Travel: When Less is More

I woke up the other morning with a knot in the pit in my stomach. It took a while for my brain to catch up with my gut to figure out what was wrong.

On the surface, everything was ideal. We had just come from weeks of trekking in Patagonia amidst endless mountains and lake vistas, we were on the quaint island of Chiloe (Chile) and the sun was shining (a rarity for this time of year, we’re told), and more trekking and travel opportunities awaited us.

Nature's Harshness - Torres del Paine, Chile
Nature’s Harshness – Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

But I was burnt out. Something about our recent travel choices left me feeling ungrounded. The constant movement, logistical planning and searching for the next experience had taken its toll. Usually, we travel without fixed schedules and we stay in places longer, allowing us time to relax, work and take in a place in all its various dimensions.

So what happened? Recently we purchased airline tickets that will take us away from South American in mid-May. With this impending departure, we began to fall into the common trap of travel, the common trap of life: trying to do it all.

The Drive to Accomplish

There’s a human – or perhaps societal – drive to make lists and “accomplish” them. Think of the popularity of bucket lists, Top 10 lists, to-do lists, city and country guides “top sights.” As a traveler – nay, as a human being – you are made to feel that if you don’t see everything (or at least a good chunk) on the list then you’ve failed in collecting the maximum number of experiences possible, you haven’t gotten your money’s worth, you’ve missed out.

And there’s nothing more demotivating than a conversation like, “What, you didn’t go there? But that’s the best place!” So in an effort to stave off buyer’s remorse and regret, you try to see everything in a short time and you uber-plan.

Lonely Planet Reading at Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
Head in the guidebook.

Have you ever played whack-a-mole? It never ends.

Life lesson learned on the travel trail: breathe. Say no to that inner travel over-achiever.

Accomplishment Takes Different Forms

Life will be OK if you have one less passport stamp, if you have one less national park trek in your journal, if you don’t visit every church, if you don’t see every major region of the country.

Even with the amount of time we’ve devoted to travel, we still leave most countries with a list of places we’d like to see on our return — “something to leave on the table.” We’ve become comfortable with the idea that we’ll never be able to do it all. Our goal has been balance of life, travel and work on the road, taking in enough of a place and doing so deeply so that we can authoritatively say we’ve grokked it, especially when it comes to people and culture. That’s our measure of travel satisfaction.

Shy Kids in Yauli, Peru
Shy Kids in Yauli near Huancavelica, Peru

Peru offers one such recent example. We ended up spending close to three weeks in Lima because we felt the need to have a base, to work and to catch our collective breath. To stay longer in Lima, we passed up opportunities to trek in Huaraz, visit Arequipa, and trip around the Amazon region.

Would we like to see those areas? Sure. Do we regret slowing down? No. It was what we needed at the time. And not only that, we really enjoyed Lima (we realize we’re some of the only people who do), we ate phenomenally well, and our stay there likely provided perspective and helped us appreciate the rest of our Peruvian experiences that much more. Had we charged ahead with “the list,” we may have emerged burnt out. Instead, we look forward to returning.

I realize that our seemingly never-ending journey is beyond most imaginations. But I believe the same sanity-preservation principle – choose fewer places and stay in them longer – applies as equally to those of you on a six-day vacation getaway as it does to us.

Case in point: a friend from the U.S. planning to visit us during our final days in Prague wrote: “I’d like to visit Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague and Cesky Krumlov. I have about six days.

Into Old Town at Night - Prague, Czech Republic
Old Town at Night – Prague, Czech Republic

As much as we love each of those destinations, thinking about the whirlwind gave us hives. In response, we suggested two possible alternative excursions, each excluding either Germany or Austria. Our friend chose Cesky Krumlov and Vienna, we made a weekend of it and everyone was the happier for it.

The Golden Nugget

If travel has taught me anything, it is to listen to my gut. We’ve since narrowed down the list of places we would like to visit before we leave South America this go-around. Most of the places we’ve chosen feature a connection with family and friends. The one that doesn’t: Patagonian wine country — unusual and slightly unknown, offbeat. And it’s wine (need I say more?).

Now that I have released myself from chasing experiences and constantly thinking about the next destination, I’m excited for what remains of our time here in Argentina and Chile.

In travel – as in life – sometimes choosing to do less really does give you more.

