The Value of Travel

Jul 13, 2012 · 6 min read

by John Beckett

In all my years of schooling — kindergarten through graduate school — I have only two regrets. One is that I dropped Spanish after 10th grade, once I found out none of the colleges I was considering required a foreign language for a degree in engineering.

The other is that I never went to Florida for Spring Break.

Spring Break in the early 80s wasn’t the big deal it is now, but it’s been on every college student’s radar since the beach movies of the 60s. I thought about it and looked into it. But there was always an excuse, usually the big one: “I don’t have the money.” This despite the fact that friends with a lot less money managed to make the trip every year. Then my senior year I actually had enough money, but I decided that five days between Winter Quarter and Spring Quarter wasn’t enough time to drive from Tennessee to Florida and back.

I’m not sure how I convinced myself travel wasn’t a good use of limited time and money. I imagine childhood family vacations driving long distances to visit relatives (none of whom had kids my age) had a lot to do with it. So did my father’s frugal travel habits. Mostly, though, I think it was the idea that money was supposed to be spent on things, not on experiences. “What do you have to show for your money?” was a commonly heard phrase, and not just at home.

And so I simply didn’t travel, other than an occasional weekend trip with no more than a couple hours’ drive to places I’d already been. Cathy and I drove to Florida for our honeymoon (that trip was expected), got run out by a hurricane and ended up spending a few days in Savannah. But when friends talked about trips to the Caribbean or Mexico or New York I just sighed and said “I don’t have the money to travel.”

I wasn’t poor or anywhere close to it. But I felt like I always needed more stuff and a trip would mean I couldn’t buy something that I just had to have.

New Orleans — 2010

Then in 1993 a group of on-line friends decided to meet in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They were coming from Virginia, Florida, California and Hawaii. I said I didn’t have the time and I didn’t have the money. And then Monica, who described herself as a broke graduate student, said “I’ve vowed to die with no regrets — I’m coming.”

All of a sudden my excuses didn’t hold water. If a master’s student in English whose only income was a graduate assistantship could find the money, then an MBA student with an engineer’s salary damn sure could too. I got someone to take notes in the one class I was going to miss. When my boss found out I wanted to go to Mardi Gras he was happy to approve a few days vacation. Cathy had no trouble getting vacation either and we set off on the nine hour drive from Chattanooga to New Orleans.

The trip was far from perfect, but it was great fun and it was a life-changing experience on several levels, not the least of which was teaching me the value of travel.

We’ve all heard “money can’t buy happiness.” Turns out that’s not exactly true. More stuff or bigger bank accounts won’t make you happy. You get something, it makes you happy for a few minutes or a few weeks, then it becomes the new “normal” and you’re back to feeling like you did before. If you want to feel happy again you have to go buy something else, something bigger. Pretty soon you’re like the kid with thirty Christmas presents screaming “is that ALL?!”

There are three ways money can buy happiness. The first is to spend it on basic necessities. It’s hard to be happy when you don’t have enough food, decent clothes, and a safe place to live. The second is to spend it on someone else. Not only do you help them, you’re telling yourself “I have more than enough — I can give some away.” The third is to spend it on experiences, especially travel.

it’s a Facebook cliche, but it’s still true

Travel gets you out of your comfort zone. You don’t learn and grow by doing the same things in the same ways. Travel — especially international travel — puts you in new and different situations. Sometimes that’s fun and sometimes it’s frustrating, like when flights get canceled and luggage gets lost. But you figure it out, you do what you need to do, and in the process you grow.

Travel lets you experience things first hand. I’ve read and watched plenty on Islam, but being in a Muslim country gave me an understanding I couldn’t get any other way. Listening to a Greek taxi driver gave me a first-hand impression of the ground-level impact of the European debt crisis. A bus ride into the Yukon showed me what wilderness really means. Before I knew these things — now I feel them too.

On my last trip I picked up some kind of intestinal bug. The OTC medication I was carrying kept it in check, but it wasn’t getting better. One of my traveling companions is a pharmacist. He knew what I needed, we went to a pharmacy in Italy, told the Italian pharmacist what he wanted and got it. For €2.50. It was an old generic drug — I could get it here for $4, but only after spending $120 to have a doctor write a prescription. When certain people talk about how great our health care system is, I’ve seen something better. Just a small piece of it, to be sure, but experiencing how things are done other places gives you a larger perspective.

And after experiencing traffic congestion in Rome, Athens and Istanbul (with someone else driving, thankfully!) I have a whole new appreciation for American highways. They’re not perfect and we need more alternatives, but I’m glad we have them.

Travel lets you see and do things that are meaningful to you. Each of our major trips the past six years had an element of pilgrimage to them: visits to places of power, beauty, and history that are part of my heritage as a Pagan, as a Druid, and as a human. Yes, the whole Earth is sacred, and yes, I can commune with the gods and goddesses in my back yard, but there is something special, something magical about walking among the stones at Avebury or admiring the glaciers in Alaska.

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau — 2011

And that something special lasts. Look at a picture, touch a souvenir, think back on the trip and you’re there again. Remembering the taste of the salmon in Seattle or the wine in Sicily isn’t quite as good as tasting it for real, but some experiences actually improve in memory. At the time you’re caught up in the immediacy of doing — it’s only afterward you have a chance to interpret it, put it into a greater context, and fully appreciate it.

Travel has costs, in time, money and in environmental impact. Those costs will only increase as peak oil, climate change and increased demand from growing Asian economies cause fuel prices to steadily rise. Some have said travel will become a luxury available only to the very rich. I think they’re wrong.

We are a species of curiosity and of movement. What’s over that next hill? What’s on the other side of that river? You should see what I found when I followed a stag into that forest! We must visit Stonehenge or Mecca or Canterbury.

Travel is not my only interest, but it is among the most meaningful uses of the resources I have — it makes me happy. As long as I’ve got something left over after necessities and as long as I’m reasonably healthy, I will travel.

Originally published at on July 13, 2012.

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