Slow travel is not reserved solely for digital nomads, remote workers, or those who have sold it all to travel the world. I, like many of you, work in corporate America and have limited time to galivant the globe. Even with limited “vacation” days, I’ve still managed to make traveling my primary passion in life and experience some truly remarkable destinations. How? Ironically, by traveling more slowly, more intentionally. Read on for my tips on how you can embrace the art of slow travel, even when you’re crunched for time (like me!).
Can you relate?
Traveling in my early 20s, I made it my mission to see as many sights, eat at as many restaurants, and drink at as many fancy cocktail bars as I could possibly squeeze into a four-day weekend. I’d leave on the 5 am flight Friday morning, and return as late as possible Monday evening, often arriving at my doorstep well past 1 am. And then? Yep, you guessed it. I turned around the next day and somehow managed to make it to the office in time for an 8 am meeting. “How was your trip?” someone would ask. “I need a vacation from my vacation,” I would inevitably respond.
I was running on fumes. But I was also experiencing some of the best travel destinations in the world. The Eiffel Tower. The canals of Amsterdam. Buckingham Palace. The Golden Gate Bridge. Diving in Cozumel. The list goes on and on…and on. My travel mindset in my 20s was one of quantity over quality. We only have six hours to explore Champagne, France? Well, we are visiting as many wineries and drinking as many glasses of champagne as we can possibly stand (you can probably guess how that went…). After all, I had less than 20 vacation days per year, I needed to make them count!
Now, in my 30s, my travel style is one of quality over quantity. No longer do I feel the need to squeeze the life out of every precious moment of vacation. Instead, I’m traveling to experience new cultures, connect with the local community, and truly recharge. Do I really need to stress about how I’m going to find the time to see every museum in the City or try all of the best-rated taco stands? Nope.
Once a constant (yet welcome!) drain (both financially and physically), traveling is now my ultimate form of self-care. Where I used to feel complete burnout and the need to take a 24-hour nap after a whirlwind trip, I now return with new passions, insight, inspiration, memories, joy, and gratitude. And I’ve done this by (rather unintentionally) embracing a sustainable, intentional form of travel called slow travel.
What does “slow travel” mean?
At its core, slow travel has very little to do with time. Instead, slow travel is the art of connecting with the community around you and immersing yourself in the local culture. It’s a travel mindset that focuses more on experiencing a destination, rather than checking off another bucket list must-see.
If you Google “slow travel”, you’ll find countless articles aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and gap year travelers. Articles that suggest that one must stay in a community or destination for an extended period of time to truly reap the benefits of slow travel. This is partly true. Of course, renting an apartment for a month in Mexico is inevitably going to bring you closer to the local community than if you only have a week.
The concept of slow travel, though, actually refers more to the actions during your trip than it does to the length of your trip. It’s entirely possible to embrace the art of slow travel without the luxury of time. I promise! With a demanding 9 to 5 corporate job, I’ve managed to slow travel my way through Costa Rica, Belize, Peru, and Mexico in as little as a week. And with just a long weekend? Chicago, Paris, San Diego, Austin, New Orleans…the list goes on.
And, if I can embrace the art of slow travel, I know you can too.
How to plan your next trip with a slow travel mentality
Stick to one country or region at a time
I am so guilty of trying to squeeze in just one more passport stamp. In Tamarindo, Costa Rica, we realized we were just three hours from San Juan del Sur, in Nicaragua. Nicaragua has been on my destination list for quite some time. Intrigued, we immediately started talking to locals and expats, plotting how we could leave in the morning, make it to San Juan del Sur by lunchtime, enjoy a night in town, and then make it back to Costa Rica the next day in time for our flight home.
Crazy. Yes, we’d cross another country off our list, but would we have really experienced Nicaragua? Not at all! Not even the slightest. All we would have had to show for it would be a couple of pictures, a passport stamp, and a giant hangover the next day. 20s Hayley would have been thrilled: “I checked another country off the list!” 30s Hayley would have felt cheated.
Moral of the story: stick to one country or region, and try not to cram too much travel into too short of a time. I know Nicaragua will be there waiting for me when I have the time to experience it properly, the way it deserves.
Research, research, research
Slow travel requires you to do a little more leg work than traditional, mass-produced travel. But it’s so, so, sooooo worth it. I promise.
Once I decide on my next destination, I immediately take notes on my phone or on Google Sheets of restaurants, hikes, art galleries, markets, bars, shops, and tours that intrigue me. My friends and husband joke, but when I have a trip in sight, I consume as much as I can about that place. I get fixated on it, daydreaming about what my days will look like while I’m there. I watch movies, read books, spend countless hours on TripAdvisor boards, save hundreds of Instagram posts, and gain inspiration from my fellow bloggers. Researching destinations is something I truly enjoy.
