Why "Don't Worry About Money, Just Travel" Is Bad Advice

Travel is interesting. It's loaded with ideas of culture, tradition, exploration, self-discovery, and of course, as an essay on the Human Parts site raises, privilege.

The problem with the way we talk about travel, writes Chelsea Fagan, is that we turn it into "some sort of moral imperative." Traveling is great, because human beings are built to do well with new things. We love meeting new people, trying new food, seeing new sights, and most of all, accumulating new stories. I don't think that's a shallow thing, or a show-off-y thing (though it can be if you try, obviously)—stories are how we connect, how we explain ourselves and build an identity. Communication is the whole point, and as countless travelers will attest, learning to communicate in different ways makes you better at it. Travel is a really easy way to do that—but it's not the only way.

Chelsea makes the point that people who travel are not any wiser or better than people who don't. It's an easy point to back up: if you look at a big group of tourists anywhere, you can always spot a few who seem to be actively resisting any kind of cultural or human education. (It's Murphy's law that the worst ones are always from the same place as you, too.) And it's just as true that many people who've never traveled in their lives are building a wealth of experiences at home. "Someone needing to stay at a job they may not love because they have a family to take care of, or college to pay for, or basic financial independence to achieve, does not mean that they don’t have the same desire to learn and grow as someone who travels," Chelsea writes. "They are learning what it means to work hard, to delay gratification, and to better yourself in slow, small ways."

To say that travel is the only way to self-improve in a certain way is to imply that people who don't, or importantly, people who can't, have failed in some way. "It is entirely a game of money and access," writes Chelsea, and yes, it's a fair point. The attitude that money doesn't matter, and that spending a lot of it to go and travel (which you inevitably have to do, whichever country you're going to) proves your spiritual, non-materialistic priorities is at best, unfair. At worst, it's a horribly normalized way of entrenching the class divide—especially when you factor in all the travel images and stories, or what Chelsea calls "aspirational porn," that flood our social media feeds.

I don't think traveling is entirely limited to people who are rich or privileged—and it is really important to note that I say this as someone who's lucky in many ways, a large chunk of privilege included. I know people from less easy situations who've worked and saved to travel, but it does come at the expense of something else, and at the risk of traveling without a financial safety net. Even then, privilege is a relative term. If you're supporting a family, or in serious poverty, travel is a luxury that might not be open to you.

The point isn't to feel bad about your privilege, but do check it. Telling people "not to worry about money," Chelsea says, "demonstrates only a profound misunderstanding about what 'worrying' actually means."