In defense of speed freak backpackers

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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.

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