I know it’s not for everyone. But to travel slow, you really do need to plan in advance. You don’t need to create an itinerary (actually, quite the opposite). It’s more about identifying your must-see/do/eat/drink spots, and then allowing your experience on the ground to take you the rest of the way to an unforgettable trip.
Opt for Airbnbs or boutique hotels over chains
My 20 something self would shutter at the idea of forgoing the opportunity to rack up hotel points or, even worse, not use my hotel points. Don’t get me wrong: I love nice things, swanky hotels included. The plush bedding, room service on speed dial, a bellhop who remembers your name after one encounter. But, unpopular opinion here: they all kind of start to feel the same. While they weave in local aesthetics, cuisines, and ambiances as best they can, hotel chains also come with some standardization. And, often, distanced from the authentic, local community.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some vacations I take that are purely for my indulgence. For this, I’ll gladly choose an all-inclusive resort on the edges of civilization to just get away from it all.
But on most trips, you’ll find me in an Airbnb or boutique hotel, located within a lively neighborhood in the city. When I walk out the door, I’m immediately immersed in the culture. I pick up a coffee from the locals’ favorite spot, pass residents as they walk their dogs, and listen to neighbors talk about their mornings. And these walks, every day of my trip, make me feel more in touch with the community and destination than I’ve ever felt staying at a 500-room luxury hotel.
Stay in a local neighborhood
So you agree, Airbnb and boutique hotels are the way to go? Great! Now you just have to pick a neighborhood. When staying locally, the neighborhood can make or break your experience. When I start planning a trip, I research the neighborhoods as if I were moving there. I will literally Google “best neighborhoods to live in XYZ city” and start researching, noting the neighborhoods that seem up my alley. I also check out the local lifestyle or entertainment magazines (like TimeOut or the equivalent) and Instagram accounts for information on which neighborhoods have the most nightlife, events, or festivals happening. And lastly, I always check out the TripAdvisor boards. So many opinions, but you’ll really start to understand the pros and cons of each neighborhood.
So what do I look for in a neighborhood?
- Safety: because, duh
- Walkability: I need to be able to walk to a coffee shop in the morning and walk home from a bar at night
- Proximity to public transit or affordability of cabs/Ubers: so I can quickly get to the tourist parts of town
- Proximity to parks, squares, or plazas: because in a lot of cities, the parks or plazas are the heartbeat of the community
- Density of restaurants and bars: I’ll go “in to” town for a couple of meals, but I want to know that I have some killer options outside my doorstep
- Availability of other neighborhood amenities: like a grocery store, gym, dry cleaner/laundry, etc.
Avoid over planning your days
Remember how I said researching was so important to planning a successful slow travel vacation? Well, research can quickly cross the line to overplanning for us Type-A perfectionists (hiiiiii!!!!).
The purpose of gathering all of your research is so you are prepared, not so you can plan every minute of your vacation. So when you wake up on the third day of vacation with nothing planned, you have ideas to fall back on. You have a brainstorming list of things you thought sounded cool and unique. And, don’t forget, it’s totallllly okay to do nothingggggg. Wake up, walk to the coffee shop, and just see where the universe takes you that day.
And yes, sure, there will always be things you need to plan in advance. Machu Picchu? Yes. Michelin-starred restaurant? Yes. Most other things? Not so much.
Stick to a theme a day
This is one of my favorite tricks! When we spent five weeks in Mexico, we had a lot of time to practice traveling slow. We were there for a workcation (you can read more about my tips on that here), which allowed us to spend the weekends exploring Puerto Vallarta and the Riveria Nayarit. Each day we had a theme. For example, Friday might be market day, Saturday beach day, and Sunday hiking day.
Theme-ing (is that a word?) your day helps limit the number of activities you can squeeze in. If Friday is market day, well then I’m not going to worry about making sure I have all I need for a beach day as well. I can be fully engulfed in experiencing the market (and buying all the pompoms and bags).
Be comfortable missing the highlights
Who goes to Amsterdam and doesn’t visit the Van Gogh Museum? Me. This girl. And you know what? I’m okay with it. I was having too great of a time eating stroopwafels, drinking Heinekens, and dancing to a silent disco in the park (right outside the museum, mind you). And, looking back, I know the memories I made doing those spontaneous things will stick with me until I’m 80 and they just can’t be recreated. I can, however, go to the Van Gogh Museum whenever I’d like. It will (hopefully!) always be there.
