Has Your Travel Style Changed?

Watching the World Cup 2010 games recently on TV, I remembered the last time I was in South Africa. It was the 1996 Rugby World Cup, and I was 23 years old.

In Cape Town, I stayed at youth hostels. We played drinking games, danced Irish jigs on tabletops, and participated in spontaneous reverie.

Of course, we visited Table Mountain too. But it occurs to me now that I was there mostly for the social interaction with other expats. South Africa was just the backdrop. I wonder how I’d revisit the country again now, some 14 years later.

That got me thinking about how our travel habits change through the years. Given each person’s background and motivations, it’s impossible to draw any real conclusions. But I’m still curious:

As you’ve matured, has your travel style changed?

Here are my revelations. I think my 23- year old self would be surprised.

Sleeping Bags and Bed Bugs

Then:  I stayed at backpacker hostels with rowdy atmosphere and proximity to nightlife. I didn’t mind the half-naked Spaniard in the bunk next to me. I wasn’t shy about drying “intimates” in front of others. I believed my sleeping bag and a shared bathroom ensured an interesting travel experience.

Now: You’re not likely to find me in a noisy dorm these days.  In fact, I’ve gradually moved from dorm rooms to small inns to moderately priced hotels. On a recent trip to Hong Kong with a friend, we even splurged on a night at the luxury Intercontinental Hotel.

The older I’ve gotten, privacy, security, comfort, and good night’s sleep are more important. Infinity pools are nice too. 14 years ago bunking near Eduardo, I never expected that change.

Hostel Butterfly

Then: I enjoyed lively interaction with other backpackers, discussing politics and cultural differences. I learned German swear words and won the silver medal in the drinking Olympics.

As fun as that time was, I had a tendency to be entirely drawn into the hostel world while neglecting the larger outside culture. Many days, I would never even leave the building. It didn’t matter if I was in Zimbabwe or Costa Rica. Once I found my niche inside those walls, I burrowed in and stayed for weeks.

At the time, I didn’t understand travelers who shied away from expats. For me, the interplay between nationalities was the best part of the trip.

Now: I’m less likely to seek out other explorers, focusing my interaction on locals instead. Gone are the days when I’d spend a whole afternoon watching sporting events on the hostel TV or playing darts in an expat bar.  These days I’m befriending my Chinese tour guide or Thai cooking teacher, trying to understand their land from their perspective.

I’m also more content to wander solo, enjoying experiences unaffected by other peoples’ agendas or judgments about a place.

Idle Wandering

Then: I drifted from one place to the next hitchhiking through Southern Africa. In those pre-Internet days, I did little research, preferring surprises along the way. I enjoyed unstructured inactive time, because at 23 years old, I felt I had all the time in the world.

Now: As much as I still love surprises, with work and family responsibilities, my wanderings are not random. I plan extensively, drawing from information on travel sites and blogs.  Often I have a particular interest to explore such as art, history, or culinary tradition, so I schedule tightly to fit it all in. In fact, I usually have to remind myself to enjoy down time.

From Tourist Track to Off-Track

Then: Themed parks, souvenir shops, Hard Rock Café T-shirts. I was drawn to all manner of contrived events. My budget was mostly set aside for nightlife, and I could easily forego a truly unique cultural excursion if it challenged my comfort level or I thought it cost too much money. My friends and I enjoyed late nights and slept till noon. Occasionally, I visited a museum, or artist guild, but for the most part, I was removed from authentic experiences.

In my case, the reluctance to go deeper stemmed from immaturity and fear about being a stranger in a strange land. I believe now that travel, like most things in life, has a learning curve and over time we get better. I just wasn’t there yet.

Now: You’d have to drag me kicking and screaming into an American chain restaurant or Irish bar now. There’s nothing wrong with those venues. I’d just rather spend my precious time with an unexpected encounter these days. Rather than tourist track, I stroll down hidden side streets, watch kid’s sporting events, and even wander into a neighborhood church some Sunday mornings. Finally, I’m more likely to splurge on a great meal than a night of drinking.

Although my current wanderings are not as raucous as younger days, that’s fine by me. I’m glad to have all those experiences. I just don’t need to repeat them again.

Have you grown out of certain travel experiences?

Have you become more open-minded in some ways and close-minded in others?


20 thoughts on “Has Your Travel Style Changed?

  1. Have I grown out of certain travel experiences? Yes! I started out marrying a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (am Dutch) and did the bedbug routine because we had no money. Although by necessity we may sleep in less than ideal accommodations, it’s not what we search for.

    I usually live abroad in my own (rented) place for many years at a time, but when traveling for fun or on vacation, we look for a small place to rent from locals. Once in Italy we rented a little apartment in an ancient town, and the owners took us around, invited us to a couple of family dinners at their place. Needless to say,it was a great Italian experience.

    Of course I also enjoy the occasional 5-star hotel, but it’s not what I go for usually.

