The Most Important Thing You Must Do To Have A Meaningful Experience While Traveling


Everyone seems to extoll the virtues of slow travel. “Slow down, get to know a culture, take your time” is wonderful (and sometimes condescending) advice writers and long-term travelers give to newbies.

We long-term travelers have the benefit of being able to spend longer in one place. We have a flexibility most others do not.

But to me, slow travel is not about moving at a snail’s pace or spending weeks in one destination; it is avoiding the urge to cram in as much as possible in a short period of time and making room for the happy accidents of travel.

Too many people want to fly halfway around the world and cram seven countries into two weeks. Too many think “OK, I’m going to Europe for ten days. Let’s race around the continent like it’s the size of a small tropical island.”

I know this happens, because each day dozens of people ask me to critique their itinerary. My advice to them is always the same: cut out stops and slow down.

When you only have a few weeks in a region you may never visit again, it’s tempting to try to see as much in as possible. Paris in two days, Rome in three, then off to Athens before visiting the Alps. (That’s an actual itinerary someone sent me, by the way).

I understand why people try to see it all, but traveling fast is foolish and a poor use of limited resources.

First, since you’re paying for so many trains, buses, or flights, it increases your transportation costs. Every time you add a new destination, that’s a new cost your budget has to bear. It’s just cheaper to see two destinations instead of three.

Second, it takes time to get to every destination. You have to factor in getting to and from each city. You can easily lose a half-day or more just waiting for your ride to come every time you hop locations. Suddenly, your two days in Paris is more like one and a half.

Third, you burn out. You’re always on the move, and there is no down time. After years of travel, I can tell you that no matter how often you’ll say “I’m different,” you aren’t. You are going to burn out and get exhausted if you are on the move every few days.

Fast travel is also going to leave you with nothing but the pictures in your iPhone. You see without seeing and hear without hearing. You only get a superficial look at the place you are in.

Sure, you “see” all of Southeast Asia, but you did so mostly from a bus and didn’t get a chance to understand the people or places as you were whisked from destination to destination.

The secret to getting the most out of your travels is inversely connected to the speed in which you travel through it. The faster you go and the more you do, the less you experience.

Think about your best travel memories. Think about the trips you loved the most. Were they hectic and fast paced, or were they slow and peaceful? Do you remember more the sunset in Bali you watched from start to finish or the two-second glimpse of the Vatican?

I once did an experiment to see how much of Dublin I could see in 24 hours. Turns out, a lot. But while I went to everything in the city, I couldn’t tell you anything about it.

Humans get much more from situations when they are mentally present. Our minds can process everything we are feeling and thinking a lot better when we pause and reflect.

Traveling slowly makes that happen.

Destinations aren’t check marks. If you want only photos, more power to you, but if you’re looking to share a story, describe Paris to your friends, and have memories that last a lifetime, slow down.

I mean that’s why we travel, right? We saved all that money to visit New Zealand so we could realize our travel dream and have fantastic memories of the destination. We want to learn about this place we’ve imagined in our head for all those years.

Don’t try to see it all because you never can. There will always be something else to see or experience.

You’ll never go fast enough to see everything, so just focus on seeing something deeply.

My rule of thumb is three to four days per city. If you’re on a two-week vacation, try to pick three cities you want to see or one large country.

You won’t be tired, sick of racing to the train station. You’ll have more energy and a lot more fun. The quality of your travels will improve.

Most importantly, this pace will leave room in your schedule for the happy accidents of travel: the time when you stumble into a café and spend a wonderful afternoon there, or take a left turn to climb that mountain that looks interesting, or spend a day in the park with some new friends you just met. When you aren’t racing around checking off lists, that stuff happens.

Don’t let your two-week vacation be more tiring than work. Seeing ten countries in a week isn’t a badge of honor; it’s a sign of foolishness.

So slow down, spend less time in train stations, and more time in the café getting to know the local culture.