I’m after more than sightseeing. Family, home and work are magnetic poles in my life; at times, I need to consult my personal compass away from the strong pull that they exert. When I leave familiar things behind, I look at the world with fresh eyes. Strange foods become new favorites. Curiosity surges. I am a different person when I travel.
In her book, “Getting Away from It All: Vacations and Identity,” sociologist Karen Stein sheds light on the reasons that travelers, whether they’re going it alone or with friends, might feel different when on the road. She argues that travel is a chance to try out alternate identities — a temporary respite from ourselves.
Reading her book, I wondered: Can the psychology of travel help us take better, more transformative trips? Or even get a taste of transformation as the pandemic keeps us close to home?
First, I asked Stein to explain the strange power of going away. “Travel is a time that is sort of set aside from our everyday lives,” said Stein, who works at the consulting and research firm Abt Associates. “It can create a flexibility, both mental flexibility and flexibility of social structures, that allows us to see things in a different way, have different experiences or do things a little bit differently.”
In Stein’s view, people don’t have just one identity. Instead, they have many, a collection of possible selves that alternate and evolve over time. One version might be familiar to co-workers, another best suited to our roles as parents, children or friends.
Rituals of travel, such as packing a bag or grazing on oversalted airplane peanuts, signal that it’s time to put some of those quotidian selves on the shelf. Paralegals become paragliders, wind in their salt-bleached hair; English speakers give up the easy fluency of their native language and spend a week tripping over foreign phrases that any local child could pronounce.
And just as travel provides an opportunity to be someone different for a little while, some researchers argue that it also changes who you are upon returning home. Studies have found that travelers become more creative, open-minded and trusting, for example. A longitudinal study reported that university students were more open and agreeable — and less neurotic — after studying abroad, changes researchers attributed to relationships formed while traveling.
Neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum, an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said some of those benefits may be due to travel’s effect on brain health. “When you engage in something that’s novel and complex, your brain thrives,” Nussbaum said. Travel disrupts rote behaviors, forcing us to constantly adapt to less familiar environments. “We’re all sort of routinized animals; we do similar things in similar ways,” he said. “It’s when we get out of that and challenge ourselves that there’s a benefit to brain health.”
Even before the pandemic, though, Americans weren’t fully taking advantage of their opportunities to benefit from travel. In 2018, Americans with paid time off took an average of 17.4 days, leaving 768 million days of vacation time unused, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics and Ipsos. Predictably, the pandemic made things worse. In 2020, workers with paid time off used just 11.6 days overall, leaving about 33 percent of their vacation time on the table, the travel association said.
And those figures — already dismal when compared with other rich countries — exclude millions of Americans whose jobs don’t include paid time off. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the leisure and hospitality industry, just 43 percent of workers had access to paid vacation in March.
Dissatisfied with cramming their trips into their busy lives and having limited vacation, some travelers are seeking longer journeys. Enter the grown-up gap year, a midlife version of the time some students take off before attending college.
It’s a chance for people to discover parts of themselves sidelined by career and family life, said Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, N.J., an opportunity to hop off “this track that people sort of see laid out ahead of them.” The counseling business she leads connects those would-be travelers with a breadth of possibilities, such as baboon research and language immersion.
Bull saw a surge of interest in adult gap-year travel during the first year of the pandemic. And the rise of remote work — even before the pandemic — provides still more opportunities for extended travel. Programs such as Remote Year and WiFi Tribe, which offer logistical support and the security of a ready-made cohort for long trips abroad, have multiplied in recent years, and while the pandemic disrupted life for many remote workers at first, travelers are back to booking long journeys. One of Remote Year’s upcoming jaunts is a year-long trip that takes in five continents, with stops including Peru, South Africa and Indonesia.
Of course, hopping on a plane — or many planes — doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself. “Travel can be really transformative, but it’s not guaranteed,” said psychologist Jaime Kurtz, a professor at James Madison University and the author of “The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations.” Although spending a boozy week in Las Vegas or Cancún, Mexico, might express a side of your identity unfamiliar to family and co-workers, it’s not exactly a fast track to personal growth.
If you’re seeking meaningful trips with lasting effects, start by pushing yourself a little out of your comfort zone, Kurtz said, whether that means a cross-cultural experience or a challenging hike.
Slowing down can also help. “Take a bike tour or long walk, something that just allows you to look longer and deeper at things,” she said. Short-circuiting your fear of missing out, or FOMO, is key to the immersive travel experiences with the greatest effects, she added, because it’s hard to let it all sink in when you’re worried about what else you could be doing. “I’m a fan of places that have fewer things going on — fewer options, so you’re not overwhelmed by everything.”
Kurtz acknowledged that, with the delta variant surging, many travelers still aren’t comfortable with long journeys by air. Some are scrapping plans for the post-pandemic “revenge travel” that experts once forecast. And the pandemic isn’t the only thing causing travelers to rethink their vacation plans. The environmental cost of travel, a major contributor to the United States’ massive carbon footprint, is a concern, too.
But Kurtz said many of the benefits of travel can be found closer to home, with no checked bag required. “A lot of my work asks how we can savor everyday life the way we do when we travel,” Kurtz said. “I don’t think we realize how much of that we can find locally.”
Striking up a conversation with a stranger can channel the social discomfort of traveling, especially if you’re exploring a new-to-you neighborhood in your city or region. And Kurtz noted that spending time in nearby parks and natural areas can translate to a heightened sense of gratitude for the place you live.
In her earlier research, Kurtz also found that people become happier when they bring a popular travel hobby — taking photos of beautiful or meaningful things — to bear on their daily lives. Instead of snapping images quickly and moving on, Kurtz recommended pausing long enough to create a thoughtful picture you’ll value.
Even small changes matter. Try shaking up your routine by taking a different route to work, Kurtz said, or choosing a new-to-you cafe. Echoing Nussbaum’s advice, she said the most important thing is to sidestep a tendency to navigate through life on autopilot.
“When we go to a new place, our habits are interrupted,” Kurtz said. “That lesson from travel can enhance our lives.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at washingtonpost.com/coronavirus