What is thoughtful travel?

I go on and on about thoughtful travel. I even have an entire podcast dedicated to it. But what really is it?

Basically, I think being a thoughtful traveller means that you stop and think before, during and after a trip. It doesn’t necessarily mean you change anything about how you travel – though you might – but it means that you think more about it. To me it draws on mindfulness and being present, and planning travel that fits your values, and sometimes it might have commonalities with slow travel, or ecotravel, or voluntourism, and sometimes not. Let’s break this all down a bit …

How to be a thoughtful traveller

In late 2017 I gave a talk about the benefits of travel, and something one of the audience members said to me keeps replaying in my head. She said something like this:

Looking back, I can see these benefits of travel, but when I go on a trip I just want to have fun. I’m not planning any of these benefits.

I said to her: why not? Why not be more intentional and thoughtful about how and why you travel, so that you can really make it life-changing? We do so many things in life with the intention of altering our lives somehow (learning to meditate, going back to university, changing jobs) – why can we travel with this intention too, or at least be on the look out for how it might change or help us?

And so, below are my guidelines on how we can be thoughtful travellers. You might not do all of these each time you travel; some will fit better for you at a particular place your life (both a literal and a metaphorical place!). But at least considering them will surely help you be a more thoughtful traveller and I’m sure nothing bad at all can come from that.

How to be a thoughtful traveller

Thinking about a trip before you leave

I know I’m not alone in loving the planning and daydreaming about a trip before you leave. While I don’t always want to make a lot of concrete plans or bookings, I do love the process of learning about a destination, its possibilities, its culture, its people, and more.

I think thoughtful travellers do some or all of these things before going on a trip:

Planning what you want to get out of a trip

This doesn’t necessarily mean planning where you will stay each night and what you will do each day (which isn’t a bad thing, but people tend to have different preferences when it comes to how planned or unplanned their trip is, and I lie somewhere in the middle these days).

Planning a trip thoughtful might include thinking about some goals for the trip, what you want to achieve. For example, it’s totally fine to say your goal is to relax and sit by the pool for a week (even though my itchy feet would never allow that) – but planning it this way in advance is a mindful use of your trip. I might have a goal like coming up with a new business idea when things are going stale (because travelling always inspires me like this), or I might really want to figure out what appeals to me so much about a destination (like when I felt so drawn to visit Iceland).

Reading books or watching film and TV about a destination

I don’t particularly mean devouring guidebooks or travel documentaries, but reading and watching things where your destination is the setting, for example. I absolutely love reading novels set in my destination before I go there because it gives me a sense of the local mindset, and when I’m there I can imagine the characters going about their day! Ahead of my next trip to Japan I’m devouring (and in some cases re-reading) books written by modern Japanese novelists because it’s such a different destination that I really feel like I’m there when I read those novels.

Thoughtful Travel in Osaka Japan

Learning about the culture and people of a destination

At a basic level, learning about the etiquette and customs of a destination is an important part of being a traveller (thoughtful or not!) because you should always try to adapt to where you’re going, at a minimum so as not to offend anyone – for example, knowing what clothing is suitable if you’re visiting a temple in Asia.

But going deeper than that, intentionally finding out more about what makes a particular culture tick can be so enriching and you might find that there are experiences you’d really like to have when you travel that you might otherwise not think about.

Thinking about a trip while you’re travelling

So, you get all thoughtful before your trip – and sometimes that process lasts months or years, and it’s so fun! Then you get on a plane and go! How can you be a thoughtful traveller while you’re on the road? I have a few ideas …

Adjusting to the new reality

Sometimes when you end up in a new place, the reality is quite different to what you’ve been expecting. It might be a kind of culture shock you didn’t expect or it might be an aspect of your trip itself, such as travelling in a group that isn’t working out for you.

Stopping and thinking about what you can do to adjust to this “new reality” or to change it, if possible, can make a big difference to your trip. A simple example: I remember my first south-east Asian trip took me to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and I just could not figure out how to cross the road. There were always hundreds of motorbikes bearing down on me and I was terrified. But I soon figured out that I could either stay terrified and never cross the road (tricky), or learn how to adjust. I watched how the locals did it and basically figured out I had to step out into the traffic and let it go around me. By the end of the trip I couldn’t believe I’d found it so hard at the start.

