Digging Into Experiential Travel

by Keith Savage · 20 comments


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A few months ago I broke ground on the idea of experiential travel as the structure for my future travels. In the time since that post, I’ve read a lot about the topic, proceeded to get extremely confused, and started dissecting the term so I could get a closer look at its inner parts. The magic of Google Alerts has marched a hilarious assortment of articles classified as experiential travel through my e-mail, everything from interactive gin displays in airports to sex tourism in Thailand and everything in between. The phrase is gaining popularity, but in a faddy wild west kind of way where just about any activity can be classified as “experiential travel.”

These events served only to distance me from the original spark of affirmation. After all, it wasn’t the allure of the term that grabbed me; it was a definition I read that closely mirrored how I was feeling about travel. Given the general cloudiness surrounding the idea, I started digging for the cornerstone themes – something, anything to help me organize my travel approach and to share with all of you. I might be a little dusty and mud-spattered, but I present some rules that would look excellent chiseled into a stone block.

Rule #1: Invest in Details

Experiential travel requires me to be a student of travel and everyday life. The magnificent brain is able to process a finite amount of information at any one time. This “mental RAM” focuses on new incoming information and relegates the vast majority of other familiar information to a rarely noticed “memory cache.” Unfortunately, many of the unique details of a place are lost when this happens. Counteracting this natural process requires deliberate action, so I came up with a simple series of reminders to read on my trips:

  • Assume nothing is commonplace or routine
  • Observe with concentration
  • Notice the details of my surroundings
  • Pay attention and solotask as much as possible
  • Find wonder in what appears mundane

Following these basic tactics should help me have deeper and richer experiences.

Rule #2: Question Everything

Be child-like in inquisition. Much of the mundane typically slides right past me, and incredible stories hide therein. Why does the city use trams instead of buses? How come the buildings on that side of the street are three feet lower than the buildings on the other side? Why do all of the buildings use terra cotta shingles? Observations that would normally not be given much attention could send me on engaging mini quests. Now I can find answers to just about anything in minutes thanks to our benevolent god, Google, but experiential travel isn’t about the answers. It’s about the process that leads to the answers. When I keep asking “Why?” I often find that my knowledge is a thin crust covering a vacuum eager to be filled. Trade the sterility of a Google search for legwork and conversation.

Rule #3: Foster New Routines

Experiential travel is largely an exercise in cultural adoption and absorption. It is an attempt to see the world from a different point of view. I need to maximize my “sponginess,” and to do this I have to put my normal routines, my standard culture, in storage. When abroad, eat, sleep, work, and play like the people around me. Assimilate. Let go of preconceived definitions of the world. It’s OK to redefine myself; I can have multiple definitions. Why not? Words do.

Rule #4: Slow Down

Slow travel is the binding agent, the ingredient that leavens this experiential travel bread. When I travel too fast, I’m constantly looking ahead to my next stop and never around. Unallocated time is not wasted time, it’s time given the opportunity to surprise me. Unwind and focus on the present (see rule #1). Enjoy the miniature pleasures in life that are invisible at high speeds. Slowing time down makes the preceding rules much easier to follow.

There you have it. Four commandments of experiential travel. Now that you know how I define it, tell me if you think I missed some rules. Do you try to follow these rules in your travels now?

Original photo by Wessex Archaeology via Flickr under Creative Commons


AudreyNo Gravatar May 3, 2010 at 8:36 PM

When I studied abroad at University, I choose an “experiential learning” program in France and this helped define how I travel today. The whole idea was that if you wanted to learn about something, go to the source and ask questions. So, if we were talking about religion in France we would meet with a priest. If we talked unemployment and economy, we went to an unemployment center. This completely meshes with your four commandments above. For me, the most important thing with travel is to be curious and question everything.
.-= Audrey´s last blog ..Torres del Paine Trek: 6 Days, 6 Lessons, Many Photos =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Hi Audrey – very cool examples. It seems so simple and obvious in some ways, going and talking to those who experience what you’re investigating, but the internet is such a huge and hard to ignore crutch these days. Yes, it saves you time, but what are you doing with that saved time? Thanks for the comment!

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GrayNo Gravatar May 3, 2010 at 9:08 PM

I’ve never studied experiential learning, but I imagine traveling to a radically different culture would help put you in the correct frame of mind for it, just by virtue of everything being so different. Slowing down, in my opinion, is the most crucial of these steps–if you can’t slow down, you probably can’t do the rest. Sadly, the way I’ve been traveling–a week here, a week there, never knowing if I’ll return to a place–doesn’t lend itself to experiential learning. But it’s all I’ve got right now, so I’ll take it.
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Shiny Travel Objects: May 2, 2010 =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 1:34 PM

Slowing down definitely makes the other rules easier to follow. While being in a foreign culture does put me in a receptive frame of mind, it also creates information overload if you’re on a fast schedule.

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SuzyNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 6:37 PM

I definitely think slowing down and questioning are huge parts of experiential travel.If you spend one night in a place and say you saw it seems like a lie to me. Somewhat along the same lines as your “foster new routines”, I think you need to talk to people, live with locals, etc. The most I ever discovered about a place did not come from just reading, preparing, or even viewing the surroundings, but actually living with locals and experiencing how they view their home aka my destination.
.-= Suzy´s last blog ..Suzy Stumbles Over Travel: Week Of May 3, 2010 =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 5, 2010 at 9:44 AM

Maybe “saw it” is accurate; “know it” maybe not so much. You’re preaching to the choir here Suzy! :)

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Emily @ Maiden VoyageNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 7:56 PM

I really agree with your four ‘pillars’ here. As I grow older, I realized the importance of slowing down. In so many of my past trips, I have focused on seeing as many places as possible rather than truly experiencing a place and culture. I wouldn’t have thought of making the concept of asking questions a part of this list, but I think it’s definitely important. Some cultures do things because they are just tradition (we all have things that we do but don’t know why we do them– just because our parents or grandparents did!), but it is always intriguing to take the time and find out why things work the way I do. Being observant really is key. Travelers who do that will have such a richer experience than those who just pop in for a quick trip and don’t bother to pay attention to the details or take the time to wonder why things are different there!
.-= Emily @ Maiden Voyage´s last blog ..Q&A With Irish Backpacker and Blogger Johnny Ward =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 5, 2010 at 9:50 AM

Hi Emily! It’s funny when you realize that you have no idea why you do something the way you do. It can be hard to notice these things, and it’s this same ability to notice the “unnoticeable” that is really valuable when traveling. Thanks for commenting!

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JayNo Gravatar May 5, 2010 at 9:14 PM

Slowing done, for me, is probably the most important. I think most people have a nature tendency to want to pack in everything that they can and move at a blistering pace. This is really indicative of western society as whole and it is no wonder that we spend our holidays or relax time by by doing anything but taking it easy.

But when you slow down you really have a chance to see more. Not more in the sense of more things, but in the sense of seeing what you do experience more deeply.
.-= Jay´s last blog ..Making Changes in your Life One at a Time =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 6, 2010 at 4:25 PM

Good point that our fast travel style is reflective of our western way of life. Those deep roots make it all the more difficult to slow down. Step one is remembering to slow down. Thanks Jay!

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ayngelinaNo Gravatar May 5, 2010 at 10:21 PM

I’ve noticed even in just a month that my approach to traveling has varied. In some cities I just decided to do the tour and get out, and then in others I didn’t want to do any tours, I just wanted to live in the city rather than travel through it.

Your journey in experiential travel will be interesting to read.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..When you should get a tour guide =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 6, 2010 at 4:26 PM

I can’t believe you’re already three weeks into your trip. Time flies. Hope it’s turning out to be what you hoped!

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AndiNo Gravatar May 9, 2010 at 2:17 PM

I’ve never heard of this kind of travel before. Thank you for opening my eyes to something new. :)
.-= Andi´s last blog ..imgp2629 =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 2:13 PM

My pleasure Andi. If you give it a shot please let me know!

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ConstantineNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 9:47 AM

Although a luxury travel agent, I am also new to experiential travel and realize that this might be the “future”. The way I define it is: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. I agree with Suzy mentioning the need to not just travel, but ‘mingle’ with the locals, experience the way they live, the food they eat, etc.

Be that as it may, I just found out that experiential travel gives a whole new meaning to the luxury travel industry. To such an extent, that the (new) luxury, adventure, gastronomy and cultural tourism, come under “experiential” travel. A number of industry executives even created a travel show in Marrakesh, Morocco, just for the purpose: http://www.purelifeexperiences.com

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 3:21 PM

Hi Constantine. I, too, think experiential travel will continue to grow in popularity as the world around us becomes more and more manufactured. It’s a question and quest for authenticity at the heart of this travel style. I question the motives of travelers who are not interested in the customs of the chosen destination.

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ElenaNo Gravatar April 19, 2011 at 6:15 AM

Hi Keith,
I really like your 4 basic rules and your thought on Experiential Travel! Our company has been banging about Experiential and Transformational travel for a long time. I see you were questioning what Experiential Travel really means. Well, for us, it’s “a journey away from home, involving a truly memorable and powerful experience (active, cultural, natural, social or spiritual) that will enrich a person’s life and improve the way they connect with both loved ones and with the world”. Our founder, Serge Dive, realized there was a gap in the market and therefore founded PURE Life Experiences (the name says it all!). We create a marketplace where suppliers and private travel designers in the experiential travel arena can meet, create strong bonds, conduct business, and ultimately and most importantly enrich people’s lives! We believe Experiential travel is definitely the way forward and are glad to see that travellers like you agree!! All the best, Elena http://fb.me/purelifeexperiences

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 19, 2011 at 9:06 AM

Hi Elena. I’ve come to see experiential travel as a natural way of being you take on as you travel more. Once you stop thinking about your trip as “the only” or “the last,” you start to relax and start to slow down. That’s where experiential travel begins to take over.

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