What is the purpose of traveling?

The first time I came back from my first big solo-traveling vacation my Mom asked me, “How was vacation? Was it fun?”

I paused and thought. Looking back at the trip, it wasn’t all fun. To be honest, a good chunk of the time was not fun. I was socially overloaded and then lonely. I was ecstatic and then miserable. I felt lost and then.. less lost.

In the end, I decided to reply, “I learned a lot.”

This conversation captures my feelings about travel. But if traveling is not always fun, what is the purpose of travel?

I’ve been staying in a social hostel the last few days, and I have been asking everyone, “What is the goal/purpose of your travels?” Everyone gave me a weird glance and then started to think. Most shrugged and said, “I don’t know,” followed by some short answer. Clearly, they had never thought about this question. After a little bit of probing, here are the top three results, which are by no means mutually exclusive:

I asked, “What is the goal/purpose of your travels?”

Fun Travelers aim to maximize fun, which is different for each individual. Fun could be sleeping in until 2PM every day in an all-inclusive resort, or it could be solo-traveling in hostels and partying all night. This type of traveling is a break from regular routines and to recharge the batteries to last another half year in the office/school.

Experiential Travelers’ goal is to Do Do Do, even sometimes at the cost of having the most fun. Fear of missing out motivates these travelers since they know they have limited time. Experiential travelers may try to check off Tripadvisor’s “Top 10 to do in [City/Country X]”, try the local foods, experience local traditions through ethnic performances, explore different museums, or attempt an adrenaline-filled sport.

Learning Travelers view travel as an investment in themselves and want to learn the most that they can. The Learning Traveler may purposely put themselves in uncomfortable situations to maximize learning. For example, they might travel solo, sleep in a stranger’s house, hitchhike instead of catching a taxi, explore non-touristy areas, take calculated stupid risks, or interact with people with different perspectives.

Out of the 10 or so people I asked, no one immediately responded “To Learn,” but this was a secondary goal of many. After a little thought, this is my primary purpose of traveling. No, I am not trying to “find myself,” but I have realized that traveling provides a great chance to learn about myself and the world around me.

Here are some of the questions that traveling has [partially] answer:

Traveling has also forced me to think about my sex, skin color, nationality, and upbringing. The biggest lesson I have learned from traveling is how privileged I am. I have always known this, but it has taken the real experience of being in and living with people who we would consider impoverished in the United States for this lesson to internalize. Based on the situation I was born into, I realize that I am luckier than 99.9% of the people on the planet.

A conversation with someone whose self-employed job is to bike around selling snacks from 5AM to midnight is all it takes to remind me how lucky I am. She does not go home until she sells all her snacks. She rarely rests because she is afraid that the police will fine her if they see her in front of another store. Note: This is note the snack-lady that I talked to.

When I am traveling alone, all the decisions are mine and mine alone. Relationships are fleeting, so I don’t care about what others think about me. I have the choice whether to go out for beers, or wake up before sunrise and go for a jog. I have the choice to spend the day alone inside of my head, or exploring the city with newly made acquaintances. I have the choice to be anyone I want.

Constantly being surrounded by different values makes me reflect on my own values. The Amish have a tradition of Rumspringa, in which they get a year to live in the outside world, before making a decision to come back to Amish life or leave forever.

I love this idea, because too many people take what is given to them without questioning. Traveling provides me with an outside set of opinions, which forces me to reflect on my own opinions. For example, here are some of the questions that I have thought about during my time in Vietnam:

Traveling is the catalyst for questioning and reflecting. In the end, traveling has answered none of these questions for me. As the quote goes, “The more you learn, the less you know.” Traveling has only opened the door to many more nuanced questions.

Next time you are traveling, have fun and create experiences for a lifetime, but don’t forget how much you can learn. Ask questions, be curious, learn, reflect, and eventually contribute that knowledge back to the world.



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Chronic Thinker, Science-Lover and Humanist. Writing to ponder big questions and reflect on life.