Why Do People Travel?

“Travel is a vivid experience for most of us. At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us.  Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience.  The exhilaration of travel has many sources, but surely one of them is that we recapture in some measure the unspoiled awareness of children.”   John Gardner in Self Renewal

Traveling for pleasure really doesn’t make much sense.  Why leave the comfortable confines and routines of a happy, cheery home to enter the hassles of dealing with a number of people you don’t know in environments with which you typically are not very familiar?  It takes time, costs money (sometimes LOTS of money), upsets schedules, forces you into places and situations that can be difficult and often leads to frayed tempers, family disagreements and exhaustion.  Not to mention ridiculous airport security (“Sorry, sir, you can’t take those nail clippers on the plane.  You never know who might steal them and attack the pilot.”), threats of terrorism and putting up with screaming kids in closed spaces (cars and airplanes).  How many times have you had to come home from vacation to rest up in order to get back to work?  So why is traveling so intensely attractive?  Good question.  Almost everyone seems interested in traveling, except possibly the very old, who either tend to put a higher price on the “hassle factor” or who are just smarter than the rest of us.  Given all the difficulties involved in traveling, there must be substantive (and/or simple) reasons why people put up with the inconveniences and stresses that inevitably accompany a travel opportunity.  I believe there are SIX BASIC REASONS why people not only travel, but (think they) love to do so

  1. Escape.  Sometimes you just want to get away from the dull, boring, day-to-day “schtuff” that you have been dealing with seemingly forever.  You need a break, you want to see new vistas and meet new people (at least you think you do, until you actually meet some of them).  “Let me outta here!!” is the cry of every college student at the end of an academic term and the mantra of every mother of small children and working person who trudges to work 50 weeks a year so that they can do what they really want to do the other two weeks.  Escape from the drudgery of the here-and-now is important to many people and they see traveling as the ultimate escape mechanism.  It can be just as much about “getting away from here” as it is “getting to some place different/better” where current travails can be put on hold for a while and focus can be placed on a myriad (sometimes any myriad) of topics different from the ordinary day-to-day.  The desire to escape from the grind is prevalent in every spouse, parent, kid and employee.
  2. Fun.  It can be just plain FUN to get on an airplane or a roller coaster or a train or a boat.  Hopefully you are with people you enjoy and you don’t have to do anything (or at least not the same things you have to do most of the time at home or at work).  The planning and anticipation of the trip is fun and the memories after the fact are fun.  The actual trip may or may not be fun, but what the hell, you’ll remember the positive things that happen and forget or suppress the things that weren’t so much fun.  It’s amazing how good we can become at selective memory once a trip is over.  We’ll remember the fun things, not the six hour plane delay, the rain, the camera left in the cab or the diarrhea gotten from the bad water in the margarita ice cubes.  In 1969, I went to the Woodstock Festival.  In retrospect, it was “totally awesome” (to use a current phrase).  But when I was there it rained, was muddy, was crowded, there were not enough toilets or food and I had to brush my teeth with Budweiser because I didn’t have any water.  Even though it was more fun in retrospect, fun is what the memory elicits.
  3. To Learn/Broaden Our Perspective – Explore.  Socrates said that man is an inquisitive animal striving always to grow and learn.  Since we are a compilation and outgrowth of our experiences, what better way to learn than to get out and experience the world.  Get out from behind the books, desk and computer and actually see other parts of the globe.  To see the world is, by definition, to learn.  When I was once in the incentive travel business we took a group of mid-western farm people (the salt of the earth, wonderful people) to Italy and France.  We sent out brochures showing Rome, Florence, Pisa and Paris – all of which we would be visiting.  We started in Paris and as I was standing in the Trocadero Gardens across from the Eiffel Tower, I heard the following from one of our people:  “Maude, it sure don’t look like it’s leaning to me!?”  Yes, even when we can’t keep our monuments straight, there are all kinds of things we learn from traveling.  And in terms of learning through experience and travel, as TS Eliot so famously said, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  How true.
  4. Time/Space to Reflect.  When we are home and in the day-to-day routine of things we tend to spend very little time reflecting.  What is important to me, where am I going with my future, what do I want to do with the rest of my life, how can I make a contribution?  These are questions that don’t get asked much at home, but given the time and opportunity to travel, the process of reflection is often evoked.  I have visited San Francisco probably 85 times in the last 35 years and I have been to the Muir Woods 85 times.  For me it is a place for reflection, a place for introspection and spirituality.  Somehow the giant redwood trees help me put things in perspective in a way that does not seem possible at home. I could be reflective at home, but I’m not.  In the Muir Woods, I can’t help but be reflective.
  5. To Share.  Traveling alone is no fun and so we almost always – when we can – choose to travel with a companion or companions.  Often times it’s family, sometimes it’s friends, occasionally co-workers and once in a great while it’s just with a new group of people who signed up to see some new part of the world, just as we did.  With family and/or friends you are able to share the excitement, wonderment, beauty and, yes, the hassles of new places and to create memories that last a lifetime.  In our family, we’ll never forget the little café on the square by the Montmartre in Paris, having lunch and laughing so hard that 7-Up came out of my 12 year old daughter’s nose.  That’s the stuff of family legends, amplified in our minds and memory by the fact of being in such an interesting and famous place.
  6. Ego.  The number one reason, I believe, that many people travel has to do with their ego – to be able to “say that they’ve been there”, to be able to show others that they are “worldly” and have “been around”.   Have you ever noticed that in a conversation if you ask someone, “Have you ever been to Istanbul?”, the response is likely to be, “Well, no.  But I went to Chicago once.”  People will always tell you where they have been, whether or not it has anything to do with the conversation at hand.  And people who are well traveled can be the absolute worst in terms of “travel ego”.  They don’t want to know anything about you or what you are talking about, they only want to be able to relate the conversation to themselves – and where they’ve been.  It’s almost as if they feel a need to “prove” their importance/value by being well traveled, as if this is the only (or a significant) way they have of justifying their existence.  I was recently on a 19 day trip to South America and Antarctica.  Believe me, if you’re going to Antarctica, you’ve probably already been to a great many other places.  There was a group of very well traveled people from Seattle on the trip and some of them spent 90% of their time telling you that the icebergs were really much bigger in the north Atlantic or the food was really much better on Mediterranean cruises or the penguins reminded them of the ones in the Galapagos Islands, or… whatever would leave the impression with you that they were really well traveled.  Hubris.  Ego.  That’s why some people travel.  How annoying!  I feel sorry for these people because they are sometimes so busy taking pictures to show back home and checking off their lists of famous places that they often don’t know how to reflect on the significance/value of the people they meet, the experience they are having and what they are learning.  But they can tell everyone back home that they went to Timbuktu and Lake Titicaca!  Ego is a driving force for many who travel.