Remember, in the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation, when Chevy Chase pauses at the Grand Canyon for two seconds before rushing off? It’s probably travel’s most laughable cinematic moment (and one that’s spawned many terrifically awful reenactments on YouTube).

I’d make fun of it, except for the fact that I may be the only person to visit the Canyon–and see it for less time.

My trip there a dozen years ago happened to coincide with a freak snowstorm. Standing at a lookout point on the south rim, I stared hopefully into an apocalyptic expanse of foggy nothingness. I waited and waited. After a half hour or so, the clouds relented, offering a teasing glimpse of the far side of the massive chasm, before swallowing up the view for good.

Question: Have I “seen” the Grand Canyon? Have I even “been” there? And, either way, does it really matter?

When can you say you've actually "been to a place"? (Photograph by cobalt, Flickr)

When can you say you’ve actually “been to a place”? (Photograph by cobalt, Flickr)

This question has become more relevant in the wake of one of the most popular travel books of the 21st century: Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Since its fateful first edition was published in 2003–a few years before that Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman dying-buddy film would lend the concept a buzz-worthy name–”bucket lists” have hijacked popular discourse on travel.

By the looks of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the dozens of websites and apps devoted to helping travelers create destination checklists, you’d be forgiven for mistaking some travel planners for task-oriented data entry clerks. That’s fine. But to paraphrase Waylon Jennings, are you sure Marco Polo, Meriwether Lewis, or Bill Bryson [would have] done it this way?

The problem with the bucket-list mentality is that it reduces travel to a pass/fail proposition. You want good pizza and spend a half-day in New York trying to find a legendary joint in a far corner of Brooklyn. It’s either tasty, or it’s not. (Quite an onus for pepperoni!)

A more rewarding approach to travel, at least for me, is less clinical–where the aim is to find reward from unplanned, spontaneous encounters. Often that comes with homing in on a theme to focus your planning around, not simply things to see. (It’s a bit like traveling like a travel writer.)

Instead of racing around Brooklyn to find that pizza place, why not spend a half day exploring Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst–where John Travolta struts at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever–and then go see if L&B Spumoni Gardens lives up to its hype?

The “goal” here, if it exists at all, is the open-ended exploration of a neighborhood, not simply an acquisitive hunt to check something off a list.

Awhile ago, I floated the question on Twitter about what it takes to say you’ve “been” to a place. Does walking across a border or an hour in an airport terminal “count”? Where’s the line?

Someone suggested using this definition: that you’ve only “been” somewhere if you had some experience there worth sharing. That, to me, seems like the ultimate point of travel. But too rarely do we hear of such experiences from bucket-listers’ jet-set cousins, what I call the country collectors.

Many of these folks wear the tally of the countries they’ve visited as badges of honor. Adding to the total in as little time as possible often means horribly ill-timed flight connections and a couple of hours spent outside the terminal, before moving on to the next destination. Guinea-Bissau? Check!

If that seems a little silly to you, read this San Francisco Chronicle article, which shows how travel has literally turned into a contest for many.

In it, the head of the Travelers’ Century Club, an “elite” group for those who’ve bagged over 100 countries, who in the article, admits that it’s “all about bragging rights.”

John Clouse, once the official “most traveled person” in the Guinness Book of World Records (which no longer awards the title), calls it a “competitive sport.”

Charles Veley, who has long called himself the world’s most traveled man (though even he admits he might now be considered second on his website), maintains that “If you want to have a complete world view, you have to go everywhere. Five hundred countries is better than 400.”

Please feel free to ignore these guys altogether.

I’m not too bad at travel, and I don’t know how many countries, or places I’ve visited, nor do I plan on counting them. And whenever I hear people comparing passport stamps, I think of Shakespeare’s lowly pen collection of a few battered, disposable goose-feather quills. None survive.

The number of quills he had, or seeing one, is hardly the point. What he made with them is more important. All this is not 1000 Places to See’s fault.

It’s OK to make a list of dream destinations, but let’s try to remember that travel is not a contest. To put it simply, we travel because it’s fun, because we want to experience moments worth remembering.

