You’re Not “Traveling,” You’re Vacationing. Get Over Yourself.

italy

In two weeks, I’ll be in Barcelona. I’m going for a few days with friends on our way to an annual We-Are-Only-All-In-The-Same-Country-And-Room-Once-A-Year retreat. We picked Barcelona to fly into because we usually fly into Paris, but Barcelona is closer to the ultimate destination, and significantly cheaper, both for the ticket and the cost of things once there. Also, who doesn’t want to just spend a couple days in Barcelona enjoying the tapas and sangria and exquisite late-July beach weather?

It’ll be awesome. And in preparation for this trip — and also because it’s something I’ve always felt it was important to do — I’ve been making serious efforts to finally, truly learn Spanish. Yes, they speak primarily Catalan in Barcelona. Yes, I could just get by with English, which I did when I went there the last time. But I was with a Spanish-speaker that time, and I’ve always felt that any trip is significantly and irreplaceably enhanced by being able to interact with locals on their own terms. Language is to a new country as color is to film: you don’t need it, but the difference in experience is night and day.

But even with my increasingly-passable Spanish, and our choice to stay in a hiply-located AirBnb instead of a touristy hotel, this is just a vacation. Just like the last time I aimlessly wandered around Barcelona drinking wine and marveling at things, I’m going to enjoy myself thoroughly, and then leave exactly as I came. Nothing life-changing is going to happen to me, and I won’t feel a more nuanced understanding of What It Means To Be A Spaniard. I won’t be wiser about my own life, or even have a tangible new skill. The fact that I will now be able to twice-cross off Barcelona from the Where I’ve Been In Life List will mean nothing, just like most of my other trips.

Because the cultural ideas we’ve put around capital-T Travel are almost completely meaningless in 90% of cases. This premium we put on Travel as a thing that wise, thoughtful, curious people do to enrich themselves in mystical and exciting ways is meaningless when you look at most travel for what it is: A vacation. An expensive, fancy, foreign vacation.

And there’s nothing wrong with vacations! You take a trip somewhere, you enjoy the hell out of it, you speak English to people with varying degrees of success and let Yelp lead you to awesome restaurants. You see cool shit, you take pictures of cool shit, you get to tell people about all the cool shit you did. But the experience itself is much more akin to going to a really good museum than it is to a spiritual awakening. Sure, you can really embed yourself in a place and learn the native tongue and experience a huge range of the subcultures that place has to offer — but you probably won’t. You can also experience some profound personal revelations while you’re, say, doing a post-divorce solo journey across Thailand (I don’t know your life). But chances are that none of that is going to happen — you’re probably just going to take a couple Instagrams of yourself eating gelato and then come home again. It’s an awesome way to spend a summer week, no doubt, but certainly not a life-altering experience.

And even if you do feel like a richer, creamier person for having done it, your awakenings have almost certainly been about yourself, not universal truths of the country you’re visiting or the boring, pedestrian neighbors you’re going home to.

Yet that universal truth is exactly what we pitch Travel to be: You’re supposed to go to this exotic place, ????, and then come home a new and improved person. You are supposed to suddenly have lessons to impart and sage inspirational quotes to dispense via social media. As people rack up location after location — Berlin, Tokyo, Athens, Lima — they must be somehow leveling up on this invisible chart of human achievement, right? They’re supposed to be inching ever-closer to Anthony Bourdain status, where the entire cocktail party just listens to them spin hilarious and fascinating yarns about the time they woke up at 3 AM to eat breakfast with the market delivery people. We look at people who have dozens of stamps on their passport and we’re supposed to think, “Wow. Shit. They must know a lot of things.”

But chances are, if they travel like 90% of relatively-wealthy Westerners (and especially Americans), they probably don’t know that much more about Portugal than you do, even if they’ve spent five days in Portugal and you have spent zero. I’ve spent five days in Portugal, and I can say “thank you” and “custard tart,” and tell you about precisely one restaurant that I really, really enjoyed. Yes, I walked around and had a great time and saw lots of beautiful things, but I’m certainly no smarter or more enlightened than I was, and certainly not about the noble Portuguese culture. I just took a vacation, like anyone else can do for approximately $1,200.

