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What is Slow Travel?: 6 Simple Strategies You Need for Planning Your Next Big Trip

Slow travel is the mindset shift we all need in a post-COVID world.

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Unpopular opinion: I hate country counting. I wasn’t always like this though, I used to obsess over maxing out my travel punch card. Over the years though, as I’ve worked on embracing slow travel, I’ve started to realize more and more just how important it is to shift the way I engage with the places I’m visiting and to actually experience the experience.

Country counting is often the antithesis of all that.

You’ve probably become familiar with the concept of country counting to some extent as the Instagram travel-sphere has taken off over the past couple years. Numerous Instagram travel influencers have worked towards and or completed some form of the Guinness World Record to visit every country. And even if they haven’t, if you visit many travel influencers’ pages, you’ll see a number somewhere in their bio. Something like 70 countries visited, or my least favorite: x/195.

I don’t want to completely shade these people because I know that many of them get joy from traveling to as many countries as possible. Obviously we all travel to find some form of joy—and if that’s yours, that’s fine!

But for me, and I imagine for many of you, it doesn’t actually give me a better experience to travel for quantity over quality. In fact, it gives me anxiety to think about the negative impacts my presence in a place might actually be having when I’m experiencing it so cursorily.

Especially in a post-COVID world, it’s more important than ever to be thinking beyond ourselves while traveling. The beauty of slow travel, though, is that it’s also the perfect pandemic travel mindset. A win-win!

Let’s take a look at just what’s wrong with country counting, why slow travel is the perfect alternative, and six ways to start incorporating more mindful, more responsible travel habits into the next trip you plan.

What even is a country?

To put it plainly, countries are completely arbitrary! When people are country counting, they are primarily concerned with visiting nation-states.

Where does this golden number 195 that’s in all the bios even come from? Guinness World Records.

And where, you may ask, do they get this number? Lucky for you I lifted this from their website:

All sovereign states: The guidelines say you must visit 195 countries – the 193 UN Member States as of December 2018, the Vatican and Chinese Taipei.


So… this is sort of where the problems begin.

For example, how many countries have you visited?

I’ve been to 24 if we’re using the Guiness World Record classification of UN member states. However, I’ve visited 25 if you include disputed territories. That number jumps to 26 if you count “dependencies with population” (otherwise known as colonies). It jumps even further to 28 if you count dependencies within populations that are no longer really considered colonies but were once colonized and are semi-autonomous (a long-winded way of pointing out the likes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Time for a little world history

Let’s chat about what the Guinness list doesn’t include.

To name a few of well known places missing from the list: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Palestine, Greenland, Kosovo, Puerto Rico, Catalonia, Hong Kong, Taiwan… I could go on.

All of these places have something in common. In one way or another, at some time or another, all have been colonized. Most, if not all of them, are still having ongoing conversations around sovereignty and decolonization. And some of these conversations are really more in the form of conflicts. Sovereignty is not apolitical.

As travelers, it can be easy to forget that we too are not apolitical. But it is of the utmost importance that we recognize—continually and pointedly—the major privilege in this forgetting. There’s already huge privilege in being able to travel internationally at all, so the least we can do is keep the politics of our travels front and center.

And talk about them. Think about them. Ask questions about them. I promise, acknowledging your passport privilege doesn’t mean you don’t get to enjoy your vacation. It just means you’ll be enjoying it more responsibly.

It is majorly political for Guinness to insist that it’s enough to visit “all sovereign states.” Sure, it’s a convenient way of measuring things. However, using “official” numbers to country count like this effectively means that Guinness has chosen a side in some of the longest standing, most intractable conflicts all over the world.

I mean, to put it bluntly, they’ve essentially stated that The Vatican is a more legitimate political entity than Palestine. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Country counting makes your travels worse

Like so many things in our capitalist and convenient world, we tend to view travel as a bunch of boxes we need to tick: Best place to stay, free walking tour, pub crawl. Most creative post to Instagram. (Don’t tell anyone about the breakdown you had at the train station.) Best restaurants only, never wear the same outfit twice. And most crucially, don’t waste time and money visiting the same place more than once.

I won’t lie and tell you that I’ve never fallen prey to this mindset because I absolutely have.

I spent a lot of my earlier years of travel packing as many cities as I could into a week-long trip. This resulted in very little sleep, too much to drink, and only seeing the main sites of every place I went.

The fact is, though, my main goal at that point was essentially be able to show the world that I’d traveled places. To show Instagram. But that wasn’t fulfilling.

Ultimately, I was looking for external validation. I had to take a look at myself and my values and figure out what I wanted from traveling to figure out how to travel better. Luckily, slow travel has mostly helped me nail it.

My favorite slow travel mode of transport: a high speed train

Why you should embrace slow travel

Slow travel, a mindset that grew out of the Italian slow food movement of the 1980s, is all about exploring, learning, and connecting. It’s based on immersing yourself in the foods, habits, customs and cultures of the places you visit.

