If you have ever wanted to tally up all of the different countries or states you have visited, you probably have wondered what counts as a visit.
People have vastly differing opinions on the topic and obviously we are talking about a very subjective determination here but I will attempt to offer some things to consider when trying to decide if you should count a visit.
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Different ways that people count visits
Let’s touch on a few different ways that various people like to count visits.
Occupying the air space
Some people would argue that just flying over the air space of a country or state qualifies as a visit.
The idea is that you could look out the plane window and see an impressive site like the Grand Canyon and therefore “experience” Arizona enough to qualify as a visit.
I don’t find this much more convincing than I would to say that because I viewed the moon through my telescope, I have been there.
That’s because we’ve come to think of a visit as interacting with the locale on a more meaningful level such as being on the ground for at least a portion of your visit.
Stepping outside the airport
Some people argue that just stepping foot outside of the airport is a visit. The idea is that your physical body is located within the boundaries of a state or country but outside the zone of the airport so it should count.
But I don’t agree with this, either.
To me, I would classify merely stepping outside of the airport as a transit. That is, it’s a superficial visit with little to no meaningful interaction with the destination.
Some people will count visits when they simply drive through a location. This is really common for people who drive through several states in the US, especially on long road trips.
Some might take it a step further and say that they have to get out of the vehicle and physically step foot on the soil for it to count.
Personally, I view all of the above as transits in most cases, as I will explain more below.
Some travelers would count an overnight stay in a country or state as a visit because there is something fundamentally special about getting a night’s rest in a foreign place.
Staying overnight also usually involves interacting with a location on the level that many would consider to be a visit. For example, you may have to grab a bite to eat, interact with some locals, etc.
However, it’s possible that you could stay at an airport hotel or be somewhat isolated during a hotel stay so I’m not sure I would always consider staying overnight a sufficient condition for a visit.
An immersive, multi-night stay
If you spend several days in a location visiting different attractions and trying out different restaurants (a typical vacation) that is undeniably a “true” visit. There’s really no disagreement here.
So these are all different criteria you and I might use to qualify travels as a visit.
But below, I will propose my own criteria for qualifying travels as a visit that is a bit more descriptive. It might be especially helpful for those visits that only last one day or a few hours.
When trying to decide if I should count a visit, I like to think of something called meaningful local experiences (MLEs).
These are experiences that, as a result of you interacting with the location, do one or more of these three things: 1) enrich you culturally, 2) satisfy your wanderlust, or 3) make some type of lasting impression on you.
Let’s break these down briefly.
Enrich you culturally
This just means that you understand the local culture better, ideally in a way that deepens or broadens your thinking.
Satisfy your wanderlust
This happens when you derive a great deal of pleasure from your travels. It’s that euphoria or deep satisfaction that comes around when traveling.
Leaves you with a lasting impression
This occurs when you just can’t let go or move past something because it was just so profound or amazing.
Notice that these are all subjective.
It might only take you stepping foot on a blade of grass in a foreign country for you to satisfy your wanderlust and if that’s the case then more power to you.
However, typically an MLE would be deeper than that and below I will take you through several different types.
Examples of MLEs
Dining at a local hotspot
Food is a major part of cultural so anytime you can partake in local cuisine, chances are you’re getting a good dose of the local culture.
This is particularly true if you can try a special dish or cuisine that the location is known for.
For example, if you only have a few hours in Madrid and you feast on some tapas or paella and wash it down with some sangria, that’s a great way to enjoy Spanish culture.
To me, this is the perfect way to get an MLE when you have just a very short amount of time in a destination.
Engaging with locals
Engaging with locals is one of the best ways to have an MLE because you never know what you’re going to find out.
You’d be surprised how much you can find out about a culture just chatting it up with a local Uber driver for about 20 minutes.
One of my favorite ways to engage with a local is to book a food tour hosted by someone who lives in the area (and ideally was born and raised there).
You’ll not only spend a few hours trying out amazing local delicacies but you’ll learn a lot about the history and customs of the culture. We’ve done food tours in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Miami and they rarely ever disappoint.
Visiting a historical site
Visiting a historical site is another great way to enjoy an MLE.
For one, odds are you will end up learning a lot more about that destination, especially if you are accompanied by some type of guide.
But even if you have done a vast amount of research and don’t necessarily learn a ton of new information when visiting, you’ll be surprised how being there in person “solidifies” the history for you in a personal way.
As a travel blogger, I regularly do a ton of research before I arrive at a destination so that I can better capture the content.
This was the case before we visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as I labored over many articles and documentaries over the span of a couple of months.
