5 Guilty Travel Thoughts and How to Defeat Them

by Keith Savage · 17 comments


It seems like every night for the past two months my mind has been sprinting through a mental marathon that lasts into the wee hours of the morning. Maybe it’s the coffee I consistently slurp down each day at work or the 5,000 IUs of D3 I started taking to feed my sunlight-starved body due to my cave-like office and northern climes. Maybe. But I’m fairly certain it’s good old fashioned excitement. You know, the 8-year-old on Christmas morning variety that teeters between joyful exultation and crushing disappointment.

Standing in the way of that joyful possibility is the sheer number of tasks that need doing and problems that need solving. The maelstrom is paralyzing. So I’ve been setting goals and attempting to approach this monumental effort in an organized fashion. There’s been a lot of thinking, too. Like sitting on the couch staring at the floor thinking. As I contemplated my ultimate goal I started to feel, of all things, guilt. Guilt on several levels. Was this the residual effect of a Catholic upbringing? Was it my internal editor’s latest Machiavellian attempt to bump me off this trajectory? I don’t know, but at least there’s a silver-lining: if you’ve ever felt the hot ember of guilt burning inside, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re probably not a psychopath.

Without further exposition, here are my 5 guilty travel thoughts and how I defeated them:

1. My carbon footprint will crush the planet. All that flying from country to country, bus rides, rental cars – you name it. If it makes travel easy then it’s probably waging war on the ozone layer. And as a green-conscious citizen the thought of a Shaq-sized carbon footprint causes me some severe cognitive dissonance. Thankfully, there are many organizations dedicated to helping people maintain carbon neutrality, such as BeGreen and Carbon Footprint (please post other reputable orgs in the comments, folks!). I needed to level with myself though: was I leading a carbon neutral lifestyle now? Honestly, no. Day-to-day it’s equally–if not more–important to keep your footprint small. It’s really easy to not notice or ignore how much CO2 your lifestyle produces. Start with your daily driving habits, heating schedule, recycling practices, and purchasing decisions. Traveling is a great time to consider your impact on the environment, it’s just not the only time.

2. If I tell anyone about this place I will ruin its sanctity forever. There have been times in my travels when I could have mistaken my surroundings for Valhalla, Elysium, or any number of other conceivable heavens. They are moments of perfection that could only exist then, with the specific mixture of events that lead you to that place. Sometimes it feels so magical that your presence alone taints it! If you’re a travel writer/journalist/photographer the feeling is magnified: how can you tell anyone about this place without forever destroying it? First, get a hold on your ego man. People will come regardless, despite your best efforts to persuade or dissuade. You might hasten the arrival of some, but your words hardly have the power to defile so thoroughly and permanently. Phew…relax and be thankful that you don’t possess such awesome power.

3. I never ventured off the pages of my favorite guidebook. I’ve had this trip. In fact, I’ve been the type of traveler most guidebook publishers love. I usually buy 3-4 books for a place, cross-check recommendations, and I generally feel safer choosing an option found nestled in their pages. This one’s pretty easy to dash from you mind though – set limitations for yourself. Make it a goal to only use guidebooks for certain purposes. Ramble around when you go out looking for dinner or drinks. Even if you wind up eating or drinking at a place mentioned in a guidebook, the fact that you found it on your own will be immensely more satisfying.

4. I’m not broadening my horizons. “Oh, you’re going back to [insert country here]? Huh…yeah, didn’t you go there last summer?” How many times have you heard that? For me, more than a few. Look there’s nothing wrong with repeatedly going back to your favorite place, but it can cause turmoil if Jiminy Cricket is telling you to go someplace new and challenging. If you decide to follow your heart and return, the trick is to make sure this visit is sufficiently different from previous visits. If you think you won’t learn anything new or grow as a person because you’ve been to a country or city before, then you are seriously underestimating the complexity of the destination and horribly wasting your own creativity.

5. I don’t deserve this experience. I thought about this one a lot and,  well, who does? If you put in the work and dedicate the time needed to make this dream a reality, then you officially deserve the experience. What about all the people loaded down with debt and locked into their ho-hum 9-5ers, trading years of their lives for chunks of paid-down interest? The fact is that consistently traveling for extended periods of time is feasible–not easy–for everyone. Regardless of your situation, if you make it happen you deserve it.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

Has guilt assailed you during your travels? What flavor did it come in and how did you get past it?

