Beyond the Check Mark: Tracking Meaningful Travel Experiences

From time to time, various travel maps make the rounds on social media platforms. Many of these travel maps allow users to select which states the user has visited. One such example, which frequently surfaces in my Facebook feed, is MapLoco; another was made by amCharts. As a map enthusiast, creating spatial depictions of my travels is a fun pastime for me. When links to these mapping sites re-emerge, I am inevitably drawn in to constructing my own map, yet again. It doesn’t matter that I’ve done this exercise countless times before. For me, a sort of nostalgia for the fun times of the past surfaces every time I create a new map. It brings the best parts of past travels back to life again.

But, what does it mean to check a state off your list? A CNN article published in 2014 examines this issue from multiple perspectives. Below, I’ll share my own thoughts.

When I was in high school, my brother and I traveled throughout New England in search of my future college. While on the road, we played a game where we would see how many license plates from different states we came across during our commute from Ohio to Maine. There was a thrill to the chase, so to speak. We remained alert for any new states that came into view. A license plate from a new state could’ve been coming around the bend at any moment. There was also an element of competition to the game; my brother and I would rush to be the first to speak up when a new plate suddenly appeared. But, above all else, it was just a fun way to pass time on a long drive. It was a game. No more, no less.

It occurs to me that many people approach domestic travel in much the same way. There is, in all of our minds, that ubiquitous list of all fifty states. The singular mission often becomes one where we check each state off the list, one by one, until we’ve conquered the country. For many, the quality of the visit doesn’t even enter consciousness. Merely passing through a state is sufficient for the purposes of the game we play when we construct our map via the websites linked above. But, what if we’re concerned with more than playing a game? In other words, how might we use these lists or maps to track more than the raw number of states we’ve visited?

By creating lists or maps that merely check off the number of states we’ve visited, we’re compiling a quantitative set of data about our travel experiences. But, in choosing to measure travel in this way, we are shortchanging ourselves by failing to examine the richness of our travel experiences. While travel maps like the ones linked above are useful, I hope to convince you to add a qualitative element to tracking your travel experiences. Instead of collecting the raw numbers alone, you should try to capture the quality of your travel.

Now, when I complete those map widgets in my Facebook feed, I’m a little more conservative about when I allow myself to check a state off of my list. I exclude certain states that don’t meet my personal travel criteria. One principle guides my current thinking about the role of travel in my life: a visit to a state must constitute a meaningful travel experience in order for me to check it off of my list. If my visit isn’t meaningful, it doesn’t make the list.

What exactly is a meaningful travel experience? My thinking on this issue is still evolving. However, here are some exclusionary rules I use to filter non-meaningful experiences from my list.

  1. Visits to airports, including layovers, do not count.
  2. Traversing roadways do not count unless the roadway is a well-known scenic drive.
  3. Stops at gas stations, rest areas, tourist information centers, and chain dining establishments do not count.
  4. Overnight stays at chain hotels do not count.

One might wonder why I choose to exclude visits to places like airports and chain restaurants. In short, I exclude those places to avoid gaming the system. My reasoning: Those experiences are not unique or meaningful. Do airports vary in size and in the number and types of amenities they offer travelers? Sure, they do. But, in general, airports exist as a means to an end; they exist to get you from Point A to Point B quickly and efficiently. Roadways, including interstate highways, serve the same purpose. Similarly, although my mind does wander at the pump, I can’t say that I’ve had any particularly meaningful experiences at a gas station. My interaction with gas stations is purely functional; they are places to refuel, restock, and empty my bladder.

Are there exceptions? Probably. For example, if an out-of-town visitor to the Akron area wanted to count a pit stop at Swensons as a meaningful visit to our state, I’d allow it. Although Swensons is a chain restaurant, it is a distinctly local chain. Similarly, if there is something unique about a place that normally would not count, I would allow it. For example, a visit to a McDonald’s in any state would normally not qualify. However, a visit to the McDonald’s in Roswell, New Mexico, which is the only McDonald’s in the world that is shaped like a flying saucer, would qualify.

Of course, your travel criteria may differ substantially from my criteria. No single set of correct criteria to follow exists. The purpose of this post is not to promote one set of criteria as correct above all others; it is to encourage you to think through your travel experiences in a way that enhances the meaning you derive from travel. If this post has caused you to re-examine your experiences as a traveler, my work here is done. If not, then I suppose you can go back to playing with your travel map widgets undisturbed.