Often, we get the most out of it when we connect, bond, do good for people in the places we go to. But we should do it for ourselves–not the points we’ll win at the office water cooler when we get back home.

If you want to go around the world simply to accrue status and tick off place after place on an Excel spreadsheet, go ahead. But please call it what it is–building your brand–and leave “travel” to the rest of us.

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Offbeat Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @reidontravel.

> What are your thoughts on bucket lists? Share them with us for a chance to appear in National Geographic Traveler magazine.

Comments

  1. Nora
    Bali, Indonesia
    August 18, 9:42 pm

    Before me and my husband started our year-long honeymoon we had planned to explore South-East Asia as much as possible – which meant visiting as many countries as possible. But after a while we realized that being in a new country every week just doesn’t make us happy, as one week is not even enough to explore a city, not to mention a whole country. Plus it was pretty exhausting. Now we slowed down, and we plan much more time to a country and we do not even try to visit everything. Spending 1 month on the same island and really get the hang of it, is much more satisfying. We stopped checking off countries and we started enjoying the exploration.

  2. Rick
    Sheffield
    August 18, 9:48 am

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m tired of seeing “bucket lists” on sites/magazines I refer to for information and inspiration, I’m tired of seeing books like 1000 places to see or, even worse, 100 places to get f*cked before you die.
    Those people should do some sport, where their competitive attitude is a precious requirement.
    The result of this culture is people patronizing “so, you’ve been to [place] and you haven’t seen [thing]? Oh you’ve wasted your time” just because you didn’t take an iconic selfie.
    Do you think that even the the destructive mass tourism is a result of this? After all any moron with money can travel the whole world in few months if it’s just a matter of getting off a plane or a tour bus and snapping a couple of picture….before rushing off to the next point. Chevy Chase style.

  3. Ellen Girardeau Kempler
    United States
    August 18, 1:07 am

    I believe the modern idea of travel as a commodity feeds the bucket list mentality. There’s a whole industry devoted to making sure you choose their products: from tours to flights to hotels to suitcases to insurance to whatever they can convince you to buy. Much of this effort is in “destination marketing,” i.e., promoting places over experiences. This leaves out what I call the “in between” places too small to generate significant revenue. But as Herman Melville said, “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.” Those true places are the ones you can reach only through the unpredictable combination of serendipity, opportunity and imagination. True places yield true travel experiences that can’t be bought or sold. For more about this, read my post, Better with Gravy: Why Make Bucket Lists When Life’s So Tasty? http://www.gold-boat.com/gravy-boat/

  4. Raymond @ Man On The Lam
    Canada
    August 17, 2:50 pm

    Who cares how other people travel? At least they are getting off the couch.

  5. Kevin Murphy
    indiana
    June 16, 11:36 am

    1. I both have a deep connection with the places I visit and think the number is kind of cool too. I’ve only been to 9 countries…

    2. There aren’t 400 countries on earth.

  6. GCMTWood
    UK
    June 16, 8:55 am

    When we travel as a family (2 young kids in tow), we book nothing except the flights, car hire and the first nights accommodation (to sleep off any jet lag!). We plan NOTHING beforehand except visas. When we get to the country we are visiting, we buy a map and ask the kids to choose N, E, S or W….every night we wit down and decide which direction to go the next day. We tend to avoid the pricely “must see” attractions, in favour of roaming the local neighbourhoods and meeting real people. We choose our eating places by asking a local where they eat…..we have eaten in some very interesting places!! We only cover small distances each day but come away feeling like we have lived in that country for two weeks or so. Using this philosophy, we have safely explored Australia, Canada, Alabama and California. This year we asked the children to stick a pin in the atlas and we are off to…..TEXAS! Again, nothing booked except the bear minimum. Can’t wait for our next adventure!

  7. Ronan
    Dublin
    June 16, 8:44 am

    If I had a list of places to see before I die, I would include at least one hospital.

  8. Katie
    Chicago
    May 29, 5:47 pm

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bucket lists as the items in the list may be experiences – for example, my list includes hiking in the Grand Canyon, something I checked off yesterday when I completed a 4 day hike from the north rim to the south rim.

