There’s an important question that doesn’t get discussed often enough by those who make travel their lifestyle. Like most questions that don’t get discussed often enough, it’s a big one. Unlike most of those questions – fortunately for us – it’s not a really tough one.
It’s the question of “why do you travel?”
What do you mean, why? Why not?
It’s not “why” the self-reflective sense that some people ask (usually those who wish they could, but don’t think they can), as in “what are you running from” or “why not stop traveling and settle down” – nothing philosophical like that.
It’s why in the sense of: what is most important to you about traveling? Day by day, movement by movement, each time you relocate, why are you doing it? What keeps you going, and what makes this life of travel actually better than just staying where you used to live?
Dumb question, right? Isn’t it obvious? Duh! Travel is just better!
If you’re having that kind of response, be careful. It’s usually indicative of a primary focus on Novelty.
There’s nothing wrong with traveling for the sake of novelty – indeed, that’s the reason that many people (myself included) begin traveling. However, after a while – for some people, it’s a few years, for some, much less – it’s possible for the novelty of travel to wear out, as you become quicker to adapt to new environments and circumstances, less prone or invulnerable to culture shock, and your true priorities reveal themselves to you.
Why is having a reason to travel important?
Very early on, my motivations for traveling became apparent.
While I started traveling for the novelty of it – which in my case, was to escape a boring, tedious life – I quickly found myself gravitating to certain types of places, people, activities, and events. At that time, I didn’t consider actually having a reason for travel, and even though one was emerging – rather predominantly and rather quickly – I didn’t think anything of it. Rather, I was just doing what I wanted to do, and not worried about noticing a pattern or giving such a concept any thought.
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This approach eventually caught up with me.
Taking life one day at a time is certainly one way to live life, but that “common wisdom” is often expunged without its very necessary counterpart: having a direction to go.
If you aren’t clear on at least what direction you’re going, then flowing with the wind is apt to take you for a ride. The practical effects of this are compounded when traveling; at least when you’re at home you have a set of confines – societal and cultural – that you can bounce around in. When traveling, those confines disappear along with the borders that no longer exist, as the world becomes your oyster.
This can be great if your goal is to experience a bunch of new stuff – novelty – on your journey of self-discovery, or more accurately, figuring out what the world has to offer, and where and how you’d prefer to fit in to, and interact with, it.
Too much of this, however, can defeat itself, and make travel less meaningful and enjoyable.
On the other hand, novelty is a great supplementary factor – perhaps even a necessary one, as you’re not going to like traveling too much if you don’t like new things. But, it should be a servant, and not a master.
Being clear on why you’re traveling can give you focus – not something you have to stick to rigidly, but a guiding factor that helps you make decisions and get the most out of wherever you choose to go, and however long you choose to stay there.
If you’re not traveling yet, figuring out your why’s can be a powerful source of inspiration and motivation, to get you to the point where you finally buy the tickets, and take the journey.
If you’re already traveling, knowing your why’s can keep you from going too long or too far off track – which again, is not to say you don’t do different things and have multiple interests (in fact, that’s the point), but rather that you don’t lose touch with the meaning and point of travel for you, so that travel doesn’t become rote.
Finding your current motivations for traveling
If you have lost touch with the motivations for your travel, weren’t in touch with them to begin with, or your current ones are wearing thin, here are some ways to figure out what your why’s may be.
The first thing to do, is take catalog of what your current motivations for traveling actually are. This isn’t a philosophical exercise, and we’re not contemplating ideals or preferences – not yet anyway.
What we’re looking at, is what do you actually do, day to day, week to week, month to month? What motivates you about the locations you choose, and then when you’re there, do you actually do what you came there to do, or do those things become second fiddle?
Think about the last few places you’ve been, and the next few places you want to go. List each place along the left side of a paper, then split the rest of the page into two columns. In the first column, list what it is that attracts you most to those places in the first column. For the ones you’ve already been to, reflect back and in the second column, put whether you actually ended up doing those things when you were there – whether they were your real focus.
For now, think of your motivations, the factors of lifestyle and location that draw you to a place, and what you actually do when you get there. What types of activities are you drawn to? What “scenes”?
In a couple of minutes, we’ll go into some specific examples about popular travel motivations. I specifically posed the question before providing you the list, because it’s helpful to do a brain dump first, without specific structure or trying to fit your ideas into the generalities I will provide later.
