Minimalist Travel

Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a hobo bag and some buffalo jerky. A three-hour Slow Food meal at an Italian restaurant (in Italy or your own town). Two days in a local luxury spa with a twice-daily pedicure, a Civil War reenactment, or a naked sweat lodge at an eco-resort in Costa Rica.

What do all of these experiences have in common? Depending on the traveler, each one could be considered minimalist travel.

Minimalist travel is not about packing light, reusing towels or denying yourself anything. So, what is it?

Whatever. The. Fuck. You. Want.

Travel will never be an eco-friendly hobby, so let’s just break that myth right now. Venturing to Antarctica by Russian nuclear icebreaker is cool, granted, but its carbon footprint is a tad or two larger than a weekend in New Orleans (and both are infinitely larger than staying home).

While minimalist travel can be naturally slightly more eco-friendly than even eco-tourism, it can also be about having a deeper understanding of a culture, putting quality over quantity, or getting rid of agendas both internal and external so you can enjoy the serendipities of travel.

Travel brings the world closer together. Vacations rejuvenate us. Plus, travel drives 9.2% of the global economy. We learn, we grow, we relax, we become more aware of the environment we want to save. We’ll chat about ecotourism another day, but for now, let’s focus on personal minimalist travel.
Three hours picnicking at Saio Winery (with a backdrop of Assisi, Umbria) wasn’t long enough.

1. You don’t have to go big.

Ten years ago, my book club got a double motel room in a nearby business park for a night. We brought beer and wine, a toaster oven and pre-packaged cookies, and ordered pizza and chicken wings. We never even made it to to the pool or hot tub, we were having too much fun. The weekend cost us $45 a person and, well, after 14 years of being an international professional travel writer, here I am, waxing on about a night at a Holiday Inn Express in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

2. You don’t have to go for long.

You know what blows? Airports. Getting to airports. Security at airports. Packing. Forgetting to pack medicine. Dogsitters. Arranging days off work.

I don’t know who invented the rule that you have to go away for weeks at a time to have a ‘real’ vacation or holiday. In the US where we have zero mandated vacation days, most of us don’t have that luxury. We assume travel is too expensive and time-consuming, so we don’t even start.

Consider the two-day mini-trip. Flights? Pshaw. It might not be the most far-flung travel experience, but you can have one hell of a vacation, or even a mini-adventure. Stay at a B&B in the country and do a nearby farm tour. Take public transportation to a ritzy downtown hotel and order room service while watching a movie in bed. Do a two-night cruise (they leave from everywhere: New York City, Seattle, New Orleans, Norfolk, Miami, LA). Spend a night at the nearest luxury spa. Find all the campsites within two hours of your house and pick one.

A mini-trip can be no longer than 36 hours, so here’s the secret: you have no choice but to enjoy every minute of it.

3. You don’t have to see or do anything specific.

I love me some Bronze Age archaeology, but wish I hadn’t wasted a day at Stonehenge. The Leaning Tower of Pisa taught me nothing about Italy. (But a cooking class in Tuscany did, and I loved having the stone circles of Castlerigg almost to myself.)

Instead of asking yourself what you’re supposed to see, ask your yourself what you want to feel or experience. Do you want to understand the history of a place, see nature, meet locals? Or try out a new hobby, go on a quest, relax, have an adventure, eat, hike, aim for a spiritual awakening?

Try this: Write down 10 of your favorite travel experiences. If they mostly turn out to be inside museums, consider a career in art history. If not, look for themes. Apparently, I can be incredibly dull when I travel; I love experiencing day-to-day life. So now I look for ways to stay in one place, take public transportation, find local hangouts.

B&B, farm tour, Sunday lunch at Celebrity Dairy near Raleigh, NC.
B&B, farm tour, Sunday lunch at Celebrity Dairy near Raleigh, NC.

4. You don’t always have to go far.*

No, my Lonely Planet guidebook-author self is not rolling over in her grave right now. I’m intensely proud of how Tony and Maureen Wheeler — LP’s founders — encouraged millions of travelers to experience more of the world in ways we never thought possible.

But that doesn’t mean you have to fly to Mali or the Maldives every time you want a change of scenery. I’ll be pilloried for this by the ‘Oh, you haven’t injected homemade yak butter in a reclusive Nepali village yet?!!’ travelers, but I have nothing against tourist magnets like the Costa del Sol, Cancun, Orlando, Phuket. In the same way cities are far more environmentally friendly per capita than suburbs, putting large numbers of travelers together in a structured tourist region is more ecologically friendly to the surrounding area.

If you want an immersive cultural experience, go far. But if you need to relax for a few days on a beach, go to a nearby beach.
Packing light quickly becomes easier when a canoe is your only transportation.

5. You don’t need a lot.

True story: I once ended up in Belem, Brazil with nothing but the pajamas I’d slept in the night before and a toiletry bag.

Sounds horrible, right? Because of that fiasco, a) I taught three clothing shop clerks to do the YMCA at a Brazilian mall; b) they then convinced me to buy an exceedingly bright yellow-and-orange flowered polyester dress; c) and I made out with a sexy Brazilian architect all night on the airplane ride back to Miami. (Clearly, due to the Village People and that dress.)

Give it a try on your next trip. (Underpacking, I mean. Unless you can find a sexy Brazilian architect.) If you are going on an adventurous journey far from home, you’ll appreciate the lightness. When I went on a year-long sabbatical in my mid-20s, I got rid of almost all my worldly possessions, even my hair (have you ever weighed shampoo and conditioner? Seriously, that shit is heavy). You don’t have to be that extreme, but lessening your physical burden does — literally — free you up to have more of those serendipitous experiences.

6. You do have to challenge yourself.

Sometimes I wonder if travelers-to-be focus so much on the former five they miss out on this sixth concept. Travel is all about going far away for a long time and seeing as much as possible, right? Of course, the magic of travel actually happens when we encounter the unexpected, no matter the circumstances, but how do you prepare for serendipity?

We’ll get to that another day.

* Sometimes, you should still go far. Very far.

3 thoughts on “Minimalist Travel

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