Why I Hate Travel Bucket Lists

Rose Island, Bahamas

It seems everywhere I turn, I’m met with someone’s travel dreams inserted in a spreadsheet on web sites, news articles and even TV shows. I can understand the desire to dream about travel, I do it every day. What I can’t imagine is that anyone takes their own lists that seriously.

A bucket list is an assemblage of the activities you want to accomplish before you die, or kick the bucket. The travel version is what places and experiences you want to see and do prior to the aforementioned transformation into worm fodder. It sort of reminds me though of those horrible Goals documents so many employers make us write every year. Frankly, if I need to consult a sheet of paper buried in a desk drawer to figure out how to do my job, then there are larger issues at play. In my opinion, the same goes for travel. Why or how could you possibly prioritize your desired travel experiences?

I understand the basic premise as I stated in the first paragraph, it is an exercise in travel day dreaming which, hopefully, will one day lead to an actual trip. That’s one thing. It’s completely another to take these vague thoughts of “Paris would be nice…” to jotting them down, ink on paper and tacking them to your office wall. Since I’m not in possession of such a document, I’m not quite sure how the process works. Does one necessarily work down the list in order, ticking off items one at a time or is it a free for all of travel opportunity?

Santorini, Greece

Here’s my real problem though, as one grows and matures, accumulates more travel experiences, that list must grow as well. I recently discussed pushing the travel envelope, and that the definition is different for everyone. If Joe Smith has never left the country, then any trip abroad will be pushing his travel envelope. For others this activity is prosaic and they look for more exotic or hard to replicate adventures. Both are fine, it just depends on one’s point of view.

So, stay with me here, the theory is that as one expands their personal travel boundaries, more travel destinations will suddenly become more appealing and, after a while, rather than a list of fanciful locales, the bucket list is a map of the Earth. That’s how I feel. There are very few places on this great blue sphere that I would not like to visit at least once. The places which hold no interest for me are for the most part too dangerous to visit.

I’m not saying that this is a mandatory progression of travel desires, just a likely one. I suppose it is entirely possible that a person who has visited 15 countries for pleasure has no desire to see anything more. I’m sure they’re out there, I just don’t think it likely. One summer a couple travels to Rome. The next year it’s Turkey. Then Israel. Then Thailand. You see the trend. Travel is like anything else in life, it takes experience to both enjoy it and become more adept at its practice.

So tear up those lists, throw them in the garbage and instead give the nearest globe a twirl, close your eyes and point. That, to me, is a much more fun activity.

What do you think? Is this an exercise in futility, or a useful travel habit?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

34 thoughts on “Why I Hate Travel Bucket Lists”

  1. I go back and forth on this topic. For me, more than anything I’m just too lazy to sit down and write something out because a. I forget what I had been planning before and b. most of the stuff that I want to do, I don’t know that I want to do yet!

    My bungy jump is a perfect example; I had no idea that was going to happen. So yes, now I want to add skydiving to my list but I know that I want to do it at some point so I don’t need to write it down.

    Same thing in Florence, I told myself I’d make a list of things I wanted to do before leaving. The only reoccurring idea is riding a vespa in the Tuscany hills, so I’ll just do it… no need to write it down!

    I think they are fun, I just haven’t brought myself to write one yet!

  2. While I do enjoy the idea of generalized bucket lists, I too have often felt that travel bucket lists are somewhat odd. As you said, the more you travel, the more you want to see. If you’re going to do a bucket list, it should be a list of experiences, not places.

    (Ironically, you wrote this on the same day I was going to post mine!)

  3. I’m with you on the whole list thing Matt; I just don’t see the point. Although I have less of an aversion to the idea of a travel list than I do to the whole corporate ‘write down your goals’ bs.
    People ask us what’s next on our list and while we usually have one trip planned out, beyond that it’s pretty random as to where we choose to travel. We haven’t done the spinning globe idea yet but it does sound very tempting!

  4. I’m going to disagree. I like the travel bucket list, although I don’t like the term bucket list. It helps me keep track of what I’ve done and what I hope to achieve. Yes, as I travel the list grows as I find out about more places or experiences I want to see. I also like when people post their lists. It gives me new ideas of what I can see and experience in the world. It may just be my personality, I like order and lists :)
    As far as the list goes, I don’t believe it’s there to simply go through and check off in order. Travel is spontaneous and the list should be as well. I’m not traveling simply to check off items, that’s a bonus, but it gives me goals to attempt.

    1. I think exactly the same as you Mike Our bucket list isn’t necessarily to tick off and complete in order but to also act further inspiration while we are travelling. I also love looking at what others write on theirs too.

      1. With Elise and Mike on this one Matt! In fact, I run a travel series called Travel Bucket List Wednesdays where readers and I share our travel bucket lists including places and experiences. I have found out about many new experiences and places thanks to this series and participation. Keeping a list makes me make sure I don’t forget about one beautiful place or spot that I heard about once (I’m pretty absent-minded; this keeps me organized!).

        My motto, however, is this:

        Travel Bucket List: Cross off the items not before you die, but more so ASAP!

  5. I can’t stand the term! Quite apart from the sensible, measured points you make here, even the word “bucket” reminds me of mops, cleaning and shivering on a British beach, spade in hand looking for enough sand to fit into said bucket to make a sandcastle from. Ugh. Plus, however ineffective making a list of things to do before you die may be, why bother with the distinction? What’s the succes rate of making a list of things to do after you die?

  6. Great post and good question! Like many of us, traveling has been part of my life for a long time. I started doing it before the term was coined, I think. I think I’ve just sort of done certain things I wanted to do and seen places I wanted to see.

    I think that a ‘bucket list,’ if super long and full of things one might not get to (for whatever reason), could make someone feel pressure and possibly that they’ve failed if they haven’t checked everything off. And that’s not good. If one really wants to have a list, then maybe just keep it a rough one (of experiences, as Kelsey said), allowing for a lot of flexibility and revisions as the person and their life situation change.

  7. I’ve never cared for the bucket list term – it’s sounds impersonal. I certainly have a mental list of places I’d like to go next, but I have a whimsical personality and, like you, would love to see everywhere in no particular order. On the other hand, I’ve noticed some people “need” a physical list (certainly a personality trait) and for that I won’t criticize.

  8. You make a point that I myself have had difficulty articulating in the past: the concept that as you travel, inevitably you will learn about more places/things that you will want to explore. It’s a never-ending process, or at least I think it should be, or at least it is for me.

    That being said, I have a Life List. I don’t take it too seriously and it’s always changing. For example, on my list was to learn conversational Russia – that’s off now. I didn’t really fully achieve it (I know only a few dozen words), but after traveling throughout Russia for a month without issue I no longer feel compelled to pour over the Cyrillic alphabet. Ideas and interests change and evolve, as should a list of this sort.

    For me, it’s more of an organized rambling of destinations and experiences that I find interesting. It’s a nice reminder of what’s out there when I get stuck in the rut of day-to-day life. It’s not a static or binding document by any means.

    And I also love to simply spin the globe and point.

    BTW – I too HATE the term Bucket List!

  9. I find “bucket lists” to be helpful just like a “to do” list. Keeping a list helps me remember areas and things I want to do so that when I am wondering hmm where to go next? I can look down the list and see what is calling me at this time. I include on my list, obscure little items that may get overlooked when visiting a vast country. To me they are not the be all and end all nor should they be run down in order but I find them helpful.

  10. Such wonderful and thoughtful comments – thanks everyone! I’ve been thinking about this today, and I think that a travel bucket list of countries, cities, etc. is silly. That being said, I could be convinced that a list of EXPERIENCES, a short one, might be interesting for daydreaming if nothing else. For instance, rather than put down “Visit China” I would be more apt to say “Hug a Panda.” I still don’t think I would ever actually write it out in a formal document though.

  11. I do hate the term (it has no appeal to it whatsoever) – but I think that it can be a powerful tool for some people. Putting things in writing or saying them out loud can make it *real* and seem more achievable. It’s why therapists tell people to keep journals and read them out loud to themselves sometimes – it can have a really powerful affect.

    My Mom has one posted on her fridge and is always excited about the opportunity to cross things off. For example, one of her items was to stop her car on the side of a highway and dance when she heard a good song. She did, and was so excited to tell me about it, after she crossed it off her list. (One of the items was also to try pot, which she did – ha!)

    That being said, I don’t have one. Only because, I want to do and see it all, how can I write that in a list (just as you said Matt)…but I believe it’s a totally personal thing. Whateva floats ya boat!!

  12. i’m a big fan of travel planning. sure, the name bucket list is lame, but i see it as strategic plan for travel. after all, where would any business—or society—be without a plan? yes, there’s a time and place for going where the wind takes you and taking on-a-whim trips {these have been some of my best}, but it’s also nice to plan some of your must-sees as a way of working towards them both financially and timing-wise. i get that it’s vagabondish and romantic to just spin the globe and touch it, but what if you have a list of 5 meaningful places you long to visit? i don’t see how it’s futile to want to plan to visit these places?

  13. I’ve once tried to write a travel bucket list, but realised a few destinations into it that it would a) change constantly and b) not be meaningful. What use is it putting Peru, for example, on there, when I’m not going right now, and putting the name of a country doesn’t mean anything. It has no emotional attachment. I’ll just go whenever I want and can, and the rest always evolves. I know what I’m interested in experiencing now, and there’s no need to write that down.

  14. I actually keep a bucket list to keep track of interesting places I hear about, whether it is actual places, restaurants, museums, sights, or whatever. It’s not meant to impress anyone, but mostly to keep me focused on my travel goals and possibly to inspire other people with my interests.