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Comments

  1. says

    So true. When we booked four weeks of travel in SE Asia, friends suggested we should do Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and some even added Burma. Sure, there are tours that cover all these in 28 days. But having done the 100mph trips already, we made a concious choice to do less, and the result was a memorable trip through Laos and Cambodia. We spent less time on the road and more actually wandering through small towns and cities. In fact, each country could have easily kept us entertained for a month by itself.
    Great to hear you loved Lima. Thanks for sharing your stories. It’s good advice for us all.

  2. says

    What a great post, Audrey! Contrary to the popular notion of the slacker backpacker, I think many long-term travelers fall into the overachiever trap. Some seem to race around the globe with checklist in hand to combat the fear that they might miss something, others let writing, blogging or otherwise working on the road dictate their pace and itinerary. In either case, I think it’s important to know when to take a step back, as you did, to avoid simply exchanging one “rat race” for another (albeit with better scenery).

  3. says

    So true! It’s a trap that everyone falls into at some point, even experienced travellers likes yourselves. Being content with not seeing it all is such an important attitude to have when travelling. On our ‘never ending voyage’ we are starting slowly with two months in Buenos Aires. We’ll miss loads of ‘highlights’ in other parts of the country but we are enjoying getting to know one place well. It’s also a lot less tiring than constantly moving!

  4. says

    Thank you for this post. I 100% admit I’m of the “have to do it all” persuasion. I know I need to slow down and take more time to enjoy just being somewhere, but even though I always have great intentions to return somewhere, I don’t ever really know if that’s going to happen.

  5. says

    This post is so true though I have to wonder why this is a lesson that we need to learn over and over again. During our 7 months of travel we managed to alternate between rushing to “see it all” and taking a break and staying in one place for a little longer. Then before you knew it, we were rushing off again… I guess that we are only human…

  6. says

    Yes, even doing something off the beaten track like trekking around the world can succumb to the “to do” list syndrome and get rutified. A “to be” list sometimes takes care of that. Sounds awesome — all of it!

    Giulietta

  7. says

    Thanks for all the comments here! I’m enjoying the discussion.

    @Andy H: I think most travelers would agree with you…until they get in the midst of the travel frenzy. We’ve been in well-trafficked places this past month in Patagonia and the discussions with other travelers about the treks and places they had been within a few weeks sometimes exhausted me just thinking about it. It almost became a competition between some travelers :)

    I completely agree with you. Breathe, open your eyes and open yourself up. That’s when the best experiences happen – in travel and in life.

    @Andy J: Good for you on your SE Asia decision! We’re often asked to advise on vacation plans just like you described – four weeks and just as many countries. We always try to convince people to go for less places and spend more days in each place. Just recovering from transport alone can take days out of your trip. There’s a reason so many people return home from vacations exhausted.

    We joke that we should work for Lima’s tourism board. We seem to be the only people who liked that city and are always telling other travelers to go there. I think one reason is that we stayed in the neighborhood of Barranco instead of Miraflores or the polluted center.

    @Josh: Well put – don’t exchange one “rat race” for another. In Patagonia, we’ve met a lot of the racing around the globe backpackers. I admire their energy, but I wonder what will stick with them from their journey when they return home. The longer we’re on the road, the more we need to slow down and take breaks to feel grounded and fulfilled.

    @Erin: It is nice to go slow and get to know a place fully. We really enjoyed the two months we spent in Buenos Aires and developed a good group of friends there as well. Hope you’re enjoying the apartment in Barrio Norte!

    @JoAnna: The fear of not ever returning to a place is one of the motivating factors in trying to do it all. I think we all worry about that. For many places, I believe I will return. I don’t know when, but sometime in my life. And if I don’t, that’s OK too.

    @Vaniah: Yes, you would think after all this time that we should know better! But, I think there is something about human nature that makes us fall back into the “trap.” It happens in the “real world” all the time – why do you think self-help and minimalist books are so popular?!

    @Giuletta: I love your concept of “to be” lists – that’s exactly it!! And, you are right, you can fall into the same pitfalls of the “real world” even on a mountain in Patagonia.

  8. says

    Oh do I have to get my husband to read this! He’s of the mind that there is no tomorrow and therefore it must all be done (and seen) today. I’m more of a sit back, drink it in, and enjoy it kind of person. Not only do I find the go-go-go stressful, but I find that everything blurs together and I remember much less. So yes, less definitely IS more!
    And I sure hope that Santiago is still on your list before you leave!