Reflecting on your experiences and what you’re learning

I love to think about the lives of the people I meet during my trip and find out more about them – so I ask a lot of questions – and think about that as I wander around. When I concentrate on thinking about how life is different in this country, I end up learning all kinds of new things. Sometimes this might be just a quirky difference which is fun to share, or something more fundamental.

Thoughtful travel even at Legoland in Malaysia

In either case, by reflecting about this while I’m still travelling I get the chance to write about it in my journal or take photos to remember it or chat to my travelling companions about it. On a recent trip to Malaysia, for example, my son and I saw lots of Muslim kids playing in the swimming pool at Legoland, wearing swimsuits that covered their body. Of course, my son wanted to know much more about that, and I wondered what age it was that they needed to cover up more, and so on, and we both went on to learn heaps more about that.

Reflecting on your own life back home

Being away from home, especially in a foreign destination that seems quite different, but even in places that are similar, can give you a fresh perspective on your everyday life. Sometimes it reminds me of small things I want to change at home (usually stuff I’ve thought about before!), like when or how I exercise, or how I want to spend more time with my son; at other times, this fresh perspective gives me the inspiration to make bigger changes of direction, with my work or personal life or something else significant.

Going beyond your comfort zone

Travelling itself usually involves going beyond your comfort zone to some degree anyway, but if you think more about this while you’re travelling you can take it to the next level! Being more intentional about breaking away from your usual routines and comforts to do something that feels like a risk is so good for you!

It might be that you decide to talk to a stranger – I know many people who say they are a bit more extroverted when they travel – or eating something unusual that you wouldn’t normally want to try, or doing something crazily adventurous. For me, a sudden trip further up the Western Australian coast got me jumping into a microlight which was so far beyond my comfort zone it’s not funny, but having broken that barrier made me so proud of myself and put other comfort zone breaches into real perspective.

Thinking about a trip once you’re home again

A trip is not over when your plane hits the tarmac at your home airport. No way! Every trip I’ve ever taken lives on and I think about them all the time, right from the momentous moment my parents took me away for six months as a nine-year-old.

Looking back soon or years later

One of the reasons I love to keep a travel journal is that looking back on them later is so rewarding. Okay, some of my old travel journals are also filled with a lot of extraneous details, but I still love having a look. Along with some of the souvenirs I bring home (typically stuff I can use, or that goes on a wall where I can enjoy it often), these things catapult me back to the experience of the trip and remind me of both good times and bad, what I learnt, what I loved, what inspired me, and more.

My travel journal and paraphernalia from Iceland and Germany

Talking to friends about your experiences

I’m sure we’ve all had the situation where you come home from a trip and try to tell people about it and nobody cares; but over time, all avid travellers seem to find friends who really, really want to hear about their trip (I’m one of them!). So going home and having a chat about your experiences while travelling is a wonderful way to reflect on what you did and saw and what you might have got out of it. Sometimes having to articulate that for someone who wasn’t there to be able to understand is a really enlightening moment.

Noticing the ways you change

You change whether you notice it or not, and I think travelling makes you change a lot. When I first travelled, I didn’t notice these for a while; then suddenly – and this was when I was living in Japan – I realised that so many fundamental things about the way I approached life had changed, all as a result of the new experiences I’d had in another country.

Are you a thoughtful traveller?

I think everyone does something from this list already, but I challenge you to become an even more thoughtful traveller! Also, join us at the Thoughtful Travellers Facebook group where we chat about lots of fun thoughtful travel topics.




  1. Maureen Sellick says:

    I agree with everything you have said. Travelling has been very important to me……I love getting out of my comfort zone, meeting new people, experiencing other cultures. Recently we spent some time looking at medieval art in NGV and I realised how much I have changed and learned about such art from our numerous trips to Italy. The whole experience at NGV was so much richer than earlier viewing of the same art.

    • Thanks Maureen – so glad to hear it resonates. And you make a great point about how what you learn builds on previous trips as well, and adds up to a very much enriched life!

  2. Some fantastic tips in there! Some are (for me at least) rather obvious, while others are really new! Thanx for the great advice, I will be keeping that in mind 😉

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