    Not being a spontaneous person myself, a bucket list is essential. I like reading it from time to time. It makes me smile and reminds me that I really have to get going!

  15. I am sick of reading about bucket lists. Sounds like those chatty hairdressers “Where are you off to this summer?” I actually have parameters that govern my travel, like not creating a large carbon footprint, but essentially I could go anywhere in the world if I walk / cycle / swim / paddle. But that said the bus and train aren’t too bad an option. As for where do I go next? Well, let’s see “Which way is the wind blowing and as it just changed?”

  16. Kerry Henderson

    I agree with you, & also feel that saying “I want to do this before I die” means “I should wait until I’m about to die to do this”. I’m more about where I want to go this year, next year, etc. than “what I want to do in the next 50+ years”. I have goals but I want to realize most of them before I’m too old to enjoy them.

  17. I think it can all be in how you use them. I have my own list, but its not a mad dash to get everything done, and the list is a living thing, I add and take things off as I go along. Mostly, I use it for inspiration to just get out there and travel. There are a million fantastic things to see in this world, both known and unknown and every list is individual to a person. My list is more about getting off my ass and doing things today or tomorrow than in 50 years or after I retire. And like someone else said above, a lot of the time I use a list to keep track of really cool places I never heard about before. Since, for me, travel has been and will be such a life long experience, I expect to go to a lot of places and see a lot of things, so the list serves as a good reminder of that, I don’t have to ‘wait’ for anything.

  18. Well, I have been browsing travel web sites lately and I was finding lots of bucket lists on them. I was feeling the peer pressure and I thought I should write one as well. But could not get myself to… for the exact reason you have detailed above. You have put words to my thoughts. The list for me is everything sans the ones I have done… how do you put that in a list form?

  19. Guilty! But not in the sense of writing a list of tedious travel experience like “I want to see an elephant in Thailand”. My personal list grows overtime and reflects who I was at that period of time and what I was interested in and to remind me down the track what inspired me to put pen to paper. I see it as a memory jogger or for something to save towards. My list of things take on activities like hiking through the Svalbard wilderness or travelling from Alaska to Argentina, however its not fixed and that where I think Bucket Lists get a bad rap. Not being able to be flexible on the road, blinded by just one activity kills the adventure and travelling spirit.

    Great Article!

  20. We’ve tried to put a “bucket” list together and have never been successful for the exact reasons you’ve stated! It changes and grows and can never be “complete” for us. You’re right on!

  21. Bob and I put together a list of places we really wanted to go- good thing was since there were two of us- there were places that he put that I hadn’t thought of, but once pointed out, yeah, of course. I think the thing for me is that I want to go everywhere. When I see pretty photos or read about a great place on someones blog, I usually bookmark it so I won’t forget about it. That is why we went to Kangaroo Island and seeing as how that was my favorite spot in Australia, I can’t imagine if we had missed it.

  22. I love my bucket list :) I’m always adding to it when I read blogs or see something that catches my eye…I have a rubbish memory so it’s more of a prompt than a to do list!

    I made a list of stuff in oz I wanted to do but left it at home – I found it the other day and realised how much stuff I’d forgotten about or neglected to do!

    I think they serve a purpose, everyone needs something to aim for…it’s also good to inspire other people to do things they hadn’t thought of! :)

  23. I have an informal bucket list, but I don’t view it as a “I must do these things or I will have failed at life!” or even a “once I finish this list I have accomplished everything I dreamed of in life”. Instead, I use it almost like a notebook of things I’d like to do or accomplish some day. If I get to them, awesome. If I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I am extremely forgetful thanks to some brain damage from playing with mercury as a child, so lists help me to remember things, and my bucket list is to help me remember all the cool things I come across.

  24. I definitely agree somewhat. If you focus on the list to much you miss out on the things you couldn’t have imagined before. That being said I have one that I started when I was in a pretty low place and I think it helped me see the broader picture. For me it’s not a finite thing, it constantly morphs and grows as I move. It’s more of a suggestion list for me, I suppose, as opposed to a path to take. I’m not even really intent on doing all of the things on it (so maybe it doesn’t really count?) The world takes me where it will and I just have a list of things I might like to see along the way. I’m okay with having the list there as a reminder that the world is a big place and even when I feel low there are a million things to do a see beyond the normal.

  25. So true! The more you travel, and the more you speak to travellers, the longer the list! Surely a natural chaining of ideas and plans will sort out any such “bucket list” concept.
    Love the instruction to spin the globe and point……ohhhh, that would be awesome!

  26. I can’t think why anyone would want to constantly remind themselves of their own mortality – bucket list just sounds so unappealing. I have a mental ‘wishlist’ and tend to think more on a short-term basis.

    I do understand why bloggers set themselves challenges with visiting a certain number of countries in a set time, or working through a list, but I like to keep travel as spontaneous and casual as possible.

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