Looking back on over four years of continuous travel, some things only become clear in retrospect. Linda and I never set out to travel according to any distinct philosophy. In the beginning, we were hopping all over the place, seeing sights and taking lots of pictures to post to Facebook. But rather quickly it became clear to us that this fast-paced mode of travel wasn’t going to be sustainable in the long run.
We didn’t have a name for it yet, but what we stumbled on was the slow travel mindset. Today, this is a full-on movement. Slow travel is related to the larger “slow” movement, which began with slow food. This first arose in the 1980s as a reaction to McDonald’s opening a fast-food chain in Rome, Italy. Italians worried that a large multinational corporation offering cheap, quick calories would undermine the culture of fresh, healthy, carefully prepared food that had existed for centuries. It is a recognition that “efficient” and “convenient” does not always equal “better.”
Many of the same principles that underlie the slow food movement apply to travel as well. I quite like this concise definition of slow travel:
Slow travel is a mindset that rejects traditional ideas of tourism and encourages you to soak in your environments and keep yourself open to new experiences.The Art of Slow Travel
The Default Travel Paradigm
The default mode of travel, it appears to us, is what Americans call “a vacation.” This is a one or two week, high-octane adventure characterized by jamming as much as possible into the experience. Here are a few qualities typical of “fast travel:”
- Frantically running around to the major tourist sites on a jam-packed itinerary.
- Taking lots of pictures for social media without really being present in a place.
- “Canned” experiences.
- Paying more for convenience.
- Consuming lots of fast food.
- Staying in hotels.
- “Fear of missing out” (FOMO).
- Travel fatigue/burnout.
- Returning to work more exhausted than when you left.
It’s hard to blame those that engage in this mode of travel. After all, most people have limited vacation days and need to get back to work quickly or risk losing their job. Beyond that, they might never get another chance to visit a particular destination, especially on an overseas trip.
One could argue that slow travel is the ultimate symbol of privilege. That the time it takes to travel slow is a luxury they can’t afford. On the surface, this is hard to refute. But there are a lot of underlying assumptions that don’t hold up under scrutiny.
The Core of Slow Travel
So far we’ve only looked at what slow travel isn’t. If you’re not going to pack as much as possible into your trip, then how do you fill your time? And how do you justify “missing out” on a place’s top attractions? These are the questions that form the core of slow travel.
First of all, it’s a myth to think you need months of available time to be able to travel slowly. You can incorporate slow travel principles into a one-week vacation, for example. The key is letting go of the concept of “must-see” sights and attractions. Remember: slow travel is a mindset, not a destination or a time limit.
Let’s look at some ways to travel slowly.
How you get from A to B is the most literal interpretation of fast or slow travel. Of course, flying is the fastest way to travel and walking the slowest. I’m not suggesting you walk everywhere or never fly. But recognize that there are environmental, economic, health, and mental implications to your choice of transport.
For long distances, when possible, we like to travel by train or bus. Not only is it cheaper than flying, but it’s also much friendlier to the environment in terms of carbon emissions. It’s more comfortable and you can see more of the landscape of the country while riding. The lower risk of getting sick compared to the germ factories that are airports is a nice bonus as well.
Walking around town is probably best compared to driving a rental car, hiring a taxi, or taking the subway. Besides not costing anything, walking allows you to stumble upon treasures easily missed in a vehicle. In addition, it’s great exercise and you’re free to explore alternate ways to/from your destination.
When you only have a few nights in a place, hotels are by far the most convenient option. You can check-in and out at any time and you know more or less exactly what to expect. They are usually centrally located in the tourist core of a city.
In contrast, vacation rentals a la Airbnb take more time to research on the front end. They tend not to be cheaper than a hotel unless you stay a week or longer. Checking in and out can be a pain, and dealing with hosts is always a roll of the dice. From a slow travel perspective, however, they offer some key benefits. Vacation rentals usually have a kitchen, so you can prepare cheap and healthy meals yourself. The hosts themselves are a treasure trove of information about local places and events.
Couchsurfing is perhaps the ultimate slow travel option in that you get intimate, firsthand experience with a local. Hosts on the platform volunteer a spare bed or couch to a traveler in need. They may even cook a local dinner or take the traveler out to their favorite hangout spots. The travelers, in turn, are usually expected to spend time with the host and share stories and conversation. It’s an amazing cultural exchange opportunity, and it’s completely free! Couchsurfing is a great way to familiarize yourself with a new place for a few nights, though you’ll want to find other accommodation for the long term.