Often, slow travelers will fly to a country’s capital city, stay there for a few days, and then take a train or bus to the countryside and stay in a vacation rental for the rest of their trip. Or they’ll do a Eurotrip by train. Or intentionally travel somewhere closer to home, but explore all the little towns and country roads they’d have never bothered to see otherwise.

Slow travel is the perfect antidote to the drawbacks of country counting.

Slow travel gives you the chance to enjoy every moment of your trip

Ok, ok, I know you’ve heard it before. “The journey matters more than the destination.”

Technically that’s a self-help thing. But it can apply to traveling too! I mean, in the travel context it’s not that the journey has to be more important than the destination, but it at least deserves to be as important.

How many times have you taken multiple planes, trains, and automobiles to get to your destination, only to spend two days there before moving on to the next city? How often have you avoided unpacking your bags because you weren’t staying somewhere long enough?

When you slow down, you have the chance to settle a little bit. Life is stressful enough when you’re back home, working or studying. Why keep that level of stress and on-the-go energy during your precious time off too?

If the journey is more scenic or your awesome rental house is yours for a whole week or two, I promise you’ll have some much needed time to chill out and recharge. And yes! That can even be true if you’re taking a city break and renting an apartment in a large capital city.

All that extra time means deeper engagement with your surroundings

Now that you have time to breathe, you’ll also have the chance to go a bit deeper into the history and culture of the place you’re visiting.

When you have longer than 48 hours to explore, you’re likely going to have the chance to get off the beaten path. That means going beyond overpriced city center tourist trap restaurants, as well as crowded museums and other ‘must-see’ attractions. Sure, you might still find yourself engaging with some of that (totally fine!).. but you’ll also get more.

Slow travel will likely give you the opportunity to learn about real life in the place you’re visiting.

Maybe there’s fraught history only memorialized in monuments left out of the main guidebooks, like the sites of the 1999 NATO bombings in Belgrade. Perhaps you’re in an extremely diverse city like Amsterdam, but none of the listicles you saw before your trip pointed you in the direction of the city’s amazing Indonesian or Surinamese food. (Both of which, by the way, are products of… you guessed it! Dutch colonialism.)

Having the time to begin implementing more well rounded perspectives on the life in your vacation destination can be extremely rewarding, as you might have experiences you genuinely remember for years to come. It’s also a major step on the road to be a more informed, more ethical world traveler.

a village on a lake in france with mountains

6 Slow Travel Strategies for Your Next Trip

Guess what! International travel and tourism are still just beginning to start back up again. Like many travelers, you’re probably a little nervous about taking your first trip.

All this means that now is the perfect time to begin practicing a little bit of slow travel.

For obvious reasons, we are all trying to keep our movement to a minimum right now. This means that instead of seeing how many places we can fit in, we’re mostly looking to find one place to go where we have the best time possible.

Additionally, while the travel industry is really struggling at the moment, it is undoubtedly smaller-scale, local businesses that most need help. This means that the farther you get off the beaten path, the higher the chance you’ll be supporting a business that really relies on you.

So, without further ado: fix essential slow travel strategies for booking your next trip!

1. Consider what makes you happiest while traveling.

Do you travel for the food? The history? The nightlife? The nature?

Once you narrow down what it is about traveling that gives you energy and inspiration, you can plan your trip around those things.

If the food is what draws you to a place, then prioritize food tours. Maybe a cooking class. Eat 4 meals a day if you want!

And then (here’s the crucial part) don’t feel guilty if that has to come at the expense of potentially missing one of the museums you were “supposed” to go to. Who cares?? Do you really remember every museum you’ve ever been to? Probably not. But I bet you remember a whole bunch of the best food you’ve ever eaten. I know I do.

And that’s the whole point. If food isn’t your thing, then don’t pressure yourself. If museums aren’t, then ditto.

Most of the top suggested attractions and museums for any given location are things that are primarily there to serve tourists. And don’t get me wrong, many of these things are completely worth going to (sometimes more than once!), especially if you genuinely want to see them.

The issue when you’re country counting, though, is that it becomes imperative to do these things, often at the expense of the things you truly value. If spending 8 hours at a museum brings you joy then you should do that. But if running all over town cafe-hopping and shopping gives you joy, do that instead. If you have more than a couple of days, do it all and do it with intention!

But the most critical thing… plan this way from the beginning! That way your whole trip—where you go, where you stay, how you budget, etc.—all facilitate those parts of the trip that make you happiest.

2. Use your time differently.

So you have a week for your trip. You know what you want to prioritize. But you’re still not sure how to do it all.

The first thing to keep in mind is that you will likely always leave a place with things left on the to-do list. The faster you accept this, the less stressed you will be as the days dwindle and you realize you still haven’t gotten to that one bakery that is four miles out of town on a country road and is only reachable by hourly public bus.

Alternatively, go to that bakery and make a day of it. Stroll around the village, have a whole meal, chat with locals if you’re able.

The point is, if you worry about how little time you have to cram everything in, you’ll potentially miss out on actually experiencing the place you’re visiting.

I would recommend that for 2-3 days you will likely always want to stay in one place. If you have 4-7 days I would say you can consider two places, but have them be accessible by a shorter train or bus journey to minimize your travel time.

