Taking the Road Slow Traveled
Immersing yourself in a different culture can be more satisfying than staying at a sterile resort or racing from town to town
Travel for most of us falls into two categories: vacations and trips.
Vacations are when daily life has you stressed to the max, so you arrive at your destination to relax and do as little as possible the entire time you're there.
Trips are when you think you may be at a special place only once in your life, so you rush around trying to cram in as many activities, excursions and photo ops as possible.
Each approach comes with its own problems. Vacationers often spend the first few days of their time off unwinding and the last few days thinking about the problems waiting for their return. People on comprehensive, don't-miss-anything trips can be so exhausted by the last day that they feel they need a vacation.
What Is Slow Travel?
The good news is there's a new form of travel popular among the 50-plus set that hits a happy medium between these two extremes. It's called slow travel.
Slow travel emphasizes staying in one place long enough to connect with the local people, culture, food and music.
Inspired by the slow food movement that began in Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to the proliferation of fast food restaurants, slow travel started, well, slowly. It has accelerated significantly since the COVID pandemic turned travel upside down and Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, the world's first hotel school, expects it to grow 10% per year.
Slow travel emphasizes staying in one place long enough to personally connect with the local people, culture, food and even music. While purists advocate avoiding touristy spots in favor of locations more off the beaten path, there are no hard and fast rules. You decide where, how, and for what period of time to apply these basic principles:
- Travel independently. With large, organized tours, participants travel together, lodge together and eat together. Historical context and architectural highlights are selected by one person, the tour guide. While slow travel can involve small-group tours within specific geographic areas, the goal is to enable travelers to independently participate in a rich and meaningful experience.
Forget about bouncing from attraction to attraction snapping photos all day every day in a whirlwind "greatest hits" frenzy.
- Stay, eat, and buy local. Forego the international chains and book your stay in a locally owned hotel, B&B, or Airbnb. Tap into the knowledge of guides and drivers with deep roots in the community. Sample regional delicacies in a restaurant where you're the only foreigner in sight. Cherish the skill of the indigenous weaver who crafted the embroidered poncho you just purchased.
Insider tip: Look into the possibility of house sitting for a local family. In exchange for keeping an eye on their home and probably caring for a pet, you'll have free accommodations and maybe even the use of a vehicle.
- Don't overschedule. Forget about bouncing from attraction to attraction snapping photos all day every day in a whirlwind "greatest hits" frenzy. With slow travel you purposely leave gaps in your itinerary to be spontaneous, perhaps by planning one activity and leaving the rest of the day to freely explore. Or resisting the urge to "stay on schedule" by leaving an entire day open.
Why to Consider Slow Travel
- Richer experiences. Have you ever found yourself looking at travel photos trying to figure out where the heck you were? Or what you are even looking at? And you've only been home a week?
Savoring each day. Having stories to tell for years to come about a meal shared in a local's home. Remembering the taste of the fresh artisanal goat cheese you bought at a small farm. Returning home energized instead of exhausted. That's slow travel.
- Cheaper trips. It may seem counterintuitive that an extended stay in one place might save you money. Often the biggest travel expense is getting to and from your destination. The more stops you make, the more money you spend.
Besides minimizing transportation costs, multi-week stays frequently come with substantial discounts. Airbnb has a dedicated site for bookings longer than 27 days with savings of 30% or more versus the daily rate.
Insider tip: Don't be shy about asking the host for an even better rate, especially if the calendar for the listing is empty. A "no" costs you nothing.
- Relaxed pace. What slow travel definitely is not is "speed traveling" for a longer period of time. Especially for older travelers, it's important to pencil in adequate rest and relaxation between activities to avoid burnout.
How to Be a Slow Traveler
As full-time travelers for the past several years, we've practiced slow travel without knowing it was a "thing." The benefits were evident during a recent European visit when we spent two weeks each in Lisbon, Madrid, Bordeaux and Paris.
Consider planning your slow travel during "shoulder season," the period between peak and off-peak months.
A more leisurely pace in these popular cities with tons of attractions allowed us to take in all the sights, randomly wander through interesting neighborhoods, and guiltlessly do nothing on days we needed to rest. Sometimes we planned our own outings, but when it made more sense, we didn't hesitate to book a guided excursion. Purists we are not!
If slow travel sounds intriguing, here are some ideas to get you started:
- Set a leisurely pace. Looking to visit a bucket list destination? Decide what you want to see and do, then figure out the shortest amount of time your trip would take if you were in nonstop attack mode. Then either increase the length of your travel (if possible, double it), or scale back your itinerary.
- Choose dates wisely. Consider planning your slow travel during "shoulder season," the period between peak and off-peak months. In most areas of the world this is the spring and fall. Crowds are gone, the weather is glorious and prices are lower. More of that, please!
- Pick affordable spots. Are your vacation days or budget limited? Narrow your list of potential destinations to places where you can enjoy an immersive experience without a major investment of time or money. We spent a month in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a popular retirement spot, last autumn and had a blast touring the Amish countryside and nearby historical sites.
A Different Approach
Twenty years ago 1,000 Places to See Before You Die sounded like a great idea. However, many of us have concluded that passport stamp collecting is too exhausting a hobby to continue pursuing.
Slow travel focuses more on custom designing the journey. It's truly a metaphor for a different approach to life: Take your time. Be present. Connect to your surroundings. Practice environmental consciousness. Create meaningful moments.
If you are ready to make your future travel adventures more memorable, relaxed and enjoyable, join us on the road slow traveled.