  2. Haha! Yes, it sure has. I used to throw a sleeping bag on the forest/desert floor/floor of a random stranger who just so happens to be on the same trek, and dinner/breakfast was beef jerky and a cliff bar…Now, there is no way I will sleep on the floor without a very comfy mat, and there is no way I would share a hotel with someone I just met. My food choices too, have not only changed but are now usually the focus of my trips 🙂 Turns out, in the 10 years since I was traveling as my 23 year old self, I learned that being extreme and thrifty doesn’t necessarily make for a more rewarding experience. It’s okay to be comfortable…

    • maryrichardson

      It’s also true in my case now that sometimes the food dictates most my travel schedule… I remember those days of jerky and cliff bars… how far we’ve come!

  3. All things considered, my travel style hasn’t really changed that much. When I was younger, I’d head toward the tourist traps because it was expected but I’d always gain my most memorable experiences with some cultural escapade. Now, there’s no way I visit any touristy anything unless I have to cover it. i still love the cultural and authentic–museums, native food, open markets. The only real adjustment I’ve made is that I go for more adventure travel that wasn’t as common when I first started traveling. I know climb volcanoes, kayak, hang glide and zip line as often as I try the local cuisine.

    • maryrichardson

      Fly girl,
      You made a great point that adventure travel opportunities may not have been as common in the past. It’s certainly true that a changing commercial travel landscape gives us different outlets now. I didn’t think of that, but you’re right.

  4. Even in the mere two years I have been on the road my travel style has shifted essentially yours did…but still in progressing in that direction. I still like hostels…but I nab a private room if I can so that I can still have some social interaction that I crave sometimes but get a good night’s sleep. At the beginning of my trip I felt like I had to force myself to do the whole backpacker drinking scene because that’s what you do! Now I am perfectly content to head to a nearby pub and settle in with a pint and conversations with the locals!

    • maryrichardson

      I think you’re right there is a degree of pressure to “integrate” into hostel drinking life. It is fun, but after awhile I found it to be the same everywhere.

  5. Oh, and you don’t have to post this, but I love this new site – the design is clean and crisp and the stories you have on here so far a great! 🙂 I look forward to reading more!

  6. good sum up and funny! some of my friends and i were just talking about this.. how we may retire our backpacks for wheelies. Indeed these days we prefer cozier inns over hostels and nice restaurants over bar hopping. Happy though that we still got our itchy wandering soles even if style have changed.

  7. Good post Mary.
    I think the biggest difference is bedtime. My younger self was out looking for the next party, whereas my older self is looking for the earliest time I can crawl into bed after an exhausting day of exploring!

  8. Great post. I don’t think I’ve changed much yet since the start of my backpacking, since I’ve just been on the road not even 2 years yet. But if I’m comparing myself to my traveling prior the backpacking era, here they are:

    Before: I collected a lot of souvenir. Sometimes even sacrificed time for the real thing for souvenir shopping.
    Now: It’s the experience that is important, not the souvenir. Besides, there’s not much room for souvenir in my pack. If any, the souvenirs are for family and friends, not myself, and small ones.

    Before: I admired the object from far, then picnicking in front of it, admiring the view.
    Now: I explore the objects. The wall decoration, any corner I can check out.

    Before: I didn’t enter museum for 2 reason: not very interested (not part of my previous culture), and too expensive for my pocket at that time.
    Now: Museum often become highlight of my journey. Art and archaeological museums are my favourites.

    Love the new blog 😀 Keep it up, I’ll follow closely! What will happen to the old blog?

    • maryrichardson

      Hi Dina,
      You brought up a great point about souvenir shopping- I hardly ever buy anything anymore on my trips too! And as far as feeling blah about museums in former travels, I was the same way…

      The old blog will still continue, but will be more about personal things and not so much travel writing as this one…

  9. Interesting idea that travel is a growing process, a indicator of maturity and experience. I know I have kicked myself for not taking more advantage of where I am when I studied abroad in Italy several years ago. While I think I still have some travel growing to do, I have certainly changed drastically since my first time abroad alone at 18. I think when you are younger and traveling you do want familiar bonds with home or people like you rather than locals. Although, I do think it depends on the person. Hostel living has never appealed to me and I’m 23.

    • maryrichardson

      It’s great that you are a young traveler, and already recognizing the value of contemplating your interaction with the world. In many ways, I wish I had been introspective when I was 23! As far as hostels, they are definitely not for everybody! The last time I stayed in one (a few years ago) was a shock to my system.

  10. Ditto! I lived out of hostels for years. Now, I would NEVER stay in one, simply as a) I need the sleep, b) I go to bed at a reasonable hour and c) as you mentioned, BED BUGS. (My husband and I got them at a hostel-like hotel in Guatemala and it was NOT pretty.) If I can’t afford a decent hotel these days, I would much rather CouchSurf!

  11. Mine has definitely evolved, but mostly because I’m much more of a savvy traveler now. But, the same level of curiosity and passion and excitement is still there.

  12. I noticed my travel style changing on my second trip to Thailand. The first time I was there I spent several days on Khao San Road, a party backpacker area, and loved it. I left and did other things, but I was mostly confined to the touristy areas. Now, I try and get out and get away from the touristy area.

    I’m like you too in that as I travel more, I want to stay in nicer places. I was just in Costa Rica and for the first time splurged on a nice hotel for one night.

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