The Dirt on Experiential Travel

by Keith Savage · 20 comments

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The wonders of modern technology, specifically the modern forms of transportation, are at once a gift and curse to the traveler. The ability to go almost anywhere in the world in less than day would be science fiction if we weren’t so accustomed to it. Less than 200 years ago most people would have scoffed at the notion as a dream. It is a gift born of human ingenuity. But today, worldwide travel is often just another ubiquitous business expense or family holiday.

This freedom of movement has a dark side, however. One that is based on the commercialization of destinations by the tourism industry. Cities are explored for a day, two at most. Museums, churches, and castles become little more than items on a checklist. Views of a city are pre-packaged and fed to us as we follow the same worn out bootprints on to the next town, the next vista, the next continent.

Our trips are so often like stones skipping across the water: destination to destination, our experiences little more than ripples on the surface. This is satisfying in its own way; I’ve had my share of “around Europe in two weeks” trips and I loved every minute of them. But many travelers – myself included – seek a different experience.

The Experience

Is it that the more you travel the less satisfied you become with simply seeing a place? Is there a continuum of contentment upon which travelers move from “seeing” to “experiencing” the more they travel?

A few things happened that snapped some answers into place. First, my parents gave my wife a book for Christmas titled “The 100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life.” I flipped through the book and thought almost every trip was very cool. It dawned on me that what I’m looking for in travel is not just a place to go, but a place to go and learn. The introduction (or was it the back cover?) contained a phrase that really hit home: experiential travel. In an industry where niche is everything, I had found mine.

Second, I recently read a study that investigated the classification of travel into four different types of experience: entertainment, esthetics, education, and escapism. I found this particularly interesting given my new-found mission. Here’s how the study identified these experience categories:

  • Education, aka active absorption. Experiences are actively absorbed as a mental state. Examples given in the study include visiting art galleries or wineries since they can “increase your ability to be a connoisseur.”
  • Esthetics, aka passive immersion. These experiences appeal to the senses. While you’re engaged in this experience, your mind is immersed in the environment but it isn’t engaged in the same way as educational experiences. Examples include walking along a creek or visiting a historical site. Passive appreciation without active involvement is the bottom line.
  • Escapism, aka active immersion. Escapist experiences are those in which you have an effect on the outcome of an activity. For example, camping and playing golf.
  • Entertainment, aka passive absorption. In other words, you are an observer and have no effect on the experience. Attending a concert is a good example.

Ok, so why I did just bust out my Psych BA all crazy like? While I’m not entirely sold on this framework, it has given me a different perspective on the constituent components of a trip, and perhaps you’ll find some value in it (see it graphed here). I think most people seek to achieve a balance of these four experiences when they travel, but I know I tend toward a lot of “esthetics” and find “education” to be the most rewarding long-term.

Experiential Travel

You might be thinking, “Isn’t all travel experiential?” And I’d have hard time disagreeing with you. I don’t particularly like the term. It has an edge of snobbery, and it’s awfully broad. I’ve already found multiple definitions; some equate it with adventure travel while others chalk it up to volunteering or WWOOFing. The definition I like best, and the one that fits what I aim to do, comes from AFAR magazine’s website:

What is experiential travel? Experiences that connect you with the essence of a place and its people…simply seeing the sights is no longer enough. Experiential travelers want to venture beyond the beaten tourist paths and dive deeper into authentic, local culture, connecting with people from other cultures in ways that enrich their lives and create lasting memories.

Sounds like the kind of experience most people would like out of their travels, right? But how do you do that? Stick around here and and follow me as I learn the hard way. It’s going to be an interesting year.

In the meantime, have you gone on experiential travels? Help me out and share your experience!

9AE7YBWUJNZF Original photo: by Zach Dischner

DonatellaNo Gravatar June 23, 2012 at 8:12 AM

Great post! I have been working in the tourism industry for more than 20 years now, I have lived in many countries and travel a lot for business and choice. Making a deep experience out of each journey, either for myself or my clients has allways been my first thought, but I don’t think that experiential travel is a matter of time but it’s more the quality of the time you spend in a country. It depends on how much you are open towards the people, their culture and way of life. It is also very important to understand that there are many ways of life and not only one. I live in Italy, and I know for sure, that in each road there is different people, with different passions, interests and way of life… This doesn’t mean that they are “more” or “less” italians. Travellers as well will get a different experience depending on their attitude, interests, passions. For example a foodie will be more impressed and enter the everyday shopping at the fruit & vegie market, a sportie may appreciate more the possibility to travel everywhere by bike in one of our small cities… Experiential travel is a deep experience that touches our soul and changes it, and it is different for each of us, it’s not how much time but how I spend my tme there…

MargaretNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 2:27 PM

Great post. I think a large percentage of the baby boom generation has grown up traveling far an wide, whereas the generation before them did not. So there is indeed a growing dissatisfaction with ‘the beaten path’ and a desire for something different and more fulfilling. No more, “look kids, Big Ben, Parliament.”
I’ve found a lot of my members trying home exchanging for this very reason: it gets you into the heart of the place (someone’s home) versus a hotel in the tourist trap.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 5:41 PM

I love the new type of accommodations that have grown in popularity among travelers, communities like CouchSurfing, HomeAway, AirBnB, and Roomorama. While the world has become well-traveled, travelers are become more adventurous in their travel decisions.

Bob LNo Gravatar January 25, 2012 at 1:51 PM

I have had the good fortunate through my job as a Y professional to become immersed in a different culture through a Y to Y partnership. Our New Jersey based Y established a partnership with an emerging Y in the Republic of Macedonia. I have travelled to this beautiful Eastern European country five times; solo, with my family, and with three groups of teens. We have also hosted our Macedonian friends here in the US. Each stay in Macedonia typically lasted 10 days to 2 weeks and I lived for the most part in traditional Macedonian homes.

While the amount of time certainly plays a part in the quality of the experience, what’s more important, in my opinion, is the attitudes and the values we bring to the relationships. My understanding and appreciation of the Macedonian culture and way of life has become progressively more clear with each and every interaction. Quite frankly, I learned just as much from long, afternoon chats sipping macchiatos in an outdoor cafe, as I have climbing a steep mountain or visiting an ancient monestery.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 25, 2012 at 3:00 PM

Hi Bob, I think you note what experiential travel is all about – getting under the culture’s skin whatever way possible. Your trips to Macedonia sound like immersive, growing travel experiences. Awesome!

VarunNo Gravatar June 17, 2010 at 5:37 AM

I have been looking for a similar point of view for a while now. I completely agree with you Keith. Learning about culture and people is definitely experiential travel and your 4 points you mentioned in your other article is brilliant and definitely made me more aware of something that i knew in my subconscious.
However, i feel adventure, in the form of sports or trekking or whatever is also a part of experiential travel. The fact that one has such an intense emotional experience/rush in a different country brings a whole new identification with that place. So i think its a number of things – culture,adventure,local skills,festivals and events,food & wine.
I run a travel company as well and hope to cross paths in the near future!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 17, 2010 at 8:57 AM

Hi Varun, I wouldn’t disagree with you. Experiential travel as a term is very loose and open to many types of experiences (for better or for worse). Thanks for stopping by and good luck on your quest!

singlewithluggageNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 9:42 AM

Some of my best ‘experiential travel’ moments:
any one of several overnight trains in India- you get to know the family with whom you’re sharing the oversold beds. (skip first class for this experience)

hanging out with Tibetan Refugees in a mountain village in the Himalayas after an injury forced my friends to leave me behind for a week of recuperation.

2 months hitchhiking between Paris and Matalascanas (via Barcelona) and back. People took us into their vehicles, their homes, their lives. We stayed 3 days as guests in someone’s country home outside of Barcelona. I learned to make paella and gazpacho!

Chitwan National Park: I took the time to talk to a boy and his elephant “Lakshmi’ one night. The two of them are together 24 hrs./day. I spent the entire next day with him, learning about elephants. When Lakshmi let me step on her trunk and lifted me to her back for a bareback ride amongst the black rhinos… well, it was heaven.

The list goes on and on. Each off the beaten track experience comes as a result of the energy you put out- always ALWAYS take time to really notice people. When you’re genuinely interested in knowing someone, they usually seem pretty eager to reciprocate.

Great piece. Makes me want to get on the road again ASAP!!
.-= singlewithluggage´s last blog ..From Slow Burn to Sole Burner =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Thank you for sharing these experiences. They sound really memorable, especially Chitwan National Park with the elephant…man. Yes, pay attention. That’s so critical.

