In defense of speed freak backpackers

So I like to see plenty. Big cities, small towns, isolated villages, and maybe a little hiking. I don’t just want to see the capital city and move on. I want to see a wide variety of what each country has to offer.

Nowadays I’ll go a little slower than before; I’ll leave an extra day or two here and there, with nothing planned for the day, and just wander around at a lazy leisurely pace and soak up the atmosphere.

Friendly locals on Santorini, Greece.
“Yeah, we’ll take you to the next town, but it’s gonna take a while.”

Which is why I generally find it bizarre that some backpackers like to burn through the itinerary at breakneck speed. They’ll go from one capital city to another, stopping by at a few major sites, then party all night, and move on in the morning. They’ll spend a day or two in each city, half a week in each country, and come back from a brief vacation with 18 new passport stamps.

I’ll admit I used to think this was just plain silly. As much as I enjoy world-class monuments, it’s the tiny little towns that make for a pleasant surprise, with comparatively empty streets and friendly people who aren’t suffering from tourist fatigue. You can still visit certain towns in countries all over the world where tourists are an endangered species, and they’ve probably got a cool cathedral or whatever anyway.

Christmas decorations in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Lightboat: The only way to travel!

But super fast travel can still be cool!

So it felt weird when I met a guy whose travel plans included three days in Paris, two days in Barcelona, one day in Vienna, three days in Rome, two in Florence, two in Prague, with similar numbers throughout the trip, and I didn’t find it weird at all. When he explained it, it made perfect sense.

Paraphrased, of course, as I was way too drunk it was too long ago to recall word for word:

I know I’m missing out on a million things, but this is the first time I’ve ever been out of the United States. I want to see Notre Dame. I want to see the Louvre. I want to see the Coliseum. I know exactly what I want to see, and I may not get the chance to visit again for years. I’m going to see everything I’m excited about seeing, and I’m skipping all sorts of other things that might be great, but they’re just not going to be as satisfying to me as seeing the sites I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to visit.

Nicely done, sir. No arrogant I-travel-cooler-than-you judginess from me!

Corfu, Greece
I mean, can you REALLY be here all day and not get bored?

I think there’s something to be said about understanding exactly the type of decision you’re making, knowing the pros and cons through and through, and setting off on exactly the sort of trip you want to take. And this guy was doing exactly that. It wasn’t how I like to travel (I like to visit country by country, seeing quite a bit before I move on), but it was exactly the trip he always wanted, and he wasn’t lying to himself about what he was losing by moving so quickly.

And besides, fast travel doesn’t mean you’re missing out. If you keep yourself busy each day with sightseeing and other activities, you can move from one city to the next relatively quickly, without missing out on much.

On my first real solo backpacking experience, I’d wake up at 5 AM, and wander the city until sundown, when it was so freezing cold I couldn’t be outside anymore. It’s hard not to see everything if you’re out on a mission for 12 hours a day, every day, until you fly home. It’s not how I like to travel nowadays, but when life is short, you can still see plenty if you keep yourself busy, and it can be far more fulfilling than hanging out by the pool for the entirety of your 2 weeks of vacation per year.

Delphi, Greece.
“We took a six hour bus ride to see three goddamn columns?!?! Fuck you, ravages of time!”

So, in defense of the speed demon see-it-all superfast backpackers, here are some reasons why the fast-paced adventurous lifestyle might be for you:

Super fast travel pros:

  • You’ll see more! Duh. Want to see Rome in 3 days? Wake up early and don’t come back to the hostel till all the attractions are closed. You’ll see plenty. Hanging out in your room for hours at a time is only going to be satisfying after you’ve spent a few days or weeks sightseeing at high speed. Exceptions are allowed for meeting cool people. Just ask yourself if the guy you’re getting drunk with is cooler than the Great Wall. Maybe, but probably not.
  • It’s cheaper! You know all those people that say slow travel is cheaper? This is a filthy dirty lie. Fast travel is cheaper, hands down. If you pack in as many activities as you reasonably can per day, your sightseeing expenses go up, but your accommodation and food expenses remain exactly the same. If you want to see X number of sites with X amount of money, fast travel wins, no question. What these people mean to say is that living abroad is cheaper when you go slowly (or if you’re working as you go, whether digitally or in person). But if you’re on a mission to see all of Italy with only a fixed budget, spending 6 months instead of 2 is going to be a disaster.
  • It might be more fun! I say might be more fun, since high-speed backpacking is tough. But if you can pack in plenty of amazing experiences each and every day, even a brief trip is going to feel spectacular. That’s not to say you should only be visiting museums and churches and whatever; quality experiences should be your goal, whatever those may be. If you’re a huge art history nerd, then by all means, museum yourself all day long.
En route in Slovenia.
Added bonus: You’ll have PLENTY of reading time on those 8-hour train rides.

Super fast travel cons:

  • You’ll break down. Keeping up a fast pace is tough! You’ll need good shoes, lots of water, and some scheduling skills. But even so, you might find yourself lying down on the bed and being completely incapable of getting up again. Visit sites that are clustered together, make use of public transportation, and savor your lunch break.
  • You’ll get bored. Seeing a million churches one after the other is going to get incredibly annoying. Eventually you’ll view sightseeing as an ordeal rather than the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s best to break up the trip with different activities, hopping from cities to towns, and alternating monumental sightseeing with outdoorsy trips or whatever.
  • You’ll fuck up. Sooner or later you’re going to miss a train that you had to be on, and you’ll miss Machu Picchu or whatever. It’s gonna suck. Speedy travel can work out, but don’t make it too fast. Give yourself a little I-fucked-up leeway to prevent irreparable disaster.
Kitty on his throne at Knossos, Crete.
“Go away, I’m sleepy. Purr purr.”

There’s no best way to travel (except mine!)

From hostels to hotels, outdoorsy adventures to museum worshippers, there are a million reasons to visit somewhere, and you’ll find each and every type of traveler along the way, from those who want to see the monuments and sample the food, to those who are only interested in the local ladies. You know who you are!

So as much as I enjoy one-country-at-a-time, medium-paced backpacking, it’s not the only way to travel. From fast to slow, living abroad to quick flyover trips, carefully crafted itineraries to go-with-the-flow randomness, it’s all about what you want out of the experience, and everyone wants something different.

I’d only advise people to know exactly what they’re getting into, what they’re missing out on, and make sure they’re getting the type of warm and fuzzy memories they’ll treasure for a life time. And/or brag about to their friends. That’s fun too.

Have fun, boys and girls. Lots of fun.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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24 Comments on “In defense of speed freak backpackers”

  1. Nice post ! I have 2 weeks of vacation by year (maybe 1 more if I’m nice enough) so trust me, I’m a super fast traveller professional ! :P I’ll rest back home hahah. True that I never go back to the hostel, I don’t party that much (I can get drunk and hangover at home), I think about what I want to see and plan my days. But I’m a master planner, I always have room for changes or plan B if something doesn’t work, I never run, I’m never exhausted, I sleep 8h/days and eat 3 times/day and my trips are always fun ! :D

    But I think it’s just the way I am. I did a 5 months backpacking trip with a friend and after 3 days, we needed to move to another city, we needed change and excitment ! :)

    1. If you keep yourself busy, you need to move around. I think some people are fine with just sitting on the main square for 6 hours at a time, and I think that’s fine too, but it all depends what you’re up to and who you’re with.

      1. Drinking for 6 hours on the main square, especialy in a country with good beers, that’s something I could enjoy for sure :P

  2. It’s all down to the “why” not “how,” isn’t it? I am so used to travelling on my own that I tend to get a lot done if I’m in one place for a short time, but that’s because I want to see a lot. I’m not going to judge if someone doesn’t want to see as much as me – that’s their choice and everyone is entitled to it :)

  3. I can’t say that I’ve ever read a defense of super fast traveling, so mad props! There’s no “correct” way to travel as long as you do and see what you want. I always feel bad when I hear someone getting a mini-lecture about their travel style from a person who fancies themselves a better traveler. I like a mix of fast travel and slow travel- works for me.

  4. Extra reading time on the 8 hour trains=major plus! I’ve done the lightspeed travel before and I’ve also done very slow travel. I think that you should never get too stuck on one method of travel but mix it up as often as possible and challenge yourself! :)

  5. I hear you :) We have experienced both modes in the last 5 years and still can’t decide which one is better – depends on the place too, I guess.

    Although a 13 hour stretch from dawn to dusk might feel appealing to see everything and check every box, we have learnt that it kind of takes away from absorbing the atmosphere of the place. So now we spend 12 hours ticking the boxes instead ;) lol

    “We took a six hour bus ride to see three goddamn columns?!?! Fuck you, ravages of time!” – LOL, been there, done that and didn’t come out wiser

    But hey, everyone will have a unique travelling “style” – it takes all kinds, eh?

    As for us, we enjoy more hectic and engaging travel experiences instead of bumming on the beaches (do have 1 every year of that too – after all one needs a break from all the travelling ;))

    1. Yeah, it all depends. I think the longer-term travelers tend to slow things down, while the once-a-month vacationers might want to go pretty quickly, since everything is new and exciting, and the medium-term crowd might mix it up.

  6. As a “cruiser” I totally understand the doing a place in 1 day. You got to get in and back to the ship before it sails away for the next port. Some places only require 1 day – Caribbean Island for example. But Europe??? I had 1 day in Rome and it was crazy hectic but it did leave me wanting to come back for more…

  7. I have the same preferred mode of travel as you. If I fly through my itinerary too fast I’m left with my head spinning and significantly fewer memories. It seems like a waste of money and I always feel like I need to go back to experience the place properly!

    1. Yeah, that can definitely happen, particularly if you spend your time at the sites with all the other tourists, and cut down on the random wandering time. And random wandering is one of my favorite things.

  8. “There’s no best way to travel (except mine!)”- I totally agree with this comment. Everyone travels (or should do), the way that suits them best. Sometimes we travel slowly, sometimes we pack everything in to one day. A mix is good for us. But being basically a lazy person slow mostly beats crazy fast. I so understand the guy you met who had never travelled outside of his own country before and had a hit list. Good Luck to him and all travellers :)

    1. I definitely enjoy slow travel, but I’ve found myself mostly on budgeted trips with lots of ground to cover, so I keep myself busy. Not too busy to feel rushed, but not too slow to feel stagnant.

  9. As an American, it really is a shame (and insane) that we get so little time for vacation. We get 2 MAYBE 3 weeks if we’ve been with a company for a while. It really doesn’t give us the time nor the energy to travel like many of us would like. Hell, we should have two weeks off just to simply rest, then another two or four weeks to actually travel. You know, like other enlightened and self-respecting societies (Europeans countries, for example).

    Reading your quote of the traveler from the US just broke my heart because it’s so typical and really, it’s pretty sad. We are forced to “see” other countries rather than truly experience them, because we just don’t have enough time off. Too bad.

    But this is so well stated and also very kind:

    “Nicely done, sir. No arrogant I-travel-cooler-than-you judginess from me!”

  10. Kelli-what you said about you being an American is so true. As a fellow American, I know how difficult it is to get good vacation time. Whenever I meet up with Americans who aren’t doing extended trips like me, they are always trying to go SUPER fast.

  11. I’m a type of travelers that’s in between, I would like to spend at least 2 or 3 days in a city and then move on. Usually it’s limited to my wife’s schedule so we have to work around that. We just don’t have the time to spend too much time in a given place.

    We have still some parts of the world to see and I personally would like to have a little taste first before going back for a full intensive vacation.

    Earlier in our travels, we spent about 9 days in Hong Kong and 5 days in Tokyo. I believe there’s still more to see in Tokyo and Japan in general, but we pretty much saw everything in Hong Kong. I would love to go back to Hong Kong again, but there’s very little reason to anymore as we’ve done it. I never want to feel that way about another city or country again, so we now leave room for a future vacation without feeling bad about it.

    Also, it takes me a day or two to learn the city and get used to it. I believe the second time I’m there, i can do more as I’m much more familiar with the city and know what to look for.

    1. That’s an interesting way to look at it. See half the city, then you don’t feel the need to abandon it permanently because you’re done with it.

  12. Also, sometimes all you have is a day in each city. I did this on weekends when I was in China for work. I would spend one day in each city (Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou). It wasn’t great, I didn’t see everything, but at least I saw something. The following year, I spent a weekend in two different countries. I definitely missed out on some things in Nanjing (and much more in Korea and Thailand) but I don’t regret not spending more time there because I got to see so much more otherwise. And yes, it was really exhausting.

  13. SO much yes to this! Seriously. We tore through the US due to time/money/visa limits, as well as the parts of Europe where we werent volunteering. You are right that slow travel is not cheaper, bottom line, unless you are basically a permanent nomad – though it is satisfying to see your average daily cost go down. And being from NZ we know realistically we are unlikely to ever return to most of these cities so we want to make the most of our time after spending so much to get there in the first place.

    Thanks for the refreshing angle.

    1. Thanks. It certainly has its pros and cons, but it’s worth considering the pros, since slow travel seems to be lauded as the best, even though it has a couple downsides.

  14. Ha! Ha! So funny but you know what, both methods are absolutely fine!
    I used to speed through Europe myself. But you can do that you see because you can always come back! When I lived in London, I would pop over to the Continent, by coach (bus), sleep on the coach and spend a very long weekend seeing all the historical stuff ‘cos I love museums, follow the locals around for the hidden corners AND go clubbing too and declare that a great weekend, so much better than staying at home and watching TV! The key being, if I missed something, I always go back to the city or country again!
    Now I live in Berlin, I’m older (sigh!), married, have a child and a higher disposable income so I don’t need to rush around so much, but you’ll still not find me spending more than 3 days on a beach (so boring!), but rather longer stretches of time in an area. e.g. Last summer we spent 3 independent weeks around Tuscany and it was perfectly OK!

  15. I totally agree with you that every traveler gets to make their own choices (*usually* without judgment from me), however I have to argue with the idea that fast travel is cheaper.

    Not only do sightseeing expenses go up but I would argue that accommodation, food, and transport costs do as well. If you’re around big tourist sites all day, you’re probably going to be eating near tourist sites too (which, of course, are often overpriced). If you’re hoping to get up at 5am and hit the city center to explore how likely are you really to stay at that half-price hostel at the end of the metro line? Or Couchsurf for one night in six different cities in a row? Then when you go to book your train/flight/bus to the next city are you going to be able to book the ticket three days later that still has cheap seats available? Or do you have to leave THIS DAY so that you don’t end up missing Machu Picchu?

    Obviously you can stay for twice as long and end up spending three times as much, but in my experience this is absolutely not the case most of the time.

    1. Eating in restaurants near touristy areas is certainly pricy, but I think that if you’re doing that even on a slow trip, then the slow trip will simply have additional days where you’re eating more cheaply, which just increases the grand total expense. Also, I’ve never seen train tickets go up or down in price depending on which day it is. Only airlines are that annoying.

      1. I’m not certain how universal the train thing is, but I got hit hard with it late Sept last year in Vienna. I missed a (non-refundable) train that was around 40€, and to buy a new ticket last minute on the same route was twice as much!

        As to food/etc, I’ll still respectfully disagree.

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