    I like the idea of not being able to say you’ve “seen” a place until you have an experience there worth sharing.

  9. Robert Reid
    April 26, 7:17 pm

    Thanks for the comments Cam. I don’t think I “ridiculed” anyone’s pizza habits in the article though. By bringing up that Brooklyn example, I was actually quoting someone who complained they never could find “authentic” experiences. I asked for an example, and they recounted the chase for a particular slice of Brooklyn pizza. If they had made it a search for the best slice, or an exploration of a neighborhood or two of Deep Brooklyn, I’d told them, they might not have left so disappointed with their few hours in Brooklyn (they didn’t like the slice).

    Rather than tasty/not tasty, it becomes a quest — I talk more about that in another piece here on “How to Travel Like a Travel Writer.” It’s about the quest. If it’s interesting to you, you can’t “lose.”

    Thanks for reading!

  10. emma bumpus
    United Kingdom
    April 12, 3:11 pm

    Not in favour of the “bucket list” – natural curiosity, some form of connectivity, be it nature or people, & a desire to improve oneself or/& the planet is where travel becomes a platform from which to advance. Getting lost on a journey is often the best way to travel as it teaches toleration!

  11. Tam
    London
    April 12, 3:43 am

    Travel is different for everyone and I also think it comes down to the luxury of time. If you have the freedom to explore where you like, when you like for as long as you like then meandering around the streets of an unknown place can be quite enjoyable especially if you uncover that unknown gem. If however, you only have a few days leave but would still like to get away from the office and see something different is there any harm in opening up a tourist guide and walking a city to see some popular attractions? Personally, I would like to do both.

    Cities and countries have become famous over time for something and that something has generally made it a reason for people to want to go; so why shouldn’t I visit it. You mention the Eiffel Tower in Paris, ok so I found it ugly, but I still wanted to explore such a well known, iconic landmark, even with the hundreds of tourists rushing past me – the view from the top was worth the climb! I don’t think it makes you any less of a traveller, it just makes each traveller different.

    Some of the countries I have visited, others wouldn’t, I don’t turn around and question their reasons or their ability as a traveller I simply understand they are different and i know they would never recommend their type of holiday to me.

  12. Nita
    April 11, 3:03 pm

    Love it! You hit the nail on the head. I’m sick of hearing about bucket lists because as you said, it seems more like a competition or simply for the sake of ‘doing’ (another annoying word in this context) a country. Travel is so much more than that. It’s the little unplanned moments that you can experience only if you allow yourself to stop taking it all as a race. Really well-written, Robert!

  13. Lance
    USA
    April 11, 2:55 pm

    There are two base assumptions in this article. The first is that, to see the world, you have to be “rushing” (no evidence is provided for this assumption). The second assumption is that quality of travel is inversely proportional to the amount you travel – you can only have a truly quality travel experience if you don’t travel frequently. Does this actually make sense? If we were to buy into this logic, we really shouldn’t travel at all – we should spend our time analyzing our own neightborhoods in incredible detail and counting the grains of sand.

    http://www.traveladdicts.net

  14. willi
    Germany
    April 10, 5:04 pm

    I have a few items on my bucket list and some time I might get around to visiting them. I ways seem to read something or see something and decide that would be and interesting place and go there.

    Maybe this year I’ll get one: wandering around the lavender fields of France.

  15. munyt
    India
    April 10, 10:48 am

    Discovering and finding new experiences and telling your travel tales is what ‘travelling’ means. I totally agree with you.

  16. Nicola Hilditch-Short
    April 9, 10:58 am

    I think it is down to how you feel you experience a place and time doesn’t always equate a real experience. I mean, sure, spending an hour somewhere is not really seeing it but I mean, for example. People go away for 2 weeks to one town or even some freinds that went to spain for a month, but what did they do, they sat by the pool the whole time! I went to Tokyo for just over a week, I wish I had longer but it was a choice of that or nothing. I didn’t waste a second and saw and experienced a hell of a lot.

    http://www.nichilditch-short.co.uk/

  17. HyperActiveX
    April 8, 6:37 am

    Nothing wrong with Bucket Lists… it’s just a name for having goals in your life. We are all different, and we all have different goals, preferences, and ways to travel. If your goal is to visit as many counties as possible, why not ? If you want to make your travels as meaningful or meaningless as possible, why not ?

