A Tale of Two Travel Archetypes: Breadth and Depth

by Keith Savage · 34 comments

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As I count the numerous days leading into the fall, I think about trips past and yet to come. In many ways they’re like tiny lives. They have beginnings and endings, and it’s up to travelers to determine how to spend the days in between those points, the arc of the experience. Will you spend your time bouncing from country to country, depositing a day in one metropolis and a couple days in a beachy chill-out spot before moving on to the next destination? Or are you planning to plant yourself in a temporary home, eager to drink in the sunrises of 30 days from the slopes of some long-extinct volcano?

Neither choice is wrong.

Travelers do what suits them, and this freedom is a large part of what we enjoy. I’m on the verge of kissing my 20s goodbye, and I’ve been on a lot of trips in the last decade. I’ve noticed my style of trip planning slowly changing over time: I want to slow down, to get a sense of a place, to wake up and do nothing there. The thought of hopping across 10 European cities on a whirlwind trip just ain’t how I want to plan these days. Why is that? Is it just me getting old? I’m inclined to disagree since I’m only frickin’ 29 (come on!). At some level this becomes an analysis of traveling for breadth or depth. Here’s my take:

Dislocating (aka Breadth)

Stringing together a series of one- to three-day stays is a trip designed to afford breadth of travel. It could be that your time is limited and you want to see as much as possible, that you don’t think you’ll get back to a given region, or that you’re just a hyperactive, ADHD-afflicted soul. This style of trip is for those seeking a constant feeling of foreignness and cultural dislocation. These trips are fantastic at providing a constant stream of exciting activities, but they can easily dissolve into tiresome excursions bent on checking sites off a list. As much as I enjoy Rick Steves’ books, take a look at some of his itineraries to see what I mean.

At the heart of this quest for dislocation is what feels to me like a desire to leave some thing or some situation. Each new city, park, and roadside pub yields a little dopamine explosion in your brain that prevents any extended rumination and introspection along the way. Returning home you feel dazed and breathless; after all, it’s the equivalent of a bender for travel addicts. Perhaps there’s a subconscious fear of boredom or need for stimulation that drives this style of travel, and few things quench that thirst like constantly drinking from a fountain of cultural differences. On the other hand, you might just be bored with your everyday life and need a change of scenery. And traveling for breadth is all about changes in scenery.

Discovering (aka Depth)

Planning weeks or even months in one place results in a trip primed for depth of travel. You get the pop and excitement of being on foreign ground, but the buzz fades as what was initially foreign slowly becomes familiar. This style of travel willfully eschews the surface experience of visiting many places for the richness, fidelity, and possible boredom of staying in a single destination. Sometimes travelers on this type of trip are on a personal pilgrimage, as if the disorientation and enlivening of travel acts as a cleansing fire clearing the path for understanding. As the foreign becomes familiar, new routines click into place and the template for how people live in a different part of the world starts to make sense. Who can predict the product of this time and experience?

The nature of a discovery trip is self-evident: the traveler means to find something. It could be as mundane as searching for a specific vintage of Carménère or as complicated as looking for meaning in your life. Extended trips afford you the ability to truly relax. Unburdened with the fears, responsibilities, and plans of home, the freedom creates the perfect condition for deep introspection and progress on the path to whatever it is you seek. There is something special about observing the pace of everyday life in some distant locale while remaining completely outside of it.

* * * * *

This is not a discussion of which style is better; dislocating and discovering simply work different travel “muscles.” I think the best trips are able to mix the two styles and sate both cravings. Round-the-world trips sound so fantastic because they periodically inject the excitement of dislocation into the personal development and introspection of discovery. For my part, I’m planning a series of deep, discovery trips in various destinations around the world over the next couple of years. I’d love to hear your suggestions. Oh, I’m sure I’ll need to dislocate myself everyone once in awhile to change up the pace, too.

How do you plan your trips? Do you have an overarching goal or principle? Do you prefer to dislocate or to discover?

