Travel That Counts—or My Passport Is Better-Stamped Than Yours

Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

05.26.09 | 11:57 AM ET


The other day I was at a Washington dinner party (I know, sounds elitist already) when I found myself engaged in the time-honored, obnoxious pastime indulged in by travelers everywhere: country-counting. How many countries had I been to, inquired my friend and dinner host?

It sounds like a simple question, a matter of straightforward arithmetic, but it’s not. First, we needed to lay some ground rules. Do airport layovers count (no). What about visits that don’t include at least one overnight stay (yes). What about micro-states like Lichtenstein and Andorra? (Yes, or to borrow from Dr. Seuss: “A country is a country no matter how small.”) What about nations that not everyone considers nations, such as Taiwan and the breakaway Moldovan Republic of Transnistria? (No consensus here; we kicked it back to the UN.)

Someone suggested that countries shouldn’t count if you only stayed at a five-star hotel there. She had a point. Like embassies, five-star hotels go to great lengths to isolate, and insulate, themselves from the host country. It is possible to spend many days at a five-star hotel engaged in all sorts of productive activities—holding meetings, eating meals, exercising, getting married, watching movies—without ever stepping foot in the actual country where you allegedly find yourself. This is no accident, of course. The hotel owners want you to stay put and spend money. In the end, though, this motion was shot down. Five-star hotels count.

Someone else suggested a sliding scale, with far-flung destinations (the Comoros Islands) counting more than tamer ones (Canada). This, too, was rejected on the grounds that it’s too difficult to gauge relative tameness and, besides, it seemed somehow undemocratic.

OK, I’m sure the suspense is killing you, so I will reveal all: I’ve been to 58 countries, soundly defeating my dinner host, who has been to “only” 47. Does that mean than I am better-traveled? Presumably, that is what all this silliness is about—numeric justification for claiming, “Look at me, I’m so well-traveled.” Surely, though, being well-traveled is more than simply a matter of tallying the number of countries visited. 

But what precisely makes someone well-traveled? Diplomats and international business people are among the most traveled in the world but, as a rule, they are not well-traveled. They travel widely, not deeply. (I realize there are notable exceptions to this rule.)

Luxury, as I said, is often an impediment to traveling well, but the opposite can also hold true. I’ve known backpackers who practice a sort-of reverse travel snobbery. You’re well-traveled if you travel cheaply, the cheaper the better. Extra points for drinking the tap water! I agree that traveling frugally does increase the odds of traveling well, but it’s no guarantee. I once met two British guys traveling in Western India. They took a perverse pride in spending as little money as possible, to the point where they saw and did very little. Why bother leaving home, I wondered.

Traveling well, I think, is all about seeing. Do you see, in the broadest sense of the word, what is around you, what is inside of you? Have you embarked on your journey with open mind and open heart? By this measure, a person who has visited only one country could be said to be very well-traveled indeed.

It boils down, I’m afraid, to that tired old saw about the difference between tourists and travelers. Many have weighed in on this important, if somewhat fuzzy, distinction, but I think Paul Theroux put it best: “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

So, you’ll be glad to hear that I’m enacting an immediate moratorium on country-counting. Better, I think, to travel well than be well-traveled.

22 Comments for Travel That Counts—or My Passport Is Better-Stamped Than Yours

Sophia Dembling 05.26.09 | 12:51 PM ET

I just loathe the travel one-upsmanship that occurs when the well-traveled gather. This is a wonderful essay.

Lindsey 05.26.09 | 12:51 PM ET

Nice! Thanks for sharing this party moment.
There’s always one in every bunch!
They just got to asked don’t they!

There seriously needs to be a little book of answers, to all those silly travel questions. Just like they have at the telecommunications places.

Roger 05.26.09 | 2:28 PM ET

I enjoyed the article. Those are some fine conundrums that one must face when trying to figure out how to summarize one’s travels. I like to talk about travel with people, but I find that travel is not talked about very much, compared to a lot of other things. Here’s one for you. I traveled to Yugoslavia in 1987, to parts that today are Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. I’ve wondered for years if I should count that as three countries on my list, or just one, as at the time I was there?

Lindsay 05.26.09 | 3:20 PM ET

Roger I think it should count as one country. When you were there, it was Yugoslavia, therefore you have been to Yugoslavia. Just my humble opinion : )

Jim Benning 05.26.09 | 3:27 PM ET

Good point, Roger. I say you count Yugoslavia as one country but add some sort of asterisk when it comes up, noting that it could be counted as more countries today. Is there such a thing as an air asterisk—the asterisk version of an air quote?

