There’s an article going around Facebook titled Your Obsession With Travel Sure Feels Classist To Me by Katherine DM Clover. It’s short and provocative – it can be summarized with three quotes.
no matter how much as we like to pretend that it doesn’t, travel costs actual money. It’s a leisure activity enjoyed largely by the upper classes, and it’s always been that way …
No one dares to mention that travel is essentially a consumable good under capitalism and, as such, simply isn’t available to many of us …
I don’t travel much because I’m poor.
Let’s start with the obvious. Poor people have fewer options than middle class people, and middle class people have fewer options than rich people. Poor people who “pass” for middle class are often subjected to assumptions and questions that can be embarrassing, as the writer describes. In a society that valued making sure everyone has enough over maximizing “opportunity” for a few to become incredibly rich, this class-driven embarrassment would be greatly diminished. But we don’t live in that kind of society, so I sympathize with the writer… up to a point.
I have only two regrets from all my years of schooling. One is never learning a second language. The other is never going to Florida for Spring Break. Now, I imagine those of you who know me in person are laughing right now. I’m not exactly a drunken debauchery kind of guy, and I was even less so in my college years. Spring Break in the 80s wasn’t the MTV porn you see today, but it’s always been about sun, sex, and alcohol. I’ve never been a sun worshipper, and I knew the odds of me hooking up with some hot girl from another state were impossibly long. But I still wanted to go – I just didn’t have the money.
Never mind the fact that other people who had a lot less money managed to go. Never mind the fact that my senior year, I did have the money. But Tennessee Tech’s Spring Break was only five days that year, and I didn’t want to spend half my break on the road and go back to classes exhausted.
Even now I still regret that I didn’t go at least once. It wouldn’t have been an MTV-worthy experience, but it would have been memorable. But now I understand that while I wanted to go to Florida for Spring Break, I didn’t really really want to go. I preferred more restaurants and less cooking for myself the rest of the quarter. My senior year I preferred five days unwinding and resting up for the push to graduation. “I can’t afford it” was an excuse.
After I started working a professional job and making decent money, I still complained that I couldn’t afford to travel. My friends (well, some of my friends) were taking cruises and going to Europe and going all kinds of places I wanted to go. I said I couldn’t afford it.
What I was really saying was that I couldn’t afford to travel like my friends with more money AND live the way I wanted to live the rest of the year. I could have traveled at a lower level of accommodations: drive instead of fly, motels instead of resorts, more museums and fewer expensive shows. Or I could have lived more cheaply the rest of the year. I chose to do neither, and I genuinely regret it.
I made my first trip to Ireland and to Newgrange in 2014. While at the Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre, I saw the box where you could put your name for a chance to be inside Newgrange on Winter Solstice morning. Each year about 30,000 people enter the drawing – 50 are chosen. I didn’t put my name in the box. Even if my name was selected, I couldn’t afford a second trip to Ireland nine months later.
Rhyd Wildermuth also made a trip to Ireland in 2014. Rhyd knows more about poverty than anyone should know. But he also knows how to travel on a tight budget. Rhyd and I didn’t share our financial reports, but I’m confident his trip cost a lot less than mine, even though his was longer and I wasn’t exactly traveling first class.
Unlike me, Rhyd put his name in the box – and he was chosen. He made a second trip to Ireland later that year. He even got a clear morning – he wrote a beautiful account of his experiences for The Wild Hunt. He had to do a fundraiser to get much of the money, and some people gave him a hard time for it. They argued that fundraisers should only be used for “serious” things like paying medical bills. Someone who I can’t remember and can’t find wrote a brilliantly profane satire blasting those who think the poor shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things – including memorable experiences.
As I write this, Rhyd and Alley Valkyrie (who wrote the essay on “passing” I linked to above) are on a multi-week pilgrimage to Europe. To say that Rhyd and Alley are not wealthy is a massive understatement. Yet because making this pilgrimage was that important to them, and because they have little overhead (house payments, car payments, etc.) they’re doing something people with far more money can’t – or won’t – do.
I want to be sensitive to Katherine Clover and to other people whose financial situations are difficult. I’ve been told “if you really really want it you’ll find a way” and it pissed me off – what I heard was “I don’t care and I’m not helping.” I’ve also heard “well, we all have to make choices” – as though the poor have the same choices as the rich, or that they wouldn’t be poor if they just made better choices. “Bad choices” that are insignificant for the rich can have serious and even fatal consequences for the poor.
At the same time, most of the people who are reading, sharing, and commenting on Ms. Clover’s essay have the resources to travel, if they choose. Perhaps you can’t go to the same places and stay in the same hotels as your “friends” who are turning travel into a form of conspicuous consumption, but you can still visit places that are new and different. You can still get the educational and cultural benefits of travel. You can still get the religious and spiritual benefits of a pilgrimage. You can still have experiences you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
In the article, Ms. Clover complains “[I] am 30 years old, I have never left the continental United States.” When I was 30 years old, my one trip outside the continental U.S. (I don’t count the time my father drove from Detroit to Niagara Falls by way of Hamilton, Ontario just so he could say he’d been to Canada – though I do appreciate him taking me to see the falls) was a 3-day trip to Freeport, Bahamas. It was an off-peak, low-budget, package deal – cheap enough I couldn’t make excuses for not going. But I enjoyed it, and I made up for some of my Spring Break regret by getting incredibly drunk on a beach. Thankfully, I had a wife and four friends to tell me to lower my voice before I got us kicked out of Burger King.
I took my first trip to Las Vegas at 34, my first Caribbean cruise at 37, and my first vacation to Europe at 45. I still haven’t been to Hawaii, Australia, or anywhere in Asia except for Turkey – which isn’t what most people mean when they say Asia. I can’t find the source, but I seem to recall those ages are near the statistical mean for Americans.
So don’t give up hope, Ms. Clover. You’ve got plenty of time left to do some of those big trips. Meanwhile, there are a lot of cool places in this country that are worth visiting, and some of them are almost certainly within driving distance for you – or not too far off a bus route. I wish I had done some of that kind of traveling in my 20s and early 30s. I can still go to those places, but I can’t get those years back.
So if you’re telling yourself you can’t afford to travel, my suggestion is to shut up and go somewhere. Don’t do what I did in my 20s and 30s and now regret. Forget the places your rich friends are bragging about that you really can’t afford. Cut back somewhere else and go where – and how – you can afford to go.
Or don’t. As much as I enjoy traveling and as much as travel has expanded my life and the lives of so many people, some just aren’t interested in it. If that’s you, it’s OK to say “thanks, but I’d really rather stay home.” If a better house really means that much to you, it’s OK to say “I’d rather put the money into a house.” However much or little money you have from whatever sources are available to you, spend it the way that’s right for you.
But understand that for a lot of us, that means traveling.