Reflections on "Slow Travel"
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
In the January/February issue of AFAR magazine (one of my favs), there's an article called 'The Traveler's Manifesto' by Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World and someone whose writing and musings I respect tremendously.
The wonderful article itself can be found here: I'd highly recommend reading it!
Point #3 of his manifesto for post-pandemic travel is to "Travel Slowly". For those unfamiliar with the concept, here's a good definition from SmarterTravel:
Slow travel is not so much a particular mode of transportation as it is a mindset. Rather than attempting to squeeze as many sights or cities as possible into each trip, the slow traveler takes time to explore each destination thoroughly and to experience the local culture. Per the slow travel philosophy, it’s more important to get to know one small area well than it is to see only a little bit of many different areas—that way you’ll have something left to see on the next trip.
Slow travel can mean renting a cottage or apartment for a week at a time and exploring your immediate surroundings on foot or by car. It can mean taking a bike tour from one village to the next, or driving along back roads instead of taking the highway. It can mean crossing long distances by train instead of air so that you can see the scenery along the way. But no matter how you do it, the key is slowing down—and making the most of each moment of your vacation.
Let me summarize in three words: quality over quantity. I think there are some tremendous benefits to this type of travel, and agree that authenticity is incredibly important. In fact, I agree with most of this. However...
Travel, as life, is nuanced. I'm not fully sold. I'm pumping the brakes on this trending, buzzworthy concept. Here's an excerpt from the Weiner article:
A while back, I was planning on spending two weeks in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, but decided to tack on three additional days. It was during those three days that I met the two most memorable characters of my journey...
...Now, after the forced stillness of quarantine, I've learned that my capacity for slowness is greater than I thought....
...You can travel too quickly. You cannot travel too slowly.
Hmm, let's break this down a bit, shall we? I have a few issues with "slow travel". (By the way, to break up the acres of text, I've added "never-before-seen" photos from my 2017 GIven Latitude trip with my dad. A trip that never would have happened if we had "slow traveled". In fact, our itinerary would make a slow traveler cringe as we visited these places for preposterously little time).
First of all, who has the luxury to spend two weeks anywhere, let alone in one city?! The 1% of famous travel writers who do this for a living, the exceedingly wealthy, or well-to-do retired individuals. (The unfortunate association of wealth and travel is another topic on which I have many thoughts, but will save for another time.) In short, I truly believe that travel is for everyone. You needn't book 5-star hotels or wine and cheese outings to be profoundly inspired by travel experiences. One can have an awakening while backpacking two hours from home.
To me, Slow Travel implies that one of two statements is true: 1) I have so much time off that spending a week or two in one place doesn't preclude other trips. 2) My travel wish list is small enough that I can do this a handful of times and be satisfied over the course of my life. If one or both of these describe you, the concept is sound and I wish you happy slow travels!
For the rest of us average folk though who strive tirelessly to balance tight budgets, family life, and travel, do read on...
I bristle at the assumption that "Oh, I'll get back someday". Nothing is guaranteed, my friends. You and I may not be around in 10 years to see Europe, St. Croix, or the Canadian Rockies. We may not be here tomorrow. This may sound overly pessimistic, but who are we to know what the future holds?
Life is incredibly short, and as much as I love the concept of slowing down, I'd always rather see three destinations in my week off than one. You know why? Even if I spent a week or two in Chicago, Yosemite, or London, I would still leave having absorbed precious little of them. To add insult to injury, by traveling slowly I would also have missed anything outside of my self-imposed bubble.
My biggest problem with this whole idea is that it willfully ignores the cost of missing other places while you're taking your time in Tulsa or Boise. Other incredible destinations don't just disappear while you're ensconced in your zoomed-in fantasy world. For better or worse, you have decided to ignore them.
If time spent is an indicator of priorities, you're stating that whatever place you choose has more importance than those surrounding it. How can you possibly know that before going? Aren't assumptions like that the enemy of authenticity? Perhaps the most authentic travel would be setting off in a certain direction without preconceived plans. Some of the best travel writers have done just that, but I don't consider myself that enlightened!
Here's a scenario for you. A traveler comes from Arkansas - or Manitoba, or Brazil (pick any place, really) and decides to visit New Hampshire for two weeks. Rather than be bothered with a pesky 2-hour drive, they instead park themselves in Manchester (ironically, about the same size as Reykjavik). At the end of their time here, they leave with a nuanced impression of New Hampshire's largest city. They may have struck up a friendship with a café patron, smoke shop operator, or local soccer mom. They'll know Elm Street really, REALLY well, and they're now familiar with the city's industrial history. All well and good.
But. They. Missed. New Hampshire!!! The crystalline lakes, the breathtaking Presidentials, the tiny but character-filled coastline. To avoid at least glimpsing these soul-refreshing natural wonders would, to most rational human beings, be a failure of the highest magnitude. A ludicrous, absurd situation where one ignores what's around him to dial in with a high-intensity microscope on an area that may or may not be worthy of that.
What are the chances this fictitious traveler comes back to New Hampshire if, like most people, their bucket list is a mile long and they have, say, three decades left on the planet? I'm guessing virtually zero.
A counterargument might be that, in our life's travels we necessarily miss 99% of places anyway, so slow down and enjoy what we do see. That's not unreasonable, and I generally agree. At the end of the day though, the list is just too long and the time too short. I can slow down some other time.
Are there people who could benefit from slowing down in moderation? Yes. I would even consider myself part of that group. I'm not saying we rush through every single trip. However, anyone who's ever said 'life is short' understands that our blip of time on this planet has something of an inherent urgency to it. Until I check off many, many more bucket list places, traveling slowly just isn't a viable option for me.
Also, what good is it to lament limited time in a place? "Oh gee, I only spent three days in San Francisco instead of 10, I must not be traveling slowly enough." So what? Had I spent two weeks there, someone would tell me "oh, you really need a month". As I had written in Given Latitude, our time in places will never be enough, and I think accepting that right from the start is the key to a more satisfying experience.
For me, traveling too slowly comes with more regrets than traveling too quickly. I'd rather see a city, a national park, or a lake for 3 hours than miss it completely to double or triple my time elsewhere. Just my opinion.
Like everything else, it's about finding a balance. Traveling too fast isn't good, nor is traveling too slowly. Perhaps we should accept that and travel at whatever pace we see fit. Whatever feels right. If you have a week and want to spend it in suburban Houston, go for it! If you want to cross the country, that's fine too! The most genuine way to travel is to make the most of our time in any place, good or bad. An hour, a year, or a lifetime.