That’s the thing: for a couple hundred or thousand bucks, you can have literally any “Travel Experience” you would like to have under your belt. You can be the most ignorant, close-minded, Olive-Garden-In-Italy-Eating tourist, and go to a dozen adorable seaside villages. (And as we all know, there are many, many of those exact people.) But the simple act of spending your discretionary income on international travel is not enough, it seems. We can’t just enjoy the inherent humblebrag of “I got to leave the country X many times this year.” We have to turn it into this quasi-spiritual pissing match where everyone is out to get the most punches on their Global Citizen Frozen Yogurt Card, so they can prove their nomad wisdom and imbue their platitudes about exploration with gravitas. But all that travel actually proves is that you (or your parents) have enough money to do it.

Capital-T Travel is a myth, in many ways, but it’s one that we can’t let die, because if we can’t lord the fact that we’ve been to Prague over other people’s heads, half the fun is gone. If that means we treat all other experiences (or simply the act of not wanting to spend money on travel) as somehow lesser, and treat the act of walking aimlessly through the streets of Buenos Aires as profoundly enriching, so be it. Turning Capital-T Travel into something aspirational and moral, instead of just taking a vacation somewhere because it’s an enjoyable activity, is all about power and status. It’s about making sure that your personal spending choices are Good in an objective sense, and not just fun.

And it’s bullshit.

I’m not coming back from Barcelona a changed woman, just like your annoying friend who posted 75 photos of her week in Trinidad isn’t a changed woman. We’re just spending our money on a trip instead of a boat or new furniture or a big chunk of student loans, and doing something fun for a few days. It really doesn’t have to be a bigger deal than that, because it really, actually isn’t.

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  • Celine

    I understand this point of view, but I honestly feel that Traveling can change one’s view of not only themselves but of the world around you. I consider travel to be, for me at least, about experiencing a world outside your own and immersing in other cultures. It’s about history, and wonder, and ultimately human connection. To walk in someone else’s shoes for a change. To find that the world is not as small as it seems. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every single person does it this way, as I know MANY friends that do it purely for the glittery Instagram ideal and for vacationing. But Travel CAN change you, with the right attitude.

    • Maggie

      I agree. I don’t think a week-long vacation in Europe will necessarily be a spiritual awakening but I believe we are the sum of our experiences so I think it’s worth it to at least attempt to open your eyes (or tear them away from your phone) and try to experience the culture around you. I’ll admit I love tallying how many countries and continents I’ve visited and I’ve definitely bragged about it before, but each trip taught me something about myself and about how other people live and they’re filled with the most amazing memories. At the same time I’ve found out that I prefer to travel to one place and stay for a few weeks, months, or even years and work hard to embed myself in the place and try to truly live there, that’s what I find most fulfilling.

    • Summer

      I don’t think many will disagree with you on this. Travel definitely has the capacity for change. My interpretation of Chelsea’s post was that, when we’re traveling somewhere for just a few days, or a week or two at a time, it simply isn’t enough time to “immerse in the culture.” You can get a loose feel for it, sure. You might be intrigued by it enough to study it further after returning home, to make plans to revisit, etc, but most people are simply not going to have a life-altering, rebirth-of-the-soul type of experience by spending a week somewhere. People who aggressively claim that this is actually the case—the ones who tend to insist that even a day trip to a neighboring town cHaNgEs them—are usually the same types who will talk about that time they “lived” in Berlin because they crashed on a friend’s couch for a month.

      Of course, the difference between “traveling” and taking a vacation is very subjective, perhaps even deeply personal, and I’m not trying to say you have to stay somewhere for exactly X amount of months before you can consider it a familiar place. I do think it’s a shame that the pinterest era has brought out this culture of glorifying every move we make to such a level that you have to be transformed by every experience or you’ve somehow done something wrong.

  • Anon

    I have literally never met anyone who talks about travel this way.

    • Carrie Dee

      i recommend starting on pinterest

      • Anon

        Not much of an incentive to join!

  • Shelby

    Finally, someone said it. The distinct difference between “traveling” and “vacationing”. I wish I could afford to vacation again because I’ve had some truly lovely vacations – but I would never begrudge my travels, as they were experiences, exhilarating and struggling.

  • Rebecca Cina

    Traveling can be educational and enlightening on many levels, in a beautiful and fun kind of way. But there are other ways to have educational, enlightening experiences at home that aren’t as fun and beautiful. Like, walking in someone else’s shoes via community outreach, volunteer work.
    That’s why people like to travel, because you get to skip a step. Being somewhere foreign is so jarring, you get a cool life experience without having to put forth any effort. The lessons that traveling is supposedly responsible for teaching are things that you learn just from living life in general, with the right attitude.