Once you’ve listed the two columns, you have the beginnings of your current travel motivations. Look at the two columns – do they match? If not, your first column may be your ideals (which we will get into in the next section), but your second column are your realities.
You may use your first column as motivation, but you run your life by your second column. If they’re not aligned, you may be drifting away from your real reasons for traveling, or you may need to give yourself a reality check as to how much you really care about those things you say are your motivations for traveling.
The Big Travel Motivations
Now that you’ve made your list, I’d like to present to you some of the big travel motivation’s that I’ve discovered motivate a lot of people.
The more I ask people about why they travel, the more the sheer variety of motivations amaze me. From the stereotypical “live like a king on $0.10 per month” (not really), to escaping oppressive governments, to exclusively going where specific birds are in a quest to “gotta see ’em all (bird-wátch-mon!)”, there are as many combinations of travel motivations are as there are travelers.
Here are some of the big travel motivations:
Ole reliable. One of the main reasons that people get into traveling in the first place: experiencing new cultures, figuring out new places, their communities, and their treasures.
It’s what sits at the core of wanderlust, and something that stays with every long-time traveler – at least in part – as long as travel is still exciting and interesting for them.
A traveler prioritizing novelty will appreciate almost any new place – as long as it doesn’t clash too strongly with their other travel motivations.
Closely related to novelty, travel gives you access to the locations that dream adventures are made of. A lot of the greatest travel stories and experiences come from adventures – in my case, more so from unexpected ones that came from spur-of-the-moment decisions. None the less, there is plenty that can be planned for, and every country has a plethora of possibilities.
Sharing a common thread with Adventure, those who travel majorly for specific sports will usually find places with geographical conditions that favour their sport of choice. Surfers, skiers, snowboarders, and so forth, will take climate and accessibility of their respective ideal terrains into account (or forget about it completely and go to places with manufactured swell and powder), and can move around with the seasons. Cyclists may look for bicycle-friendly roads, even over long distances, whereas die-hard (ha-ha-not-funny) adventure cyclists might look for the opposite.
By some definitions, encompassing both adventure and sports, and in many cases, indelibly linked with them, people travel far and wide purely for the sake of indulging and deepening their hobbies. From being one of a small group of people to photograph something rare and exotic, to learning traditional craftsmanship at the feet of the masters, and beyond, traveling opens up new worlds of immersion into your hobbies, and the opportunity to deep-dive into new ones.
Engaging in your own personal geo-arbitrage is something that motivates many a traveler.
The two most prevalent forms of this are Medical Tourism, where – based on your prerogative – you go to different countries to get access to cheaper, or more skilled experts, and Sex Tourism, where – based on your prerogative – you go to different countries to get access to cheaper, or more skilled experts.
Other examples include Drug Tourism, Shopping Tourism, and Wellness Tourism.
An offshoot of medical tourism, is Wellness Tourism, which includes some aspects of spiritual travel. Those looking to make spirituality one of their main focuses for travel can do it in as many different ways as there are spiritual traditions on the planet.
Popular focuses for spiritual travel include:
- Hatha Yoga (most commonly referred to as just Yoga)
- Living in temples, churches, ashrams, etc., or spending significant time engaged in their activities
- Seeking out specific teachers, groups, or experiences
- Studying specific religions or philosophies in different/traditional contexts and environments
- Staying in places which, although perhaps having no specific dominant connotation, are generally reputed as having noteworthy or special characteristics
Somebody once said, “Party all the time, party all the time, party all the time, party all the time, party all the time, party all the time, party all the time”, which I find to be a pretty apt description of this travel motivation.
Often closely associated with sex tourism – both in public opinion, and in location choice – I’ll leave the googling for all it encompasses up to you.
While there is a lot to be said about the quality and longevity of relationships formed while traveling, people play an important role in your experiences while you travel.
What kinds of people do you like hanging around? How important is having those kinds of people around you? Will they be where you’re going? Do you have a family and need a place that is conducive of the various differences in the needs that familial travel necessitates?
Weather & Environment
Despite the idea of literally using your laptop on the beach being impractical and generally unproductive, it’s a common metaphor for the lifestyle that is associated with travel.
Picking places with the ideal – or a suitable – weather and geography, can greatly improve your enjoyment of them. I went years without owning jeans or a sweater, and I get a distinct feeling of being too far from water any time I’m not living near the ocean.
