How Many Countries Have You Been To?

Please don’t ask me how many countries I’ve been to. I lost count long ago and don’t care.

A country I haven't been to

I’ve never been to Antarctica. You win.

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!”

How many countries have I been to? No idea, but this is stunning Bosnia. 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).

Visiting Peru for the fourth time to go deeper

On Peru visit #4

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.

 

Comments
  1. Dean

    What about the peso crash in Argentina now? Springtime in Buenos Aires? Although the plane fare hasn’t changed how long do you think hotels, food, and above all the Mendoza wine will be cheap for this time?
    PS: You know exactly how many countries you have visited you aren’t fooling anyone….

  2. Jenny

    I have no idea either. What a silly way to measure your accomplishments. (I see this all the time on Instagram. It has their name and “Visited 78 countries!”) All that proves is that you have a passport from a favored country and you have the means to pay for it lots of travel. It’s something anyone can do if they have enough cash to spend on planes, boats, trains, and buses.

  3. Juan Ovalle

    I agree with you, I like staying in one place for a longer period of time vs dashing around to multiple destinations. You soak in more of the culture this way

  4. Anthony Thomas

    Well… Brazil is exactly like everybody said it was and more. Argentina is on the list and it’s not about impressing somebody I don’t know or having a collection of countries as accomplishments.

    But I can provide some myopic feedback to those who say for example Brazil is dangerous because of some article they saw on Business Insider. I walked around Centro Sao Paulo at the wee hours of the night and nothing happen. IMHO and I believe Tim has said this, if you are looking for trouble anywhere it will find you.

    I also agree there are some countries that are ran by right wing governments or under the thumb of the US State Dept that make visiting harder than it needs to be.

    Remember the US does a tick for tack with visas and passports. The US didn’t like the DeSilva Government, so it said you must have a Visa for Brazilians to visit the US. Brazil said fine, we’ll require US citizens have visas to enter the country.

    One other thing, I am a single guy. That will impact what countries you wanna visit, at least in my view it does.

  5. Gustav Ghille-Moire

    A bit silly to even mention. People like that aren’t travelers – they’re tour-eye!

  6. Nazeem Kottalath

    You nailed it!

  7. possopo

    “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).”
    you are playing the same game as the persons you are judging. everyone is different and yes, you can get in-depth impressions in very little time. and sometimes, you don’t even want to get in-depth impressions, sometimes you want a snapshot of a place, or you want to see one monument and that is it, or you like having your passport stamped (and most travellers like that, because blank pages look dull, for showoff purposes, because you are a collector…). I travel fast. I only spent a half day in Baku Azerbaijan or Tel Aviv. and sometimes, I feel bored after two or three days ( I spent the last of my four day trip to Brasilia in my bedroom). and sometimes I want to come back, if only for another day and no more, and sometimes no. most often, I do visit about four countries in four weeks. I spent a month in Central America and yes, I was in every of the seven countries (Mexico not included). and yes, I feel I visited what I wanted to visit. one day in Ciudad de Panama, two short days in Costa-Rica (a country I am very not interested in)… and yes, I feel satisfied and I do think I know a bit of Central America (waking up at 7AM and going to bed at 11PM helps seeing more in less time). and I don’t think it was a loser’s trip. a lot of people are judging me online for doing too much in too little time. oddly enough, when I speak to people who spent more time in the same areas as me, I often feel they don’t know more of the place but that’s not even the point.
    I consider the world as a book and I don’t feel like reading every chapter thoroughly. I would rather browse, look at a page, stay on it if I like it, turn the page quickly if I don’t… yet, I do want to have a look at every page. so yes, I was happy spending three or four hours in the streets of San Jose. it gave me the quick impression of Costa Rica I was looking for. opposite situation in Patagonia (Chilean and Argentinan) where I spent about ten days but I felt it was not enough because I didn’t have a car so I coudn’t explore. so I decided I would go back with a car.
    remember travellers who spent months in a single place are also bragging. remember that when you spend months in a place, a lot of time is spent doing nothing, going to the same eating place, wasting time on the Internet… and I personally don’t really understand why someone who spent six months in say Paraguay wouldn’t want to to see a bit of Brazil or Uruguay. when you know a place you want to see what’s right next door, and then what’s next door to next door.
    recently, I read some comment on Singapore (another place I am not deeply interested in but yes, I did spend two days there nonetheless). one guy was saying that you CAN NOT say you visited Singapore if you haven’t spend four weeks there. honestly, unless you’re writing a memoir about the city, that’s a joke.
    of course, I hate cruises (the only one I did was Antarctica, yes I beat you sucker !!!!) but it is always better to be happy with a stamp of Barbados or Saint Martin than nothing at all.
    one last thing, I’ll reach 100 visited countries soon and I admit I’m quite happy about it. nothing to brag about, nothing super exciting, my six or seven trips to east, west, north and south of the US and Russia (as of today, I am lying about Russia but Vladivostok and Kamchatka and the northern Caucasus and Crimea are high on my list of places I have to go to) take more space in my memory than my three hours in Monaco and Liechtenstein and still only count for two (or one each). but I am honest enough to admit that I am sort of satisfied with this shallow achievement.

    • Tim Leffel

      I guess this says it all. You’re the travel equivalent of a Cliffs Notes guy. You’re only looking for surface impressions, not any real insight into the country or its culture.
      “I consider the world as a book and I don’t feel like reading every chapter thoroughly.”

      • possopo

        you read me without any real insight as you’ve mistaken the words every and any. this says it all.

  8. talie

    I honestly think travel and how it “should” be is entirely down to the person doing it. You talk about rules and then shrug off people who do little and often as not real travellers.

    The world is there to be viewed however someone can within their means and their desires.

  9. Lee

    I prefer a balance of both,
    I want to see a lot of a country rather than just land in the capital and tick it of my list but at the same time I do have a big list of countries that I want to see and some I could happily spend less time exploring than others for my own personal preferences.

    If somebody wants to do 100 countries and that’s a personal goal I say good luck to them and why is this a bad thing? They have left their comfort zone, probably saved a lot of money to do so and challenged themselves so why be so negative towards that? They probably ask how many countries you have been to because you share a common interest and are just making conversation.

    If we should keep our personal goals, preferences and opinions to ourselves then why did you feel the need to write this blog ?

    Maybe start drinking wine or something sounds like you need a rest ; )

    • Tim Leffel

      It has rarely been the case that someone has asked me this where they weren’t trying to compare their stats to everyone else’s. People who have only been to 3 countries never ask. It’s the ones that look at travel as a contest and they want to make sure they are winning.

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