Why Travel?

I have this habit where, after coming back from a trip… in my post-holiday stupor (or blues) I’d immediately start dreaming towards the next trip. I think just the act of searching for airfares, choosing destinations and imagining possible dates feels rewarding enough. It signifies something in the horizon to look forward to.

Having just got back from 2 weeks in Japan, I found myself diving into the alluring dreamworld of trip-planning even more fervently than before. Looking into destinations ranging from the somewhat plausible to the luxuriously unreachable…

… camel safaris in Rajasthan, over-water villas in the Maldives, outdoor hotel rooms over the African veldts, hiking down the Grand Canyon, cliffside ocean views in Phuket and Tuscan fortresses in Italy.

But the question next pops up in my head:

What is it about Travel?

Why am I willing to suffer long and squeezy flights on airplanes?
Why am I alright with waking up at 5am and having my ‘bags outside the door’ at 6am?
Why am I willing to overlook bad hotel coffees and the ubiquitously boring buffet breakfast spread?
Why am I okay with a tour guide dictating “you have 20 minutes here, be back in the bus at 1.40pm”?

Dordogne-River-Domme-6314-2.jpgDordogne Valley, France

And here lies the reason for this thought piece. Travel can be stressful and not-that-fun, especially when you have tight schedules to follow and have to do things that are completely out of sync with your normal daily routine. Travelling also costs quite a bit more than your day-to-day living back home. So the question “Why Travel?” runs deeper than it first looks.

The Problem is Time & Cost

Most of us have our day jobs back home with a finite salary and annual leave (usually 4 weeks a year) along with financial commitments (mortgage, rent, bills) to fulfill. If I were to go statistical… 28 days out of 365 days means only 7.7% of your year is spent travelling. That’s a lot at stake and you want to make the most of it. And here’s where it gets stressful.

First up, you know that it’ll be pricey… and because of that you now face the problem of wanting to cover as much ground within that time frame to give you the maximum bang for your buck. For many of us, each visit to a country (especially when it’s on the other side of the globe) will only happen once in a lifetime. Next year, it’ll be another place. Each country has a lot to offer, so you’ll have to prioritise what you want to see. But some of us end up with having itineraries that are so crammed to the point where you’re travelling from place to place so much that you can’t even enjoy each location. You can attempt to shorten travel time by picking quicker (and more comfortable) modes of transport, but that will mean more money.

So the question can almost be rephrased into “how should I plan my travel to make it enjoyable?”.

Perspective and Context

Despite all the stresses and discomforts of travel, I’ve realised that… for me anyway… my thoughts and observances around each trip tends to not happen there and then. Instead, it happens retrospectively.

Kurjey Lhakhang Bumthang Valley Bhutan 5929
Kurjey Lhakhang, Bumthang – Bhutan

My trip to sparsely populated Bhutan involved frustratingly long, bumpy and uncomfortable bus rides, substandard hotels and difficult walks in high altitudes. Despite having the luxury of being just about the only tourists at most of the sights, it was a trip that I struggled to enjoy completely when I was in the middle of it. But once I got back and started looking back at the snapshots I’d taken, I started reliving the trip and appreciating it a lot more.

Fast forward 4 months and I found myself in busy and efficient Japan… negotiating train schedules that are punctual to the minute and keeping up with hordes of Japanese salarymen brisk-walking along the streets and subways. Some of the major sights and temples we’d visited were so packed with (sometimes aggressive) tourists vying for that perfect photo-spot that I started losing it.

Just by looking at these two trips, there were obvious things about Bhutan and Japan that did not tickle my fancy. But each country was so different from each other that I started appreciating something about each place when I made retrospective comparisons against each trip.

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Shinkansen (Osaka to Hiroshima)

Taking 10-12 hours to travel 200km in Bhutan made me appreciate (more than you can imagine) sitting in the Japanese Shinkansen (bullet train)… where it takes less than 2 hours to travel 350km. On the other hand, fighting the annoying hordes of tourists pouring forth from large tour coaches at Kinkaku-ji Temple (Kyoto) made me appreciate SO MUCH the feeling of freedom, exclusiveness and isolation that you get when visiting Bhutan.

And the truth is this – it’s all about perspective… and in order to even have a point of context and perspective to begin with, you have to have travelled in the first place!

The Economics of Travel

Another funny thing about me is how I enjoy crunching back-of-envelope numbers to have a ballpark idea of how much a trip costs per person per night all-up (including flights, hotels, tour fees and daily expenses less shopping). Doing so sort of allows me to have an idea of how to budget for my next trip and to predictably rank it as affordable or indulgent. On this front, I have to confess that I’m now at an age and life stage where I don’t mind forking out more for a more comfortable trip if it’s within my means.

Looking at my recent trips, Japan ended up costing A$320pppn, Bhutan came to a highish A$420pppn and my luxury trip to Bali over Easter reached a whopping A$500pppn! Of course, there are many other factors at play… for instance whether it’s a private tour or a large group tour following a cookie-cutter itinerary, whether the airfares were expensive because of the season and destination, and the cost of living at the destination itself. All that said, I found it very fascinating that Japan (being the most developed country of the 3) ended up being the ‘cheapest’ trip of the 3!

