Meaningful Travel: Is One Time Enough?

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We all have that one friend who always seems to be off adventuring. Between hiking the Swiss Alps, volunteering in Ecuador, and "studying abroad" on the beaches of Thailand, their passport looks like it walked right out of a listicle on the top 50 places to visit (not to mention their Instagram game puts you to shame). But now it's your turn! 

A woman in Parque Guell, Barcelona, Spain

You're finally planning your next adventure and looking to get some advice from a well-traveled friend. You already know you want to ditch the touristy-approach to travel—you'd rather get into the nitty-gritty of it. Nagging financial questions aside, ( do they get so much approved time off work?), if you can catch them on an extended layover, you just want to know—is once enough?

Is participating in meaningful travel once in my life enough to make an impact, on myself and on others? Is it enough to challenge my world views and drive personal change? Is it enough to appreciate and recognize the nuances that come from globalization, the good, the bad, the complex? Is it enough to see the world for what it truly is—without "vacation goggles" or the ability to avoid glossing over the less-than-pleasant parts?

Here are common responses to the question, Meaningful Travel: Is One Time Enough? Learn how you can use it to help plan YOUR next international adventure with more intention and clarity.

1. "NO WAY. Only once? Meaningful travel is a lifestyle."

These meaningful travelers have no end in sight for their adventurous, intrepid ways. Maybe their trips abroad haven't been 100 percent perfect—because, let's face it—travel invites a level of "unpleasant experiences" into our lives, too (here's looking at you, delayed flight and unexpectedly 40+ hour train ride). However, this person knows that the heart of meaningful travel is getting to know the place they were visiting, for better and for worse. They consciously push themselves out of their comfort zone to stretch their limits and truly interact with the place they visited. This allows them to have meaningful travel experiences wherever they go—whether with a formal travel program or not.

These lifelong meaningful travelers are generally averse to naïveté. They try to give thought to how their trip impacts both themselves and the community they're visiting. A meaningful traveler isn’t blazing through cities and towns snapping pictures and ignoring their surroundings. They want to explore the world and not only share their experience as someone abroad, but are also eager to learn from where they are going.

However, has their enthusiasm for adventure translated into thoughtful action? Are they being critical of the programs they select, or are they just going willy-nilly for the ones that have the best photos? There is much to be learned by (and from) the individual who blindly supports meaningful travel without much thought given to it.

So is traveling meaningfully once enough for these folks? ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact, they're they go again!

Women on a Lion statue in Barcelona, Spain

2. "Meaningful travel is more complicated than you think—I'd do it differently next time."

So...about this trip. Maybe the location was incredible; the food and sights unlike anything else seen before. But something about the trip left this meaningful traveler unsettled. While it’s exciting to travel to new places, there is also a certain element of voyeurism that accompanies visiting villages and towns where foreigners don’t go often. Or maybe, in their travels, the towns you visited developed an economy specifically to cater to foreign visitors like yourself.

Trips like these make meaningful travelers uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing. At the end of this trip, a meaningful traveler may look back on his or her experience and see that their motivation for the trip was a selfish one, to take in the sights, sounds, food, and experiences only for themselves without giving consideration to their travel companions or the people they met along the way.

If you ask this traveler if they would do their trip again, they may have reservations about some of their excursions. Maybe they rode an elephant in Thailand, which is exotic and different, but felt icky after. Maybe they researched the practice a bit more and found that it’s cruel towards the animals. Instead of contributing to a damaging tradition, they admit that choosing more eco-friendly activities in Thailand would’ve been a better choice (an activity where you’re sure to have an adventure - and not leave a trail of regrets in your path).

girl holding hat in rainforest
Learning your travel motivations and examining them thoughtfully will help you plan future adventures.

When considering your next adventure abroad, make sure to do your research to ensure you’re choosing locally owned and operated businesses that aren’t intentionally, or inadvertently, damaging the planet or natural resources.

This is the sweet spot. If your buddy responds with the “No, but…,” it shows they’ve learned something about themselves and the place they visited along the way and have done some serious critical reflection on their experience as a whole. They may not be a wise old owl (yet), but their insight is incredibly valuable as you scope the scene for your next trip.

So is traveling meaningfully once enough for these folks? Likely no, but they'd make serious tweaks before they travel again.

3. "Once was enough for me."

OK, definitely pay attention to the folks who don't care to travel meaningfully again. There are lessons to be learned from these travelers (potentially with a grain or two of salt).

When looking back on their experience, these meaningful travelers just can’t justify their carbon footprint and its impact on the planet by going such a distance (calculate yours here to see just how much of an impact your trip has on the world). When you consider that your largest contribution to global warming could be air travel, you’ll think twice about how important it is to you to volunteer abroad for one to two weeks and maybe consider a longer duration to lessen the impact of your travel.

Or maybe this traveler had a terrible experience in a different culture or country. If so, ask them what about their journey was so awful—and to be specific. Did they have a difficult time communicating? Was the food inedible (according to them)? While these may be valid reasons, it’s also possible the traveler went into the experience with a closed mind. Maybe they would find something wrong with anywhere they travel!

So is traveling meaningfully once enough for these folks? Maybe. 

Trekking through Connemara's country side on horseback

Regardless of the reason, when someone says they wouldn’t travel to a place again give careful consideration to why. You may find that their discomfort with challenge is your cup of tea!  

Is meaningful travel in YOUR future?

Ultimately, what’s essential is to give careful consideration to why you’re choosing to travel abroad and to make sure your trip is meaningful not only for yourself, but for those you encounter along the way as well. 

Meaningful travel is more than idyllic pictures of delicious meals or jealousy-inducing sunsets. It’s about making connections with the world around you in a way that is lasting and genuine.

When you ask someone if they would take their trip again, be sure to encourage them to share stories that go deeper than the superficial. Ask them what they learned about themselves or the country and culture they visited. If you’re the one who has gone abroad, it’s your responsibility as a meaningful traveler to bring back tales about how this trip changed your life in good ways and bad.

Meaningful travel: Learn if once is enough for YOU.

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Topic:  Packing Tips