Against travel

A few years ago, when I told family and friends that I was going to retire, many of them assumed that I would spend a large portion of my time traveling. After I came to California, many of the people I have met here seem to enjoy traveling. While I do not dismiss the idea that they might be getting a lot out of it, I have done very little traveling since I retired since I do not enjoy it, especially if it involves airlines. I have done a lot of traveling in my life, either out of the desire to see family or for work. Seeing new places for its own sake has very little allure for me and now that I do not have to do it, I avoid doing so. I only travel if it means visiting family and friends, nowadays only going to see my grandchildren.

While I enjoy learning about other places and people and cultures, taking a short visit to those places does not satisfy that need. I would much rather read about them or see them on TV. The closest I get to nature is through David Attenborough documentaries and that suits me fine.

So I was interested to read this article by Agnes Collard who shares my antipathy to travel and makes the case against it.

What is the most uninformative statement that people are inclined to make? My nominee would be “I love to travel.” This tells you very little about a person, because nearly everyone likes to travel; and yet people say it, because, for some reason, they pride themselves both on having travelled and on the fact that they look forward to doing so.

The opposition team is small but articulate. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “travel narrows the mind.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called travel “a fool’s paradise.” Socrates and Immanuel Kant—arguably the two greatest philosophers of all time—voted with their feet, rarely leaving their respective home towns of Athens and Königsberg. But the greatest hater of travel, ever, was the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, whose wonderful “Book of Disquiet” crackles with outrage:

I abhor new ways of life and unfamiliar places. . . . The idea of travelling nauseates me. . . . Ah, let those who don’t exist travel! . . . Travel is for those who cannot feel. . . . Only extreme poverty of the imagination justifies having to move around to feel.

If you are inclined to dismiss this as contrarian posturing, try shifting the object of your thought from your own travel to that of others. At home or abroad, one tends to avoid “touristy” activities. “Tourism” is what we call travelling when other people are doing it. And, although people like to talk about their travels, few of us like to listen to them. Such talk resembles academic writing and reports of dreams: forms of communication driven more by the needs of the producer than the consumer.

Travel gets branded as an achievement: see interesting places, have interesting experiences, become interesting people. Is that what it really is?

Pessoa, Emerson, and Chesterton believed that travel, far from putting us in touch with humanity, divorced us from it. Travel turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best. Call this the traveller’s delusion.

Tourism is marked by its locomotive character. “I went to France.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to the Louvre.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to see the ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” That is, before quickly moving on: apparently, many people spend just fifteen seconds looking at the “Mona Lisa.” It’s locomotion all the way down.

The peculiar rationality of tourists allows them to be moved both by a desire to do what they are supposed to do in a place and a desire to avoid precisely what they are supposed to do. This is how it came to pass that, on my first trip to Paris, I avoided both the “Mona Lisa” and the Louvre.

I have seen many things, such as the pyramids in Egypt and the Eiffel Tower and London bridge, but I cannot say that I felt uplifted in any way by those experiences. There are many other places that are part of the tourist itinerary that I have not seen and do not feel that I am missing out. The one place that I did make a special effort to see was the Grand Canyon and I am glad I did. It was a truly transcendental experience to gaze at the deep gorges and get a sense of deep time, the vast number of years that had to have passed for the river to carve out that canyon, and it filled me with a sense of both awe and calm. The sheer immensity and beauty was impressive and I still remember the experience of sitting in silence on the edge of a gorge and looking out.

Would I feel similarly uplifted by seeing (say) the original Mona Lisa rather than an image of it on a screen or a book? Maybe, but I doubt it. I have visited exhibitions of the works of great painters like Picasso or Van Gogh in Cleveland when I lived there but I cannot recall now any sense of wonder when gazing upon the originals. So why would I travel all over the world to see them?

I think my problem is that in short visits to another place one does not get to really know the people who live there. It would be different if one could spend an extended period, say at least a year, in some place where one got to know the rhythms of daily life, the people, the language, and the food and one was able to make lasting friends. I can see that that would be interesting and educational. But to fly in, see some tourist attractions, and then fly out? I’ll pass.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    The only form of travel I’ve enjoyed is bicycle touring. Trains, planes, automobiles, buses? Urgh.

