Traveling and vacationing sound like just about the same thing at first glance.
But when you really dive deep into these two things, you realize just how different they can be.
In this article, I’ll talk about the big differences between taking a vacation and traveling and why I think that distinction is so important.
Vacations: All about the escape and R&R
Vacations are largely about an escape from the daily grind. Hammocks, white sandy beaches, and poolside cabanas come to mind.
Everybody vacations a little bit differently but lots of times the goal is the same: get recharged and rejuvenated. Work emails on auto-respond, limited communication with your boss, and a mindset fully immersed in leisure are vacation hallmarks.
This often means moving at a slower pace and not necessarily taking on big challenges or activities that require a lot of physical or mental energy. You’re there to soak up the sun and to not climb Mount Everest or run a marathon (not usually, at least).
That’s not to say that you can’t have an adventure on your vacation as plenty of people get out and do really fun things like scuba diving, zip lining, riding ATVs, etc. It’s just that relaxation is usually a top priority.
A common thread of vacations is also spending quality time with family members or friends. This is why sometimes a vacation can be more about the people you are with than the destination.
For couples, vacations offer a chance to enjoy romantic getaways and grow a little bit closer. Couples massages, candlelit dinners, wine tastings, and sunset strolls on the beach are staples of these more intimate trips.
Vacations also tend to involve a bit of overindulgence. You’re allowed to eat, drink, and spend to your heart’s content. In fact, gaining a few extra pounds is almost a rite of passage for a vacationer.
At the end of the day, to me vacations are about temporarily removing stressors from your life and replacing them with relaxation, fun, and memory making. It’s like hitting the pause button on life and ultimately resetting your system before you return to reality.
Travel: All about exploration and growth
Let’s face it: traveling is not the same thing as vacationing.
For sake of this discussion, we can just put aside the transportation aspect of travel. There’s a lot to be said about the love (and hate) people have for planes, trains, and automobiles and how that factors into everything mentioned here.
But when I’m talking about travel here it’s more about about exploring.
Getting introduced to new cultures, meeting new people, and experiencing new things is the name of the wanderlust game.
Unlike vacation where you are temporarily removing stressors from your life, think of travel as adding enrichment to your life for the long-haul.
When traveling, you typically go deeper into a location which means that you’ll probably be met with more challenges and opportunities to grow.
Instead of trying to avoid discomfort like you might on a vacation, you simply embrace it.
And yeah, that means you might get lost or scammed or come down with a case of some mysterious flu. But it also means you’ll have more unique and meaningful experiences, ones that will stay with you long after your sunburn fades.
You’ll learn how to step further out of your comfort zone and see things that only a small percent of the population has seen.
To me, traveling is much more rewarding and edifying than a typical vacation.
Traveling can also be very romantic, though in a different way from your typical “vacation romance.” You won’t be ordering up fancy hotel packages or filling hot tubs with rose petals.
Instead, your most romantic moments will come from the unexpected: stumbling upon a hidden waterfall, watching the northern lights dance above a frozen lake, or waiting for the sunrise from a mountaintop. It feels less staged and more original.
Meeting in the middle
Of course, lots of travel falls somewhere in the middle where you can enjoy a healthy mix of vacationing and traveling.
This would be a trip where you spend a good amount of time relaxing at a resort but also making efforts to get out and explore the locale.
I know all-inclusive resorts may seem like a great deal, but you don’t want to get stuck in a resort bubble. It’s like being in a hamster ball, except with unlimited piña coladas. Not always the best idea.
At the same time, some all-inclusive resorts, especially those on the higher end, may offer some really memorable excursions that can help get you out into the locale.
On Easter Island, we did an excursion at an all-inclusive resort that took us on a hike along the coast and through some ancient lava tubes with stunning views of the ocean. Our guide gave us fascinating insight into the history of the island and the entire experience left us enlightened and energized.
When we finished up, we took advantage of a blissful massage at the resort and that really gave us a good balance of vacationing and traveling.
Here are some tips for putting together an experience that caters to your vacation needs but also gives you more of a true travel experience.
Plan your relaxing vacation time towards the end of the trip
Once you get into the habit of relaxing on vacay, it’s much harder to pull yourself out of that mindset.
Leverage all the excitement and adrenaline you have at the beginning of a trip to fuel you to get out and interact with your destination.
So get out and explore first, then indulge in the resort’s comforts later. You’ll feel like you’ve earned it.
Focus on bang-for-buck cultural experiences
Because you’ll be spending a fair amount of time relaxing at a hotel or resort, you really want your limited time spent in your destination to be optimized.
Look for things like: highly rated food tours, cultural tours, historical tours, cooking lessons, etc.
These can be a lot of fun and get your taste buds tingling and your brain cells dancing.
If you want to venture out to historical landmarks on your own that’s cool too but just try to avoid the “checkbox mentality” so that your primary take-a-way isn’t just a photo album full of selfies in front of landmarks.
Try to time your visit with a special event
Some locations are known for their unique, bucket-list experiences.
If you can plan your trip so that you are able to experience some sort of unique bucket list experience, you’ll feel like your time was very well spent.
It’s one thing to take a stroll along a bubbling creek in Alaska and quite another to encounter a wild salmon run with bears on the prowl. One experience is far more memorable and less likely to make you regret just lounging by the pool (or fireplace) with a book later on.
Plan at least one solid museum outing
Museums are a solid way to take in a new place and learn about its history and culture.
But museums can be like a giant buffet, with an overwhelming amount of exhibits to devour. So don’t make the rookie mistake of trying to cram every museum into your itinerary like it’s some kind of museum marathon.
This can lead to rushing through corridors like a museum maniac and not being able to fully appreciate all of the exhibits. It can also be exhausting and unsatisfying.
Instead, savor each museum like you’re enjoying a fine dining experience. Take your time to appreciate the unique flavor of each exhibit and fully immerse yourself in the culture and history of the place. And who knows, you might even discover a new favorite dish….
Spend some time in the outdoors
Try to plan at least one outing in the outdoors.
Smell the fresh forest aroma, breathe in the crisp mountain air, and enjoy the beauty of the scenery around you.
Whether it’s a hike through a national park, a stroll along a beach, or a visit to a botanical garden, spending time in nature is one of the best ways to appreciate a destination.
Sure, you might get chased by a swarm of bees or run into a bear but it’s all about the memories that last forever — just embrace it!
What’s the best: vacationing or traveling?
Personally, I’m going to prefer traveling over your standard vacation experience.
It’s largely because those experiences fit into the work side of travel blogging much better but also because I just find them more fulfilling. I get bored really fast sitting around a pool or being a beach bum.
But I do think there is a lot of value in taking vacations. Sometimes you just need that detachment from the daily routines in order to get back to the grind stronger. R&R is very necessary.
So I think what is best for you just comes down to timing.
If you feel like you need a break from it all or like your family needs to get on the same page then a vacation might fit the bill for you.
If you feel a yearning for something new and exciting in your life or feel like something is missing, focusing more on a travel experience could be what you need.
In the end, you’ll probably be going for a mix of these two things and in that case consider some of the tips above so that you can take advantage of the benefits of both!
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.