Rethinking the Travel Bucket List


Table Mountain

I’ve long said that I don’t have a bucket list. That I think it’s silly to identify a few places when frankly I want to go anywhere I haven’t been before. It’s a big world so why limit my travel ambitions? But then I would detail a short list of places of places I REALLY want to see and before long I realized that I did indeed have a travel bucket list, much to my chagrin. As I examined my own inadvertent bucket list though I realized that it isn’t just places I want to visit, not necessarily, but things I want to experience. That made me rethink the entire concept of the bucket list, which I think you should do as well.

More than pretty pictures

Many of us, myself included, fall prey to all of those pretty pictures we see on TV, in books and especially on calendars. I blame travel calendars for most of the poor decisions travelers make actually. While the sunset on Santorini or the view from Victoria Falls may be nice, those should not be the only reason why you visit a place. Why? Because they will never, ever match your expectations. We stare at those pretty pictures every day and in our minds construct a travel ideal that is simply not attainable in practice and we invariably leave disappointed. So instead of letting calendars determine where you want to travel, where you dream of going, let your own gut instincts lead the way.

It’s about the experiences…

While a pretty picture can spur the travel bug, that image soon fades when it comes to the nuts and bolts of planning a great travel adventure. That’s because when you look at travel it quickly becomes all about the experiences, as it should be. That’s what I realized when I examined my own bucket list. Sure, several of the places on it were inspired by others, but the list wasn’t a bullet list of places, it is a conglomeration of experiences, unique activities I want to do before I shuffle off this mortal coil. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are some of the experiences on my own travel bucket list:

  • Swimming in Jellyfish Lake in Palau
  • Hiking to the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan
  • Walking the Bund in Shanghai
  • Feeling colorful during Holi in India
  • Trekking with polar bears in the Arctic
  • Seeing the Northern Lights anywhere
  • Crossing Asia on the Trans-Siberian railway
  • And so much more

Kayamandi Township Stellenbosch South Africa

And the people

But even detailing the experiences don’t tell the whole story behind a good bucket list. Travel is invariably not about the things you see or even do, it’s all about the people you meet. An even slight encounter with new people transforms every traveler in ways they may not realize. The act of traveling is the best thing that we can do to minimize hatred and bigotry and to better understand other people and their cultures. It’s impossible to travel and not learn something; in fact I dare you to try. So along with those places you lust after, you should also consider the amazing people you will meet along the way. Fishermen in Palua, guides in Bhutan and shopkeepers in China will all transform your trip from something average to an extraordinary life event. Even better, if you can in turn teach them something about you and your own culture, then the ongoing circle of citizen ambassadors will continue working its good.

There is a slight chance that I have over intellectualized something that is meant to be fun, but I don’t think so. I think that no matter what type of trip you take, whether it is for relaxation or discovery, you should keep these points in mind. You should be honest enough to realize that you aren’t traveling to replicate a photo; how boring. No, you are traveling to create your own photographs that will inspire you and others for years to come.

So, with this in mind, what’s at the top of your travel bucket list?

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 “Rethinking the Travel Bucket List”

  1. Hi Matt,
    I’m a long time reader and love your blog, so keep this in mind when I say:
    I couldn’t disagree more with your point about ‘calendar’ destinations never, ever living up to your expectations. I have been to a number of destinations that I have dreamed if for many years, to find they exceed my own expectations despite building them up for years! As one example, I famously exclaimed after my first day in Paris (after simply walking the streets all day) that I was so happy I felt sick. On the same trip however, I found Mont St Michel a huge disappointment and had (again) been wanting to go for years. So in my mind there is no hard and fast rule. I’ve also come across places that I’ve never heard of, and absolutely loved them, led there only by chance or through a last minute suggestion of a stranger. Example: Lake Bohinj in Slovenia.
    I don’t think this topic is so black and white as you have suggested. Anyway that’s just my 2c worth. I still love reading your opinions and thoughts and thanks for sharing them so openly. Cheers!

  2. The more I travel the more places I want to experience. I agree that I tend to have experiences more than actual destinations on my list and that has taken me to some extraordinary locations. Generally they involve animals. I still want to see the gorillas in the wild, I’d love to see the Northern lights, I keep missing whale sharks so one day somewhere, Great white cage diving,Kayak with whales, and I’d love to be in India during Holi. Diving is my passion and I always have a long list of places I’d like to go explore. I’ve been lucky enough to have so many amazing experiences that it just fuels a passion to want more.

  3. I’ve this funny thing about bucket lists too. I don’t have one, because I believed it excludes other unexpected wonderful things, which are actually bucket list material, from being in ‘the’list. For example, it was never in my bucket list to play and swim with sting rays until a sting ray actually came up to me by a freak incidence, to scratch its belly on my back. But when it happened, I thought ‘hey that was pretty awesome’ so now I make it a recurring bucket list to swim with them or at least see them whenever I can. But while were in the topic of lists though, again I don’t have a list per se but I’ve been yearning to go to the Galapagos, do the trans-siberian rail and dive in Rangiroa.

  4. I have met mamy travellers who arrive in Australia with a list if the ‘things’ they want to see. I spend a lot of time explaining to them the importance of enjoying the journey and not being closed off to experiences as that is what they will remember not the things they see .

  5. Experiences and the people definitely create the meaning behind travel. You’re right about those images–I see them on my computer every day and they make me wish I could be traveling, but I remind myself that the image is not the experience. At the top of my bucket list now is a month in Portugal. I haven’t been there but so badly want to soak in the culture.

  6. My bucket list have always began with verbs denoting experiences, although I wasn’t fully aware of it until I read this post. I believe bucket lists are ever evolving blue prints, they’re not monolithic. Mine has been changing concomitantly with my travels, I add some and drop others as my interests and philosophy change. One example is how I dropped riding an elephant in Thailand when I learned about their awful treatment.

    Thank you for the post.

  7. Well put Matt. I am not a fan of “bucket lists” but, like you, I have an experience list, there’s always something I’ve yet to do, and someone I’m meant to meet in my travels. The experience goes into a “life is amazing and travel puts me in continual awe of our planet” bucket.
    You mentioned hiking to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, and how a guide can make a meaningful difference. I have a great personal recommendation when you are ready to experience Bhutan, drop me a note and I’ll happily introduce and connect :)
    Thanks for a good post Matt!

  8. Well put. I dont really have a bucketlist as such but yes, I do have quite a lot of things I would love to do, see or experience at some point in the future… Great post!

  9. Great read Matt – I too agree with not having bucket lists. As well as the reasons you put on your blog, I feel as if bucket lists also is a way of saying “I’ll do it sometime later.” So indeed by making and chasing experiences, it does push forth a sense of spontaneous adventure that is priceless. Love reading your blog!

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