  2. says

    While I love the view from airplanes (I could spend hours looking down at cities and so forth), I dislike airplane travel due to the hassle of it. And then there’s the whole idiotic “security theater” that you have dance through. I do like experiencing other places, though. I find car travel to be more interesting than dealing with airports but it becomes a problem when the destination is many hours away. And while I would enjoy “seeing the sites” in countries far away, I think I would get as much enjoyment sitting down in a pub somewhere and talking with the locals. The US has become very homogenized, so you’re probably not going to hear a lot of opinions that differ widely from that which already surrounds you, but we do try to sample the local cuisine. First question at a restaurant is always “What are your local beers?”

    But ultimately, home is where all of my “stuff” is. You can only take a very, very small collection of your stuff when you travel (one advantage of car travel is that you can bring more stuff, e.g., bringing your own bike instead of renting one at the destination).

    FYI, while I have seen much of the USA, I have never been to any of the other six continents.

  3. flex says

    I’m going to have to disagree with you, and the quoted article, with certain caveats.

    I enjoy travelling, and have been doing it since I was a wee lad. Since I’ve gotten married my wife and I have tried to take a trip to another country about every two years. We enjoy getting away from our house, where there are regular chores which are distraction from relaxation. We also enjoy getting far enough away from our jobs that we can forget about them.

    But both those pleasures could be enjoyed without going very far (and our only trip during the pandemic was only to a small town east of Toledo). There are other pleasures as well. We generally rent an apartment or house and stay two weeks in one location. We shop at the local groceries, eat at the local restaurants, and generally remain pedestrians for the entire time. I’ll admit that we often are eating at more expensive restaurants then we do at home, but it is a vacation after all, and we enjoy our feed.

    There are a few things that we agree with you, and the quoted author, about. Ten seconds in front of the Mona Lisa isn’t worth it. The crowds around Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi in Florence prevented anyone from really appreciating the work, studying it from a good print gives me greater pleasure. But last year in the National Gallery in London the crowds parted for a good two minutes, allowing me to enjoy one of Monet’s Water-Lily paintings for an unexpectedly decent amount of time in peace.

    But staying in one location for a decent amount of time gives us the opportunity to see things outside of the usual tourist routes. The Museo Galileo in Florence is worth spending a day at, especially as most of the other visitors are school children exited to be in a science museum. And it has a great collection of armillary spheres. Everyone goes to Kew Gardens in London, but how many tourists visit Chiswick House? There was an enjoyable farmers market going on when we stopped by. Every country, every location within a country, has history which we find interesting to visit. It was wonderful to spend an afternoon at Birr Castle in Ireland, at the birthplace of photo-astronomy and the location of the largest telescope in the world from 1845 until Mount Wilson opened in 1917.

    I’ll agree that organized tours, where there is a set schedule of things to see at a set time, where you see the tourist attraction for fifteen seconds, spend an hour a the gift shop, then get on the plane or the bus to go to the next tourist trap, those are a waste of time. You don’t learn anything but what the tour guide tells you, and from what I overhear when we encounter those guides, they make up half of what they say.

    We don’t brag about our trips, or think we are more experienced or more sophisticated because we have travelled. And we’ve learned that generally other people are not interested in hearing about our travels. It is boring to listen to someone talk about their vacations. But we enjoy our travels immensely.

    Travel taken because it’s a good deal, or to brag about visiting some famous artifact, travel without reflections on what is being visited, doesn’t have a great deal of value. But earlier this year I was sitting on the patio of a house we rented in Granada, Spain, drinking a bottle a wine while looking at the Alhambra and thinking about the culture of the Nasrid Kingdom, I realized that what I was looking at was a tomb of a culture. There are remnants of the Nasrid culture, some archives and certainly we can get some sense from the Moroccans, but the reality is that culture ceased to exist within twenty years of the conquest by the Christian kings and all we have is a tomb.