    So tired of these “real travelers” – get to know people, culture, food, travel slow…- otherwise it’s not travel…. BS… You alone decide for yourself what travel means to YOU…

    P.S: I’m pretty sure the book meant to be used as a reference, and not taken literally… If it wasn’t for books like that ( and the movie ! ) I’d never had started my Bucket List ( simply because I just wouldn’t know where to start )

  18. Mackenzie Miller
    April 7, 10:33 pm

    I agree too. So many times I talk to people who have been places I’m getting ready to visit and they can’t seem to tell me any information. So I always wonder, “have they really been there?” And while I don’t judge people for traveling that way- do what makes you happy, I still wouldn’t like that for myself.
    BUT, just to be a little difficult, I guess, I do think there is some value to the “bucket list” mentality. If people are just rushing through places or experiences then it’s not working, like you’ve said. But if people are using their list as a motivation to push themselves, or remind themselves of all they want to accomplish I think it can be extremely helpful. They just have to remember that it’s more than just something to cross off, but the actual experience that they’re taking away from it.

  19. Cam
    April 7, 5:15 pm

    I find it kind of ironic that you ridicule people for searching out a famous pizza place they wanted to see, and replace it with your own ‘hunt’, as you call it.

    Regardless, people travel for a number of different reasons. My own personal views on exploring the planet are this:

    Ideally, I will try and spend as much time in places I visit as possible. My desired ‘minimum’ is 3 weeks. I tend to avoid the major touristy functions after I have seen the ones that I deem relevant to myself, and then the rest of my time is unplanned blissful wandering. I much rather walk the streets/paths/etc aimlessly, or navigate a city via the public transit rather than a taxi driver. By doing so, you are able to experience a piece of what actual life is like in that location.

    That said, there are many regions on earth that you cannot visit without intense planning. Your life probably depends on it, and the overall success of your travels too. Just because these kinds of intense adventure trips are planned out, does not make them any less admirable or “travel worthy”. They are their own unique experiences.

    In the end, it does not ruffle my feathers that some people travel simply for the sake of hitting an airport and checking off a name on a list so they can say “Ive been to so many countries, look at my passport”. That is what matters to them, and it doesn’t really have a noticeable negative impact on my travelling. That form of travelling does not appeal to me, and I wouldn’t really get anything out of it – but they do, so what’s the harm?

  20. Lara
    Chicagoland
    April 7, 11:54 am

    I wholeheartedly agree that travel shouldn’t be just about checking off a destination or winning some unspoken contest. I also prefer to experience a new place as much like the locals as I can. Too many popular spots have become touristy, which in some ways strips them of what makes them unique. It’s great to be able to get away from that stuff and find the hidden gems. Then I feel like I can say I’ve truly experienced it.
    I wanted to also say thank you for linking over to my site (where I’m hopefully not enabling too many people to be competitive about their bucket lists).

  21. Coco Marie
    San Diego
    April 7, 10:53 am

    Couldn’t agree more. I am always the type to encourage people to put down the map and explore. It is in the simple things that you actually get to “feel” a place rather than see it. That is what travel is for–the experience, not a checklist. I know people feel accomplished by checking off a list of seeing the “most important” things at a destination, but it is the cultures, food, people, etc. that makes a place.

    Thanks for the great read!

    http://www.misscocomarie.com

  22. Loz in Transit
    http://lozintranslation.blogspot.com
    April 7, 10:30 am

    At the end of the day its up to you, ultimately your tales will impress the people they need to impress. I personally like narratives, a good travel experience is just like a good movie for me. Firstly I value a good story, secondly Interesting characters. Location is a distant third.
    Also it helps if the lead character is engaging (you), if the extent of the narrative is “I was there”, realistically it won’t be memorable when its all said and done.
    To each their own.