  • McKenzie Rainey

    So true and such a good point for those of us who are graduating college and seeing friends jut off on “life changing trips”. It’s fun and it makes for beautiful instagrams, but there is a difference between, say, working and living abroad (learning how to navigate in another country rather than just vacation there) and going on a holiday. It’s interesting when you simply change the words around – “I’m vacationing for a while after college” sounds quite a bit different!

    • Ellie Rockhill

      It absolutely does. I’m one who likes to look at anything as an “adventure” (let’s go get slushies at 1AM! what an adventure! haha) BUTTTT I also see how our cultural obsession with travel/adventure is sort of adding this holier-than-thou attitude to the mix.

  • This is why I always find it funny when there are travelers who say they want to “experience different cultures and surrounds” and talk about how they’ve been to X amount of countries, “32+ countries and counting!”.

    There were a few travel blogs I where the person talked about their travels and experiencing new places but they also mentioned SEVERAL times all the countries they’ve visited and/or their goal of getting their passport book completely full. I resisted rolling my eyes when one of the posts had an image starting circulating around the internet with the quote “I want my passport to have tattoos” Okay, that’s great and all, but I wouldn’t consider what their doing to be worldly travels as they like to call it.

    This post reminds me of an article I read a while back called “Why living abroad is a better experience than backpacking”. It was written by a guy who was teaching English abroad and has worked abroad in a few different countries. Something I would consider more along the lines of travel rather than some pimped up vacation.

  • Summer

    Preach. Perspective is so important. I do get excited whenever I have the opportunity to visit a new city, but that’s because there are simply SO MANY places I want to see. Looking at flights or hotels is my human equivalent of being a dog whose owner is asking, “Do you want to go for a walk!?!” My joy comes from the thrill of being in an unfamiliar place and reveling in the anticipation of getting to feel it out on my own; not because I can add something new to my list, or brag about it as though I’m the only person ever to have spent a weekend in Karlovy Vary and found it enchanting. I know damn good and well that ~falling in love~ with the island of Samos last August didn’t change me as a human, it was just a place where I spent a wonderful week of vacation and happened to really dig the tiny snippets of culture I was able to see in that impossibly short amount of time. And it’s not just about visiting NEW places for me, because I’m just as keen on revisiting cities I really loved getting to know. Not every opportunity to leave one’s home for a few days needs to manifest itself into a brand new experience. There’s a lot to be said for connecting with a place enough to want to go back over and over again.

    Do I believe a vacation can spark a new interest in someone? Absolutely. Is it possible for that new interest to potentially lead to other things that may actually be considered “life-changing”? Sure. If someone goes to Peru on vacation and loves it enough to continue going back, to study the language and culture, to get involved locally somehow, etc. Maybe they write a book about it. Maybe they meet their future husband or wife. Maybe they end up moving there. CAN travel ~change~ you? Sure. Is that usually the case? No. And it’s 100% okay to go on vacation, to own that it’s a vacation, and to enjoy yourself without grappling for some sort of soul-touching experience to share on instagram later about how your five days in Perth has finally shown you what it means to be alive.

    • Ellie Rockhill

      ” Looking at flights or hotels is my human equivalent of being a dog whose owner is asking, “Do you want to go for a walk!?!” ” that’s freaking adorable and hilarious xD I totes relate

  • Ellie Rockhill

    I’m OBSESSED with this point, woman. Holy cow. I’ve been wrestling with this notion for the last six months. I made a friend who is “well traveled” in our friend group, and she’s sort of elevated amongst my peers. She left the country to go live in her car in Australia, and now she’s working/living in northern Alaska. That’s amazing, and I love this chick to death. But I can’t help but notice, just simply notice, that there’s a funny feeling in my gut when I think about the nomadic life. I yearn for the tiny house, for living in my car, for working remote and being my own boss, yada yada. Then I’m like, wait but for WHAT. What’s the end goal? Okay so I do that for a month… a year… at what point do I go, “What next?” It seems like the nomadic lifestyle in many ways is a lot like when people go on to grad school because they couldn’t find a job straight out of undergrad. Delaying the inevitable, avoiding growing up and setting goals for themselves. I’m ***NOT*** saying this happens to everyone, or even the majority. But it does seem like many of the privileged, insta-savvy travelers are often sort of milking this whole, “Yeah IDK what I’m doing with my life isn’t that soo0oO0o0oo0o wild and cray cray??!” thing. That’s fine if that’s who you are, and it works for you. I’m not even saying it’s BAD. It’s just, a thing, and I’m naming it. 😛 Thanks for your honest words and stirring these thoughts around in me a little more! It helps me as I’m going through my own divorce and trying to tell myself, “Hey, why not save a lil and pay off some debts?” when the whole world is chanting EAT PRAY LOVE! EAT PRAY LOVE! at me. 😛