It’s no secret that one of travel’s major attractions for most people is trying the local food. But if you spend all day hopping from museum to church to archaeological site, you may be too hungry and exhausted to wait for a proper local meal. Fast food will be very tempting so you can crash and wake up early to resume the frantic sightseeing the next day.
However, chances are it will be more rewarding and more memorable to eat something that was produced in a good, clean, and fair manner. A lot of the slow food principles apply to slow travel in this regard.
This doesn’t just apply to restaurants and exotic dishes. Open-air markets are common in many parts of the world and often have fantastic local produce at bargain-bin prices. Why not support a local farmer, save money, and cook dinner at “home?”
Which do you think will you remember in five years’ time: waiting in line in front of the Eiffel Tower for an Instagram photo or sharing an evening meal with a Parisian family spanning three generations? The human brain is wired to reward genuine connection with others. Seeing the likes flow in on a travel photo you post on social media is a short-lasting dopamine hit. Making a new friend or sharing a moment of authentic cultural connection is a much deeper, longer-lasting experience. Slow travel is all about connection.
These types of experiences are rarely the kind you can pre-book online. They are the opposite of “canned.” They are spontaneous, rare, precious. And if you have your head in your guide book, you are likely to miss these opportunities entirely. They require a certain openness, a vulnerability of leaving your comfort zone. And they rarely make compelling photos for social media. But, speaking from personal experience, these moments of connection are the ones that I treasure most in all my travels.
Slow travel means leaving room in your travel schedule for the unforeseen experiences as they present themselves. Even if you love planning, wait until you arrive at your destination and ask around for recommendations. This can be as low-pressure as going up to the tourist information center, where the workers are more likely to speak English. Or you can jump in the deep end of a language exchange meetup. But you need to put yourself out there and actually talk to real people or you’ll miss these opportunities.
Slow Travel as Lifestyle
Hopefully, by now, I’ve convinced you that slow travel is both more rewarding as well as more affordable than the default travel paradigm. This affordability is key to making slow travel sustainable as a personal lifestyle. We’re far from rich, but we’ve been able to continuously travel while living a relatively normal life for over four years and counting.
This has only been possible thanks to remote work opportunities. Remote work is a rapidly growing phenomenon, and thousands of intrepid “digital nomads” have taken to the road with laptops in tow. When you’re traveling and working at the same time, a slow travel lifestyle is basically the only way to travel. After all, if you have to put in 4-8 hours of work, you can’t be out seeing all the sights on the “vacation” pace. But you’re rich in time freedom. You’re able to buy one-way tickets with your visa deadline as your only real time constraint.
Others are retiring early and leveraging the more affordable cost of living in other countries to sustain themselves financially. This is a whole movement of its own called FIRE, which stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. These expats may or may not consider themselves travelers, yet they often end up living a slow travel lifestyle as a byproduct.
Making Space for Routine and Self-Care
When slow travel is a permanent state of being, life assumes a more “normal” character – you just happen to be living in other countries. The cultural connection may be something as simple and routine as getting to know and sharing stories with your local barber. Digital nomads socialize with each other at coworking spaces. Linda and I spend the majority of our nights at home, cozy and enjoying the latest Netflix hit or video game.
One of my favorite travel experiences was joining a tennis club in Guanajuato, Mexico. Over the course of five months, I was able to make friends with dozens of Mexican tennis players. Besides being amazing Spanish practice, I got great exercise and substantially improved my tennis game. If I only had a week in Guanajuato, there’s no way I could’ve had this amazing experience!
This type of extended slow travel starts to necessitate health routines as well. Many nomads get gym memberships to keep in shape. I try to find running paths wherever we go and get in a jogging routine. We cook at home most nights, avoiding sugar and gluten as much as possible for health reasons. We go to dentists in “random” countries for check-ups/cleanings. The list goes on and on.
Slow travel is a growing movement that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Travelers are coming back around to authentic experience rather than the well-worn tourist path. If you find yourself in a place and feeling the time pressure, don’t succumb to FOMO. Instead, look at that touristy thing you didn’t do as an excuse to come back and visit again!