Dealing With My Traveler’s Guilt

As our big, two-week vacation of the year comes to a close I’m faced with about twenty hours of flying and a lot of time to think. I’ll reflect on the great experiences we had while exploring new and familiar places in Asia, but I’ll also reflect on some personal deficiencies. Except that they may not be deficiencies at all, but just a part of the normal travel experience. For the first time in a long time I felt a lot of guilt on this trip for a variety of reasons and I’m trying to sort out how to reconcile that.

Personal Travel Guilt

Two weeks is a long time to be on a trip and for us and I think we’ve reached our limit, both as a couple and personally. It’s a long time to be in hotel rooms, no matter how nice they are, it’s a long time to be away from friends and family (and dogs) and it’s a long time to be constantly on the go.

My trips aren’t usually relaxing, but instead are mad dashes to see and do as much as possible. Even though I tempered that this trip with several “days off” it has still been an exhausting experience, which is why I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I’m surrounded by rich, opulent hotel rooms and cities packed with fun and exciting new experiences, but more than once all I’ve wanted to do is sleep in until noon and sit by the pool with a book. I can do that anywhere though, which is why I feel guilty. I know that my time in these places is limited and that I may never return to them, and yet there were several times when I struggled to care. To care about yet another temple or an obscure site that I didn’t know existed until I read about it in my guidebook.

At the same time, I’m not sure I’ll ever be that guy who can spend a week at a resort in Mexico and do nothing but nap and have margaritas. In theory it sounds great, but in practice it just doesn’t work. So I feel guilty that we’ve traveled all this way and yet I’ve wanted to relax more and see less. We didn’t do that, but at times I felt that way. Maybe as I grow older I’m changing as a traveler, I’m not sure, but it will definitely require some thought.

 Boats on the Mekong

Cultural Guilt

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this, but it resonated especially on this trip when we spent several days in Laos. More so than in Japan or Thailand, in Laos I felt like a cultural interloper. No, not interloper, but voyeur. I felt like my tendency to walk around and take pictures of “traditional” activities is at times rude and insensitive. The Laotians may not even feel that way, they probably just see me as a weird guy taking pictures of garbage cans, but I felt it. These are real people just trying to go about their daily lives and are not there for my amusement. It’s one thing to play tourist and see the sights, but I think it’s a totally different matter to “observe” the culture as an activity. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but it reeked of colonialism and that’s a mindset I cannot stand. Yet, as soon as we passed by a fisherman casting nets on the Mekong, I started snapping away taking as many photos as I could.

Ultimately, I believe that tourism is good for everyone, especially in under-developed areas as it brings in money and stimulates a lot of great social change. But at the same time, that change isn’t always a good thing. I spoke with some Thais in Bangkok and when I mentioned I planned to visit Luang Prabang they said, “Good, that’s what Bangkok used to be like.” I’m not sure what I took away from the statement exactly, but it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling.

And so there you have it, my mea culpas for feeling guilty as I took an amazing trip visiting some of the most exciting cities and staying at the best hotels in the world. See, I feel guilty even writing that. It’s a no win I guess, but it’s a part of life and guilt is absolutely part of the travel experience. None of us, not even the most experienced travelers do everything right on a trip and guilt can be a good thing once in a while. It keeps us on our toes and helps keep in mind what’s really important in life. It also reminded me why I travel, yes it’s to learn about new places, but sometimes it’s also to relax  – a lesson hard learned.

Have you ever felt guilty while on a trip? Why and how did you deal with it?

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.

10 thoughts on “Dealing With My Traveler’s Guilt”

  1. Hi Matt, Your honesty is refreshing and of course very real and true. I say, “Don’t beat yourself up, Matt!” Here’s why:
    1. Travel is exhausting
    2. A body can only go full-tilt for so long — somethin’s gotta give.
    3. Your sensitive attitude prevents you from being “The Ugly American.”
    What would you have done differently? Probably nothing.
    Take care,

  2. This is part of the reason I love cruising. You go full force in port and have no excuse not to relax when you’re on the boat.

    On the other hand, I think building in relaxing time on any vacation is important. Some of my most fond memories of our whirlwind 10 day trip to Maine last year involve cycling, kayaking… And sitting in a chair, with a book and a glass of wine.

  3. The best way to overcome the cultural guilt that you’ve described is to make connections with the local population and simply ask before you take pictures. Yes, it can feel very much like you’re at a zoo, viewing these folks in their natural habitat, and, yes, they feel that way too. A simple gesture – nonverbal or verbal – helps display the elephant in the room and usually helps overcome the situation. There are some cultures where it’s taboo to take pictures of unsuspecting locals, and, in those instances, ask a local how to approach the issue. You may have to resign yourself to not getting your shot. In general, it’s a good rule of thumb to approach the situation in a way that would make you feel comfortable if tourists showed up at your home and took photos of you. It’s not about “doing it right” when traveling, but understanding that the world is not just one big playground for us to explore but rather a rich, diverse land worth seeing full of people just like you and me trying to live their lives.