    • VeronicaMariaG

      I see your point, but why does everything have to have an END GOAL measurable by traditional standards of success? The resume boost or the pay raise?

      My mother for example doesn´t understand that my meditation classes have a benefit outside of their value. I take these classes to deal with stress in a healthy way, and she thinks that if I´m not getting college credit for it, it has no value that she can understand. I have my MA. I don´t need or want college credit, and my hobby doesn´t have to have an end goal.

      Similarly I know some people who have done the nomadic life just to do it. I don´t have the kind of personality that can jive with that lifestyle, but some people feel that drive–and if it enriches their life somehow, we should respect it.

      • Ellie Rockhill

        Oh I definitely agree! Everyone is welcome to their own path that inspires them to feel well on a holistic level– if meditation or nomadic life experiences does that, by all means that’s awesome. I’m definitely that way.

        I think it isn’t so much the “traditional standards” of success that I was referring to as much as “personal standards” of success. Really, like, what even IS success anyway? Traditionally or otherwise? To me, it’s feeling good… short term and long term. I have a greater sense of peace when I have a bit of a plan or guideline for my life. Maybe that’s not knowing exactly what will happen five years from now, but at least knowing I’m making choices that will help me take care of myself financially five years from now.

        I feel the pull to travel, to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on experiences, and I admire a voice (like the one in this post) daring to tell a story of, “Hey it’s fine if you wanna vacation/travel, but let’s all admit it comes with great privilege.” I want to hike the Appalachian trail but guess what… that’s expensive. And if I don’t have a job, a car, or a place to live when I finish hiking? Like, eventually, I have to eat and not actually be a wild woman. 😛 Aaaaand… that costs money.

  • Tara

    Chelsea, you’re my hero.

  • nycnative

    I think I understand where this is coming from, but no, a vacation is not always just “doing something fun for a few days.” It can be that, certainly, if your vacation is going to the beach (or to Vegas, where I’m headed in a week). But it can be, and often is, so much more than that. I have becoming increasingly convinced that one of the reasons for the rise of xenophobia in the West is a lack of travel. People who live in white enclaves in the middle of the country who don’t own a passport have literally no comprehension of what life is like in other areas of the world. Whereas people who have traveled and had interactions with locals there (yes, even relatively superficial interactions!!) are more likely to be compassionate and welcoming to people of other skin colors and nationalities.

    And the powerful effect of travel is not limited to impoverished or ‘exotic’ countries. You mention going to Europe. I still remember going to France as a kid and the wonder I felt stumbling across Roman ruins alongside 12th century churches and how I came to understand that civilizations fall, cultures come and go, political power is transient and humanity’s history is long. I also remember standing on the beach in Normandy where the allied troops landed in 1944 and feeling, in a way I had never grasped, the human cost of that war. I’m not sure someone who’s never left the country they were born in can really understand what it feels like to stand in the Acropolis in Athens and viscerally understand how FRAGILE democracy is, or stand in a place where an atrocity took place and feel the power and tragedy of that loss of life.

    No, I didn’t I learn to speak Vietnamese when I spent three weeks in SE Asia, or learn to cook authentic dal when I was in India, or fully immerse myself in Brazilian culture in Rio. But I wasn’t just ‘vacationing.’ My eyes were open. I was observing how other people live, cook food, pray, celebrate, confront their history, etc. I know I have a deeper understanding of those parts of the world as a result and a more genuine respect for cultures that do things completely differently from my own. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say ‘vacationing’ can help one become a more nuanced, open, respectful, and thoughtful person.

    • Tara

      Exactly! You may not “live like a local” after a 5 day trip, but eating some local cuisine and seeing the basic differences from the USA can be enough to broaden your horizons. Food after all says a lot about the culture. Having just gotten back from Italy, the sentence about eating gelato is a little insulting. I’m no expert on Italian culture, but I did see differences between Italians and Americans from my week there.