Original photos by killerturnip, angus mcdiarmid, and Nick Bramhall, respectively, via Flickr under Creative Commons.

BrianNo Gravatar March 26, 2010 at 1:18 PM

Hey there, just came across your blog today. Like the post and looking forward to more of them. Cheers!

KeithNo Gravatar March 26, 2010 at 1:59 PM

Hey Brian, good to meet ya. Hope to see you around some more!

AlyNo Gravatar March 15, 2010 at 8:15 PM

Hmm since I’ve been an expat moving around the world with my family since a kid I have the extreme-ness problem of every time I get off a boat or plane in a new spot to assume I’ll be living there! Then in about 6-9 months I’m ready to move on. haha But we still have this discussion a lot, we both would love to see more but we also enjoy “living” a new place.
.-= Aly´s last blog ..We’re ALLLIIIIVE!!!!! =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 15, 2010 at 10:26 PM

I read your story on your blog – what an interesting childhood! Seems you’re more of a depth traveler looking for some more breadth. Not a bad place to be.

ayngelinaNo Gravatar March 15, 2010 at 8:03 PM

I think this is why I haven’t really planned much. I have an idea that I’d like to go through Central and South America and then possibly go to India but I’m open to the possibility that I may fall in love with a place and want to stay.
I’ve also done a lot of ‘breadth’ I’m looking for a little more depth on this rtw.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..My Trio of Travel Secrets =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 15, 2010 at 10:25 PM

The freedom of being able to stay in a place if you like it is something that’s been missing from my previous trips. I’ve been so focused on itineraries and getting from place to place there’s no latitude for deciding to add on a couple (or many) days.

Angela (Travel with a Purpose)No Gravatar March 15, 2010 at 7:27 PM

I am absolutely a slow, “depth” traveler by nature and given my druthers that is how I roll.

What cracks me up as is that I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved in the opposite direction, towards the “breadth” end of the spectrum. I owe that primarily to two external forces:

1. I’m working more traditionally (rather than seasonally) and can’t take 3 to 6 months off like I used to. Them were the days.

2. I’m traveling more for work, to visit programs sites and community-based tour programs. Traveling with a larger objectives list (things to see, people to meet) has by necessity propelled me onwards.
.-= Angela (Travel with a Purpose)´s last blog ..Green Gear from Nau Clothing’s Spring Collection & a Hoody Giveaway! =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 15, 2010 at 7:30 PM

Interesting situation – do you find yourself aching for those longer, deeper travel experiences? Your job sounds great in that it facilitates some form of travel. Hope to see you here again, Angela!

Angela (Travel with a Purpose)No Gravatar March 16, 2010 at 12:58 PM

I do find myself longing for the travel of yesteryear, staying in one village for a month if I want to. On the other hand, it’s exciting to have a bit more sense of purpose. And yes, I’m extremely lucky in that several aspects of my professional life send me out into the world here and there. Great post, Keith!
.-= Angela (Travel with a Purpose)´s last blog ..Green Gear from Nau Clothing’s Spring Collection & a Hoody Giveaway! =-.

MattNo Gravatar March 14, 2010 at 10:39 PM

I agree with the common consensus. There has to be a balance between the two types of travel you mention.

On my last extended trip away from home, I was on a working holiday in Ireland and Scotland. These both allowed me to be, “traveling,” yet after some time I began to feel part of the community and society I was living in. It’s a rush to begin to call someplace so foreign home. I ended my working holiday with a whirlwind, two month interrail tour where the longest I spend in any one place was three or four nights. Looking back, it was a perfect balance between the two.

Excellent post!
.-= Matt´s last blog ..Monday Escape: Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 15, 2010 at 2:18 PM

Your experience in the UK where you felt part of the community – that’s one of the types of experience I’m looking to achieve in my travels. Very cool.

GrayNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 7:19 PM

I’m always torn between both styles, but generally, because I have a limited period of time to travel, I do have a commando travel style. Though as I get older, I realize I can’t maintain that pace. It’s no good to go home more exhausted than when you left. I’m starting to learn to build time into my schedule to “do nothing,” as you say, and I’m finding that it’s often more enjoyable than rushing around checking things off my list. A balance of the two, I think, is just right for me.
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Snapshot of San Juan: The Nispero Tree =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 14, 2010 at 9:45 PM

Too many times have I come from a long trip only to feel more exhausted than when I left. Granted, it’s the good kind of exhaustion, but it’d be nice to feel re-energized coming home.

JoelNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 6:02 PM

I think most people can (and should) do both. There’s something to be said for seeing the world’s capitals and icons. Having done that, I’m now more interested in seeing all the small towns and daily life in a particular locale – especially those that see few travelers.

My challenge is the desire to do “all of the above” which could easily fill a lifetime.

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 6:09 PM

Yep, I’m right there with you Joel. Hopefully we can share some tips along the way.

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 5:49 PM

Since most of my trips were short, I was of the dislocation variety. I think you know my goal – this time it will be a slow motion exercise to take in surroundings and build new routines. I’m intrigued with your methodology – short, immersed trips then back home… until the next trip comes to fruition. Oh, what will happen? We’ll see. 🙂
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Is Lifestyle Redesign Elitist? =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 6:07 PM

I suppose “short” is relative; for me a month seems like a decent length, but I can see how it would seem short to those planning a round-the-world trip lasting a year or more. I’ll do my best to convey the struggles and victories of this style of travel I’m planning. It’s already causing me headaches trying to define it and what I’ll do while away in my destinations. The truth is that even the headaches are part of the fun, and that tells me I’ve found the right path.

AbbyNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 5:25 PM

Loved this discussion! You’re right — both types are great. And I know that. But definitely when I was backpacking a decade ago, I judged the “breadth” people. Thought they were commitment-phobes who were scared of scratching the surface. I’m currently on a vacation that turned into a three-month extended vacation — that has now gone on for seven months. But that’s just me! It’s not like I’d give up any of the three-day trips I’ve taken to other places. I love traveling, all of it. Thank you so much for this!
.-= Abby´s last blog ..New immigration law: who gets it? =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 6:01 PM

Hopefully your job back in the States isn’t looking for you! I think it’s great that you’ve been able to extend your trip to meet your needs. You must be loving Costa Rica.

Thanks Abby!

AkilaNo Gravatar March 12, 2010 at 6:02 PM

Great article, Keith. I think this is my favorite one that you have written so far. I agree with you. I think you need to both dislocate and discover on a trip to better understand any country. We were discussing this when we were in Cambodia — we spent 8 days in Siem Reap really discovering the temples and Angkor. Then, we hopped around from village to village for the next 4 days so that we could get a breadth of knowledge about village life without getting bored (because villages only have so much to see, after all). It worked well for us and kept our trip interesting.
.-= Akila´s last blog ..just another city: bangkok =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 5:55 PM

Akila – so glad you liked it! I imagine your journey through Cambodia must feel more full or well-rounded having enjoyed it they way that you did. Really a great example of mixing both dislocation and discovery.

Catia | Vagabond RootsNo Gravatar March 12, 2010 at 4:28 PM

I’ve travelled both ways but right now I’m very much about getting to know each place. I’ve been in Mexico a month and a half and have only seen 3 places, but I feel like I really learned something from each place.