When we actually arrived at Pearl Harbor and walked around, all my research came to life end I felt a true connection to those events that took place that I never would have without being there. That was about as meaningful as it gets for me. I felt like I finally “got” Pearl Harbor.
Visiting a famous site
A lot of historical sites are also some of the most famous sites to visit (just like Pearl Harbor). But sometimes you visit a site that does not necessarily have a long or even interesting history.
For example, visiting “The Bean,” or Cloud Gate, at AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in Chicago did not leave me feeling like I had been culturally enriched nor did it really leave a lasting impression on me.
However, it had been something I wanted to see for quite a long time even if I didn’t really understand why. In the end, seeing it simply satisfied my wanderlust in a way that I’m not really able to articulate. It just felt good.
We ended up seeing much more of Chicago on that trip but if that had been the only thing I saw on a quick layover, I would still probably count that as a visit.
Attending a sporting or entertainment event
Going to a sporting event or some other type of entertainment venue is a great way to have a meaningful local experience.
I remember attending an Australian football game and even though I did not understand the rules, it was a lot of fun to see how people from another country show their passion for the sport. All the drinking and shouting was not necessarily new to me but the Aussie surroundings made it a bit of a cultural novelty.
The same thing happened when I watched an NFL game in London. It was the same game but a very different atmosphere.
Shows can also be enriching even if you don’t necessarily understand the words or any song lyrics.
Sometimes music can transcend language in a way that is very fascinating and that can certainly leave a lasting impression on you.
Museums are a sure fire way to have a MLE most of the time.
For one, destinations usually have one or two museums that do a great job of telling the story of that place. You can learn about the indigenous cultures, nature, advancements in technology, the list usually goes on and on.
One thing that I have found is that it is the artifacts in the museum that often do it for me.
I remember visiting the state museum of New York in Albany and even though I had seen countless documentaries on 9/11, it was seeing a seatbelt from one of the planes that someone had likely been wearing at the time of the crash that just hit me in an unexpectedly profound way. All of a sudden, I felt closer to the tragedy and everything just seemed more real. I couldn’t get that image out of my head.
Museums are great because they offer these moving experiences in a pretty compact package which means that it may only take you a couple of hours to experience these type of profound effects.
Taking in the sights
Taking in the sights is a borderline MLE in my opinion because it can be so close to what I would consider a transit.
For example, if you were to take a taxi from Haneda Airport to Narita International Airport that would take you about one hour and you would see some of southern Tokyo. But you’re not interacting with the city in any kind of meaningful way.
However, in some cases if you just set out to see a city and you are actively admiring and appreciating the city sites, I think you could argue that that is a pretty meaningful experience. You can certainly satisfy your wanderlust and sometimes just seeing a beautiful piece of architecture can have a lasting impact.
Sometimes, you will still go back-and-forth between what counts as a visit or a transit.
I still am not sure whether or not I should count Finland, for example.
We rented a vehicle in Norway where we spent about a week but one night we drove into Finland where we witnessed an awesome display of the northern lights.
The thing is, the northern lights and the surrounding scenery (while stunning) were very similar if not identical to what we saw just across the border in Norway. The only interaction we had with any locals in Finland was maybe a couple of trucks that passed us on the highway.
So was that really a visit to Finland? I’m honestly not sure.
Without the display of the northern lights I would say no, but there’s also something to be said about experiencing something like that within the boundaries of a specific country.
What about resorts?
Resorts get a little tricky because by design they are often made to have everything you need. It’s feasible that for some trips you could spend your entire time within the resort premises.
So if you were to visit Cancun and you never left your all inclusive resort, have you really visited Cancun?
In the case of a place like Cancun you could easily argue that the all inclusive experience is a major part of what makes Cancun special and unique. It’s part of its identity. So by experiencing it (and nothing else), you are still “visiting” Cancun.
But generally, I would try to get out from the resort area because chances are that is what I would need to satisfy my wanderlust, be culturally enriched, or have a lasting impression made up on me. But again, that’s just me.
The case for counting airport visits
I think most people probably agree that just staying within an airport does not count as a visit.
But, for the sake of argument, I think you could make a case for some airports counting. A lot of airports are now home to interesting exhibits or sites that can offer some of the criteria of an MLE.
Heck, even first class airport lounges like the one in Qatar are essentially a mini museum, complete with historical artifacts.
So why should you have to discount that type of real cultural experience just because it happened to occur within the premises of an airport?
In the end, everyone is free to make their own determination of what counts as a visit.
For some people, it’s simply placing a foot outside of an airport or on the other side of a land border. And that’s fine — no sense in fighting about it.
But for me, I’m always looking for one of the three criteria of an MLE to be met, as I find that to be a satisfying way to go about tracking countries or states visited.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.