  9. Bill M says

    The fact of the matter is that lists are illusions. In five years, sometimes less, sometimes a bit more, each place you visited will have changed itself–either into something else, or out of existence. No one today, including me, can visit the Bali I visited in 1975, or the Guatemala I knew fifteen years ago. At the very least, the children I knew are now adults; and the adults, elderly or dead. Roads exist where once were footpaths or nothing at all. Last year’s Machu Picchu and Inca trail are now cut off from us by landslides, deaths, and all sorts of attendant changes. And, as anyone knows, today’s “pricey” will be tomorrow’s “cheap.”

    Anyone treating travel as a quantitative experience will find her or his “stock” irrelevant: its value only can be preserved if one chooses to live in and rest on the putative “laurels” of one’s yesterdays’ experiences. But that’s not travel, is it? That’s just the slide show. Qualitative travel is forward motion–not necessarily physical displacement, but an extension of our internal frontiers. We become broader: instead of simply counting countries, one notices that each individual is a country unto her or himself–each of us is a separate culture, uses a separate language, lives by a separate set of laws. Maybe macro (geographical) travel sets us up to understand that–certainly it should. Maybe some learn that covering “The Distance” and taking “The Photos” is petty and minuscule compared to what experience-honed vision enables us to see all around us, whether we take a step or a bus or plane or flight of fancy.

    At that point, travel in the geographical sense ceases to be a compulsion or some form of self-proof, and becomes, with self understanding, simply the pleasure of encountering the breezes of change, and the fulfillment (whether one moves or not) of contributing to, rather than merely passing through, this world we’re in. Life is, after all, a journey from birth to death: one owes oneself the benefits of deciding whether to accumulate in hopes of some sort of uncertain future “prize,” or to bring quality to one’s every minute.

  10. says

    Very true. We went through the fatigue of travel a couple of months ago and you left excellent advice on our blog. We have learned to settle down and relax a little more and surprisingly we are free of regret.
    I understand how you are feeling near the end of your time in South America though. Once you buy a ticket, it makes everything feel a little more urgent. Luckily you have been traveling long enough and are accomplished and grounded enough to recognize that you don’t have to see it all.
    Something we are still working on but getting bet at.
    P.S. We enjoyed Lima too:) I didn’t know that mot people don’t like it.

  11. says

    Often when i hear some guy bragging about all that he has manage to squeeze in during his four weeks in a country, i get sucked in to it and feel like a failure who took it slow and didnt visit at all as many places. Quite soon though i realize that these guys never talked about the experience or their trip other than what they did from the guide books ‘must do’ list.

    I think you did the best inslowing down and enjoying Lima the fullest, and really experienced it :)

  12. says

    I agree with you here. My first trip abroad I traveled around to 15 countries and 2 months and while I loved every minute of it I now crave to go to one city and stay there for a week or two instead of moving around constantly. I feel that I would get to know a place better instead of shuffling from site to site and just getting a taste.

  13. says

    @Margaret: I’m with you in that impressions and experiences start to blur together when we go quickly. I start to confuse the names of places and I realize that most of the memories are related to accommodation, transport or some sight as opposed to a conversation I had with someone there.

    Yes, we’re definitely coming to Santiago! You and Eileen are part of our friends tour before we leave :) We are very much looking forward to meeting you and Eileen and being introduced to real Chilean ceviche and pisco sours. We’ll be there in early May.

    @Bill: Some great nuggets of wisdom there, especially about travel being about the growth in personal understanding and contributing the places you visit or find yourself living for a while. Traveling quickly (and the mindset that goes with it) seems to be about “taking” while moving slowing or not moving at all opens you up to appreciating the little things and “giving” more of yourself.

    @Dave and Deb: I’m glad you guys have settled into a good travel and work pace. It is hard to resist the urge to try and do it all when you have a limited amount of time – I think this is why so many people return from vacations exhausted!

    Lima is a funny place. Glad to hear you liked it too! We met so many people who hated it and others who planned to avoid it because they had heard bad things about it. If the weather were a bit better, we’d consider moving there for a while.