SuzyNo Gravatar April 7, 2010 at 11:10 AM

Great post. I agree with you about the AFAR definition. Although I think experiential travel can happen going anywhere, even Disneyland. No matter where I go, there is some experience or exchange where I feel closer to a place than just sightseeing. I think a lot of it stems from just being open to this sort of travel rather than glazing over experiences while en route to see Mickey or the Eiffel Tower. However, I do firmly believe that you can’t know a place or destination unless you go live there for awhile and surround yourself with locales. Getting to know the people that live that place daily is experiential travel for me. That is why I stayed with host families all throughout Italy. I have these burning memories of nightly dinner conversations about Italian life, something I wouldn’t have had if I stayed in a hotel or apartment.
.-= Suzy´s last blog ..Suzy Stumbles Over Travel: Week of April 5, 2010 =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 1:36 PM

I think we share the same beliefs. Though you know, maybe the challenge should be “getting to know a place” in a short period of time, to see if it can be done…

KeithNo Gravatar January 26, 2010 at 9:27 AM

Gray, you bring up even more to chew on! Interesting contention that you need at least several months to achieve this understanding. Is this really a function of time, or will the right mindset and tactics offset that? I don’t know the answer, but it will be an incredible ride finding out.

GrayNo Gravatar January 25, 2010 at 11:53 AM

Fascinating article, Keith. It’s a lot to chew on. I hadn’t heard of the classifications of travel before. Although real life experience has taught me that you can’t pigeonhole people or experiences so easily. Nor would we want to do that, I think. It seems there’s a dichotomy between wanting to “see the world” and yet also wanting the in-depth locals experience. In order to truly experience a place like the locals do, you need to do more than hang out with locals for a week or two. You need to stop, settle down and live there for at least a few months. You need to know what it feels like to face boredom at the end of the day in that place. Learn about the local politics, allow yourself to feel the way the locals do about various issues. In other words, be a citizen of that place, and not just a visitor.

But if you do that, you certainly won’t see all the places you want to see in a year. It would take a lifetime. It’s a conundrum, but a good one, to constantly seek that balance between seeing as much as possible and experiencing things in depth. As long as we don’t find that which we seek, we’ll keep seeking (or in this case, traveling). 🙂
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Recommended Reads, January 24, 2010 =-.

KeithNo Gravatar January 23, 2010 at 3:58 PM

@Sofia: I haven’t done a homestay but I think it’s an excellent option and one that I’ll add to my arsenal. Thanks for the suggestion.

@Shawn: You make a good point about allowing yourself to see the “negative” side of things. The tourist paths typically are built around highlights with no room for lowlights. Perhaps we’re missing out by not allowing ourselves to experience the full picture.

ShawnNo Gravatar January 23, 2010 at 8:35 AM

Learning a culture takes time. Most travelers are traveling very fast, and with the ego in the forefront to avoid their loneliness and boredom. The focus is based on how many countries they are hitting and getting pictures.

But, to enrich your travels with the depths of culture you have to travel slow and not care about time and have an unselfish interest in others. Because, if you don’t have an interest in others and their culture, most likely you will be invited in to a home, or come across a situation that allows an extended stay.

Throughout the last two years I only traveled 8 countries. I started in Egypt and stayed 5 months. Here in Bulgaria it worked out that I will have stayed a year when I leave in April of this year.

Quality outweighs quantity unless the ego is involved.
In addition, a person must be able to admit to the negative, because within the depth of the culture the negative resides and most travelers refuse to identify the negative. Have you noticed not many travel bloggers write about the depths of culture?
One great way to spend time in an area is to house-sit.

Experiential travel = Extended quality Time in each country.
.-= Shawn´s last blog ..The Village Life, Part Seven, The Traditional Side including a Border Run. =-.

SofiaNo Gravatar January 22, 2010 at 1:42 PM

I agree, many of us are looking for something else than ancient buildings, museums and food to remember. We want to get closer than just seeing the place we visit through a “window”, we want to be inside!

Ever done a homestay?

KeithNo Gravatar January 22, 2010 at 8:56 AM

@Joe: Thanks for posting! I’m looking forward to reading your magazine.

Joe DiazNo Gravatar January 21, 2010 at 10:03 PM


Great post! Best of luck. I hope we can help inspire your travels.


KeithNo Gravatar January 20, 2010 at 9:51 PM

@Nomadic Chick: I think every experience is a mixture of these four categories, though experiential travel definitely seems to fall in the active categories (escapism, education). Really cool that there’s a whole group of experiments looking into the psychology of travel.

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar January 19, 2010 at 11:45 PM

Well crafted article, Keith. One could theorize that experiential travel is a corollary between all4 categories. It strikes me that firsthand exposure to local culture could be peppered with any or all 4 choices. Would you say each category covers an extreme? I completely agree that the definition is muddy. Many tout volunteering as experiential, but that type of travel means you arrive to serve a particular function. Wow, you have my brain fizzing with ideas. Look most forward to reading more on this. 🙂
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Tips – Savings and Banking =-.

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