After 25 Years, I Travel Because…

There are lots of reasons people travel and those reasons can change over time. The motivations can also change according to how much time they have, or how much money they have. People who can enjoy slow travel may have very different motivations than those on a quick resort vacation in the pool chair.

I’ve been pondering my own motivations because I’m participating in a program with my travel insurance partner, Allianz, who I have my AllTrips annual policy through. They’ve been asking people to fill in the blank of #ITravelBecause on social media and it will be a part of contests they are running.

My reasons to travel

This is a fun one to fill in, but kind of complicated since travel is also my job. What I get paid to do is write about travel and destinations. Sometimes I’m writing the kind of long-form narrative travel stories that win awards, sometimes hotel reviews, and on here mostly advice.

I travel because I love it though, which is why I found a way to make it my occupation. If I won millions in the lottery tomorrow and never had to write a single word about this subject ever again, I’d travel more, not less. So clearly I’m still doing it because of something deeper than making  a buck.

If you don’t know much about me, I came late to this pursuit. I took off on my first big international jaunt when I was 30, setting out on a trip around the world for a year. Before that, like a good citizen, I got a good job, worked my way up over eight years, bought a house, bought a car, and all that. Once I circled the globe that first time, however, I knew I wasn’t going to let it go. My now-wife and I made two more trips around the world before having a kid. Eventually I put out my first book, started this blog, and found a way to turn my part-time writing gig into a full-time job.

After doing this for 25 years now, people—mostly friends and relatives who don’t travel much—crinkle their brow and ask me puzzling questions. “Don’t you get tired of it?” “Don’t you miss home when you’re gone more than a week?” “Can you really make a living just traveling around?” “How can you afford to travel so much?” And my favorite, “Don’t you get bored after a while?”

Work routines and cubicles are boring. The big blue marble, full of endless possibilities, is not.

I travel because…ruts are for wagon wheels

wagon wheels are for ruts

Photo by Jon Toney on Unsplash

Routines, ruts, and pattern loops make you old before your time. Sure, I understand the power of habit and the value of a good work space. But most people are tied down to such a rigid set of routines and rituals that they might as well be wearing a house arrest ankle bracelet. Work, commute, eat, TV, sleep, commute, repeat. Most Americans follow this pattern 51 weeks a year to have one week to themselves.

I get more done at my home office than I do on the road, but life is about more than work. I don’t want every week to be the same because then I’m half-dead. I want to learn new things, meet interesting new people, and get different perspectives. In other words, experience the opposite of a rut.

I travel because…my brain needs a change of scenery

I travel because I need a change of sceneryHave you ever noticed how much your mood changes when you fly from a cold and gray city to a green place with warm air and sunshine? In my home base of Guanajuato last week I met a couple visiting from Minnesota. They rebuffed my suggestion to move into the shade while we were talking. “We’ve been looking at only gray and white for months now,” they said.

It’s not just an escape from the cold that can make you feel better though. Studies have shown that our brain synapses actually work better when we get a change of scenery on a regular basis. We’re far more creative even after a walk in the park or a hike up a nearby hill. When we’re exposed to foreign cultures and different architecture, the effect is even more profound.

Staying in one place and driving the same route every day makes your brain atrophy. Giving it something new and interesting to look at on a regular basis is like feeding it a big green smoothie of nutrients.

If you aren’t convinced the other benefits of travel are real, heed this one because it’s backed up by science.

I travel because…it helps me see real humanity

I’m convinced that the reason most politicians are so utterly clueless about the rest of the world’s desires and struggles is that they never move outside their insulated bubble. If they travel it’s on “fact-finding” trips and quick summit visits that are carefully orchestrated and always rushed. They are surrounded by people who look like them and think like them. They get filtered reports from fawning staffers and only talk to people who are lobbying them or deciding whether to vote for them.

It has been noted by many that travelers tend to be a rather left-of-center bunch. The reason you don’t run into many social conservatives with dogmatic, stubborn views among frequent travelers is because it’s hard for a frequent traveler to be closed-minded. That generally only works over time if they’re managing to keep themselves inside a bubble abroad. (Always staying at international business chain hotels, watching the same news channel as at home, and arranging private drivers, for instance.)

I travel to meet kids on the other side of the world

When traveling in ways that put us in contact with locals, our perceptions are challenged on a daily basis and we experience a huge range of backgrounds and economic situations as we move around. We see the scary commonalities among religious fanatics the world over and how their rigid viewpoint can produce far more evil than good. We see how hard it is to counteract greed. We see how government can do great good, or how corruption can rot its core.