    When you travel do you usually stay in resorts/hotels/tourist areas? Or have you ever set up a stay with a local or in a smaller, out of the way town, in a pension? The former is a great way to see the highlights of a place with your camera in tow. The latter is a fantastic way to actually get a feel for the culture, meet and make friendships with locals, and, I’d challenge, an opportunity to put the camera away and just enjoy learning and being.

  4. I can sympathize…I am a CHRONIC type “A” traveler, usually stuffing waaaay too many things into too short of a time. Husband MADE me sit still and “relax” for three days in Thailand (I say “relax” because it still involved a strenuous hike through a jungle, exploring a cave and a trip into town to eat) and I felt the same sort of guilt that you described. I don’t know if I will ever be completely ok with just sitting, but I am working on it.

    I consoled myself with the fact that during the other days, we went non stop, so we still did a lot during the trip. I am agreed with you in that I don’t think I could ever just hang out in a resort for a week like many other people can, though perhaps it would be nice to try sometime.

  5. I’m not sure I understand the guilt. You’re feeling guilty for doing too much in too much opulence, or for not taking time to sit back and enjoy it? Either way, I’d said guilt is unfounded.

    There are different types of travelers. Some people (for example, the entire population of the country I now call home) aren’t happy unless they can check off 10 countries in 10 days. Others, and by “others” I mean “me,” prefer to pick a spot and hang there for a month or two. When I travel, I rarely hang by the pool or even at the hotel, but I definitely hang. I get to know the locals and just get a feeling for the place by just walking…wherever. I keep a map so I can get home, but that’s about it. I eat a lot of food and I try to learn a bit of the language to gel with the locals. But that takes time standing still.

    Having said that, I do at times feel a reverse guilt — I know there is so much more to see. And I know that I love it when I get on the tourist trail and do more of the cool stuff a country has to offer. I guess we all wish we could do it all — the chillaxed route, and the busy path. Hard to do both.

    And if nothing else, your blog is INFORMING a LOT of people of what is out there, and teaching is the noblest of professions (I’m biased, working at a university. lol) — so let go of the guilt and thank your lucky stars you get paid to do what you do, and you do it well! Kudos!

    1. Ha, thanks! No, the guilt was that I felt as if I should always push myself on a trip to do and see as much as possible, it’s my nature usually. But on the last trip I just wanted to relax a bit, which to me seems like a waste since I could easily do that anywhere in the world. I felt guilty because as I sat in the middle of one of the best cities in the world, there were days when a nap and a plunge in the pool sounded best. :) Thank you for your great comments and kind words, I really appreciate them.

      1. OK, I got it this time around. lol

        Well, I have to admit, when I’m in a place short term — like the post you did on Tokyo (nice one!!) — I also try to fit in as much as possible to get a lay of the land and to see what the place has to offer. So in that sense, I totally agree with you that it IS a waste to just sit by the pool.

        Case in point, I spent only 3 nights on Koh Phi Phi and all I did was walk around and go on trips — as opposed to a group of UK package tourists who were by the pool every time I swung by my room…didn’t quite get why you would go to a beautiful tropical beach area then sit by a pool. lol But each to their own, I reckon. haha Anyway, happy travels and looking forward to future posts!

  6. I felt this way when I first visited Vietnam in 1996. The poverty was so profound- I just wasn’t ready for it.

  7. I feel the exact sentiments. Sometimes I just want to stop and do nothing – but I always feel guilty because I worked so hard to get to this foreign country! I also have no photos of the things engrained in my memory as favourite moments in a country because I was too timid to take the photo as I felt I was intruding on their lives. It made me reflect on how I would feel strange if somebody started taking frantic photos of me living my life at home. These feelings are shared – I think by many!

  8. I can definitely sympathize, particularly with the guilt about not seeing everything. It’s something I’ve struggled with ever since I started traveling internationally 11 years ago.

    My first trip was to Rome and I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off for 4 days seeing everything on the huge list I’d made myself. I saw a lot, but I experienced little. What I remember most from that trip was not exploring the Roman Forum, but the great restaurant I found on a small Piazza where I sipped wine, had great food and people watched. I felt that I was actually SEEING Rome.

    Now, when I travel somewhere new, I make a two lists. One is must-see, one is like-to-see. I choose one must-see item from the list for each day I’m there and the rest of the time I just wander where my feet take me. I often will spend several hours in sidewalk cafe watching the world go buy but I also generally get to see most of my like-to-see list as well. By doing this, I’m seeing the biggest sites but I’m also experiencing what’s most important to me which is the life and culture of the place I’m visiting. It’s been a much better way to travel and while I do occasionally regret the things I didn’t see, I figure travel, as with everything in life, is about balance.

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