Original photo by sergeant killjoy via Flickr.


karenzoNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 7:38 PM

More like a 9 to 9 world. I worked in advertising in NYC. Thanks for the congrats. It’s just feels really good to be doing what I’m doing right now. We’ll see what comes of it all, when I return back home in the Spring.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 6, 2010 at 7:55 PM

9-9, I hear ya. That time commitment is often hidden in salaries.

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karenzoNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 6:45 PM

Ahhhh guilt! I am a classic #4 and #5. How dare I at 36 presume to believe that, having returned in December from 2 1/2 wonderful months in South America, that I can head back in February instead of finally, at long last, settle back in and find a JOB?? What will going to the Galapagos or the beautiful beaches of Canoa or summiting Copotaxi do to help me reach my as-of-yet unspecified career goals? Um, nothing. But I can’t help it. It feels good to just be enriching my life. As a good friend reminded me, when we are lying on our death bed which will surely be one day soon, we will not regret the things we did, but the things we did not. That has now become my guiding mantra.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 9:37 PM

Sounds like you’re living the good life. Congrats! By the way, that’s a solid mantra. Did you come from the 9-5 world prior to this extended bit of travel?

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Daniel NollNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 3:52 PM

The fact that you are thinking in these self-aware terms is victory in itself. (Though some might argue that self-awareness is a double-edged sword.)

A thought to rein in some of your guilt: That you are thinking about these issues (and writing about them) probably means that you act on a few of them. And since you are acting on a few of them, your influence is likely more positive than so many others who are not even giving them a second thought.
.-= Daniel Noll´s last blog ..From Bangkok to Buenos Aires, For the Love of Public Transport =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 9:12 PM

Good to see you here, Daniel! I appreciate the positive reinforcement 😉

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AdamNo Gravatar February 2, 2010 at 8:28 PM

I’ve thought a lot about #1 as well. That’s why I started eating less meat (apparently it’s a big factor in C02 production) in preparation for my trip. Plus it’s healthy. And good for the environment!
.-= Adam´s last blog ..Work Sucks! Be Calm. =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 4, 2010 at 12:47 PM

Good for you man! I’m impressed when people make this switch – I think it’s probably one of the harder choices to make.

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SonyaNo Gravatar February 2, 2010 at 2:05 PM

Thanks for the awesome post! It’s so true that travelers can often make positive, simple changes to defeat guilty travel thoughts.
.-= Sonya´s last blog ..New Global Voluntours For 2010 =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 2, 2010 at 4:30 PM

Good to see you here, Sonya. Thanks for posting!

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SofiaNo Gravatar February 1, 2010 at 3:06 AM

As soon as I come back home, the fear of the tall poppy syndrome sneaks in. I never talk much about my trips with friends and family, because I’m afraid they’ll get jealous or think that I’m bragging. I almost feel guilty that I’ve travelled, that I’ve seen and experienced some amazing things, so I choose not to mention them.

interesting post Keith, I can relate to many of the thoughts in your post.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 1, 2010 at 10:56 AM

Sofia, can you describe “tall poppy syndrome” to me? Yes, I understand why you don’t tell your family and friends about your trips. That, however, has never stopped me in the past 😉 I think it’s all in the delivery.

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NeepsNo Gravatar January 30, 2010 at 7:39 AM

My travels have been limited but, hopefully, will be more frequent in the future. My overwhelming feeling wasn’t guilt but an almost child-like wonder. I kept asking myself how I could be so lucky as to be there. I think one of the greatest personal benefits of traveling in other countries and cultures is that it is an antidote for the ethnocentrism that runs so strongly in the American psyche.

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KeithNo Gravatar January 30, 2010 at 3:30 PM

I agree. Perhaps international traveling should be pushed harder while kids are in school. Specifically at the elementary and middle-school stages.

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Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar January 30, 2010 at 12:06 AM

I am number #1 lately. If eco travel is of interest to me, then how to overcome those transportation methods you aptly pointed out?? Ugh, it’s not easy, yet your suggestions alleviate some of my guilt. 🙂 As for being deserving, I qualify. The next Gypsy Wednesday will shed light on that score.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Bits and Bytes =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar January 30, 2010 at 3:29 PM

Looking forward to reading that!

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