The FloQ

Travel Insights Blog

The FloQ

Travel Insights Blog

Why Do We Travel?

Dec 15, 2023

Katya Lopatko



15 min

Amidst the holiday bustle of lights and festivities, a deeper tradition takes center stage — New Year's resolutions. Explore the obsession with self-improvement and the pursuit of personal transformation in the midst of the holiday season.

Unsplash / Roven Images

As December slips away, it’s time for favorite end-of-year tradition, and it’s not Christmas lights, peppermint mochas, watching the ball drop, or choosing between braving the big-box stores or paying absurd overnight shipping prices because you didn’t do your gift shopping during Black Friday season. No, we’re talking about New Year’s resolutions, the perfect expression of Americans’ sweet, optimistic, positive spirit (or borderline-insane obsession with self-improvement). Let’s face it, we love getting better, and there’s nothing more satisfying to improve than ourselves. From makeover shows to girlbossing to post-breakup glow-ups, our culture is saturated with fairytale narratives of the ugly, poor, heartbroken or rizz-less turning their lives around and entering their “Taylor Swift Time’s person of the year, going to birthday dinners with her A-list besties, cheering for Travis Kelce at Chiefs games” era.

While travel isn’t the most popular resolution — that would be health, fitness, finances and relationships — it’s still a common one. Of course, this might be because of accessibility; while most of us have it in our power to try to cook more meals instead of eating out, go on more walks or jogs, or try to save a little more each month, travel requires a big investment of time and money. Many of us are limited in how often we travel by external factors, rather than a lack of intentions or willpower.

Unsplash / Gabin Vallet

Still, as we’re in the business of helping people improve themselves and enrich their lives through travel, we think it’s worth investigating why travel consistently makes the list of common New Year’s resolutions. Of course, there’s the common idea that travel makes you a better person, which we’ve written about. Still, that’s a broad claim, not to mention only a portion of common motivations to travel. As many of us plan our trips for the upcoming year, we thought we’d dig a little deeper into the reasons why we travel.

If you Google or ask ChatGPT why people travel, you’ll get a list of more-or-less standard, generic answers:

• Escape and Relaxation
• Novelty and Exploration
• Cultural Exposure
• Personal Growth
• Social Connection
• Adventure and Thrill-Seeking
• Restoration and Well-being
• Learning and Education
• Celebration and Milestones
• Business and Professional Development

Undoubtedly, all these are true and valid reasons for traveling. (For more details on each, try feeding this question into ChatGPT: “What are some common reasons people travel, according to psychology research?”) Still, this paints a rather uniformly positive picture of travel motivations, and as we know, humans don’t always do things solely because they’re good for themselves, for their relationships, and for the world. Some plausible motivations are also noticeably absent: community service or missionary work, visiting long-distance friends, relatives or partners, and of course, the worst kind of travel, like fleeing from war, persecution, or dire economic prospects.

Unsplash / Dan DeAlmeida

In the rest of this post, we’ll survey some of the most common travel motivations, organized into two overarching categories: the good, and the not-so-good. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume all travel is being done willingly and with at least one specific goal in mind. The point isn’t to judge or have the final word, but to open up some ideas for reflection and discussion about our travel motivations.

Why should we think about this? A few reasons. Generally speaking, travel takes a lot of energy and money, so we want to be intentional in how and why we do it. More urgently, in a post-Covid world that’s showing more and more acute signs of climate change each year, we should all carefully weigh the costs and benefits of our travel behavior.

First, the good

1. Self-improvement and growth

Self-improvement and growth are vague ideas, so maybe we can frame this umbrella category through the lens of opportunity. There are many ways that traveling can help us grow — we face uncomfortable challenges and solve problems, learn to question our assumptions about how life should be lived, and experience people and places we otherwise never could have known. Still, if this is our goal, we should ask ourselves: do we need to travel to get to the end result? For example, if you want to get yourself out of a rut, do you need to fly to Bali to do it? Can you take up a new hobby, mix up your routine, meet some new people, or even drive a few hours for a similar change of scene? If you’re seeking to challenge yourself or find purpose, how about volunteering or organizing for a cause you care about? If you do choose to travel, try to make the most of your time by doing the things you can only do in that new place, whether it’s seeing a rare work of art or simply taking a free walking tour of a new city.

Unsplash / Diogo Fagundes

2. Education and opportunities

Education and opportunities are also broad concepts, but think of this as an extension of the previous point, just more focused on school and career. Most important is the idea of identifying the things — tangible or intangible — that you need to travel to get to. In this case, these are probably more concrete, like a college campus or other on-site educational opportunities, like an immersion language program, professional development workshop or conference. You might travel to meet valuable mentors, connect with a professional network, or even access materials you can’t find elsewhere, especially if your work involves research. On a similar note…

3. A pilgrimage to a special place

A pilgrimage to a special place will always require travel. These are usually your bucket-list items, like hiking Machu Picchu, seeing Stonehenge, or journeying to a place that’s meaningful to you for religious, personal or family reasons, like an ancestral village. Maybe you had a religious experience watching Game of Thrones and you simply must see the mountains of Croatia. Here again it’s important to reflect on your personal motivations. Is this place really important to you, or are you giving into the “must” in must-see?

