The Art of Slow Travel

slow-travel-boat

Throughout my life, I have been drawn to far away destinations.  My first taste of wanderlust started in high school when I requested a free copy of the Mexico destination guide from AAA.  I read that thing front to back then back to front.  I folded down the corners of so many pages that described in fascinating detail all the interesting parts of a country I was yet to explore.

Eventually my wanderlust culminated in a six week long study abroad trip to Mexico one summer and a second six week trip to Mexico the next summer with Mrs. RoG.  It was on this latter trip that I discovered the art of slow travel.

Slow travel evades easy and precise definition.  Some take it to mean staying in one place for at least a week.  Others say it’s living like the locals and soaking in the local culture.  Some might use the word “authentic” in their definition.

 

original-slow-travel

An early form of slow travel.

 

For me, slow travel means jumping off the normal tourist trail and getting on the path of exploration.  It means finding the little known parts of a city or country that haven’t been packaged in cellophane ready for consumption by tourists on a weekend getaway.  It means exploring the neighborhoods and city streets away from the tourist crowds and finding the markets and parks that don’t make it into tourist guidebooks.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have anything against guidebooks.  I picked up a few (like this one) from our library to prepare for our trip to Canada.  They are great at providing an introduction to a city before you hit the ground.  I’m particularly fond of the Eyewitness, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide guidebooks.  The key is to wander off the map a bit and see what’s out there.

For some reason, humans tend to focus on the iconic parts of a destination and forget the mundane, real parts of a city.  I’m drawn to the nitty gritty realness of wherever we go.  I’m seeking out the anti-souvenir shop and the anti-tourist attraction.  A quiet sidewalk cafe around the corner from a busy street.  A tranquil park bench to sit and watch birds bathing in a fountain.

 

facade

 

I’m not rejecting the popular out of spite or contrarianism or some hipster notion of irony.  It’s the simple fact that consuming what’s not in demand means you can get a better deal, take your time, and have a shot at finding authenticity unspoiled by marketers catering to tourist demands.  Finding those out of the way sidewalk cafes and park benches and unknown neighborhoods, markets, and parks means you are only competing for space and for service with the locals.  Visiting a restaurant or a shop that caters mostly to tourists almost guarantees below par service and above average prices since most tourists won’t be back for a long time (if ever).

It’s possible to cram slow travel into a one week trip by going to one destination and taking it slow.  One week is a typical vacation for most working folks in the United States, so you make do with what you have.  A huge draw to early retirement for me was having extended periods of time to take off, hit the road, and enjoy the sights and sounds of a new city at a nice, slow pace.

 

one-foot

 

Travel Slow; Save Money

Slow travel is way less expensive than regular travel.  In my last article, I debuted our $4,266 budget for a five week road trip through Canada.  For a family of five, we could easily spend that much on a week in Canada if we were in a hurry and following the conventional tourist trail.

Consider these costs for a “normal” one week vacation:

  • $1,600 for plane tickets for five
  • $600 to rent a car and pay for gas and parking
  • $200 per night for a hotel (staying only 1-2 nights in each city) x7
  • $100 per day for restaurants x7

We would spend $4,300 before we ever paid a single admission fee or bought any crappy souvenirs.  That’s more than we will be spending for five weeks on the road this summer!  This comparison is for a family of five, so the cost savings of slow travel won’t be quite as dramatic for those traveling alone or as a couple without kids.

By generally staying in one place for a week at a time, we are able to rent an apartment for much less than the going rate for hotels.  We’ll also be staying in a residential neighborhood that makes exploring off the beaten path a little easier.  With an apartment rental, we get to cook in our own kitchen which means spending much less on meals at restaurants.  Since we aren’t in a hurry, we’ll be driving our own car on the trip which saves on plane tickets and car rental fees.

 

Should we call our summer trip a “vacation”?