A lot of tropical places with good weather are also famous for having very low costs of living. While you can’t exactly live like a king for cheap, consider the hyperbole in this expression as just another metaphor for the lifestyle that it can afford you. If you’re not making much money yet, the bar is lower in developing countries, so your dollar will go further, and the minimum you can get by with is much less than in developed countries.
The first semi-self-directed travel experiences of many people come from the world of volunteering, where there are many opportunities for cost-free or significantly subsidized travel in exchange for working towards a good cause.
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Many people who have taken the reigns of their travel experience, experience first-hand the disparities between different parts of the world, and make it a priority to give back to the communities, and to the people, that they want to see living a better quality of life.
Deciding your ideal travel motivations
By this point, if you’ve followed along with the exercise, you’re probably going to fit into one of three groups of people, as far as this line of thought is concerned:
- Your motivations for traveling (picking a place) are aligned with your day-to-day realities
- There is a disconnect between what you say you want, and what you really want – as evidenced by what you’re actually doing
- You aren’t really sure what brings you to a place (because it varies, and perhaps by a lot, or the reasons seem inconsequential), and your day-to-day activities are just as hard to pin down into patterns or themes
- You hate those “there are X kinds of people” jokes (me too)
- Some combination of the above
If you’re in the first group, congratulations. Few people live in alignment with their motivations, let alone manage the logistics of life effectively enough to allow for true focus on their priorities. If you are content with those motivations and priorities, and they provide you all the growth you want in the direction that you do, congratulations again. If you’d like to see what else you may want to consider, and add in or replace, read on.
For those in the second group, it’s valuable to consider both sides of the page, as well as the relationship between them. On the one hand, are the factors that make a place important to you, really actually that important to you? On the other hand, why is it that you spend most of your day-to-day time doing other things – are they necessary steps towards your purpose for traveling, or just barriers to really doing what you want?
If you’re in the third group, perhaps it was due to the vagueness of the exercise. The goal was to think in an unrestricted way about specific things, but that requires enough experience to notice patterns. If you haven’t traveled much, it can be hard to spot patterns, especially considering how easy it is to get swept away by all the adventure and excitement that comes with travel.
Or, maybe you’re somewhere in between.
In all these cases, it’s valuable to spend some time thinking about what really motivates you about travel. To discover your ideals, recognize your realities, and resolve the incongruities between them.
To do that, make another three-column page. List those same places, but this time, fill in the two columns (what brought you to those places, and what you ended up spending most of your time on) based on the Big Travel Motivations. Use the main titles (e.g. Hedonism, Financial, Hobbies) to get a sense of your main areas of interest, and then drill down a level to get what it is about them that was important.
Review their differences in that light, and get to thinking about what you really want to focus on. Take another look at the big travel motivations, and research further into the ones that interest you the most. Perhaps look back in your life to things you enjoyed doing when you were younger – or look at what you enjoy doing now – and find ways that travel can actually enhance those experiences.
For example, photography is extremely popular amongst travelers, as the abundance of unique sights, combined with the relatively few number of people with access to them, makes for a natural opportunity to combine the new-found convenience of exotic subjects, with the natural urge to immortalize experiences.
From the options that appeal most to you, you could pick one or two, and stick to them. Give them an honest shot: commit, start as soon as possible, and get involved. See whether your life gets better, and your time traveling becomes more enjoyable, as a result. As time goes on, and as you grow as a person, accomplish, see, and learn more, your interests may evolve along their same path, extend into other ones, or change completely.
If you don’t feel drawn to much in particular, then you have several ways you can go. Remember, the point of having a travel motivation – or multiple motivations – is to get more out of your travels. Perhaps your life is already full to the brim, and you’re loving every minute of it, and don’t want to add something more at the moment. Or, perhaps it isn’t, and you’re scared, or even worse, comfortable.
In either case, try something! Try one on for size, and see how it fits you. If it doesn’t, try another. Keep going, or if you get fed up with the options that are available, make something up! Remember, at one point, none of this existed. People made all these activities up. You may make the next one.
Even if you found something you think you’d like, sure go for it, but try something else too! Our estimations – especially for our preferences – can sometimes be far off the mark, especially if we don’t have direct experience with that particular thing.
Then, share your travel motivations! What are your insights? What are you going to be focusing on more now, and how are you going to make that happen?