    We are starting to plan our next vacation. We are looking forward to spending two weeks in Prague in November of 2025. I don’t know yet what we will learn, but we won’t be going simply to see the clock. Cheers!

  4. birgerjohansson says

    If you ever decide to travel, maybe try the Scandinavian countries to escape the loud background noise of various cultists and anti-science nuts.

    Also, if you go up near the Arctic circle you get bright nights in summer and northern lights in winter. You cannot lose.
    BTW sometimes the Planetary Society ( the one set up by Carl Sagan) arrange “eclipse cruises”. I offered to sponsor a cruise to an eclipse in Asia Minor for Stanislaw Lem, but at that time he was to frail for travel 🙁

  5. says

    I’m with you Mano. I joined the Navy to “see the world” in my 20s and in five years I traversed the Pacific and Indian Oceans and transited from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to Tonga in the south. I enjoyed most of it. In the 80s I flew around North America on business but in the 90s I said I was done and have left Ohio only a handful of times on car trips. In my retirement I don’t even want to drive to Cleveland’s east side from my home in the southwest, semi-rural corner of Cuyahoga County. My wife still like to visit friends and family around the country and in Europe, but I stay home and take care of the pets.

  6. antaresrichard says

    I would probably travel to witness a natural wonder like a total solar eclipse or the aurora, otherwise, I am all too happy to remain at home. I will oddly enough, be traveling next year at the invitation of family, but what I am not looking forward to, is the fact that the chosen location will be a resort, a hermetic enclosure sealed off from the local peoples and culture. What’s the point of going from one bubble to another?


  7. rojmiller says

    These negative opinions about travel are obviously all from people who live in warm climates! In places where winter is a real (long) thing -- like Canada -- people often travel south to get a break from winter weather. Seems like a valid reason to travel to me.

    I don’t like traveling much myself, with one exception -- where the purpose is to view beautiful scenery. I took a train trip across Canada a few years back and enjoyed spending each day up in the dome car watching the world go by. Similarly, although I generally don’t like cruising, I very much enjoyed a cruise through the Inside Passage to Alaska and back -- again, spending all my time watching the world go by.

  8. Matt G says

    I traveled a lot as a kid, and a bit as an adult. I always prefer long stays, and, if possible, time with people I know. I spent 6 months in Europe at age 11, and 11 months as an exchange student in Germany -- that’s ideal. I’m now leaving NYC after 33 years (almost my entire adult life) but would much rather live here than visit.

  9. says

    In my 20s, I did a lot of 100+km bike rides city to city, out to parks. That was limited by my finances and traffic terrorists that view cyclists as a target. Otherwise I would have done cross-provinces trips.

    Travel by rail is so much better (and safer) than air travel. Rail stations are downtown city to city, not an hour away with the hassle of airports. That’s even true of London to Paris.

    When travelling, I don’t like going anywhere for less than a week (or perhaps 9 days weekend to weekend), sometimes up to a month. I want to be there long enough to feel that I belong, to have multiple conversations with the same people, maybe do some things more than once. The thought of “Ten European countries in two days!” holds no appeal.

    antaresrichard (#6) --

    You’re in luck. The April 2024 solar eclipse crosses North America from Mexico to Newfoundland. If you’re anywhere in between (or close to it), you might see it.

  10. says

    About 10 years ago, when I realized my physical state was declining, I started “traveling”. That meant a 3 week trip starting with an 18-24 hour drive west from Columbus, OH with my Subaru packed with tent camping equipment and food. I mainly stayed at and visited National Parks or adjacent National facilities. Spent my days hiking all over the place.

    A lot of the fun was in the planning, in which I mapped routes for myself, often off the beaten path. Just some of the places: El Malpais (NM), Grand Canyon (4 times), Zion, Bryce Canyon, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon (3 times), Colorado National Monument, Hovenweep, Canyons of the Ancients, the Badlands, Yellowstone, Craters of the Moon, Great Basin, Chiricahua, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Cavern, Natchez Trace National Trail.

