Alain de Botton on the Value of Imperfect Travel

Stop searching for the perfect trip. Alain de Botton says it’s never going to happen—and that’s a good thing.

As told to Laura Brounstein
Illustrations by Felix Talkin

Alain de Botton is a philosopher and author who writes about everything from travel to love to architecture. As his work takes him around the world, he has learned a few things about traveling far and wide. He shares some of his wisdom on planning a trip based not on hot trends, but rather on listening to yourself about what you need most.

THERE IS A LOVELY PHRASE FROM NIETZSCHE that says the goal of life is to become who you really are. I think he means we should explore all our possibilities, and there are bits of us, waiting to be discovered, lodged in faraway places. So one can see the impulse to travel as a desire to complete ourselves.

We often plan our travel based on where the price is advantageous or on the last place someone told us about. But if we don’t start from our inner being and ask ourselves what we really hope to get out of the journey, we will miss out. Before you plan your next trip, ask yourself, What is truly missing in my life? Make a list of the words that come to mind. Did you think calm? Excitement? Understanding? Then try to think of places that might match up with those words. Say that calm, which is in short supply during our overstimulated times, is on your list. It’s out there, both in the vast spaces and, counterintuitively, in very busy and unfamiliar places.

Or say you want to feel more connected to your partner or your family. Adventures can help bond us to the people we experience them with, whether that adventure is physical, like surfing, or simply visiting a less luxurious location.

Last century, travel was all about throwing as much money as we could at having the softest sheets, the best drinks, the least friction. But sometimes it’s friction that brings us what we really want now: human connection. That might mean leaning across to your neighbor and saying, “What’s it like for you?” When that person is from another culture, you can appreciate more what’s particular about being you. And then there’s the delight of discovering that you have things in common.

Last, maintain your sense of humor. Accept the reality that you might be standing in front of the pyramids, wanting to check Twitter. Relax. Your holiday isn’t over when you get home. That feeling you hoped to have in front of the Taj Mahal that escaped you in the moment? It may come to you when you remember the day or look at pictures five years later. The real souvenirs aren’t the miniature Eiffel Towers or camels we might bring home — they’re the memories and psychological lessons we pick up on our journeys.

Alain de Botton is the author of The Art of Travel and The Course of Love: A Novel.