I’ve been working on this article for a long time, as slow travel is more of a religion for me than a strategy, and I suppose those things that we hold closest can be the most challenging to write about. With little under our control lately, we don’t have much choice but to go with the flow and focus on the here and now. There’s a certain beauty in living in the here and now, and I love the mindfulness that comes with slow traveling for the same reason. Relaxing your pace when you travel lets you “stop and smell the roses,” opening your senses to the details that paint the picture of where you are, and letting you get lost in the moments as they come. Added perks of slow traveling are that it is often cheaper and almost always more relaxing, as well as more environmentally friendly. Slow travel can be a win-win, all around.
Committing to slow travel means ditching, for example, the continental capital city sampler tour for a single destination you really want to get to know. You’re reducing your carbon footprint by cutting out all of those flights you’d take in addition to your flight taking you to and from home. Instead, your own two feet will be quite sufficient, supplemented when necessary by the local transit system of your travel destination, and regional trains or even a rented car.
Reducing your quantity of moments – from place to place – and the speed of your movements – within a place – will also drastically reduce the planning and logistics management required of your trip, which will give you more opportunity to live in the moment. Which is basically what vacation is supposed to be all about, right? Who needs stress on vacation when most of us have plenty of that in our normal lives? A group of my friends did a Europe trip where they changed cities every two days or so, and every time they changed cities on early morning flights they faced check-in issues with their Airbnb. They would have to lug their suitcases around for hours until they were given the green light to check-in, which resulted in a lot of stress, and much lost opportunity for exploration.
Slow travel is also a surefire way to reduce some of the costs involved in traveling. When you’re not rushing to hit the major sights and jumping on a plane to the next city, you’ll have the opportunity to make a lot of choices that will save you money, like ditching the taxi for a long city walk. Or cooking one of your meals every day instead of eating out. My favorite way to save money when I slow travel is to learn to eat like a local. Finding your way off of the beaten path into non-touristy neighborhoods will open you up to restaurants and stores that cater to locals, where you can find dishes that may not be familiar to you, but could be utterly delicious and are most certainly cheaper than what you’ll find at the tourist restaurants.
Even if you have limited vacation time and opportunity to travel, you can still practice slow travel, as “slow” is a relative measure of time that is related to the average amount of time most tourists spend in your chosen destination. On a trip to Italy, spending a week in Rome, four days in Venice, and three nights in Milan, for example, would be a much slower-paced itinerary than most Italy-based travel itineraries. Believe it or not, only a small fraction of tourists in Venice actually stay overnight, and very few tourists spend more than a few nights in Rome and a night or two in Milan. Imagine the opportunity to experience the incredible beauty of Venice after sunset when the crowds have all but gone away. I highly recommend it.
My personal slow travel strategy is to read up on a destination before I arrive so I understand the heart of what it has to offer and can create a general framework for the structure of my time there, with plenty of space for spontaneity. I rely on guides like Frommer’s and Rick Steves, travel blogs, “48 hours in” guides in the New York Times and The Guardian, and Wikitravel. I save whatever stands out as most interesting on my google map so I can reference it based on where I happen to end up in my meanderings and stop in somewhere I’ve saved on my map if I happen to be in the neighborhood. I also like to ask locals for advice, and slow travel will give you the time to do that. On a trip to Adare, Ireland, I’d read online that a bike ride outside of the town was a must, but I was wary that the road might be too busy for my comfort level. On my first night in town at dinner at a local pub, I got to know the pub manager and some locals and asked them for advice. They suggested a peaceful area just outside the city as a nice biking destination, which ended up being the highlight of my visit.
Which brings me to the core of what slow travel is really about – the human connection and cultural understanding in slow travel is incomparable to what you experience in travel with packed itineraries. Imagine having the time to become a regular at the coffee shop next to your hotel or Airbnb and getting to know what neighborhoods your barista likes to spend time in. You could spend a day wandering one of those neighborhoods and photographing nooks and crannies that catch your eye, or shopping if that’s what you love to do. On my first trip to Florence, one of my waiters encouraged me to check out the market at Piazza Santo Spirito. I didn’t have time on that first trip, and it took me years to get to that market and I’ve always regretted not going sooner, as the neighborhood it is in is now my favorite neighborhood in Florence. On another slow travel trip to London, I was feeling very poor at the time and spent a lot of time in museums because many there are free. I connected with a museum volunteer during one of the Tate Modern’s free volunteer-led tours. She understood my funds were limited and walked me into an incredible special exhibit that had an entrance fee. I spent the rest of the day relishing every aspect of this exhibit. I hadn’t planned on spending so much time at the museum, and it ended up being one of my favorite days in London. I was so grateful to that kind volunteer, and for having the time to be flexible with my plans.
Many will cite limited vacation time as a reason not to engage in slow travel, but I believe we don’t have time not to slow travel. If we spend our lives remaining in our own cultural bubbles, missing opportunities to gain a deep understanding of people and ways of doing things that are different than our own, then we may as well not travel at all. Slow travel can be what you want and need it to be. The rules are not set in stone – the point is to not follow the crowds, to do your research and some introspection, and to decide what experience you are looking for. There are so many resources waiting to assist you with this, including this blog, and many like it. Good luck and happy slow travels!