    @Sofia: You give a perfect characterization of what people remember when visiting so many places in a short time – it’s like a top ten list from the guidebook and most of the details are related to transport, hotels or food instead of the mood or feeling of the place. Yes, Lima was a great break for us and the right decision.

    @Joya: Woah – 15 countries in 2 months! That leaves me tired just thinking about it. Good on you for having the energy for that! I think travel styles and preferences also change over time. It was easier for me to travel quickly when I was younger and it was for short periods of time. With being on the road constantly, we appreciate the breaks to recharge batteries.

  14. says

    This piece is so spot on! I find myself meeting up a lot with RTW trippers lately who are a few weeks into their journey and still in the go-go-go mentality. I have spent more than a month now in Guatemala and may not make it to El Salvador as a result…a new friend I traveled with for a couple of weeks told me I’d regret not moving faster. And it really made me doubt my choices. But you know, I really, really like Guatemala, and I’m glad I’m staying here – but it’s the buying of tickets or other ppl’s doubts that make us doubt what we know to be true for ourselves.

    It’s been such a relief to slow down and get to know a couple of these Guatemalan towns and have time to look around and make connections :-) So much *more* this time around than some of the frenzied travel at the beginning of my own RTW.

  15. says

    As long as we’re satisfied with the adventure we have, it doesn’t matter at all how much of a country we’ve covered or what major sights we chose to see, if any at all. I’ve been in Mexico for 7 months now, have lived in only two towns during that time and only have about a month left here…but I have no regrets!

    This post also reminded me of someone I once met in Delhi who had traveled overland from Budapest to India in less than 3 weeks! He might have ‘seen’ a handful of countries in the process, but his only memories were of long bus rides. Three weeks in Lima is infinitely more rewarding that!

  16. says

    @Shannon: Guatemala is a special place. It was the first place we visited in Latin America and we think back to it often. We spent two months there and I feel like we would return and spend many more. Good for you for sticking with what you know is the right decision for you! And, enjoy Guatemala!

    @Earl: Holy cow- Budapest to India in 3 weeks?! That’s truly insane. What’s the point if your journey is just a string of bus trips and hotels?

    It sounds like you’ve really enjoyed your time in Mexico by investing yourself in those two towns. I imagine they are like second homes now. Where are you going next?

  17. says

    I recently sold all my possessions to become a nomad and now I’m traveling with a single 30 liter backpack. I’ve been living in a remote town in Ujire, India, a 7-hour bus ride west of Bangalore.

    After about three weeks of living in Ujire, I began to feel like the place was really beginning to soak in; I started to feel like part of the community: The jeep drivers recognize me, the restaurant owners recognize me, and fewer people are looking at me like a foreigner.

    I think slow travel is the best way to really experience new places. And after all, isn’t that why we travel, to experience to places?

    Thanks for the post!

  18. says

    I’ll be heading over to the Middle East and Central Asia next! And I’ve started to look at all of your Central Asia posts for some inspiration and ideas…so thank you!

  19. says

    @Raam: It’s always a great feeling when you feel a part of a place and people begin to recognize you and relate to you as a local. You no longer feel like an outsider. I think some travelers unconsciously exchange the quality of experience for quantity of experience because they feel the need to do it all before they return.

    I’m impressed that you managed to get your belongings down to 30 liters – congratulations!

    @Earl: Glad to hear our Central Asia posts are helpful! Will you have a chance to visit Georgia as well? That’s another country close to our heart. We’re hoping to get to the Middle East next year, so perhaps our paths may cross there?

  20. says

    Georgia is one of the places I definitely want to visit, especially after reading your post on Tbilisi! And hopefully our paths will cross at some point, somewhere out there…it would definitely be wonderful to meet you both in person.

  21. says

    @Earl: Georgia is really a unique and special place. If you have time (and the season is right), try to make it to the Svaneti region in Georgia. It’s so much more than just pretty mountains. Since you stay with families in villages along the way, you really feel the history of the region and culture of the Svans. We’ll stay in touch and see where our paths may cross!

  22. says

    Ah, I needed this post…today! I couldn’t agree more with what you shared, Audrey, and these were just the words I needed to hear today as we plot out the next few months of our around the world journey. Less is absolutely more. When trying to see everything, you end up experiencing nothing. We find ourselves feeling a bit guilty when we feel the need to slow down and don’t get to all the ‘must-see’ spots on our lists. But we’ve learned that these are often the times when those unexpected journeys surface. Thanks for the insight!

