Most Travel is a Waste of Time

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

Travel is overrated, the benefits prone to exaggeration, and largely unnecessary.

To deny the appeal of travel would be futile. The imagined possibilities of travel resonate with many; the explosion of travel blogs and websites is partial proof. Stronger evidence for the attraction of travel can be found in the number of people, mostly younger, who think that if they go somewhere and write a blog post about it, someone will pick up their travel expenses. That they have little experience in either one rarely crosses their minds.

There must be something about travel that is compelling; I have met few who would admit that they did not care for it, did not dream about it, did not long to visit far-away places (the very elderly and physically infirm logically excepted). Everyone has someplace they want to go, even if they can’t fully articulate why they want to go there.

The arguments for travel (really, the arguments to travel _a lot_) are many, but vague. Travel is often recommended to young people at the beginning of their adulthood as a broadening experience. Mark Twain, in “The Innocents Abroad,” wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” There are opportunities to immerse oneself in other cultures, study a foreign language, appreciate both natural splendor and the works of man, and meet people across a broader spectrum of humanity than you might otherwise encounter at home.

To all of which I would say “maybe.”

“Broadening” as a life-changing experience and a benefit of travel, is rarely defined and most often simply assumed. All of these benefits, with the exception of sightseeing, could be realized at home. You can choose to meet people. Culture is defined by what a society or community holds as valuable, and this can be examined, critiqued, and appreciated anywhere. The benefits of travel can be realized at home by anyone willing to experience any place, any people, as if for the first time. The benefits of travel are a function of the attitude of the traveler.

Travel is something you do; it is more interesting to discuss as a verb (implying action) than a noun (implying abstraction). Travel, in our market-based economy, has been reduced to a business — tourism — whose objective too often seems to be not to expose you to the reality of leaving home, of dealing with foreign languages, unfamiliar foods, indecipherable transportation systems, and bartenders who don’t understand what constitutes a good beer, but rather to provide the perception of going and seeing someplace different while never being or doing anything different yourself. At the end of the day, it is much more about separating you from your money, and has little or nothing to do with “broadening.”

As evidence, I point to the popularity of cruise ships.

Authentic travel is the experience of embracing fully other people and your status as a guest amongst those people. This leads to the single, and powerful, benefit: travel leaves you, sooner or later, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Such experiences are a powerful reminder of our common humanity; that we are far more alike than different, and it is possible to speak differently, eat differently, attend to the requirements of daily life differently, and still appreciate that we are largely walking the same path. But this benefit only accrues when you stop being a tourist, get rid of your smartphone, and immerse yourself in the local experience.

Technology only makes this harder. Being dependent on the kindness of strangers could be as simple as asking where one might find a public restroom. As an experiment I pulled out my phone and searched for “public restrooms near me” and skimmed the results. No need to talk to anyone. As the technology becomes more pervasive, the benefits of travel will only be available to those who make a conscious decision to embrace risk and leave their smartphone behind; otherwise, it won’t be travel — it will be existing in a series of locations, by yourself.

Adventure is another assumed benefit of travel; the desire to escape the ordinary, to endure a set of experiences that are not common to everyday life is a powerful attraction to some. Adventure means different things to different people, and a concise, universally applicable definition is difficult and does not add much to the conversation. The same caveats apply. Adventure implies risk, and this is the last thing the tourist industry wants you to experience. Adventure is something you will create for yourself, not purchase from someone else.

There are arguments against travel, but you have to work to find them. There is no money to be made, no magazines to be sold, no blog posts to generate affiliate revenue, as a result of extolling the many and varied pleasures of staying home. Emerson, from his essay “Self Reliance”:

“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

This is travel as escape. A change of scenery can be therapeutic, but if we can assume that most of our problems are internal, then relocating ourselves will not solve anything. Travel as status-signaling is interesting only to the person attempting to accumulate status; I have no interest in seeing your selfies in front of the usual tourist destinations. For many (the most lucrative target of the tourism industry) travel is little more than doing the same things in different places, and this is not always good for the destinations (I’m looking at you, cruise industry). I’m often amazed at how much travel is packaged as novelty — the experience of the new — but after staring at it for a few minutes, you realize that it’s all the same things you do at home: restaurants, entertainment, alcohol, with a side of pampering and leisure. Hardly broadening.

Most travel, then, is unenlightening and unnecessary, unless we act to make it otherwise.

Travel can be meaningful. A precise definition would take too long but we can get close enough by example. Meaningful travel is that which, on your return, finds you a changed or better person in some way. What did you learn? Did you make any friends (really, not just the people whose job it is to be nice to you)? What did you bring to the table — how are the people you encountered in your travels better for having met you? The bar for any of these questions does not have to be high, but meaningful travel will demand that you be able to answer them in satisfactory fashion.

This requires work. We should think of travel less as vacation or recreation, and more like a pilgrimage: a search or quest of some spiritual or moral significance. Again, expectations do not, and should not be, so high as to preclude any enjoyment of the experience. The idea is that travel is more meaningful when we can fully articulate the reasons for doing so.

We should leave ourselves open to risk. Embrace the possibility that we will be dependent on the kindness of strangers; seek it out. Be more of a participant and less of a spectator, always remembering that you are a guest. Conduct yourself in such a way as to be a blessing to those you meet. It wouldn’t hurt to practice this at home, in your own community, before heading off.

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