We definitely plan on doing some sightseeing and tourist activities while on our five week road trip to Canada.  We’ll check out museums, historical sites, and local attractions.  But some days we will take it easy and relax just like we are at home.  We’ll take the kids to the park and maybe visit the swimming pool.  We’ll take a stroll around the neighborhood where we are living.  We’ll sit out on our balcony enjoying a few drinks.

One thing is for sure, we won’t be in a hurry.  It’s not really possible to have a good time and rush around with three young kids.  Even though we plan on seeing things that tourists typically see, we aren’t trying to maximize our month in Canada visiting tourist attractions all day every day.  If we don’t see everything, that’s okay.  We can always come back later.  I’d rather live life in a new city for a while and get a feel for the place than see every single thing the city has to offer in an exhaustive way.  One of the most interesting parts of exploring a new city is getting off the beaten path seeing what you stumble upon.

The word “serendipity” comes to mind.  Serendipity, or an “unexpected pleasant surprise”, happens when you stop following the guidebook and focus on what you are seeing and hearing and follow your intuition as to where to go next.  Hopefully we’ll encounter some random art or architecture or urban environment that’s particularly pleasant (and unexpected).

 

Pure serendipity: we stumbled upon this armed street protest in Buenos Aires.  We followed them for a couple of miles.  Don't worry, the police riot squad were in full force right next to us the entire way!

Pure serendipity: we stumbled upon this armed street protest in Buenos Aires. We followed them for a couple of miles. Don’t worry, the police riot squad were in full force right next to us the entire way!

 

I have to ask myself are we going on vacation or are we just living in a different city for a week at a time?  I’d like to think the latter.  We’ll be staying in a regular apartment in a regular neighborhood for each of the seven or eight night stays.  We plan on buying groceries and eating at least half of our meals at home.  Hopefully we’ll feel more connected to the cities where we are temporarily living if we think of ourselves as living there for a week instead of just visiting.

This might be philosophical hair splitting, but I think there is some qualitative difference that makes it worthwhile to ask the question “are you vacationing or just living there?”.  If nothing else, asking the question will shape what you want to accomplish on your travels (relaxation? experiencing new things? forgetting your stressful life at home?).

 

 

Ever done any slow travel?  What’s your preference: a long weekend getaway or a month to explore in depth?

 

 

21 comments

  • Justin, that sounds like so much fun. Growing up my family vacationed in the NC mountains a lot, which was a very relaxing way to spend a week or two. When my wife and I took 8 days to visit London a few years ago though, we walked all over the city and saw everything. Which is great if you’re a historian, not so great if you want to actually “feel” and experience what a place is like. It was mostly disappointing to me, I wish we’d spent a week in one location in the English countryside instead.

    Hope y’all enjoy your move/vacation! 🙂

    • I spent a ton of time in the NC mountains growing up (my extended family all live at the foot of the mountains – true blood Appalachian here!). Linville Falls, Asheville, and the areas around there.

      Lately our “lay back and do nothing” vacations have been at Surf City/Topsail Island NC. We rent a beach house just after the summer season (at 1/3 the summer rates). There’s not a lot to do on the island or in the nearby towns except relax and enjoy the ocean and views. The island is pretty narrow in spots, so there might only be a row or two of houses which means a private beach at to yourself most of the time.

      I feel your pain on that London vacation. Sadly, we would probably do the same thing if we had only one week in England.

      The photos in this article were from our Argentina trip. We had about a week in Buenos Aires and there was a lot of sight seeing during the day, with the evenings pretty laid back. On our last day we didn’t have anything planned so we set out to wander the city. It was interesting but exhausting since we walked over 10 miles. I slept like a baby on the plane ride back to the US. It wasn’t as relaxing as we like, but we didn’t try to cram too much into any one day. And there was always time to stop and take in scenery.

  • Right on! We love to travel and we’ve always tried to stay away from anything packaged. If we are travelling outside of the country we usually just book plane tickets and a place to stay. On our recent trip through Italy, we flew to Milan where we had a budget hotel booked already and then winged our way through the country buying train tickets, renting scooters and finding places to stay as we went. This just-in-time approach worked great and I feel like we got to experience Italy in a much less packaged manner. Once our last debt is paid off (mortgage) we should be able to take slower paced approach to travel. We were just talking about renting a house/condo in Costa Rica for a month next summer and staying in one place with our son, with just a few local trips to see the area. Even better arrangement would be swapping our house for a place abroad – that would make our travel costs very low in comparison to your usual American vacation.

