One of the first questions we ask someone after hearing about their pending travels is how long are you going for? It’s a critical piece of information that influences the rest of the conversation. And depending on the relative distance, we can access whether or not the trip sounds worth it. Three days to Dallas sounds good, while three days to Tokyo might seem a little sporty.
A co-worker and I recently discussed the diminishing returns in which I get with each passing day abroad. For example, the potential of a fourth day after a three-day visit is highly desirable, but the 22nd day after a three-week stint doesn’t appeal in the same way. And at some point, I decide when enough is enough, when I’d rather save my limited hours away from home for another destination.
Like so many working folk exchanging their time for money in a structured arrangement, my travels play within the bounds of employer vacation allotments, interest in the destinations, attention to family matters at home, and of course, finances.
But unlike finances, time is the great equalizer. No matter where you go or the lifestyle in which you craft there, time is a universal experience for all travelers. The week-and-a-half trip to Jamaica is 10 days for everyone. A month on the road in New Zealand is true whether spent driving between national parks or in an Auckland AirBnb.
As I gain more experience on the road–exploring both foreign countries and the domestic US–I’m noticing a pattern regarding this equalizer.
What I often seek in long-term traveling is detachment–the point at which novelty becomes routine, and I slowly shed memories of my domestic structures. The nature of my travels give way to becoming my everyday, and less of a one-off experience in which I eventually depart.
Observing my own experience, I begin to detach around three weeks. Of the couple month-long travels I’ve taken to China, New Zealand, and the Philippines, I felt as if my brain re-wired for a new normal. I adjusted to constant transit, long-car rides, hostels and AirBnbs, new friends and languages. I vividly recall a feeling of cultural adjustment after returning to the US upon returning.
Vagabonding is about looking for adventure in normal life, and normal life within an adventure. Vagabonding is an attitude – a friendly interest in people, places, and things that make a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.
-Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
As one of my favorite authors Rolf Potts alludes to, vagabonding–or long-term travel–is a genuine mentality. It’s a manner in which you see, move through, and experience the world. Perhaps for me, three weeks is where I currently differentiate between short- and long-term travel.
That three week mark is where a shift in attitude, expectations, and reality take hold of me. Like the adage of breaking a habit in twenty-some days, my mental state at home is also reset in a similar amount of time.
When you have weeks on end to explore a country, the velocity at which you move isn’t nearly as important. You balance that speed with depth, how long you dedicate to a given place. Those three to five day stopovers are no longer restricted to a region’s three major hubs, but instead invested in small towns, places you never read about in a travel guide, or could’ve planned from a laptop.
Travel under three weeks–and certainly less than two–greatly expedites my visits, relegating me to more cursory experiences. You balance the seeing it all mentality with stopping to smell the roses. Not only does the onslaught of flights, packing, and check-ins get exhausting, but it simply becomes no way to dig into a place.
A direct extension of velocity is the amount of places in which you can see. If you begin placing a minimum stay on each city, it logically follows that you have to limit your destinations as well. I’ve happily limited my destinations exactly for this reason. I quickly realized that jamming 5 major European capitals into 10 days leaves me desiring more.
Unfortunately, many employment constraints push me towards short-term trips of two-weeks or less. These self-imposed boundaries inherently impact my experience of small towns of Santa Teresa, Akureyri, and Bruges. Would I love to spend four or five days in each of these places? Certainly! But I had to strike a balance with La Fortuna, Reykjavik, and Brussels. Further complicating this notion is the means of access. Often times there is quite a bit of transit involved to depart the “beaten path”.
Something I’ve learned to improve is the ability to develop quick, and occasionally lasting, friendships with other travelers on the road. Exercising my friendly and outgoing personality traits is crucial when traveling alone, and on a limited budget of time. Limiting myself to short-term travel hinders my ability to stay an extra day, or move plans around.
In truth, regardless of how long you spend anywhere, it’s possible to meet great people a matter of days before needing to depart. But those are natural forces when traveling on the road. This phenomena is rarely on display to the same scale when at home. Time is of the essence.
I believe it goes without saying, but all these elements culminate into a spontaneity factor. A measure of your plasticity when it comes to travel plans, and more importantly, your personal expectations for the adventure. For short-term travel of two-weeks or less, or if I’m with a friend, I more highly valuing sticking to our guns on plans, hostel bookings, car rentals, etc. There are less discussions and snafus, fewer fees and cost inefficiencies.
However, as an independent traveler spending a month island-hopping in the Philippines, I can attest to the spontaneous nature of my plans. More like a winding river than a rushing waterfall, I made day-of ticket bookings to small islands and remote villages. (I also overslept and missed my $140 flight, which I had to buy again.) I could easily extend my three-day visits into full-fledged weeks if I desire, without fear of “ruining” downstream plans. This is why most of my month-long trips are relatively unscripted after the first few days.
In truth, we’re dealing with a spectrum, and there are no rules or regulations for what makes any travel situation short- or long-term. What it does raise are the trade-offs worth considering when trip planning your next adventure. How do you want to experience this new land? What type of a trip would best suite you in your current mental state? What is the urgency or ability for you to take a trip such as this in the future?
For me, the joy of detaching is tangible. Crafting it is the challenge.