Kristina 05.26.09 | 4:38 PM ET

Love this article. I do hate the snobbery which comes along with the country-count.

I agree that where you sleep does not matter. I’ve stayed in 5 star hotels and $5 a night guest houses. It’s what you do with your time there that counts not where you lay your head at night.

I’m particularly ticked off by backpacker snobbery in which the backpacker is the “superior traveler” because they don’t stay in nice hotels. What they neglect to mention is that they spend all their time in the “backpacker ghetto” watching movies and eating banana pancakes so that they don’t actually see any of the culture they’ve supposedly come to experience.

Ashley 05.26.09 | 5:11 PM ET

I am definitely guilty of playing the country-counting game with my sister (it has been ongoing since we were in college).  To avoid dispute we use this list:

It’s all tongue in cheek though… counting 5 separate countries from a week-long Carnival Cruise we took as kids pales in comparison with staying put for 6 months while studying abroad in Buenos Aires.  And there are definitely domestic trips that are among the best vacations I’ve ever had.  Usually after my sis and I joke about the status of the “list”, we move on to reminiscing about where we’ve been or conspiring about our next big trip.

However, I do get tired of people seeking out crummy places to stay and playing the “authentic” card. I love a beautiful hotel, and with a little research you can usually find one that keeps in the spirit of the location.  And like Kristina said, just because you’re staying at a nicer place doesn’t mean you have to eat in their restaurant and sit by their pool the whole time you’re there.

Either way, great essay.  I just emailed it to my big sis :)

Troy 05.26.09 | 5:46 PM ET

I once remember sitting in a hostel many years back with, of all people, my mother. Pseudo-travelers were flexing their travel muscles and exposing their travel scars, boasting of all of the crazy things that they had done and seen. When it seemed that they had finished, my mother simply said, “I used to live in the Arctic region of Canada, several hundred kilometers above the circle. Up there, traveling for us was going ‘out onto the ice’, camping and fishing on the Arctic Ocean, then coming home.”

Talk about a downer on our poor pseudo-traveler’s egos!

pam 05.26.09 | 7:52 PM ET

What about occupied or disputed territories? Say you’re in East Jerusalem or Nazareth, what then? I went to Sinai when it was Israeli territory, but then it went back to Egypt, so, uh, what Roger said, I guess.

I don’t think five star hotels are the culprits that those mid-range business hotels out by the airports are. Swanker hotels often make the effort to reflect the place, be it on the menu or in the decor. But when you’re at The Business Suites out by the commercial park convenient to the runway and the restaurant serves the same flaccid grilled chicken Cesar salad—want a lite beer with that?—that’s when the anonymizing really hits home. Bad coffee and self serve waffles, anyone?

Steve 05.26.09 | 8:16 PM ET

A friend of mine calls it “trophy tourism.”  She runs a small, exclusive travel agency that specializes in exotic destinations.  She got a call recently re: Bhutan, a difficult-to-get-to country near Nepal.  The woman one the phone inquired how much it would cost to travel there.  How long did she want to stay?  One day.  Ridiculous.  How can you learn anything about a country with that kind of attitude?

Sophia Dembling 05.26.09 | 8:28 PM ET

“Trophy tourism” is a wonderful phrase! Perfect!

Gail Gillespie 05.27.09 | 12:47 AM ET

Like Roger, many countries I have visited are now split up, so am interested in the answers to his question. I too find talking about travel experiences sometimes difficult. One of my pet peeves are people who when asked where they have been may mention one or two countries and then finish…..“oh I have been everywhere…..............” Really! “

As a family we have done the country count….............just friendly rivalry…........we have all four travelled extensively and lived in several countries….......our children both live overseas.           

Our travel accommodation is anything from a tent to a campervan to a three or 4 star hotel plane, car, bus, truck etc.It depends where it is and what suits best at the time.We have also revisited many of these countries several times. Yet I still got a lot from a trip to Poland ” for the day” when we were staying with our daughter’s Slovak host family. It was impromptu…........and for a New Zealander where we cannot go to another country for the day an experience to remember.

So each experience is different and counts in it’s way. What you do while you are there is probably more important. We were forced to spend an extra week in Cuba due to Hurricane Wilma… for insurance purposes booked an all inclusive hotel in Varadero. Here were hundreds of tour groups from the UK and Canada who could have been anywhere. There was absolutely nothing Cuban about the experience at all. Not even the music!