  • Nom

    Thanks for this! I had a friend all throughout my childhood to the end of high school (we’re still friends now but don’t really keep in touch) who traveled all over the world with her family every year. I was, and still am, envious of her experiences and the opportunities she had. It sounded like fun! However, the implication from her was that she was a better person than me (and our other friends) because she had expanded her mind by Travelling. Even at 7 years old I knew this was bullshit. Her family went on vacation because they had more money than mine– that doesn’t make you a better person.

    I’m running into this problem now in my professional life working in an international field. My co-workers (many of whom are under 30) wonder why in the world I didn’t spend my summers abroad as a child or take 2 years off of making money needed to pay back my student loans by going into the Peace Corps. My inability to afford these things legitimately makes me a poor candidate for many entry-level positions in my field. In a field that tries to lift other people out of poverty, this hypocrisy is astonishing.

    • Ellie Rockhill

      “Her family went on vacation because they had more money than mine– that doesn’t make you a better person.” This is exactly how I felt as an undergrad who was paying her way through college on her own when all my peers were studying abroad on mom and dad’s dime… and asking me why I don’t just take out loans and do it too. -_-

  • Roselyne

    This. Going to Paris with my husband was wonderful. We had a lovely time, saw so many pretty things, had so much good food, had a great time together… 100% would recommend. But all that it says is that we were able to spend money on a vacation, not that we’re somehow better or more enlightened for doing so.

    And now we’re in a position where we’re not planning on international trips for a few years (we’re in our early 30s and have a house and kids… 3 guesses where the money goes…) and some people are like “It’s such a SHAME that you had to give up travelling, it’s such an eye-opening experience, you learn so much!” and I’m like… what exactly do you think I learned in Paris that I hadn’t picked up with that European History minor?

    Personally: vacations are fun. Europe is very pleasant. Looking for a learning and eye-opening expenrience? Give me a good book.

  • Richard

    “But chances are, if they travel like 90% of relatively-wealthy Westerners (and especially Americans), they probably don’t know that much more about Portugal than you do, even if they’ve spent five days in Portugal and you have spent zero.”

    Hate on Americans is the best way to prove your point.

  • Anna Yugova

    I am very much with Chelsea. I’ve also been thinking about environmental impact of idle Westerners moving from country to country without much purpose. I am one of them, don’t get me wrong, but … Chelsea makes a great point here.

  • FacePalmHeadache

    I think I sort of get that you’re railing on Eat, Pray, Love tourism, and rock on for that, but at the end of the day just calling out “Travel” is a little complicated. There’s a lot of anger here about why what many people do isn’t “Travel” but it seems to only further point out that people who “Travel” and people who “vacation” are both part of an incredibly fortunate class of people that ultimately get to decide how their extra time and money is spent. At that point, it’s basically a defensive argument about how one person’s money is better or equally well spent.

    Want to take issue with travel? Take issue with “white savior” travel that just modernizes and updates colonialism in the form of using white voices to tell the world about the savage others living out there, and how sweetly natured they can be if only someone Westernized them.

  • Joy Swain

    Thank you thank you thank you for writing this. The only people that I’ve ever heard talk about being enlightened after a trip are usually white and financially comfortable. I had an ex-boyfriend who went to Morocco for study abroad, and during his stay he went to a lot of countries in Africa. When he returned, he went all Elizabeth Gilbert on me because the experience “made him see the world differently” Wtf.
    What happened? Did you finally become aware of your white, male, American privilege??? It shouldn’t take going to another continent for you to realize that there are people who look and think differently than you. There are customs that are different than yours. There is incredible food everywhere. But claiming that you are somehow more knowledgeable about the world because YOU ARE PRIVILEGED enough TO ACCESS it is literally like someone from Bangladesh or Russia coming here, eating hot dogs, going to Disneyland and saying that now they “understand.”

  • Hell No

    This comes off as very bitter.

  • Lela Dixon

    I appreciate your opinion, Chelsea.

  • Elsie

    oh man. chelsea, honey, do you have any idea how ridiculously privileged tone-deaf you sound? you might not be that “annoying girl who posts 75 pictures” but I am sure as hell annoyed right now after reading this drivel.

    sincerely,
    24 year old american who grew up in the UK, currently living in serbia (i’ve been here 8 months so far– is that long enough for you?)

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