The geekiness did not end there. Last night, I made a quick curiosity flight + hotel package search on Expedia for the Maldives during low-season (October). It reached A$1400pppn for an overwater villa + meals (only breakfast was included in the quote). That’s a bit crazy and it tells me that I’ll either have to just forget about Maldives or start eating steamed rice with soya sauce every day… ha ha ha! Small wonder they call the Maldives ‘Paradise on Earth’.

NT - Day 2 Uluru-0230-2Uluru, Northern Territory – Australia

On a side note, I’m also starting to acknowledge the merits of travelling domestically. Staying a few nights in a comfy lodge in country Victoria means you’re only driving for a few hours and you’re saving the cost of sitting on a squeezy plane. And there are parts of outback Australia that can be very beautiful.

The Rhythm of Travel

While the financial aspects of travel depends on your earning ability and your personal perception of what’s expensive and what isn’t, the temporal aspect of travel is something that you can be in better control of when you’re planning your trip.

I find that I like slower paced itineraries where you’re spending more days in one spot and travelling between locations less. Of course there are countries where I find it hard to abide by this principle simply because there’s so much I’d like to see. Still, I find that it’s good to at least remember to not be over-ambitious with the itinerary. And if it can’t be helped, I’d try to give myself an afternoon without anything planned so that I can have some ‘breathing space’.

Chile-27-Torres-Del-Paine.jpgTorres Del Paine, Patagonia

I also find that by the 10 to 12 day mark, I tend to reach exhaustion point with my holidays… partly from the sight and sensory overload, and partly from all the moving about on trains and buses and planes. This was the reason why my final few days in South America were spent just staying the the hotel in Buenos Aires. I pretty much became that cat who’d just prefer staying in bed near its creature comforts instead of exploring the big and scary world!

This has made me realise that I prefer to break up holidays into shorter (5-14 day) trip lengths every 4-6 months. I’m less likely to be exhausted and there’s always another exciting trip to look forward to in the near horizon with spare annual leave to boot! If it has to be a longer trip (say 3 weeks in faraway Europe), then I’d ideally want to have a quiet slower-paced ‘breather’ somewhere in the middle of the trip involving a few nights in a cosy and relaxing hotel in a town or village that isn’t busy.

So I think it’s important to think about and understand your own travel rhythm. Find the optimal trip length that keeps you happy, and have a feel of when you’d normally start tiring out. Once you realise that about yourself, you can start planning your future trips better.

Take Part in the Planning

The other thing that has changed about me… and it’s a big change in me… is the fact that I’ve started caring more about how my holiday is going to be like.

Truth is each of us have a different concept of an ideal holiday. Some of us love fast paced trips with late nights in busy cities, some of us prefer their pool villas overlooking the ocean horizon, and some of us find deep enrichment in a meditation retreat. I personally like my slower-paced cultural holidays with glimpses into the day-to-day lives of the locals as opposed to visiting impressive monuments. But I also love a luxurious do-nothing type of poolside holiday.

Private pool at Alila Villas Soori

Trip planning isn’t easy. A good holiday (if you’re not using a tour package) involves hours and hours of research, comparisons and eMail correspondences with hotels and tour companies. I used to leave it to others to plan the trip for me simply because I wasn’t interested and found it too daunting. Problem with that is you may end up joining a trip that isn’t what you’d imagined it to be. Worse still, you may end up complaining about it and annoy the heck out of the person who did all the groundwork and planning!

These days, I realise how important it is to either take part in the trip planning or at least read the itinerary and accept it or suggest amendments. That way, you’d feel more in control of your vacation. And if things do not go to plan, you’re also less likely to complain about it because you’re fully aware of what you were signing up for.

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Shirakawa-go, Japan. My favourite part of the trip!

Finally, trip planning also involves giving leeway for your travel companions’ travel habits and preferences. For instance, I like my quiet mountain villages and remote seasides away from the maddening crowds and I struggle to enjoy busy cities even if they’re as reputedly beautiful as Paris, Tokyo, Rome and New York. Meanwhile, Fatbee is able to enjoy the vibrant and cultural aspects of these big cities.

What this means is if we’re travelling together, I shouldn’t be insisting on just covering the remote countrysides and secret spots within a country, I should allow for part of the trip to involve the bigger cities. In the same breath, Fatbee should also understand if I end up deciding to just stay in the hotel when things become “too much” for me in a big city.

So Why Travel?

Cost analysis, travel rhythm and trip planning aside, I think there’s a deeper underlying reason why most of us travel. It’s that intangible string that keeps us looking towards the next experience.

Takayama Japan Traffic LightsPedestrian lights in Japan, depicting a man-in-a-hat

For Fatbee, the very act of trip planning already makes him happy. For me, even the little details about a new place makes me happy. Things like seeing street signs in another language and seeing a non-Australian plug socket in my hotel is enough to make me feel as if “I’m here at last“. And while I don’t have the guts to go forth and communicate with the locals, I still enjoy observing their habits and customs from a distance, marvelling at how different it is to back home.

But I’ll end this post here and leave it to you to help answer this final question for me in the comments section. So tell me…

Why do you travel?
How do you prefer to travel?
And what is it about travel that makes you come back for more?