  23. says

    Yet another fantastic post Audrey!

    I’m from the school of balance. Yes, I want to see it all but sometimes, life has other priorities, be it nurturing one’s new family or staying longer in a place to fully integrate.

    Just had to cancel an upcoming trip to Istanbul for this very same reason.

  24. says

    Thanks for sharing your perspective! Following my inner compass when traveling has become so important to me. Some of my best travel adventures were completely unexpected and most rewarding.

  25. says

    @Laura: I’m so glad that the timing of this post was right for you. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the “must sees” when itinerary planning. So many of our best experiences happened in the middle of nowhere or on the way to somewhere else. Even these last few days, some of our memorable experiences happened while hitchhiking and having conversations with the different people we met.

    @Johnny: I have to admit that Thailand has crossed my mind recently. When we were in Asia, we went there often to recharge our batteries.

    @Lola: You have to listen to your gut when it tells you to take time for certain things, be it settling into a new home or learning a new language. Otherwise, the travel becomes a chore and your mind is elsewhere; you’re not able to enjoy and absorb it in the best way.

    @Sonya: I think so many travelers would answer that their best experiences happened when they least expected it. Yet, we still feel the need to push on. It’s great when we find that balance.

  26. says

    I read an interesting New York Times opinion piece today that reminded me of your post, Audrey. The author, Seth Stevenson, encourages travelers to take some time getting to and from a destination:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/opinion/20sethstevenson.html

    I don’t agree with him that airplane flights aren’t memorable. (I’ve met many wonderful people, including some of my best friends, on airplanes… and also seen some breathtaking views from my seat next to the window.) Also, people from the US who have just two weeks of vacation a year can’t afford to spend it all sailing to and from Europe on the Queen Mary II. Still, I thought the author’s point — that travelers can miss a lot when they make the fastest journey, simply to “get there” — is a good one.

    ¡Buen viaje!

  27. says

    @Jerry: Was just reading about them at OnPoint. I believe many people feel as you do: the hard-and-fast rule of “no airplanes” is inflexible. It’s also impractical for many who have neither the time nor the cash for overland-only options.

    But I’m going to go one step further and echo a comment I made in response to the discussion on another forum.

    Regarding how best to engage with the world while traveling, “no planes, overland only” strikes me as a sticky, effective public relations gimmick. However, the depth of our engagement with other cultures and our resulting cultural appreciation is less affected by whether we took a plane or two than by the following:
    1) Did we explore outside of the capital and major cities?
    2) Did we interact with people outside of the tourist industry.
    3) Did we spend time with ordinary people where they spend time (e.g., in local markets).
    4) Where we felt we needed to understand, did we spend time rather than always running to the next destination?
    5) And for those with the luxury of a little extra time: Did we seek out a few lesser-understood places along the way (e.g., Tajikistan or Paraguay).

    We believe that significant chunks of overland travel are necessary if the goal is cultural understanding. But overland travel in itself is not sufficient…it’s HOW you go about that travel that makes the difference.

  28. says

    Hey guys, great article. This advice is spot on. We’ve learned this lesson many times and sometimes it’s still a struggle. Spending more time in fewer places is the best travel advice we could give. It doesn’t matter where you are, you will never see everything. And we almost get a little kick out of not doing the “main attraction” of a place… like you said, it’s nice to have something to come back to. For example, we just left Queenstown, New Zealand without doing a single bungy jump… next time! :)

  29. says

    @Alonna: I’m laughing at your comment about leaving Queensland without a single bungy jump! It’s funny, we also sometimes get a kick out of missing the main sights of a place. I always think, “We’ll, that church/museum/ruins/activity will likely still be there when we return, but perhaps that marketplace or food stand won’t.” The important thing is to find the right pace and enjoy the journey, not race around.

  30. says

    Hi Daniel & Audrey,

    After reading this article, I won’t complain anymore about having not enough annual leaves from my work. I will learn to appreciate & treasure all my trips which I still can count with my 10 fingers. By the way, I love reading your articles ;-) And I love following your journey around the world ;-)

  31. says

    @Agnesia: Thanks for commenting and your kind words about our articles and following our journey! It’s important to appreciate every journey, no matter how long or short it is.

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