It might change later as I travel and there are some places I can see myself going though faster, but like you said both styles have benefits in their own ways.
.-= Catia | Vagabond Roots´s last blog ..‘Adventures in Spenchlish’ or ‘Learning a Language for Travel’ =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 5:46 PM

Sounds like you’re traveling in the way I mean to, and with good results. I’ll check your blog out for the latest info. Thanks Catia!

floretaNo Gravatar March 12, 2010 at 12:16 PM

well you probably can guess which one I prefer!

frickin’ 29 (come on!).. that part made me chuckle!

i like depth because i think, by nature, i’m an introspective person and traveling or not, i’m always on a personal quest to better understand myself (and thus the world around me).

love it!

as far as how I plan my trips… I don’t. it really is a wonder I even got here… I’m a HORRIBLE planner. I prefer the ‘wherever the wind blows me’ technique of having no actual plans, which allows you the freedom to go anywhere at your own pace and set your own itinerary to *discover*!
.-= floreta´s last blog ..How to Learn a New Language in Adulthood =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 5:34 PM

I’ve always been slightly envious of travelers that naturally arrive and let events take them where they may. I’m trying to be more like that in my future trips, as I’m usually a hardcore planner.

floretaNo Gravatar March 14, 2010 at 11:02 AM

and I envious of travelers who can plan 😉
the grass is always greener eh??
don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being a free-spirit, but i definitely see planning as a valuable skill that i simply do not possess.

that being said, events where they may, i am now going on a four month zen buddhist retreat. 😀 how’s that for not planning and letting life see what it’s got to offer me? love it!!
.-= floreta´s last blog ..A Little More Zen =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 18, 2010 at 7:31 PM

Humans are eternal optimists. But the grass isn’t always greener, and it’s worth remembering that every once in awhile. Your retreat sound awesome – more power to you!

SuziNo Gravatar March 12, 2010 at 12:14 PM

Your article really speaks to me, as my husband and I have this conversation eternally!

My husband’s idea of a vacation is to cruise. Now, I like cruising, don’t get me wrong – it’s very relaxing and you have the opportunity to see many different places – but I always come home wishing I’d seen more of each place.

My idea of a vacation is to go somewhere and explore it thoroughly – to really experience the place, the people, the wildlife, the culture. I want to know it, inside and out (as much as that’s possible when you’re a visitor) . . .

Our solution? We trade off. One time we go on a cruise (absolutely loved the Mediterranean, but am hungering for more, more, more), and the next time we go land-based and focus in depth.

Works for us! 🙂

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 4:57 PM

Sounds like a nice compromise, especially considering you two seem to have very different ideas for what constitutes vacation. Have you been able to mix both styles in one trip?

SuziNo Gravatar March 17, 2010 at 3:30 PM

Hi Keith,
I had to think about your question for awhile.

I guess the closest thing to mixing both styles we’ve had so far (emphasis on “so far” 🙂 ) was our trip to Kenya. We were on safari, so we were moving from place to place (which spoke to my husband’s need to keep moving), yet at each place we spend most of our time exploring, game driving, experiencing, talking to the people who lived & worked there, which satisfied my desires to get better acquainted.

The best part of the trip was that we drove (with a guide from the Kikuyu people) from place to place, rather than flying – that gave us plenty of opportunity to see how and where the people lived as well as to ask questions of and have conversations with our guide, Daniel. I think that experience gave us more insight into Kenya!

My husband & I both remember Kenya as our favorite traveling experience … so far! 🙂
.-= Suzi´s last blog ..Mar 17, March Event: Yountville =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 18, 2010 at 7:32 PM

I bet Daniel’s insight really helped you feel connected to the place. I think this correlates with couchsurfing, and it’s why I’m excited to try it out on my next trip.

SuziNo Gravatar March 26, 2010 at 4:32 PM

You’re absolutely right! There’s nothing like having someone local to “show you the ropes”! I can’t wait to hear about your experiences!!
.-= Suzi´s last blog ..Mar 25, Warmer weather camping in March/April? =-.

Nathan - As We TravelNo Gravatar March 12, 2010 at 1:53 AM

wow – what a great article! You really got me thinking there, and it’s nice to read something which isn’t always tips, tricks, advice etc… thank you so much for sharing your thoughts – also will come back later and answer your questions :p

KeithNo Gravatar March 13, 2010 at 4:56 PM

Great to see you here, Nathan! I’ll be looking for your thoughts.

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