If you hear a lot of talk and read a lot of articles about slow travel, you might think at first that it’s kind of a woo-woo thing, some new-age trend. As a cheapskate and a person who likes to avoid travel hiccups, however, I can tell you from experience that slow travel is also better for your wallet, your brain, and how healthy you are on the road.
The phrase “slow travel” might not be as popular as “slow food”—as in one million search results instead of 900 million for the latter in Google—but they both boil down to savoring the experience rather than going for convenience and speed. Quality over quantity. Local instead of globalized.
What Is Slow Travel?
When it comes to specifics, the slow travel movement generally refers to spending more time in a few places, or even just one, and diving deeper into the destination(s). It’s about taking your time and soaking it all in instead of rushing around like a mad tourist. Finding deep, enriching experiences instead of just checking things off a bucket list and snapping selfies at the great wonders of the world.
It means experiencing the things that locals do and being in their neighborhoods, eating at their restaurants instead of at Señor Frog’s. It’s shopping outside the tourist zone, visiting places that aren’t peddled by touts in your hostel, and getting to know a destination well instead of just seeing a blur from the windows of a vehicle. Serendipity over a parade of planned selfies.
Part of the slow travel ethos is actually a literal definition. Just adjusting your pace of travel can make a big difference. There’s a lot of talk about biking, walking, and just sitting for a long time in this travel podcast episode on the subject I was a guest on years ago. Other times it’s just a matter of resisting the urge to fill up the entire schedule. Letting serendipity come out into the light instead of making its appearance next to impossible.
All this is gratifying, enlightening, and good for your stress levels, but there are also some downright practical reasons for adopting this mindset in your plans (and lack of plans). In this pandemic age of travel restrictions, it’s actually in your best interest to visit fewer places, on top of the usual monetary reward for not moving quickly.
Saving Money Through Slow Travel
In short, the more you move around, the more you spend. Shoestring travelers quickly discover that if they keep track of their expenses, transportation can end up being the biggest line item if they’re moving around a lot. If they kick back on a beach for a week, their daily budget average plummets. If they hit four places in four days, it skyrockets.
Not only does the intercity or inter-country flight/bus/train cost money, but you often also have local bus or taxi costs on each end of that to reach where you’re spending the night. If you’re hitting four attractions in one day, you’ll need to either join a tour or spend more money getting from place to place quickly. So one of the key tangible benefits of slow travel is having more money to spend on yourself instead of handing it to transportation providers.
Before I put out The World’s Cheapest Destinations in its very first edition at the end of 2002, I spent a lot of time on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree message board to see what kind of information people were asking about. I kept checking back in on it over the years until the much-depleted company shut it down in 2021. Travelers kept on posting crazy itinerary plans that tried to cram in way too much in the space of a trip lasting 12 or 18 months. Here’s one I found a few years ago asking about their one-year round-the-world itinerary before the pandemic started closing borders:
We’d like to visit:
South America (all countries, incl. trekking in Patagonia, Machu Picchu)
Central America (Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatamala, Belize, possibly Mexico – Yucatan)
Hawaii (Big island – diving and volcano)
Pacific islands (at least 2 stops, preferably 3)
SE Asia (a little more off the beaten track – PNG, Timor Leste, Indonesia (West Papua, Sulawesi), Borneo, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar – other parts of SE Asia possibly)
China (Shanghai, Beijing, Xian)
For a year, even for a year and a half, that’s just nuts. A couple doing all that would spend as much time in transit as they actually spend in destinations.
Here’s another, from a question titled “Europe in 90 days”:
Do you think this itinerary is a lot with the # of days I’ve allocated for each country? I am a fairly fast and efficient traveler, but would love your advice in regards to travel time, etc.
Finland 4 days
Czech Republic 4
Spain 8 (Barcelona, to Madrid, then down to south of Spain where I will ferry to Morocco)
The answer to “Do you think this itinerary is a lot” is not just “Yes.” It’s “Good God yes!” That plan makes me exhausted just looking at it. That’s a race, like something out of a reality TV show. Only there are no prizes. Just bad health, frayed nerves, and a depleted wallet. It’s also a very fragile itinerary. One missed plane or train throws the whole thing off.
This person probably has a Type-A personality that makes them want to book all their lodging in advance as well, which means one missed ferry, train, or plane sets off a big chain reaction of cancelation chores and expenses.
If I just randomly went in and cut the number of countries in half, doubling the time in the ones that were left, I could probably also cut the person’s budget in half. It depends on whether he/she is actually capable of taking a breath though. If the person just ping-pongs around 8 Greek islands in 16 days instead of 2 islands in 8 days, same effect. Some nuts can’t help themselves.
While saving money on your travels is good in itself, you’re also doing the planet some good too if you slow down and stop using emission-producing vehicles every day or two. Slow travel is more sustainable than fast travel and has far less impact on the environment. You’re also likely helping the local communities much more as well since slow travelers tend to “spend local” more than tourists just passing through in a hurry.
The Real Cost of Moving Around a Lot
To put the slow travel savings in perspective though, look at these transportation costs and how they relate to what you actually spend in that location.