    But, for instance, while I did hit the big Zion trails, just to the west is the non-descript Huber Wash trail, which was even more fun and interesting, and nobody had been there in ages. (It’s a flat, dry streambed that near its head, has a 20 foot waterfall (ok, waterdrip) that climbing above, gives you the view of the side mountains of Zion from the other side.

  11. Holms says

    Long stays certainly beat short. I greatly regret how hastily my trip to Uluru / Ayers Rock was planned and how brief it was; such places deserve space for reverence rather than compressed travel from place to place. So to an extent I can agree that breezing through various places really doesn’t give much, but that is not to say travel doesn’t reward the person, and I completely reject the claim that travel “narrows the mind”. It simply means travelling to and quickly leaving a place doesn’t give as much as travelling to and spending time at a place does.

    Relating your travels to another is always going to bore that person, because the experience of having been there fuels the telling, but the telling does not convey that feeling to the listener. Only being there can do that.

  12. John Morales says

    It’s really quite simple: some people like to do it, some don’t.

    So I was interested to read this article by Agnes Collard who shares my antipathy to travel and makes the case against it.

    There is no case either way, because, well…
    De gustibus non est disputandum.

    (Different people, different predilections)

  13. seachange says

    I hate travelling.

    My personal experience seeing Egyptian treasures of King Tut was that they were much more impactful seen in person than in photographs or films. Impressionist paintings also do not photograph or film well, and I found them worth seeing in person.

    As a geologist the parts of the country that are the prettiest and most interesting are the parts where the bones of mother earth are visible. Most people see those things and see (if they see) pretty rocks. But being able to come up close to these things and seeing them in person allows me to use my skills and my science to see my section of the true beauty of the world. Films and books can help me visualize it in the three dimensions of space and the almost endless ages of time of deposition and metamorphosis. But actually seeing it in person matters.

    So what is it that people “need to see”? Perhaps there are others who have a greater need than us.

  14. Silentbob says

    @ 4 birgerjohansson

    BTW sometimes the Planetary Society ( the one set up by Carl Sagan) arrange “eclipse cruises”.

    That’s not actually the Planetary Society per se but a place called Betchart Expeditions. They specialize in adventure/sciency trips rather than touristy stuff. Or as they say (on their website that looks like they haven’t updated the design in 20 years):

    Betchart Expeditions Inc. specializes in natural history expeditions worldwide for friends of Betchart and members of museums, zoos, conservation organizations, and scientific professional organizations. All expeditions are led by excellent naturalists, archaeologists, anthropologists, or social scientists, and are known for the outstanding, unique itineraries, and special contacts with local scientists, conservationists, and other key personalities.

    Travel for nerds basically. If I were to travel the world (I’ve never had the *ahem* disposable income) that’s the sort of travel I would enjoy. It ain’t cheap though.

    Disclaimer: This isn’t spam, I don’t have any connection to them I promise. Just showing the sort of travel I would enjoy. 🙂

  15. Silentbob says

    @ 13 John Morales

    It’s really quite simple: some people like to [travel], some don’t.

    Thanks once again for your brilliant insight Juan Ramón! Here we were struggling with whether all people enjoy, or do not enjoy, travel -- and you effortlessly solve the conundrum for us. What would we do without your valuable contributions ( I mean, apart from celebrate)?


  16. John Morales says

    What would we do without your valuable contributions ( I mean, apart from celebrate)?

    Life of Brian clip

  17. brightmoon says

    I’m lucky in that I live in NYC . There’s museum mile and a lot of interesting cultural stuff that goes on all the time. The biggest problem is that it’s getting expensive. I was able to go into the Brooklyn museum for a quarter when I was a divorced mom with 2 small children . They had one of Monet’s cathedrals which I stood in front of mesmerized. I’d hate to try that now as the museum is no longer donations requested and neither is MOMA. The museum of modern art which I used to pop into after taking the kids to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center because they got cold. Only place out of the USA I’ve ever been is to Barbados and I loved it. I’m not much of a traveler as I tend to be a homebody but when I get tired of being a homebody, I’m
    out and about!

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