We see places where people are generally happy, whether paying high taxes (Denmark) or low (Costa Rica). Then we can compare that to the general mood (and health care) of our supposedly great home country, where a much larger percentage of the population is depressed. We get a well-rounded, nuanced view of the world instead of black or white half-truths.

I travel because…experiences are worth more than objects

For three years I lived out of a backpack and seemed to get by just fine. So how come, a few years later, I had a whole house full of stuff? There are tens of thousands of travelers moving around the globe right now with one bag. So why do so many suburbanites have attics and garages that are packed to capacity?

Some of those possessions can bring real joy, but many of them are just taking up space. Physical space and psychic space. As many have found, shedding possessions before a move can be really gratifying. It feels like losing 20 pounds and being able to climb stairs easier.

I get some travel opportunities for free because of my job, but even putting that aside, my family has probably spent enough on travel the past two decades to buy a few nice BMWs for cash. I’m glad I spent the money on travel and not possessions though, because I’ve got memories no shopoholic workaholic will find time and money to have.

Why I travel the world

I don’t have that long of a “bucket list” because I’ve gone most of the places I dreamed of going 25 years ago. When I think of good times with my daughter, I can remember things we did in the jungles of Costa Rica, in the mountains of Canada, in the wilds of Belize, in the malls of Bangkok, and the old city of Hanoi. When I look at photos of my wife and I together, the backgrounds are in exotic spots on five continents. We’ll always have those memories. When we’re on our deathbed, are we really going to care what kind of car we drove around?

If you’re not one of those people who says, “I wish I could travel more” (but doesn’t really mean it), you probably nodded along with some of these.

So what about you, why do you travel?

Post it on the comments or on social media with the hashtag: #ITravelBecause.

This post is sponsored by Al Centro Media partner Allianz Global Assistance (AGA Service Company) and I have received financial compensation. I also use them as my travel insurance provider. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

  1. Mike

    That’s cool you did your first RTW when you were 30. I took my first when I was 33, and like you…never looked back!

    I also completely agree with “ruts are for wagon wheels”…and i would add that those ruts (which i refer to to as “the train tracks of life”) are quite good for the folks who want to coast along the tracks with minimal effort and follow the train car in front of them…but they aren’t for everyone, and certainly aren’t for me.

    See you on the trail brother!

  2. Rob

    I once had to go almost two years without a real vacation because my idiotic employer didn’t give people one until they had worked for 18 months—just holidays off. Then he wondered why nobody at the company was coming up with great new products all the time like his competitors. Travel definitely makes your brain work much more creatively and I felt like I was getting dumber all the time at that job. Stuck in a rut for sure. As soon as the economy turned around, adios!

  3. chris

    Hey Tim,

    I was great with your article until you started talking politics and religion.
    That ruined it for me to be honest, and I want to let you know that. I’m sure that at least some of your other readers feel the same.
    Honestly, the rest was great as usual, but the political crap spouting ruined it f0r me.
    I even bought your book a few years ago before moving to Ecuador.
    I have been all over the world, not for a job, but for fun. If you jingle the keys, I am ready to go.
    But I am very much opposed to the current mind warping PC culture in the US and western Europe, and especially the radically charged Democratic Party in the US, and a lot of the BS that goes on in the Republican party as well.
    I just think it is very limiting to suggest that conservatives and religious people are control freaks, and have no lust for adventure. Its also insulting, which is why I am writing this at midnight instead of getting sleep.
    Look, you have a world of good travel advice to give, but leave the politics and religion out of it. Some of the places you recommend have way more religious zealots.
    In my travels, I have met many people who were conservative, libertarian, or very independent like me, not to mention a lot of young, uneducated kids backpacking without a clue about politics; they just want to have fun, and have all the energy in the world to do it. When they get older, they will be more into politics (hopefully the right kind, or change it!). But they don’t know shit right now.
    There are a lot of very rational Christian conservatives out there who love travel and (hopefully!) your good advice, but probably also resent what you wrote above, insulting their religious adherence and political beliefs.
    I bet if you wrote about the Mexicans where you live in Mexico in this tone, your house would burn down.
    They are probably more zealous religiously there than most of the people your article targeted, and they are probably more conservative than a lot of people here. Yet you live there and think its cute. You talk politics in the US, but not where you live? I grant you that in both places, they are crap.