Another way to make sure you’re going to be able to see what you want without stress and to appreciate everything you’re experiencing is to rent a car. The added freedom of being able to make spontaneous decisions is probably one of the BEST things I discovered when I decided to start budgeting for rental cars in my travel plans.

I ALWAYS book my rental cars via Discover Cars. I’ve always found it to be the absolute best interface for comparing prices, sorting for things like automatic transmission, or weeding out companies I’ve never heard of so I can travel with peace of mind.

3. Don’t plan every moment of every day.

To be honest, I actually challenge you to find a week’s worth of things to do in one city! At some point, you’ll run out of tourist attractions whether you like it or not.

Then what? Well, you’re sure to end up spending the whole day wandering some lesser known neighborhood or getting lost and having a drink on a terrace at dusk and people watching. Maybe you won’t have the perfect picture for Instagram (or maybe you will!), but you’ll have spent your time much more like a local. Isn’t that what traveling is all about?

The thing is, you need this unscheduled time to be able to find out what there is to do in your destination once you’re already there. Which brings me to my next point…

4. Speak to locals (and know what to ask for).

Think about what you would say if someone asked you what you like to do where you live. If you lived in New York would you tell them you go to the Statue of Liberty? No! You’d tell them about that little dive bar you love that serves pizza with the beers, or the one that has dogs in the backyard, or that thrift shop that always has hidden gems.

THAT is what I want to experience when I travel.

Yes of course I want to hit up the Eiffel Tower, but once I’ve snapped a picture I want to find myself in a cozy bar I would go to if I lived in Paris. Not the bar that’s rated highest on Tripadvisor or the one the concierge recommends.

Get comfortable being friendly with the people you interact with at all points of your trip. Are you staying in an Airbnb? Ask the host. Does your waiter seem young and cool? Maybe the person working at the shop you’re in made some friendly small talk? Obviously not everyone will be as receptive as others, but that’s all part of the experience. If it fails, just tick the “a Parisian was rude to me” box off and you’re good to go. 

But in all seriousness I’ve had some of my favorite experiences by just trying to learn what locals like to do in any given place. And if you’ve packed every day full of activities, you may not have the opportunity to take those recommendations.

Bonus: If you’re staying for long enough, you might even become a repeat visitor at that cool bar or cafe your waiter sent you to. That’s how to really feel like a local.

5. Look for local companies or tour guides to support.

Why not take it one step farther? A sure way to get some amazing local recommendations is to book activities or tours through smaller local companies.

I have taken cooking classes, gone on kayaking excursions, and taken walking tours all led by locals that were ten times more informative and fun than any I could have had just roaming around on my own.

Often, these kinds of experiences have involved ample downtime to sit around drinking or chatting with the guide. At times, we’ve even ended up staying hours beyond the official “end” of the activity because we were having such amazing conversation.

Paying someone to give you this local perspective is actually an amazing thing you can do for the local tourism industry—benefitting myself and my hosts is something I’m always looking for!

For booking these kinds of experiences and guided tours, I’m always a huge fan of GetYourGuide. This site has so many cool experiences that are always super well organized, affordable, and just downright fun!

6. Read up on the place and always ask questions.

It’s all sort of been leading up to this, hasn’t it? Giving yourself the time and permission to explore what interests you at your own pace. Beginning to use that freed up time to engage with locals.

One way to bring your most engaged self to these encounters is to know what’s going on in your destination before you arrive. What is the history? What is going there now—politically? Economically? Socially? Be curious long before your trip.

Now, obviously this comes with a few huge caveats.

Do not use your encounters with locals to force them to talk about sensitive topics. Do not use these moments to share your perspective on their country. And do not approach these conversations with any amount of superiority.

Basically, be kind and curious and sensitive to the situation. However, if you do have a tour guide or a make a new friend who wants to tell you more about their experience of being from wherever you’re visiting, listen! Ask respectful questions! And see it as a huge opportunity that not every other traveler will get. It’s the least you can do as a privileged international traveler.

Have fun, travel slow!

Ultimately, you will find your ideal travel rhythm as you practice slow travel more often. Like anything we do in life, it gets easier and becomes more second-nature after each try.

However, keeping these slow travel strategies in mind will help you overcome the country counting mindset and learn how travel more happily and more responsibly must faster than I was able to.

Also, I have to say that I follow a lot of country counters (what can I say – it’s good content!), and the number one thing I hear them say is how they want to go back to countries because they feel like they didn’t experience them enough! So make of that what you will, and enjoy your next trip… whatever or wherever it is!

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  1. So this is the second time in less than a week that I have heard of country counting, and I have to agree with you that it is not the best way to experience travel. I have a travel bucket list of places that I want to see because of their natural wonders or because of their art, architecture, food, or shopping, not because I have a number of countries in mind that I want to visit. Thank you for giving some steps to take to really be able authentically experience each place when international travel finally resumes. 🙂

    1. Totally agree with you – I also keep a list based around experiences regardless of where those are! And then I use these tips to make sure I really soak it all in when I go to a place. Can’t wait for us to all be able to get back out there again!

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