewer shoulder any of the burden of their own reaction to someone else’s media. I get that travel is costly and is inherently a privilege—especially to travel on a semi-regular basis—but I don’t necessarily think that every adventure mandates full disclosure as to how it’s happening just in the name of softening the potential wave of jealousy that may wash over someone who sees an instagram post from that destination. As viewers, I think we all have a responsibility to use common sense and realize that we don’t share the same situations and financial backgrounds. If I see a post from Shanghai I might feel a pang of, “man, I want to go there!” but I don’t ever find myself insisting upon knowing the circumstances under which that person was able to make that trip. It doesn’t occur to me to analyze it because I assume by default that they either saved up the money to go somewhere and chose that particular place, or are perhaps traveling for work, or made arrangements with friends or family, etc etc etc. There are so many factors that can go into how and why someone is traveling, it’s honestly exhausting to put that much mental energy into analyzing someone else’s life or somehow letting it make us feel bad about our own. And furthermore, what difference does it make what someone else is doing? Even if someone DOES have rich parents or a wealthy partner who whisks them off to foreign lands all the time, it makes absolutely no difference to me or my personal abilities to go places.

    I also really think part of the problematic nature of travel posts isn’t so much from the people who are posting, but from the viewers who assume that each post is some sort of low-key humblebrag. Maybe I’m just posting a picture from Prague because it’s a gorgeous city and I’m enjoying the scenery, not because I’m trying to say “HAHA SUCKAS, I’m in Praha and you’re not!!” Generally no different than posting a nice sunset from home, or a fancy pastry from a local bakery, or whatever else I might find appealing enough to share. Perhaps if we collectively stopped assuming that someone’s posts are shared with the intent to brag or feel superior, we could all feel a little less insecure about what strangers on the internet are doing with their time and money. Not to sound like a heartless asshole, but if my picture from a city that I don’t live in makes someone else feel confused or insecure about their own life, I think they have issues that go a lot deeper than what I could solve by captioning every travel photo with “PS I’m here for work, not play!” or “I have $300 worth of Capital One points I’m putting towards paying for this hotel!”

    • chelseafagan

      So I disagree with most of this, because travel is one of the rare things that is a luxury good we have reframed as distinctly spiritual, ie, there is a moral good one can attain from buying it in a way they cannot from other, similar “experience spending.” We are bombarded (particularly as young women) with calls to travel, insistence that travel will make us better people, and unreasonably-glamorous and financially-unattainable images of what travel is. I think financially honesty around this — for shorthand we can call it an Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon — is a distinctly-helpful thing. Even if it just means telling your friends “Oh, hey, yeah, I saved up for X trip all year, or I was able to tack Y onto work travel,” I think it helps mitigate some of the distinctly-harmful, quasi-spiritual overtones around the expensive act of international travel.

      You are someone who is able to travel internationally fairly frequently, largely (one would imagine) because you live in Europe, where such a thing is not so prohibitively expensive or logistically complicated, and I’m sure that (as well as living abroad, period) adds to a heightened level of zen about others’ travels, as well as a certain level of defensiveness around its expenses. (I 100% get this, I used to deeply resent when people assumed I was rich to be living in Paris, when I was working full-time as a nanny as well as tutoring and going to school, and barely making enough to scrape by.) But I do still think it’s important to contextualize even that life abroad, because I want to fight back against the cultural (and commercial) machine that is engineered to turn travel from a luxury expense that not everyone can participate in, into some kind of moral imperative that people feel actively bad about not accessing. (And as someone who has personally edited many a “I’ve never been out of the US, and I’m embarrassed”-esque pieces, that stigma is realer than we might imagine.)

      • Summer

        I get what you’re saying, and thank you for elaborating. I’m absolutely with you in thinking it both absurd and unfair to turn the concept of travel into this morally superior way of life. This post reminded me of the one you wrote a while back about ~traveling~ vs. vacationing, and you’re very right in the notion that the age of social media has turned even something as simple as a daytrip to the countryside into a magical, transformative journey into self-discovery and cultural enlightenment, which is total bullshit.

        I’m 32 now and I do live abroad, yes; but my first time traveling outside of the US wasn’t until I was 28, so you can imagine the reactions I stifle sometimes when someone is 20 and already deeply embarrassed that they’ve never used a passport. Given this, I very much can see the issues from both sides. I still, on a near-weekly basis, struggle with feeling like I’m a derpy, bumbling American who sucks at languages and will never truly fit in. And honestly, even just typing this now, I see your point in a brighter light. While I still think that we all owe it to ourselves to view external content with a grain of salt and the ability to see beyond someone else’s experiences as a poor reflection on our personal circumstances, I concede that it has (and continues to) become increasingly difficult to distinguish the line between travel as ‘a fun, occasional activity’ and travel as ‘a constant pursuit of moral enlightenment.’

  • susieq

    Some of us are born just wanting to travel and will align our spending to achieve that dream. I have been traveling overseas for many years (almost 40 now) and could not imagine a year without travel. Sharing stories with “used to be” strangers, seeing how the rest of the world lives, visiting historical sites, hearing foreign languages, and just appreciating the connection between us is just a few of the many joys that travel has brought me both overseas and within the US. And now I see these same joys being experienced by my daughter as she is my traveling companion. It’s great to hear her use her foreign language skills, knowing that she will always remember those conversations. Travel does not come for free and there are many things that I do to keep spending in check because I want to continue to travel. I have never had a new car, expensive clothing, or an over the top mortgage because those things do not matter to me, but to others those things may be important. The net is that we must know what is really important to us and align our values with our spending. If you really want to travel then plan and budget accordingly. It is achievable.