Please don’t ask me how many countries I’ve been to. I lost count long ago and don’t care.
Some people collect countries visited like that’s something to brag about. They’ll put in their social media feed that they were the youngest person to visit every country in the world, or they’re “on a quest to visit 100 countries before age 40.” They do it with a drive that’s on par with people who collect Funko toys or action figures still in the box. But when’s the last time you looked at someone’s obsessive collection of Star Wars toys on a shelf and said, “Wow, good for you! You must be very proud!”
As a travel writer, I get a lot of the same questions over and over again and I’ll gamely answer the rest of them. But this one always gets a “Who cares?” reply. Travel is not a competitive sport. It’s something to be savored like a fine meal, not treated like a hot dog eating contest.
It seems that 99% of the time the person asking this particular question is trying to see if their collection is bigger than my collection. The exercise even requires rules as to what counts in order to form an answer Do airport layovers count? Visits without an overnight stay? Less than 24 hours? A ride through on a bus? A night sleeping on a bench in a train station?
This game requires a big war chest of course, because some countries are a real pain to get to—precisely because nobody else ever goes there. Others are war zones, closed dictatorships, or places where you have to hire private boat transportation to set foot on their soil. The only visitors are those with the wealth and the drive to win at a game only they are playing.
The worst I’ve encountered are people who go on cruises a lot. The way it usually goes is one of them will tell me proudly that she’s been to 85 countries. If I nod and play along for a while it usually turns out most of those 85 (or whatever the number is) were port stops on a cruise: seeing the worst a country has to offer, then returning to a giant floating hotel to sleep. You can keep that collection, thank you.
(For the record, I’m not saying that cruise travel can’t ever be worthwhile—there are some great journeys on European rivers, in Alaska, in Norway, and other spots. Just don’t go on a Caribbean circuit and tell me you visited six countries because you went duty free shopping at ports in Barbados and Saint Martin.)
Slow Travel vs. Checking a Box
Spending a month in one place is infinitely better than dashing through four countries in four weeks. The first provides an immersion experience and in-depth impressions. The second provides a blur of check-the-box tourist sites and transportation hubs. The person with a bigger collection is the real loser (and has usually spent a lot more money).
I have been to Peru four times, Ecuador four times, Argentina twice, but Brazil and Paraguay zero times. I’ll probably head to southern Argentina or Chile before I’ll check off another country box in South America. Sure, I could have nipped across the border at some point to go to Brazil or Paraguay, but that’s a game for country counters. I wanted to see different parts of interesting countries and dive deeper, not just get another stamp in my passport. Do I really want to go to Venezuela right now? Nobody would…unless they’re trying to add to their collection.
I’ve never been to El Salvador, but I have visited many neighboring countries in depth. I haven’t made it to Cuba, but I’ve probably been to 20 states in Mexico. I’m content with my choices on both counts.
Is my life vastly different because I spent two nights in Singapore once and added that to my collection? Would I be more of a real traveler if I had bopped across a border to Poland instead of visiting northern Bohemia on my second visit to the Czech Republic? Should I put Austria on my visited list because a train conductor slammed a door in my face and I spent hours in the station on my way to another country?
No, no, and no.
Because of writing assignments and conferences where I was speaking, last year I went to Kyrgyzstan, Ireland, and four Balkan countries for the first time. This year I haven’t gone anywhere new and that’s okay.
I’d imagine the number of countries I’ve visited probably tracks my age. If I live to 90, maybe I’ll hit 90. But if I don’t, that certainly won’t be a deathbed regret.
Travel is not a competitive sport and you don’t have to keep score. Forget the country counting and enjoy.