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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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