Dubrovnik old harbor, sea and set of Game of Thrones Kings Landing city / Unsplash / Morgane Le Breton

4. Maintaining relationships

Maintaining relationships can be hard even if you live in the same city, especially as we get busier and busier with the responsibilities of adulthood. Most of us have limited travel time, so it makes sense to put it towards spending time with friends, family, or even partners who live far away. Of course, we’re lucky to live in an age where we have endless virtual options to connect with each other. Still, as many students (and managers) discovered during the pandemic, there really is no replacement for human face-to-face interaction. That means someone eventually has to get in a car, on a plane, train, bus, etc.

Now, the less good

1. “The Sweet Escape”

“The Sweet Escape” is a classic 2000s jam by Gwen Stefani, but might not be the wisest motto to live by. In the chorus, the singer longs to wipe away the rising tensions in her relationship with a change of scene:

If I could escape
And recreate a place as my own world
And I could be your favorite girl
Forever, perfectly together
And tell me, boy, now wouldn't that be sweet?

While most of us probably don’t identify with this level of delusion, there’s something eternally tempting about running away from your problems and starting over in a new place. Who hasn’t dreamed of quitting their job and moving to [insert place you romanticize here]? Yeah, it would be sweet. But unfortunately, our problems tend to follow us wherever we go, so temporary getaway can only ever be that — temporary. That’s not to say there’s not a time and place for it — think getting out of town for a week or two after a breakup. Even though it’s tempting, try not to forget that whatever you’re escaping will probably still be there when you get back.

2. Showing off

Showing off is something most of us are guilty of from time to time. That’s just what happens when you take a social species wired for approval and give them smartphones. In today’s social media landscape, travel might be one of the most common ways to flex on your followers. Although there have been trendy travel destinations for as long as people have been traveling, we now have more access than ever to these getaways, or at least a curated image, and more opportunities for real-time fomo. There’s a fine line between discovering an incredible destination on TikTok and craving a trip to Japan because your college friend group just took a trip there without you. But if you ask yourself, you’ll probably know. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with going to a popular spot, but if you catch yourself traveling to certain places mainly to curate a certain kind of persona, you risk fixating on the aesthetics of your trip, or the stories you’ll get to tell, instead of actually experiencing it. Is the social validation really worth the time, energy, money and opportunity cost for not only yourself, but potentially for others? And finally, on a similar note…

Unsplash / Cauayan Island Resort

3. We all feel like we “should” be doing certain things

We all feel like we “should” be doing certain things in our lives. Depending on your circumstances, this can be marriage, family, career, finances, or education; often, a set of factors is lumped into a single, aestheticized projection (think: AI-generated image of a “successful person,” or the Instagram accounts of your least favorite people who went to the fanciest colleges from high school). In many eras, travel has been coded as countercultural rebellion, a way to escape from the grind by dropping out, gaming the system, or both. Stories of people who quit their “boring desk jobs” to work on a farm or become a digital nomad capture our collective imagination; they represent a life we don’t have, but isn’t totally out of reach. Over time, these alternative lifestyles have morphed into their own coverable, often illusory ideal, fueled by ubiquitous travel content on social media, not to mention viral stories of copywriters making six digits working 10 hours a week and surfing the rest of the time. Even if most of us don’t actually quit our 9-5s, for our generation, traveling can easily become another item on the to-do list, along with career and relationship milestones, to prove to everyone else — and to yourself — that you are, in fact, living your best life. This last point is actually a combination of the last two; we feel social pressure to show not only that we can work well and date well, but also that we can escape well. Sadly, there’s no escaping digital performance in contemporary life, but we can be mindful about how we choose to look and participate.

So… should I just stay home?

No. All this isn’t to say that, whatever you’re looking for and going through, travel can’t be the answer. It absolutely can. But, speaking mainly for myself, sometimes we use travel as a short-cut to solve a problem, as if a change of scene will make it go away. Sometimes a quick fix is just what the doctor ordered, like in the breakup example, but ultimately, there’s no shortcut to feeling — and being — better.

To circle back to our New Year’s resolution theme, think about it this way: just like paying for a monthly gym membership won’t get you Cristiano Ronaldo’s abs and downloading HeadSpace won’t cure your anxiety, traveling to Europe won’t magically make you a cultured, well-rounded, and open-minded person. I wish it did. In fact, I’ve been the person on Instagram pretending it did. But at the end of the day, spending a week — or in my case, four months — in Paris didn’t make me into a modern Simone de Beauvoir, no matter how many espressos I sipped and black turtlenecks I acquired. Sadly, it didn’t even make me self-aware enough to realize that I’ll never become a modern Simone de Beauvoir — not because I wasn’t born in France, and she beat me to writing The Second Sex, but simply because she already was herself, and therefore I am not. That’s okay. I can be myself instead.

Café de Flore, Paris / Unsplash / Valentin B. Kremer

But if I want to be satisfied with this self, I have to work at it. Not in the narrow way of making more money, climbing the career ladder, buying a house or starting the kind of family you’d see in a Hallmark movie. Not by joining a gym, eating more salads, or even traveling to every continent — although none of these would hurt. I’m talking about the deepest, hardest, but ultimately most rewarding kind of work, the work of shaping your body and mind with intention to become the kind of person you want to be, whether it’s giving your best to work that you believe in or building loving, supportive and enriching relationships. Could I do this without traveling to France every time I get half a chance? Probably. But would it hurt to travel anyway? I hope not.

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