  23. Michael Blahm
    Kenia
    April 6, 1:52 pm

    my passport is also full with stamps, but only from Kenya. I think I must learn from you

  24. Megan
    London
    April 6, 10:28 am

    We banned the phrase “bucket list” from our house a few years ago. Thank you for stating the reasons so eloquently. How sad to reduce a country, city or experience to a line on a checklist. Then again, if that makes you happy….carry on. But it will cost you $5 if you say it in my house :D.

  25. Robert Reid
    April 5, 11:06 pm

    Thanks for the comments! I’ve actually never been up the Eiffel or to Greece at all.

  26. Alexandra
    Colombia
    April 5, 9:18 pm

    Really enjoyed this article! This encompassed everything I didn’t quite know how to put into words. And THIS: that you’ve only “been” somewhere if you had some experience there worth sharing.

    My favorite memories of travel are never seeing the Eiffel Tower or The Acropolis or [insert famous landmark], but the hilarious lunch where we drank with locals or the time we got lost and stumbled across a serene temple all to ourselves.

  27. Same Kinda Different
    April 5, 8:08 pm

    I completely agree with this post.Much of what mes travel great and worthwhile is experiencing the true culture of a place, which is easy to miss when you’re just focused on crossing things off a list.

  28. Karin
    Minneapolis
    April 5, 9:40 am

    We found it easier to make an ‘anti-bucket’ list. Now that we are hitting our prime travel years (in our early 50s), we would rather be opportunitistic about the next destination … whether it’s traveling with friends or inspired by a National Geographic article or just one of the long-seated travel desires that’s time has now arrived. Now that we’re clear on what we no longer want to do (e.g., winter camping, technical climbing, bus tours, big cruises, hot air ballooning, anything where we have to follow a tour guide with a flag through large crowds, being in a different city every night), making travel decisions in the moment are much more fun. When we travel, we take the time to immerse, explorting only a small part rather than race from place to place. For example, in 2013, we spent a week in the Osa Pennisula in Costa Rica at Aguila de Osa, 4 days exploring Rome (art crawls), a week in a villa in Atrani Italy (fantastic hiking and food!) a week on Orcas Island in the San Juans (kayaking and hking). We will never get to a 1,000 places before we die, but we will have 1,000s of joyful travel experiences.

  29. Juergen
    Germany
    April 5, 7:04 am

    Dear Robert,
    I travelled a lot as a salesman in the nineties – always with several passports, as the one with a stamp from South Africa would´t work in the Middle East and the stamp from Russia caused suspicion in the US. Although traveling a lot, I was always beaten by 2 friends: One was a busy entrepreneur with a family and the other one was a school teacher – they competed for years who would visit more countries … and the competition became so serious, that they published a book “All countries and Island of the World”. It was sold 3 times and given away as a present 500 times. Anyway: Who do you think won the competition or what was the lesson? The lesson was: either you have money or you have time – at the end it does´t make a difference. Who had the better adventures? Both had good stories. … and there a still some hundred copies of that book in a warehouse. Probably the title should have been: “500 hundred places I survived” … and what is left of all the traveling? Good anecdotes – and in none of them a monument or a certain restaurant plays an important role — traveling is about people and situations.

  30. Heather
    Australia
    April 5, 5:56 am

    The trouble with bucket lists, and similar 14-countries-in14-days things, is that it gives you 15 seconds of fame at the water cooler, some nice pictures to show/bore your friends. And that’s it. Chances are your whirlwind tours are such a blur, not much sinks in or lingers in your consciousness long-term. What a waste of money.

  31. Sangeetha
    United Kingdom
    April 5, 5:03 am

    I completely agree with your views on travel. Travel shouldn’t be confused with clicking photos and uploading them on social media and wondering how many likes it’d fetch you :-)

  32. Judith Siess
    Champaign, IL, USA
    April 4, 6:12 pm

    just being at an airport in a city/country does NOT count. you have to go of the airport and tour a bit. i’d say a day would be enough.