Skimming an infographic about selecting a vacation spot, I did a double take when I saw Step 1: “First assign priorities to your interests and based on how the destinations add up to your interests, score them.” To me, that was like saying, “Want to become a real estate mogul? First, make a million dollars. Next…” Whoa, there! I think we’d better slow down and unpack Step 1 a bit before moving on.
Few of us start with a clear idea of what we actually hope to get out of a trip. Unless we’re running through a personal checklist, such as photographing America’s national parks in alphabetical order or playing Scotland's top 10 golf courses, there are usually lots of interests and priorities jostling for attention. Beautiful scenery! Great food! Congenial companions! Social media bragging rights! The list goes on and on.
“The business of going on holiday,” says Alain de Botton, “is rarely examined from anything other than a bluntly practical point of view. We hear no end of talk about where we should go. What gets less attention is why.” So perhaps a more useful Step 1 would be identifying the reason we’re packing a bag and walking out our front door. To do that, we’ll want to consider what we find genuinely satisfying — and what we don't.
1. What activities/trips have left you feeling great in the past? If none, which have made you feel the most terrible? Say your travel companion keeps mentioning Hawaii. How do you feel about long, lazy days on the beach? Are they likely to restore your deepest sense of wellbeing? Bore you to tears? Or — and this one comes from personal experience — be spent trying to ignore your dermatologist’s voice whispering in your ear, “More sunblock! Put your hat back on! In fact, cover every inch of skin with 100+ SPF protective clothing! Do it now!” Honesty counts. Are you really excited about touring the Pro Football Hall of Fame or secretly longing to hit Vegas for the sci-fi convention in your Captain Kirk uniform?
2. What kinds of people would you most like to connect with on the journey? Do you enjoy hanging out with wildcard nomads in communal lodgings such as hostels and Couchsurfing sites? Want to rub shoulders with the rich and famous in trendy resorts? Find yourself drawn to local families running traditional farms and cottage industries? Some of my fondest travel memories involve chance conversations in settings ranging from Bulgarian hostels to Bhutanese monasteries to up-market Transylvanian guest houses. I find that I am happy in just about any environment that has oddball characters who are willing to talk. Rich and I are going to Cuba in February, and we were thrilled to learn our hosts have arranged for us to participate in a local dominos tournament. How are my dominos skills? Abysmal. But who cares?
3. How do you want this trip to change you? For some, it’s enough just to feel rested. For younger travelers, the goal may be to become a worldly-wise, unutterably cool sophisticate and sexual virtuoso — or at least to come back with a few stories and selfies that suggest this miraculous transformation occurred. For me, the best result is enjoying the zingy sense of being more fully alive, connected to the word, and present to the moment. At journey’s end, I want to walk back through my front door and look at my surroundings and my life with fresher, more appreciative eyes.
Of course, you might not want to bother with any of this soul-searching; in fact, you may already be Googling articles with titles like "The 10 Hottest Vacation Destinations for 2016!" But I find that kind of one-size-fits-all, ready-shoot-aim tourism seldom has optimal results. I want to come home with more than a suntan (which in my case is usually a blend of sunburn and heat rash), a depleted wallet, and a vague sense of letdown.
We all know there’s no such thing as a perfect vacation; every trip worth taking involves mysteries, surprises, and the peculiar challenges Kurt Vonnegut calls “dancing lessons from God.” But it is this very sense of mystery and suspense that keeps us turning the pages of our own travel journals, eager to see what’s going to unfold in the next chapter. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we catch a glimpse of what the poet Rumi meant when he said, “Travel brings power and love back into your life.” And that is a worthy objective indeed.
What helps you choose a travel destination? Any thoughts on what makes for a successful or a disastrous holiday? I'd love to hear from you!
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel