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stay east, young man
is travel worth it?
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

The hassle of travel has gone off the charts. You know the factors in play. Four-dollar gas, plane delays, high prices, the works. Travel internationally and the inconvenience goes exponential. A weak dollar makes the price problem a crisis. And no matter where you’re going, the travel industry is scrambling to make do, which sometimes results in good deals but more often means an attempt make the same amount of money off a smaller number of people. The math is never on your side.

So it seems like a good time to ask the question: why do we bother?

My maternal grandmother was born in southern Illinois, and didn’t leave the confines of Clay County until she was 16. By the time I was 16 I’d been to at least a dozen states, including Alaska, and shortly after that I took my first trip to Europe. Compared to some of my jetsetting friends I’m a homebody, but I’ve seen the view from the Eiffel Tower and played the nickel slots in Vegas and felt the heat in a Venetian glass factory and eaten goat in Peru.

Am I any better off because of it? Yes and no.

Why travel? The most basic answer is, because we have to. One of the reasons Grandma McHenry didn’t travel young but I did is because of where our families were. Economic and other factors have caused many families to spread out. My relatives can be found coast to coast. That trip to Alaska? Aunts and uncles in Anchorage. If you want to see your family, you go to where they are.

But then there’s the other kind of travel. The kind we have no particular reason to do. For recreation. For a change of pace. To see somewhere we haven’t seen, be somewhere we haven’t been.

Is it worth it? Hundreds of dollars, even thousands, to be intrigued by a desert lizard you’d never see back home? For a Goofy handshake? For a sunburn?

In business, you can measure success in a few different ways. Benchmark the standard and then measure against it to look for improvement. Perform a cost-benefit analysis. Calculate the return on investment, or ROI.

In life, things are different. Most of what we talk about as the benefits of optional travel are thoroughly intangible. “Just to see it.” “Cultural awareness.” “Getting away.” And the old chestnut, “making memories”.

So the question of whether it’s “worth it” gets a lot fuzzier. Life is full of trade-offs and opportunity costs. The three hundred dollars you use for the plane ticket to Florida is no longer available for bread, or gas, or diapers. But if you have enough to cover the basic necessities, travel is an extremely common indulgence, and then you generally don’t ask whether, but where.

Ask yourself “what for”.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on the popularity of “staycations”, using your time off to do things you wouldn’t normally do, but coming home every night to sleep in your own bed. Avoid the spending and the hassle, but depart from the everyday. They made it sound pretty tempting. Of course, the people in the article were also coming home at night to comfortable residences in Manhattan and Brooklyn. And sure. If you can take the train to Zabar’s and the Met and the Cloisters, that sounds like a nice idea.

But even then, ask yourself: what for?

Why do I want to travel? What do I want to learn? And don’t cop out with “expand my mind” or “eat good food” or “get away from work”. You can get away from work by not going. That doesn’t mean you need to be on a beach to do it. And no matter where in the U.S. you live, if you want to eat jamon iberico, buying several pounds mail-order from La Tienda is a whole lot less expensive than the airfare to Madrid.

Traveling to learn, traveling to have experiences, is an indulgence. And my point is not to make you feel bad about the indulgence. My point is to think about it, to set your goals, to examine your plans. What will you do in this place that you can’t do without going there? How does that desert lizard change you as a person? How does that sliver of jamon iberico, set in its context as not just a food but a cultural gift, open your mind?

How will you share these lessons with other people? How long will they last?

The sky in Miami at sunset is incredibly, magically blue, and it reminds you to stop and savor where you are. The orchid greenhouse behind the Lodge at Koele in Lanai gleams in the darkness like a jewel, and it reminds you that nothing makes travel as rewarding as having a place to rest at the end of a day. Flexing your Spanish to tell the nurse that your husband is allergic to penicillin (the one phrase in the phrasebook you never thought you’d use) isn’t pleasant, but the memory stays with you, and it makes you both more vigilant against, and more willing to adapt to, the unknown.

Don’t go without asking yourself why you’re going. And if you don’t have a good answer, don’t go.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


pursuing the perfect bite
playing with your food, playing well with others
by jael mchenry
topic: general
published: 3.5.07

mind over, under, and inside matter
the mystery between your ears
by jael mchenry
topic: general
published: 6.5.00


tracey kelley
6.4.08 @ 7:24a

I didn't travel much before 20, but I moved quite a bit. You get used to being the new kid in time, but I always liked exploring someplace new and watching people.

And that's why travel is important to me. My inquisitive nature needs to be fulfilled. What does the grocery in Little Havana have that I can't find at home? What time do the schoolchildren get out in London, and why do they all run, not walk, down the street? How many shells are sewn onto that Navajo dancer's skirt? How many people take the train from Paris to Epernay and back each day?

There are few places in the world, in the state, down the street, that I don't want to investigate. I believe the one important factor about travel is to not be elitist about it. Yes, I've dined at the Moet and Chandon mansion. I've also stood in a Iowa farmer's backyard while he told me the proper way to plant sweet corn. Each step we take outside our front door expands our knowledge of life and the people in it if we want it to.

When I was a travel director, I marveled at a co-worker's ability to speak 7 languages fluently, because I envied her ability to feel at home just about anywhere, and how much deeper her experiences are where ever she goes.

russ carr
6.4.08 @ 8:58a

My sentiments echo Tracey's. It took having a family to settle me down from my rambling ways, because up 'til that point, I moved every couple of years. I've been in the same house now for six years, and it often seems like an eternity. Fortunately, having moved so often, my wanderlust is tempered by the very adult hassles of getting all one's crap packed and actually hauling it all over the place.

That hasn't stopped me from wanting to go places, though. It chafes a bit that this year's family reunion (my side) is taking place in the exact same locale as last year's family reunion (her side). It turns out it's just a convenient, central spot, and I can only blame myself, as I recommended it; it was my practical nature taking over in a season of high gas prices and prohibitive airfares.

But I want to do that big road trip through the desert southwest, and up through California and through the Rockies that my Dad did when he was a teenager. I want to ride a train up the Pacific Coast and through the Cascades. I want to go to Japan and Australia, to visit cultures I've experienced tangentially through friends.

Note that for those first two sentences, it isn't so much the destination, it's the trip. Getting there really is half the fun, and sometimes moreso, when there's not really a "there" to reach. Like life, where you end it isn't so important as how you got there, and the things and people you experienced along the way. And for that reason, traveling, despite the cost for the gas, the tickets, the hotels, is still priceless.

reem al-omari
6.4.08 @ 12:22p

I am all for traveling. I find that the less someone has traveled, the more hard it is to get them to open up their minds to differences. I'm not saying they're entirely close-minded, but they tend to have a limited ability to even see outside of the box and understand that outside the box an entire, independent and very real world exists.

I've had people ask me where Denmark was on a map of the United States! Travel is so important to understand that where you live isn't the only place where people carry out their lives. That's what you learn as you travel along with so many other things hard to pinpoint, whether you plan to learn such things or not.

Traveling opens your mind to so many things ranging from language, cultures, sights, sounds, tastes, and most importantly people and their quirks/nuances. I've been around people who haven't traveled further than a road trip, and I've seen the effects of such limited exposure to the "outside" world... it's very sad.

Basically, travel is worth every penny spent, whether you have a solid purpose attached to it or not. You're gonna learn something, whether you plan to or not.

adam kraemer
6.5.08 @ 2:39p

I do recommend the Cloisters.

jael mchenry
6.5.08 @ 4:18p

Reem, I like the argument that travel opens the mind. I was talking about it with someone else and they suggested that the people who choose to travel to places where their minds need opening are the ones who already have open minds, to a degree. The people who really need to be exposed to a different way of thinking or being are less likely to really take the bull by the horns and do it. There's some absurdly low percentage of Americans who have passports. It's shocking.

And even getting out there doesn't always help. People go to France and eat Le Big Mac.

lucy lediaev
6.5.08 @ 6:54p

And even getting out there doesn't always help. People go to France and eat Le Big Mac.

I traveled some years ago with a colleague who sought out MacDonalds in France and Germany. When we were wined and dined in Italy, I ate a wonderful grilled seafood platter; he ate spaghetti with tomato sauce. I ate polenta with a variety of meat toppings; he ate spaghetti with tomato sauce. I ate carpaccio; he ate spaghetti...; I ate risotto tricolore and he ate spaghetti.

He stayed in his hotel room while I went out into the cities we were visiting. He would have preferred to stay home, but our employer wanted him to travel--so he traveled reluctantly, experiencing as little of the new cultures and people as possible. His attitude left me very puzzled.

alex b
6.5.08 @ 7:17p

I'm a lucky person who has been to several major US cities, and also traveled to Hong Kong, Manila, and Melbourne. Travel truly opens your mind, and it's amazing to see things done in a whole other way, and to learn things you never would have expected to see. (For instance- didn't know Filipinos could form pretty awesome reggae bands. Nor did I know Melbourne would be tremendously Greek-influenced).

I'm also a fan of the "staycation." I keep thinking that I'd love to just take a week off and continue getting to know the city, or just book a Circle Line cruise for fun on a weekend.

beth clement
6.5.08 @ 9:50p

I'm one of those teachers who works hard during the school year and then loves to travel for every break. I love planning trips and getting ready to go on trips. The interesting thing I thought about was the two modes in which I travel.

There's Beth who is a kindergarten teacher with friends/family and then there's the girl on the back of the mortocycle who is treated a little differently due to the Harley mystique. I always find others who are either wearing the name or who come up to say hi due to pulling in on the bike. It's also the cheapest way we travel and I actually feel like I am seeing more and experiencing more when I take those trips.

reem al-omari
6.6.08 @ 4:01p

There are plenty of people who travel regularly and come back none the wiser. In college, I had a retired lady in one of my classes who would travel a lot with her husband and though she had been to England, Canada and all sorts of other places, she would still say things like "they don't have ranch dressing in London!" This woman would also say things like "I love Julia Roberts... how could you not absolutely love that All-American face!" She had a mentality that didn't change with travel, especially at her age, but I'd rather her know that Ranch dressing isn't a choice in other places than assume the American choice of dressings is universal.

But even domestic travel is a learning experience. Where I live (Denver, CO) kids don cellphones before they know how to multiply, and their favorite non-electronic toy is their scooter. I always shake my head at this generation of kids who can't stimulate their minds manually anymore.

But I found there was hope for this generation when I rode up into the mountains yesterday with a friend. While having lunch I was dumbstruck when I saw a little boy hugging his stuffed animal-- a penguin. He loved this thing so much he sat it in his lap while he ate. Not since I was less than 10 years old have I seen a kid carrying a regular toy around and love it this way.

Travel gives me hope that the people I'm surrounded with, who are generally materialistic jerks, are not the norm everywhere else... they're not even the norm in a town 4 hours away.

Again. Yey for travel!



lucy lediaev
6.9.08 @ 12:42p

Not since I was less than 10 years old have I seen a kid carrying a regular toy around and love it this way.

Maybe my granddaughter, at almost 7, is abnormal, but she always travels with at least one of her stuffed buddies. She also shares the backset of the car with a cadre of invisible rhinos of all colors and sizes.

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