Dealing With Underwhelming Travel Experiences

Athens Greece

Hopefully you didn’t let out an audible groan when you read today’s post title because you’ll get no argument from me that this ranks highly amongst so-called “First World Problems.” And yet for anyone who travels, be it near or far, prolonged or a quick jaunt, we all have moments or entire trips that leave us feeling underwhelmed. When we plan a trip most of us spend a long time sorting out all of the details, doing research and anxiously anticipating that moment when we leave home and travel to see something new and different. The last thing any of us want is to have a less than amazing experience and yet, travel being what it is, that is almost certainly bound to happen. The trick is not let it get you down and instead us it as an opportunity and not a depressant.

Why are we disappointed?

One of my first posts more than five years ago talked about the fact that there really is no such as a dream trip, and yet so many of us plan just for that one amazing adventure. There is absolutely nothing wrong with daydreaming about a future trip, I do it every day. However, this daydream becomes a roadblock once it becomes too outlandish. It is suddenly not good enough to fly somewhere, it has to be first class. It’s not good enough to spend a week in the Caribbean, it has to be a month long cruise of French Polynesia. This concept of an ultimate dream trip is crippling to the average person who doesn’t travel very often. According to recent statistics, about 30% of Americans own passports and far fewer travel internationally every year. That means that if these numbers remain constant, then at least four of every five people will NEVER leave the US. In today’s over-connected world and the ease in which you can go just about anywhere, I find it sad that so few will ever leave the country. Fear and economics are major reasons for this inability to take action – fear of a new country, city, language, food or a multitude of other reasons. The major fear though is that whatever trip a person takes won’t live up to their preconceived notion of the ultimate dream trip.

Don’t travel to see the postcard, instead travel for your own unique moment in time. This will accomplish a couple of things. It means you’ll be open to the idea of traveling more often but it also means that you won’t be disappointed. A few months ago someone told me they were disappointed when they learned that the Great Pyramids were in fact very close to Cairo and not in the middle of a desert somewhere. That statement still confuses me – why would they be disappointed? The pyramids are amazing no matter where they are and it would have taken all of five minutes of research to learn that they are located on the Giza plateau next to Cairo. But that’s a great example of how easy it is for all of us to be disappointed when we travel. Instead of marveling and feeling humbled at one of man’s greatest engineering feats, she was more concerned that there was a Pizza Hut across the street from the Sphinx. Granted, that’s unfortunate, but in everything we do, not just travel, it’s much easier and more satisfying to look for the positive instead of the negative.

Florence house

We will not like some places

This is a travel truth as basic as airplane food is bad and hotels really hate it when you try to check in before noon. We are each of us unique personalities made up of a billion cells totally unlike anyone else’s on this planet. That means we have different tastes, likes and dislikes. With that comes the somewhat sad fact that we will just not click with every place we visit. This has happened to me several times and every time I write about these albeit rare instances, the negative comments are staggering. I name cities that other people love, that they treasure, and to hear that someone else doesn’t like the same city calls into question their own feelings. But it shouldn’t, far from it. Just because I don’t like Florence doesn’t mean that Florence is an inherently flawed city or that it’s not worthwhile to visit. All it means is that I personally – Matt from Washington DC – didn’t like the experience there. I don’t think Florence is evil or totally devoid of merit, instead my one experience there was negative. We all have these times when we travel, wherever it may be, that we don’t like places and we shouldn’t feel guilty about that! Of course I more than understand where that guilt comes from. We all save up our money and our time off and plan that great escape and so naturally we want everything to be perfect and happy. But that’s not travel. Travel comes with its own unique sets of ups and downs just like everything else in life and ultimately, it’s those positive and negative moments that make trips the most memorable. If we didn’t have a less than stellar experience somewhere, then there’d be no comparison point for those cities and experiences that we truly love. Not liking a city is just part of the yin and yang of travel, so instead of looking at it as a waste of time, think of the entire trip more holistically and realize that these fluctuations happen and that it’s ok.

ghent canal

Analyze, rethink and plan

Instead of feeling down when this very inevitable feeling of disappointment comes up – use it as an opportunity to learn and do something different. When this happens to me I always try to analyze the situation. Was it me? Was I in a bad mood, which in turn colored my feelings about a certain city? In regards to Florence, my partner and I had gotten into a horrible argument on the train ride down to the city. The day was ruined and nothing was going to make me happy. It was only upon reflection that I realized that in all likelihood it wasn’t Florence, it was me. That means if given the opportunity, I’d be more than willing to revisit and try it again. In other instances, like Toronto, I have given the city many opportunities to redeem itself but nothing clicks. I just don’t enjoy being there as a tourist (living there however must be awesome) and so I think I’m pretty much done playing tourist in Toronto. A good example of a city redeeming itself, at least for me, is Ghent in Belgium. When I first visited I did a horrible job at researching the city. The result was that I missed most of the reasons why it’s a fun city to visit and instead left down and grumpy. A year later I had the chance to return and on that second trip I made sure I researched and did it the “right” way. The result was that I loved Ghent. I enjoyed my several days there sightseeing, eating at canal-side restaurants and just soaking in the culture of the city. If I had let my initial disappointment serve as my only exposure to Ghent, I would have missed what really is a lovely city. So try to stand back, take out the emotions and look at this rare feeling of travel disappointment in as analytical a way as possible and try to decide if it was you or the city that was at fault.

Disappointment happens all the time when we travel. We don’t get that upgrade, the hotel looks a lot different in person than online and that dream city we’ve been pining for is actually kind of awful. Accept it as just a part of life, don’t let it affect the rest of your trip and no matter what remember that you’re experiencing something new and different and that overall is a very positive thing.

What are some of your underwhelming travel experiences?

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.

7 thoughts on “Dealing With Underwhelming Travel Experiences”

  1. I think the times when I have been disappointed or underwhelmed with a place have usually had something to do with timing as well. When I’ve left a place I loved, before I was ready to, I tend to dislike the next place! Although….honestly, I don’t think it would matter when, where or why I ended up at Mount Kyaiktiyo in Myanmar — I simply cannot stand the place!

    Awesome post :)

  2. I have definitely felt underwhelmed while traveling on a couple of occasions, once in Milan, once in Prague (which might make people gasp – although the food was great), and another time in Singapore.

  3. Thanks for the excellent post. Sometimes the cliche “It’s not you, it’s me,” rings perfectly true. But other times we should not be so hard on ourselves & just accept that it’s OK not to fall in love with every destination, especially super-hyped places like Florence that we are “supposed” to love.

  4. Hey Matt, great post, man. I was just talking with my travel buddy the other day about how trips aren’t always flawless as some excellent storytellers would have you believe. It’s not always going to be rainbows and unicorns, and it’s great when people are honest about that. Glad you gave Ghent a second chance though! I lived there for 4 years and it deserves every bit of praise it gets. Cheers! Dieter from
    PS: To answer the question, I freaking hated Miami Beach ;-)

  5. Excellent post and very true, sometimes places just don’t click with you but many others may love it and they are right to do so and likewise if you don’t. For example me and my wife visited Melbourne twice while back packing in Australia and despite all the stories of culture and art hat normally appeal to us we just didn’t like the place. Bad accommodation, difficult to get about and struggling to find the culture but I often think about giving it one more go but with a lot more research.

  6. Excellent post! I hated San Francisco and I tend to keep that to myself because people actually gasp and ask, ‘what’s wrong with you?” I think part of the reason is I was much younger then and didn’t have the travel experience I have now. My friend and I didn’t research neighborhoods (or hotels for that matter) and ended up in a shady motel in a shady part of town 45 minutes away from downtown. We were hassled at the bus stop by a crowd of homeless people and we didn’t feel safe. We hated taking the bus to tourist areas every day. There was a parade that shut down most streets so we almost missed our flight home. So we hated the experience from start to finish.

    Sometimes we don’t like a place because of our own lack of research or sometimes we just don’t click with a place (I also hated Amman and we stayed in a nice area in a nice hotel). It’s like anything else–you win some, you lose some! And I didn’t let my feelings about Amman ruin my trip to Jordan…which was an absolutely amazing country/trip!

  7. I’m currently on an underwhelming trip myself. It’s my partner’s first international and I don’t think they were prepared for the 24 hours straight of traveling to get here. Then the strongest typhoon since 1960…. then the earthquake… then the obscure national holiday we didnt know about… Now we’re in a hotel room the size of a shoebox because they have the flu and I am throwing up from eating vending machine food for 4 days while everything was closed. Better luck next year? At least we’re alive!

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