Overnight bus from Lima to Cusco – $36
Train from Machu Picchu to Cusco – $77
Hostel bed in Cusco – $10
Typical local set meal in Peru – $3
So a day of intercity travel in Peru can easily cost two or three times what a day of staying in Cusco will cost. You see the same thing in other destinations:
Train from Hanoi to Hue in Vietnam – $38 to $54
Bus from Nha Trang to Saigon – $17
Private bath A/C hotel room for two – $20
Four large beers in a bar – $4
Admission to a typical museum – $1.50
Bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca – $26 to $52
Flight on same route- $69 to $150
Admission to Monte Alban in Oaxaca – $3.90
Admission to the Anthropology Museum in the capital – $3.90
A big plate of tacos with rice and beans- $4
A local city bus – 50 cents
Hostel bed in Mexico City – $9 to $18
Getting to know Oaxaca or Mexico City well is quite inexpensive. Traveling quickly around Mexico is not. The buses in Mexico are quite nice, but the most comfortable ones will cost you around $8 per hour of travel. So a 10-hour bus ride is roughly $80. Do one of those every few days for two weeks and you’ve just spent more on transportation than your entire trip’s food and entertainment budget.
Travel Changes Due to the Time of Covid
In case you haven’t noticed, flying was already a pain in the ass on most airlines before this pandemic hit. For two years, that part of the journey got even more unpleasant. Besides the airlines’ race to the bottom to offer fewer and fewer services for your ticket price and cramming more seats into smaller spaces, then we had to add unruly a-holes who were worried more about their freedumbs than keeping everyone healthy and safe. You had airports and airlines telling us to keep our distance in an environment that makes that impossible, as with tight-space queues to even get through the boarding gate and stupid packed shuttle buses taking us from the terminal to the plane. (I’m talking to you, Mexico City airport!)
We had to deal with all the new entry requirements before we could even get off that plane and come into the country. As I update this at the end of 2022, you’ll probably need to show vaccination proof (as I did recently for Peru and Chile) and in most cases that was just the start. You also needed to present a recent negative test that you just paid for. In some countries, you also needed proof of travel insurance sufficient to cover medical expenses.
If you were a couple, you had to double those hassles and expenses. If you were a family of four, it might be $200 every time you need another swab up everyone’s nose.
After going through all that, do you really want to pick up in a few days and do it all over again?
One travel blogger friend who can’t sit still revealed in a social media post that she spent more than $5,000 on one year on required Covid tests because she was moving around so much. Imagine how much actual traveling you could do with five grand!
Thankfully, there have been two very positive travel developments to come out of this worldwide pandemic that could shape the future of moving around the world. First, more than 30 countries have already announced some kind of digital nomad visa for people who want to stay longer than a few months. More importantly though, “location independent” work has gone from a fringe outlier to something the mainstream has experienced. Executives who are being honest and looking at the data are finding that remote workers are getting as much or more done as they did when they came to the office and in most cases, overall productivity is in better shape with remote workers doing the tasks.. So this trend may dial back a little, but it’s not going away.
These two developments are already having a positive impact on the move to a more sustainable style of travel. People are flying to one place and staying put, working some days and exploring on other days. They’re staying in real neighborhoods instead of being sequestered at a tourist zone resort. They’re meeting more locals and having richer experiences by spending real time in a place.
Better Travel Memories From Slowing Down
The other advantage of the slow travel experience is that you accumulate strong, deep memories and can savor the experience instead of killing time. If you do it right, adventure travel can alter time.
As the editor of what is probably now the longest-running narrative online travel magazine, I see what kinds of travel stories have the kind of depth and insight to win awards and get into book anthologies. They’re seldom about a quick vacation trip that involved seeing the sights and moving on. They’re stories about deep experiences, long conversations with someone who lives there, and exploring places not packed with tour buses or cruise ships.
Sure, you can get funny anecdotes from quick stops at famous monuments and some people forge lifetime friendships from a chance encounter on a plane or train. More often though, the memories that last come from experiences that weren’t fleeting. When I look back at the places and people I remember most vividly decades later, most of those memories are either from places I lived in for at least a month (Bangkok, Istanbul, Seoul, Guanajuato) or countries I traveled through for weeks on end.
The cities I have just passed through in a hurry—for me that’s Toronto, Singapore, Paris, and Madrid—I’d remember almost nothing if it weren’t for the photos I snapped. Your kids will remember even less if you don’t go at their preferred pace.
I understand the struggle, of course, especially for those poor Americans who get two weeks of vacation a year. It’s hard to ignore the marketing messages imploring you to do more, More, MORE to enjoy your time away from home. I struggle with it a bit myself sometimes. I’m making a trip to Patagonian Argentina this year that was supposed to be longer and is now just two weeks and a day. There’s a strong temptation to pop over to Chile or add more places to our stops in Argentina. We resisted all that though and cut it down to just three places: Calafate, El Chalten, and Buenos Aires. We want to allow time for real exploration and letting the magic happen.
There will be other opportunities, other trips to come.
Unless you only have six months to live, save some things for the next time you go traveling. If you don’t try to cram everything into one packed adventure, you can take more trips on the same budget.
Save your sanity, take care of your health, and experience more from what you spend. Take the slow travel fork in the road for cheaper and more responsible travel and leave the frantic running around to others.