Moral of this story (I promise I’m not always this philosophical): the best memories are not always made at the most popular attractions.
Support the local economy
If you are reading this, I’ll go out on a limb and assume you have access to basic human resources like food, water, and shelter (and if you do not, please let me know so the traveling community can support you).
One of my favorite ways to embrace slow travel is being conscious of the ways I support the communities I visit and, whenever possible, eating, shopping, and staying with locally-owned businesses or sole proprietors.
Part of the beauty of slow travel is the autonomy you have to stop whenever and wherever you want along the way to your next destination. When driving through developing communities, I make a point to stop at a restaurant for a snack, a road-side souvenir stand (especially if they’re selling cocos!), or any local business to help support the local economy and community.
Need some slow travel inspiration?
Slow travel sounds kinda cool, right? Get inspired by some of the ways I’ve incorporated the slow travel mentality in my recent trips below.
Rent bikes to tour the city or region
Exercising and sightseeing – it’s a win-win! I love booking a bike tour at the start of a trip. They often take you past the most popular tourist spots (so you can get those out of the way!) and help you get your bearings in a new city.
Inspired Trip Approved in: New Orleans, Lima, Paris, Amsterdam, San Diego.
Join a walking tour of the city or neighborhood
Most tourism offices offer free tours (or for a small amount), and they often take you past the highlights. They help me get my bearings, get my steps in, and are a little more slow-paced than a bike tour – giving you plenty of time to get the “I’ve been there!” photo.
Inspired Trip Approved in: Cusco, London, Puerto Vallarta, Coronado.
Seriously! Set out on a mission to get lost. Wander up and down city streets, turning left when it feels right, and right when it feels right (of course, always keep safety in mind).
Inspired Trip Approved in: Cusco, Puerto Vallarta, Paris, Florence, Amsterdam, Seattle, Boston.
Plan a day trip
Explore a little more of the region by planning a day trip to a nearby community or village. Once you make your way outside of the main tourist hub, you’ll have the opportunity to experience more of the local life. Some of my favorite memories aren’t in London or Puerto Vallarta proper, but from the day trips I’ve taken while visiting those cities.
Inspired Trip Approved in: literally anywhere you feel safe to explore a little further outside the typical tourist areas. Puerto Vallarta, Cusco, Florence, Mexico City come top of mind.
Consider a road trip (or travel by train)
What better way to really experience a place than to watch the landscape and villages pass you by from the passenger seat window (thank you, Wardell!). Get your playlist ready, a reliable map, and hit the road! You’ll get lost, you’ll get stuck, you’ll take wrong turns, but through it all, you’ll see parts of a culture and country that few do.
Inspired Trip Approved in: literally anywhere in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize
Immerse yourself in a class
Want to learn Spanish, improve your painting skills, learn a new recipe, master surfing, become a wine connoisseur? Use your vacation as an opportunity to build a skill. And, while you’re at it, you’ll build connections with your local instructors and learn more about their lives and the community around you.
Inspired Trip Approved in: Tuscany, Mexico, Costa Rica, Hawaii
The more I travel to developing countries, the more I feel a tinge of guilt. I can afford to take time away from work, buy a plane ticket, and stay in comfortable accommodations on vacation. And, at home, I always have money to put food on the table and a roof over my head. No matter how big or small, any amount of time, resources, or pure compassion you have the ability to donate can really go a long way to help a lot of the communities you visit.
So next time, I challenge you (and me) to donate some children’s books or school supplies to the local community center, see if they need volunteers to serve food or teach English, give your leftovers to someone less fortunate on the street. Going deep sea fishing? There’s no way you’re eating all you caught – donate it. Take a look at your bucket list – can you pair any of those amazing world wonders with an opportunity to help the less fortunate. I plan to do this when I (finally!) make my way to Africa. I just know my adventurous safari will be so much more rewarding after spending a week helping build a clean water system in a remote community.
Inspired Trip Approved in: any and everywhere
As I’ve been writing this guide on slow travel, I can’t help but regret the times I didn’t in my 20s. The time I rushed my way through Venice, stayed only one night in Madrid, exclusively went to the cheesy pubs in Dublin. The list goes on.
But I’ve also been reminded of the unforgettable memories I’ve made by traveling slow. Cruising through Amsterdam on my bike. Hiking four days to reach Machu Picchu. Driving on every highway in Belize (yes, even the Coastal Highway – don’t let it fool you like it did us!). The beautiful thing about the modern world is there will always be another time. I’ll get to Nicaragua, the Van Gogh Museum, and back to Spain. Traveling as if you’ll never see a place again is no way to live.
So are you with me? Will you travel more slowly, intentionally on your next trip?