One man’s opinion
Vacation or travel?

Warning:  this page contains unsubstantiated personal opinion.  Your viewpoint may vary.

For the past 40 years, whenever we return from a trip, people often ask “Did you have a nice vacation?”  It’s an obvious question and I always appreciate the interest.  However, sometimes I wanted to stop and explain the difference between vacation and travel, but I never have done so.  Finally, here’s my chance!

According to one dictionary:  “Vacation:  freedom or release from duty, business, or activity.”   Therefore, to me, a vacation means things like

sitting on the beach for a week in Hawaii

taking a bus tour of France

renting a mountain cabin and going for refreshing hikes

driving to Wyoming to hunt Elk

visiting an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean

  taking an Alaskan cruise

ten days in New York City, seeing the sights and eating good food

Nothing is wrong with taking a vacation. Every so often, a voyage to a beach with clear water and air-conditioned accommodations is just the thing. However, a trip that involves pool attendants and a concierge is not really a travel experience, I believe.

Indeed, Kay and I have enjoyed some great vacations.  While living in Japan we spent 4 spring breaks in Hawaii when we really needed a break from the stress of Tokyo. We’ve also flown to NYC and other places just to see the sights.  We’ve cruised down the Nile.   We’ve visited a resort in the Caribbean.  After working in Rio we paid for a week at an all inclusive place on the
Amazon in Brazil (pictured left).  But, in retirement, I don’t need any vacations from stress!

Seems to me that the examples below from my life were also NOT vacations. 

   flying (all night sitting up in economy) to an international school, working 10 hour days for a week, and flying (all night) home.

    attending a conference in Zabreb, Croatia (and a dozen other places) where Kay and I each made two presentations that required hours of preparation.

    flying to the island of Mallorca, Spain, (a major vacation spot for Europeans) and teaching graduate classes six days a week for three weeks.  Although I did have most afternoons, and one day a week, off, all teachers know that this time was mostly about stress relief, paper grading, and preparation for the next class.

The three examples above are easy.  They were obviously all about work.  But here comes the tricky part:  what about personal travel that I don’t call a vacation? 

Most independent travel is not a vacation.  Independent travel means without a tour or travel agent setting the agenda and making the arrangements for every day and every hour.  It means contacting locals rather than a tour director.  For example, in 2008 we flew to Viet Nam and Laos, dealing with the new challenging surroundings and exploring the culture, all on our own, independent of any travel agent or tour. I found that trip hard work, culturally rewarding, and fun, but I wouldn’t call it a vacation.

I think the real meaning and value of travel has been lost. Being a traveler does not mean expensive bikinis and concerts at an all-inclusive resort in Cozumel. If umbrella drinks are involved it’s probably a vacation, not a genuine adventure.

Travel is being integrated into a culture that values diverting from the beaten path, talking to and exploring an area as one of a kind. Traveling means attempting to blend in and wanting to leave as an altered and more educated person. Traveling means staying in local hotels and hostels and befriending other travelers as well as locals. It’s drinking at neighborhood bars. It’s straying from tourist traps, searching for the elusive history of a country and its people.  

Pictured left:  we signed up for an overnight camel ride with two Bedouins  in Morocco (pretty touristy I admit!), but Andrew connected and played music with them into the night, and it felt like we turned into travelers.

If you want to really travel, you must eat, drink and live on the local economy. In our case, and at our age, we at least walk at lot and take public transportation rather than tour busses. It pays to try at least “hello” and “thank you” in the local language.  We ask fellow independent travelers at breakfast about what to do and see.  We stay five or ten or more days in a city rather than one day.  

I agree with Rick Steves.   Learning to travel as a non-vacationer will take you so much further in a foreign country and will lead to a more rewarding experience.  Real travel is not just about seeing new things, but also about seeing things with a new and refreshed perspective. It’s important to take a step back and simply enjoy the moments you spend visiting another country or place.   This takes time and effort, but, thankfully, is less expensive than commercial tours.

There are millions of reasons to travel — really travel, not just vacation — and the thrill is truly worth it. Traveling is more more active than it is passive.  While it involves work, it’s a great way to recharge.

A vacation is far more easily booked than is travel.  Travel magazines like National Geographic Traveler, web sites like and cruise brochures, like the monthly Viking River Cruise catalog, are all trying “sell vacations,”  not travel.   When we started traveling in 1967, Arthur Frommer taught us to avoid buying vacations. We learned the joy of doing it ourselves.  We learned to attempt to make contact with locals.  We don’t wear Bermuda shorts.  We try not to speak loudly in public.  We don’t take many pictures of statues and public buildings, not because it’s wrong but because it’s so impersonal.

And we call that “travel.”