    • It sounds like you’re of the same mindset as us. I don’t think we’ve ever done a packaged tour or organized touristy thing. Even when we go on cruise ships, we shun the excursions and make our own. Hopping on a local bus with bona fide locals (even if you’re only in port for a few hours) is infinitely better than buying touristy or luxury crap and taking tequila shots at Carlos and Charlies.

      That trip to Italy sounds nice! I’m not sure we can have quite an open itinerary since we have kids. At least not yet. Some day perhaps.

  • I really want to buy an around-the-world plane ticket! Far cheaper than going to Paris, going back to Nebraska – going to Panama City, going back to Nebraska – going to Johannesburg, going back to Nebraska…

    I love your idea of living in a city for a week rather than vacationing. I’ve never thought of it like that.

    • Those RTW tickets look pretty sweet. I haven’t priced one lately, but last time I looked you could get one for six or eight destinations for about the price of 2-3 regular international tickets.

  • I’ve got some kind of phobia about “taking it easy”, and a week at the beach with nothing to do just makes me think of all the things waiting for me at home that I should be doing! However, I really enjoy staying off the beaten path in international locations and learning more about the culture and the “local” stuff. When I was in Switzerland for 3 weeks for work, I got to experience this – *and* take weekend trips to tourist sites (like Mont Blanc)!

  • ROG,
    Slow travel is the way to go if you have the time. In the past my slow travel has been by land, but I also like the idea of the RTW tickets. Friends of mine who have taken them tend to rush those trips to see as much as possible and miss out on some of the mundane parts, as you said. While I prefer slow travel and backpacking for months at a time, I’ve done a few long weekends to all-inclusive resorts and those are enjoyable in a different way. They are very relaxing. For those who simply need a break, there are some good deals on all-inclusives out there. Have a great trip to Canada.
    -RBD

    • I know what you mean about rushing the RTW trips. Most people don’t have the luxury of six months or a year off to take their time, and if you’re hitting 8-10 countries on your RTW ticket in 2 months, you aren’t able to stay in one place longer than a week.

      As for long weekends at all-inclusive resorts – we’ve never done a land-based resort. We do like to take cruises and they are all inclusive (except alcohol). I think they are very relaxing in a certain way like you say. You’re surrounded by people on the ship (if you want to be) but we’ve never had a hard time finding quiet places if we want. On our honeymoon cruise we found “Deck 11” which was at the rear of the ship and overlooked the ship’s wake. No one was ever back there, so we spent a lot of time hanging out on our “private” 150′ wide deck looking out over the ocean.

  • I’ve never had the chance to spend a month in a new place yet, but it’s on our bucket list at some point. We love travel and are coming to Canada and America in the summer for 3 weeks which I’m really looking forward to 🙂 when we retire, our travel fund is going to be a big part of our spends per year, we’ve already decided 🙂

  • What a lovely trip. Thanks for sharing.

    You are one of the first I’ve seen who is aware of the notion of “rejecting the popular out of spite” and actually having non-snobbish motives for going off the beaten path.

    I recall an Anthony Bourdain travel episode where he refuses to visit the Pyramids because the locals sell t-shirts, etc. to tourists there. It was beneath him. I was astonished. He had let such a consideration keep him from one of the wonders of the world. Sure tourists can be annoying, Bourdain, but you with your camera crew are not exactly a naturally occurring sight entering a person’s home to sip chai.

    I recall a Bill Bryson book on Australia in which he rails against a small town there that he once loved to visit but no longer does because they “ruined” the place by responding to increased tourist numbers. All I could see is that he is a part of the problem (if indeed there is a problem).