    • Tim Leffel

      Chris, I think your rant was about 100X longer than the part that offended you. Sorry you feel that way, but my writings are based on 25 years of travel, of living in five countries, and having 5,000+ conversations with long-term travelers and expats. The need to get away from the U.S. system of inequality is intimately linked to politics, so ignoring that and being careful in my words to avoid offending sensitive people is not honest or fair to my readers. If this benign article got you riled up, you are probably too easily bruised emotionally to be a part of this community. I wish you well in finding like-minded travel bloggers who share your conservative opinions and beliefs on how the world should work. But to temper your expectations, I have not met many of those…

    • Gary

      We’ve just returned from the Yucat√°n. Unfortunately, our US connection was @ JFK, which sorry to say, is akin to one of those s**thole countries our great leader has referred to. Actually, I think those ‘s**thole countries’ are a far cry more amenable than the cobbled phalanx that is JFK.
      Walking the LONG gauntlet to customs, an EL AL plane was disembarking with a load of passengers in long black coats, top hats, kippahs, long skirts and babushkas. After clearing customs, we sat at a diner (and had me a real kosher hot, 2 in fact). All the tables around us had folks from Tennessee, Arkansas, etc. They were headed to Israel on the aircraft’s turnaround, for a ten-day Holy Land pilgrimage. Each had packed enough luggage to sustain her/him for a three month visit. Anyway, in reading this response, I had to ramble about the juxtaposition and irony I witnessed. L’chaim, and Hee-Haw!

      • Tim Leffel

        Yeah, I feel bad that JFK is often a foreigner’s first introduction to the USA. Horrible airport in almost every way.

  4. Kate Green

    We travel because it is in our DNA as 3rd generation Third Culture Kid/Expats. Now my 5 kids live the same way. I actually feel more creative and get more done when traveling as it excites the brain cells. We are in San Miguel de Allende again — say hi if you are passing by (we also have a homebase in St Pete:)

  5. Jimmy

    Tim – Ignore the trolls like Chris. The conservatives love to call people who care about others “snowflakes,” then as soon as you call them out on their beliefs they act like a bullied schoolkid who is crying because someone called them a bad name. I travel because it enables me to avoid the idiots I used to have to argue with every day in the USA, the people who had never left their home country but professed to know everything there was to know about the places I had spent months in already. They have no tolerance for other religions, for immigrants, for people who don’t look like them, basically. They thump their bible but ignore everything Jesus said. It makes me sick, which is half the reason I stay away most of the year. They actually think Trump is a moral man, while going to church each Sunday. Unreal.

  6. John Flemming

    Thanks for your sharing. Yes, I admit to you. In regular life, we require to change our mind need some refreshment. So travelling is the best alternative for that.

  7. Kristin

    An enjoyable read and interesting collection of comments. The more I travel, the more I realize problems around the world are inevitably world problems (hiding isn’t a tenable position) and people around the world have, largely, common interests at heart.

    • Tim Leffel

      Thanks Kristin, and I hear you on that.

  8. ashish mishra

    A debt of gratitude is in order for your sharing. Truly, I admit to you. In customary life, we require to alter our opinion need some refreshment.

  9. Matt Raft

    Great summary. I think you’ve captured the primary gist of travel: a change of scenery + an open mind = experiences that provide the best education.

  10. Andrew Hudson

    Really interesting, thanks, Tim and plenty of ideas that I will follow up. I can’t comment on US politicians, but having worked with politicians of all parties in the UK, my experience is that the need to get elected does mean that they do get out and meet people. Many enjoy travel as well. Your advice to stay curious and open should weigh with all of us.

    • Miko

      But only in their own district. They don’t care about the ones who didn’t elect them. When they go abroad it is all choreographed and they never had long conversations with the people who live there.

  11. Lalla Stewart

    Travel is a way of seeing how life works in a wide range of other places and joining in. Having started in my late teens, I hadn’t realised it was any other way – until I met the ‘once a year tourist’ when I could finally afford those type of destinations. Needless to say, I went back to staying local, taking the family and being back out in the world. Afterall, who needs an armchair when you can take a rollercoaster.

  12. MikesRoadTrip

    Hey Tim, great piece. I think us travelers share many of the same reasons for travel. I have a similar philosophy about experiences over things. I cherish every trip I take.

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