For me the funniest sight was the packed beach…...... fast reddening bodies stretched on deck chairs facing the sun….........with their backs to the sea!

Jerry Haines 05.27.09 | 10:35 AM ET

I do a country count, but only for myself.  I run into problems with the Caribbean:  Do Saba, Curacao and Dutch St. Maartin count as three countries or do you count them once (as the Netherlands Antilles)?  St. Bart’s is to France as Hawaii is to the US, so do you count it or not if you’ve already been to France?  If you go to Antigua and Barbuda, have you been to one country or two?  How about Nevis and St. Kitts?  And going to the American Virgin Islands sure seems like you’ve left the country, but maybe you haven’t.

So, how many countries have I been to?  Damned if I know. 05.27.09 | 12:25 PM ET

I think people have way too much time on their hands if they’re keeping track and comparing how many places they’ve traveled to year after year.  What’s the point?  As long as you had a great time and perhaps learned something along the way, that’s all that matters.  Unless you’re going for a Guinness Book of World Records for the “most traveled countries,” who cares how many countries you’ve visited?  Apparently, a lot of people do.  Interesting.

Frank 05.28.09 | 10:08 AM ET

I couldn’t agree more. Equally annoying (and meaningless) is the old expat game comparing length of time in a country. While it’s worth something, depth of time is much harder to measure.

Rolf also had a good piece on this kind of travel:
The most traveled Man on Earth.

And this might be of interest:
1,000 Places to Not go Before You Die

pirano 05.28.09 | 11:21 AM ET

To Roger above: As someone who’s lived in Slovenia for the past five years, I say your 1987 visit doesn’t count. So you’ll simply have to visit again. :)

While on the topic, I agree that these numbers don’t really matter (full disclosure, I stopped keeping a tally at around 40). Even here in tiny Slovenia, with so many beautiful and interesting tiny corners, I could easily keep my travel bug in check for a very long time.

Tim Patterson 05.28.09 | 12:49 PM ET

Nice post, Eric - I’m reminded of the Thoreau quote…“I have traveled a great deal in Concord…”

Cris Lata 06.01.09 | 12:52 PM ET

Wooow, that is a great topic.

I haven´t traveled that much, but I insist, a traveler and a tourist are not the same thing.

It is nice to go to… i don´t know, Paris, on a tour, have your photo taken under the Eiffel Tower and all of that… but, it is MUCH better to live the city, to experience it!!!

I just opened a blog about Mexico, about experiencing Mexico. It is brand new, and so far it is in Spanish… So, if you understand English and you want to know about that country, visit u!...

Anyways, great blog, great finding you!

Cris Lata 06.01.09 | 12:58 PM ET


If you understand Spanish… visit US…he. Sorry about that.

Joel Carillet 06.08.09 | 7:03 PM ET

Excellent essay and conclusion, Eric.  You write about traveling well and seeing, which is similar to something I wrote in my journal a few years back while traveling across Asia to write a book (though I used “loving” instead of “seeing”).  I later decided to use it in the introduction of my manuscript.  Since the manuscript is still unpublished, I’ll go ahead and share it here:

“Traveling, when done well, is nothing less than learning to love—loving things like adventure and change, yes, but even more learning to love people with names like Mustafa, Flora, Yangyang, Sikander, and Balram. It is learning to love places in all their complexities and contradictions, beauty and horror. It is learning to love our connectedness—that no matter what the religion, war, language, or worldview, we are, when all is said and done, neighbors in a world we share.”

Thanks again for the essay.  I enjoy your work!

Mark H 06.11.09 | 11:21 PM ET

I don’t think there is any harm in counting except that a bigger number isn’t necessarily better. Encouraging people to travel and enjoy and truly experience where they visit is themost important thing. It introduces more tolerance in the world experiencing and seeing first hand other cultures and places. One excellent list to use as a model is the UNESCO World Heritage List which today numbers almost 900 sites which are seen by their various countries as the most significant sights from a heritage viewpoint.

And on the counting rules: I think you should get credit for places you visited on today’s boundaries. If you went to East and West Germany, today it is worth ONE (Germany). If you went to Czechoslovakia (west and east), today you get TWO (Czech Republic and Slovakia) but only ONE if you didn’t venture far enough east to make today’s Slovakia. Similarly with Yugoslavia and the USSR.

lodging in prague 07.24.09 | 12:11 AM ET

Interesting article.
I enjoyed reading it.
Good posting!

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