    By being a visitor, a person changes the dynamic of the place, changes what a local’s world looks like. The more you visit a place that is now obscure, the less obscure it becomes, the more pre-packaged, spruced up and convenient it will become because it’s putting on its Sunday best for the guests.

    Visiting places off the beaten path connects them to the path. This means one will have to explore increasingly obscure and mundane places to get the exclusivity kick he’s looking for.

    I see tourist traps as yet another part of that place’s history – how they respond to new people in their lives. Not every place has the same reaction.

    We went to a certain small island during the off season and received a relatively cold shoulder. You could see the neighbors in their windows calling each other on the phone and staring at the tourists. You’d think we were a small army invading the place. They were much nicer months later when they are expecting guests.

    Other places during the off season will insist on scrounging up something for you, even when you protest.

    Thanks for being honest.

    • Deborah, thanks for the kind words! I don’t hold any notions that I’ll ever be a grand explorer of the unknown. The tourist places are often popular because they are incredible sights. At the same time, I don’t think it pays to avoid the busiest places out of a sense of exclusivity, but rather out of a desire to use your time spend traveling as “efficiently” as possible. If you spend a half day waiting in line and jostling through crowds to see something cool, could you have skipped the lines and discovered more cool stuff elsewhere?

      Some people get caught up in visiting places that people recognize so they get “facebook points” and they can show their friends how much of a world traveler they are because they visited the Pyramids, the Great Wall, and the Eiffel Tower! Nobody gets facebook points for discovering an unknown garden or finding an interesting piece of street art.

      • Oh! Good point about avoiding the lines.

        I love Disney World, but to stand in line with the kids for 2 hours [inevitably one of them had to make a potty] to ride Peter Pan for 10 minutes was a waste of time. Thankfully, I had taken my Nook and could read something as we waited. Very good point.

        Ha! I have never heard of Facebook points before. I guess vacation pictures are like a brag book.

        Thanks for the response.

  • Hello Justin,

    This is a very lovely blog! Currently I’m in my early twenties and I would love to travel all over the world the way you do it. My family was never big on vacations – they think it’s a waste of money. When I get my own family, I would take them to different places. It’s good to experience new things, and this is what I’ll impart to my future family. Thanks faor sharing this!

  • I love this! Slow travel is definitely more my style, as well. Most places have countless amazing things to see, but with limited vacation time, I also enjoy relaxing in a new place. I also enjoy staying at a house over a hotel and having a more authentic experience. I’m looking forward to traveling for weeks at a time in the future.

    • Slow travel is addictive! Hope you get more time off to travel soon! Apparently some people are able to negotiate an extra week or two of paid vacation if an employer can’t offer a raise or bonus.

  • This sounds very similar to the way my wife and I like to travel. Though we both still work, when possible we like to try and live like the locals such as our recent 5 day trip to Austin (flew from Detroit). Chose an Airbnb in a residential area south of the city right by Zilker Park. Easy walk to the bus stop (no rental car), beautiful running trails around the lake and in the city, gorgeous natural outdoor pool/pond nearby that was free in the offseason (Barton), and just a short bus ride or longer walk into the city. Loved it!
    I think it also helps being vegan because it makes us research restaurants which often takes us to diverse parts of a city far from the tourist zone, they’re often in the ‘up and coming’ areas that are cheaper to open a business.
    But by far my favorite was a 3 week trip to Germany when we were dating. She still lived there with an apartment and a Mini Cooper S. Flying down the Autobahn through 5 countries, meeting family, staying at a friend’s apartment in Munich 3 blocks from Oktoberfest…I’ll never forget it.
    Looking forward to our own retirement in about 5 years, I’ll be 46 and she’ll be 41. Also looking for a market correction soon to get some funds on sale. I already made a note of Surf City/Topsail for when the time comes. Can’t wait to read about your other adventures over the past couple years.

    • Definitely check out Topsail. Great off season rates and weather is still nice in Sept/Oct. Air temps are sometimes decent even in winter but the water gets pretty cold. Nice place to spend a few weeks and enjoy the scenery without paying much at all.

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