The discomfort of travel

In The Art Of Travel Alain De Botton describes the biggest problem with travel. If you don’t have time to read the book right now, his theory can basically be summarized by that old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Going away always looks and sounds nice. Sandy beaches, sunny weather, local food and culture… What’s not to like? Well, what’s not to like is the part where you take yourself with you when you travel, and your body isn’t particularly agreeable to sudden changes. So instead of arriving happy and ready to party, you usually arrive at a new place exhausted, disoriented, hungry, and extremely uncomfortable due to the horribleness that we euphemistically refer to as “air travel.”

This makes travel a weird thing. It’s awesome before and after, but not during. The anticipation of visiting a new place is great, and the memory and reflection of how everything fits together make all the discomfort worthwhile afterwards. But while you’re in it you can’t make those connections yet — there’s nothing to connect, except how to get from one place to another without getting lost. So instead of “enjoying the journey” (ugh), you’re just tired and you don’t understand the language or the money or the people. It’s a recipe for disillusionment and grumpiness.

How do we fix this? The solution is definitely not to stop traveling, so what’s the alternative? I’ve had way too much time to ponder this question on long flights. So here goes.

The secret to enjoying travel is to set a realistic threshold for enjoyment during the trip. I find that 30% is a good number. If I can find enough activities and experiences to enjoy for about 30% of the trip (Oh, the food! The sights! The wonderful people!), and the other 70% sucks (Crap, where am I! Why can’t I keep my eyes open! IS THERE SERIOUSLY NO DECENT COFFEE IN THIS COUNTRY!), I usually land back home happy that I took the time to go. Anything below that threshold and I proclaim loudly to everyone around me that I will certainly never set foot in a flying metal tube of discomfort, ever again.

“Lowering expectations” seems like a cop-out, but I just don’t see another way. Most of us aren’t capable of ignoring our body’s messed up clocks (and desire for comfort) to the degree necessary to enjoy every minute of travel. And I’ve found that recognizing — before you go — that you’ll have to work to get to that 30% threshold often increases your focus and ability to look for the amazing moments. So try it next time. And let me know how it goes…