The Real Difference Between Traveling and Vacationing

April 20, 2015

I just celebrated something that most people would think is silly. I’m at a restaurant with internet that works and an outlet that has power to charge my laptop.

This is a great moment (I’m not kidding).

I’m in Pokhara Nepal, which is not a modern city by western standards. The other day I went to three different restaurants just to find somewhere with power so I could plug my laptop in. Yesterday Paula got injured from a bull that used his horns to move her so he could eat grass near her. This is traveling, and I’ve been doing it for the last six months in beautiful places such as Bali, Thailand and Nepal. Now comes the most common question.

How do you travel so much?

For every person that asks, there are ten more that are too afraid to. Here is my response. I’m reckless, irresponsible and I don’t think about my future.

In fact, I have no good reason why I should be traveling right now. I have no consistent income, I have no significant savings and no special connections. If you were to look at my finances over the last five years, it would make most people queasy.

I’ve been in as much as $60K of debt, I’ve routinely spent $10K or more on experiences like the chance to live with wild animals in South Africa, learn from the world’s best teachers and get personal coaching on projects that are important to me. In fact, Paula and I just spent $3,500 each to attend a 3-day intensive with one of our favorite teachers.

My budget is a nightmare, yet in the last four years I’ve spent three months on a bicycle visiting 16 different countries in Europe and Asia, lived in Bali for 5 months and I’ve taken countless other trips around the world.

What’s the real reason I can do this?

I made friends with uncertainty. I’m not afraid of having my back against the wall and needing to figure things out doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. In fact sometimes it excites me, because I know my creativity and ingenuity is about to show me a new idea or possibility. I’m not rich, but I am resourceful.

I’m not alone in this. In fact, almost every traveler I’ve met on the road shares this quality of embracing the unknown. I haven’t met travelers who have it all worked out before, and have everything go as planned. The reason is, we don’t call these people travelers, we call them vacationers.

Traveling vs Vacationing

Do you know the real difference between travel and vacation? I didn’t, but I learned. In 2011 I was riding a bicycle through Europe and free camping along the way, which means we brought tents and when it got dark, we put them somewhere no one would find us (hopefully), then went to sleep and left the next morning.

I was being led by the fearless Nick Carleton. Nick is the kind of guy who doesn’t just avoid uncomfortable traveling, he seeks it out because it makes a good story. He tried to take a bicycle through the Darién Gap (look it up) and he’s about to construct his own raft and float on it down the entire length of the Amazon river in Brazil.

On one evening bicycling through Germany, it was pouring rain and it was getting dark. We were only a few weeks into our trip and I was missing the comfort of home. We all agreed that we should stop for the night, but there was no where to put our tents.

We came across a large concrete bridge, and Nick saw the opportunity for a good story about how rugged we were. We piled our sleeping bags next to a concrete pillar, where we were able to avoid getting wet (mostly). As I was trying to sleep with the occasional rain drop hitting my face I remember having the thought “I’m definitely not on vacation”.

To be honest I had never really traveled before, although I had been on many vacations. Traveling was different, there were big highs and big lows. Moments of pure bliss and moments of sheer agony. Here is a picture I took of our temporary home the next morning.


This is what traveling looks like.

It’s not four-star hotel room by the beach. In fact, the closest we got to a four-star hotel room was sneaking in to use the jacuzzi, and the closest I got to a hotel on the beach was sleeping on the beach in Greece with no tent where in the middle of the night someone came along and stole the bag with my passport, wallet and iPhone in it. It turned out to be simultaneously the most frustrating and beautiful day of my life. Funny how that works.

If traveling wasn’t uncomfortable, it wouldn’t be magical.

The part of traveling that makes it so magical is the uncertainty, and that can include how you afford it. Often I wonder what it would be like to travel with a lot of money and I actually think it might not be as fun. If I could use money to make any situation easier, would I really get to experience how creative I can be? Would it really be something worth telling my grandkids about? Traveling is about the beautiful moments you never expected would happen.

It’s using google translate to have a deep conversation and learn about someone’s heritage. It’s eating risky food, knowing you might get sick and end up at the hospital in a foreign country (which by the way is usually better and cheaper than medical care in the U.S.). It’s taking a crowded bus for twelve hours because it’s the only way to get to that city you want to visit. It’s having the most beautiful moment of your day be watching a three-legged Yak cross a busy intersection and thinking to yourself “my life isn’t bad” (that just happened).

I’m not saying vacations are bad, I’m just saying they are different. If you ask someone how they afford to take a vacation, they probably have a budget (and a job). If you ask someone how they afford to travel, their response might be “how could I afford not to?”

Vacations are about escaping.
Traveling is about diving in.

Traveling is about being willing to say yes to whatever life wants to show you. It’s about finding out who you are by leaving the bubble of your daily life. Michael Crichton said it so well in his wonderful and inspiring book Travels, a memoir of his extensive traveling.

Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes — with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.

Should you travel?

I’m not saying you should quit your job, throw caution to the wind and travel the world.


I don’t know what your individual situation is, maybe you have kids and you feel you can’t travel, maybe you have obligations that keep you from taking more than a few days off, maybe you look at your bank account and the idea of that number approaching zero ties your stomach in knots.

There are lots of people for whom traveling just won’t work. I don’t know what your life is like and I don’t know what you care about.

But the thing is…

I don’t know anyone who’s ever regret it.


You may also want to read the necessary follow up to this piece, The Self-Righteousness of Minimalism and Vagabonding

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