By Christopher Elliott
Travel is an art, not a science.
Read enough columns, and you might think being the world’s smartest traveler is a paint-by-number proposition, an easy formula you can follow.
But as you start planning your summer trips, maybe it’s worth asking if there’s more to it than just buying a manual or clicking on a blog or even reading the most popular travel column in American journalism.
Perhaps the ability to be a good traveler can be inherited from one of your parents. Consider the DRD4-7R gene, sometimes referred to as the “wanderlust gene.” Curio Collection by Hilton recently tested 30 frequent traveling social media influencers for the gene to evaluate the role curiosity plays in travel and found nine of them had the DRD4-7R allele — about 1½ times the national average.
Alas, no Hilton employee pushed a cotton swab into my hand and asked for a sample, even though I’m on the road 365 days out of the year. Maybe it’s because being a consumer advocate makes me something of an anti-influencer. Oh, well.
So what’s the art of travel? And how do you master it? It all comes down to understanding the purpose of travel, knowing the right people and processes and having a productive attitude, experts say.
It helps to know why we travel, says Thomas Swick, author of the book The Joys of Travel. He breaks it down into fundamental pleasures that include anticipation, movement, break from routine, novelty and discovery.
“It opens people’s eyes to the real reasons they travel,” he says. “I think helps them make of it a kind of art.”
That art also is about harmony, notes Jacob Marek, founder of IntroverTravels, a travel agency. “It means that all of the moving parts work in tandem and that moments of serenity are punctuated with those that thrill, surprise and delight,” he says.
It could be a coincidence, but Virtuoso, the agency consortium with which he’s affiliated, professes to specialize in the art of travel. At least that’s what its agents claim in their email signatures. I asked a Virtuoso representative what it meant by that, and not surprisingly, her answer involved consulting a travel agent. I should have seen that coming. But there’s more.
“It means living every moment to the fullest while traveling, following passions and growing as a person and traveler, courtesy of the new experiences you’re enjoying,” Virtuoso spokeswoman Misty Belles told me.
Point taken. You need to know why you travel and how. A competent agent can certainly help. If you don’t hire a pro, make sure you’re a meticulous planner. You’ll need to be in order to become a virtuoso.
“A little bit of planning and prep goes a long way,” explains Erik Hastings, who hosts syndicated radio show “Erik The Travel Guy.”
It’s the little details that set the Rembrandts apart from the Bob Rosses of travel: Did you leave a copy of your important travel docs with a friend? Do you have a recent color photo with you? Will your cellphone work where you are going? Did you make a “before I leave the house” checklist and follow it? That’s expert stuff.
Attitude matters, too.
“Be humble — and curious,” Town & Countrymagazine travel editor, Klara Glowczewska, advises. “No, you cannot have researched everything before arriving. The world is not yet, thankfully, an open book. It has mysteries. Be open to them.”
By being “open,” she means doing something on the spur of the moment — “something you never imagined yourself doing. Go out of your comfort zone. Ask questions, talk to people, don’t commune only with your device,” she says.
Travel artists aren’t just people who do everything right on the road. They also travel for the right reasons. What separates them from the rest of us? In the final analysis, it’s probably as much their attitude as it is practice.
How Travel Artists Travel
Here are the traits of the most successful travel artists.
- They’re confident: Without exception, each of the travel artists I spoke with for this story exuded confidence.“The real art of travel is understanding how to make the state of travel — a place of change and uncertainty — into one of comfort and confidence,” explains Ernest Shahbazian, founder of YouTube channel Trip Astute. Once you have your travel chops, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of travel.
- They turn off their phone when it’s appropriate. True travel artists don’t show off, says Jason Donahue, CEO of Sidewalk, a walking app for your smartphone. “Travel has always had an element of regaling stories of remote adventures,” he says. “But the recent trend of Facebook humble brags and Instagram selfies has clouded the personal development that comes with travel.” Real travel artists savor the travel experience; they don’t just Instagram them.
- They don’t check a bag.“There’s an art to packing simply and efficiently and taking only what you need,” says Matt Eventoff, a professional speaker from Princeton, N.J. “It saves so much time, both at check-in and at destination.” Also, it also allows you to enjoy travel more and eliminates the chance that a bag gets lost.
Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic).