1,000 Places to Not go Before You Die

Travel Books: "Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Greatest Trips" and "Make the Most of your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences" are gorgeous, transformational and, ultimately, full of empty promises. Frank Bures explains why travel list books often end up coated in dust.

10.17.07 | 8:21 AM ET

Journeys of a Lifetime coverRecently a couple of books landed in my mailbox. They are giant, door-stopping things. One, Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips, was put out by National Geographic, and is as beautiful and seductive as anything National Geographic does. The other is Make the Most of your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences, from Rough Guides. 

These and similar titles seem to be arriving in droves, following the path blazed by the plucky and unstoppable 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Since that book came storming out of nowhere and onto bestseller lists, it seems that every travel publisher has had to issue at least one of these titles. The travel shelves sag under their weight. 

Now I like leafing through these books as much as anyone. I get lost in them. I get travel ideas from them. I can’t help picking them up, paging through them, daydreaming about places I’ve been and places I want to go. They make every place seem as gorgeous and transforming and irresistible as the next. They make me want to go everywhere.

But then a strange thing happens: I set the book down, and almost never pick it up again. The desire vanishes. It’s the coffee-table-book phenomenon: The books blend in with the furniture and are never seen again until a pile collapses under its own weight, or until you move and discover, like an archaeologist, a hoard of beautiful books, coated in dust. 

Compare this with what happens to my other travel books: On one shelf, I have ratty copies of Granta’s travel issues, which I’ve read over and over. Next to these are books by Tim Cahill, Peter Hessler, Redmond O’Hanlon and others that I come back to like they were old friends. They call out to me. They feel real and full of life. 

I think this points to a problem with the before-you-die/power-list genre. At the heart of each of these books is a promise: In a world of so many places to go, of so many choices, here are the ones that count. Here are the ones that will make your life worth living.

This is an empty promise. You won’t find the journey of a lifetime in any of the places in these books. In fact, you won’t find the journey of a lifetime in any place. You could pick any handful of locations and go there expecting to simply be transformed, to suddenly feel as if you had truly lived. But if you do, I think you’re bound to be disappointed. Because the checklist approach to travel misses the point. Because no matter how many places you check off your list, they won’t magically change your life. You could just find 500 ways to waste your money, or 1,000 colossal wastes of time.

The problem is this: Travel is not a passive experience. Travel is not something we get done to us, like a haircut or a massage. Travel is not something out there that we find on the road.

The trip of a lifetime comes as much from inside as it does from outside. What makes a trip life changing is partly the place, but equally what we bring to to that place: passion, curiosity, knowledge, openness. It is the people we meet and how our experience seeps into our bones. Good travel is life-changing travel. But good travel is a creative act, a fusion of the traveler and the world. 

So instead of trying to rack up trips, of trying to get as close to 1,000 as you can, instead of trying to see every place on earth before you die, I say go for for quality instead of quantity. Pick one place you think you’d love and go there completely. Read its novels and newspapers and history. Stay long enough to get under its skin, and let it get under yours. Go there and really try be there.

You could try to see 1,000 places, but why would you, when all it takes to make your life worth living is one.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.

20 Comments for 1,000 Places to Not go Before You Die

Armi Strickland 10.17.07 | 8:33 PM ET

My husband and I love to travel.  We haven’t span the world yet, but we really like to go to different places when we can.  We always have a good time wherever we go and if a place did not live up to expectation, we make the most of it.  Frank is right, it is the people that makes for the most part of our experience because there are so many interesting people out there.  We would like to see 1,000 places before we die, but if don’t make it, oh well.  At least we went and tried.

Eliza Amos 10.19.07 | 9:37 AM ET

When I travel, I am not looking to check off a list of places I’ve seen; that makes the place feel really distant and impersonal. Instead, I am looking for transformation (an intention that has its own desperation about it, admittedly). If I don’t find it, I know to be disappointed in myself, not the place.

I guess I am curious to know whether people who travel with checklists are ever really satisfied. Is it ever enough?

Diana 10.21.07 | 12:54 AM ET

Bravo for the post. Too many people out there, from luxury travelers to backpackers, seem to just be traveling for bragging rights. They’ll hit dozens and dozens of countries and have nothing to show except a few posed shots with “the locals.” Even travel writers are not immune to this. Too many books are articles are written by people who spend a week or two in one place and think they really understand it.

I second Frank’s suggestions to really delve into 1 place and see where it takes you. And…try to learn the language. Being able to communicate to someone in their native tongue is much more rewarding than dipping your feet in 10 countries.

Peggy Coonley 10.21.07 | 8:51 PM ET

As the founder of Serendipity Traveler
which offers inspired travel for women i wholeheartedly agree with the above essay.
I especially like the idea that “Good travel is life-changing travel. But good travel is a creative act, a fusion of the traveler and the world.” I plan to quote
Frank in my next newsletter. Traveling as a traveler with an open heart, passion and curiosity makes all the difference in the experience and the memories.

Jake 10.23.07 | 3:14 AM ET

Beautiful article! Well written! I loved it and have always believed it. The more you travel the more you learn that it isn’t ever the destination that matters, rather the journey of discovery getting there.

and sometimes home!

Glenn Norum 10.24.07 | 12:28 AM ET

I found 1000 places I would not have wanted to miss in Costa Rica, 1000 more in Peru, 1000 more in Italy.

If I’d limited myself to 1000 total before I died, I’d feel so cheated.

However, the one time coffee table flavor of the books has exposed me to a couple of ideas I never would have found without them - Polar Bears on Churchill Bay in November - how cool!

jessiegoes 10.25.07 | 1:17 PM ET

I believe being too judgemental about how others travel is, in and of itself, caught up in those bragging rights.  I hear backpackers telling people who only go for a week or two that they really aren’t ‘getting the real experience’ if you don’t stay for months, just as I hear jetsetters telling me they’ve been to 45 countries and counting.  Travel is different for everyone, and getting the most of the experience for your wants and needs, while doing the least amount of harm or possibly helping the places you see should be the intent. 

I have been to places for a week, and even though I learned only a little about them, it was still very enjoyable, and opened my eyes to new things.  I have also stayed in places at greater length and just lazed about a beach eating banana pancakes, and jetted to Tokyo for a long weekend and some fabulous sushi after a business meeting. 

They all have their place, and I would encourage anyone to travel with an open mind, not only to the places and people of their destination, but to the other travellers and their styles.  Anything else smacks of your own form of elitism.  If someone enjoys getting a small taste of 100 places, or an emersion in 2 places, good for them.

william Colliin 10.27.07 | 12:03 PM ET

I believe that we all deserve to have choices but remember wherever you go you will meet yourself there in a few days.

Frank 10.29.07 | 3:06 PM ET

Well put, William!

Dorota 10.31.07 | 2:15 PM ET


I have found this article by a chance and I really like the author’s approach. I love travelling and we (me + my husband) do travel as much as it is possible. We have been in some places for week or two and I agree that spending such a short time in one place is not enough time for saying that we know this place. However, we went to these places to get relax, sun and fun, taste a local cousine and relax, relax. I would encourage everyone to travel with smile and open mind and respect to the tradition of other country, its people and customs. We also can learn a lot from other nationalities while traveling. I also think that God creates the world not to hide it - lets explore it, lets see undiscovered. This will make us richer in one more experience. :)

Sebastian Formoso 11.01.07 | 3:35 AM ET

I travel searching for a greater understanding of life, culture, and self.  Only resort travelers should ever wonder about in their aimless journeys with check lists and shopping in mind.  I look for much more than culture; I look for the essence of the experience. But I must nominate Miami, Florida as the number 1 place not to go to before you die….there’s nothing there.

Deborah 11.04.07 | 1:18 PM ET

There are as many styles of travel as there are travellers. And, I try to be non-judgemental of those who choose a different style from my own…SLOWWWW.
My husband and I prefer to discover a new country “from the inside out”. We’ve visited Italy 3 times before we ever stepped foot in one of its tourist cities.
Last year we spent a month in Spain and Portugal. The first three weeks in the small towns of Galicia and Minho. The final week in old town Lisbon.(Lisbon has the soul of old Europe like no other western European city I’ve visited)

Tim 11.11.07 | 12:29 AM ET

Hear hear! Thanks for giving these books the skewering they deserve. And add that damn Blue List series from Lonely Planet too, which is annoying beyond belief. These are the bookstore equivalent of the TV shows promising “The world’s best beaches” or “Top island getaways.” It’s all so silly, and just a lazy way to throw things together under one heading.

It’s like saying there are “1,000 People to Meet Before You Die,” as if your life will complete if you meet the 1,000 people that particular editorial team picked—never mind the other millions of possibilities.

Eman 12.14.07 | 1:10 PM ET

Thanks for the post. I was tempted to get that 1000 Places To Go Before You Die book. After reading this, I’m inclined not to.

Rice 12.31.07 | 12:13 PM ET

“The trip of a lifetime comes as much from inside as it does from outside. What makes a trip life changing is partly the place, but equally what we bring to to that place: passion, curiosity, knowledge, openness. It is the people we meet and how our experience seeps into our bones. Good travel is life-changing travel. But good travel is a creative act, a fusion of the traveler and the world.”

WONDERFUL article. I couldn’t agree more with the passage I cited above.  I look forward to reading more of your articles.

Suzette 06.03.08 | 3:10 AM ET

I have a list of places I want to go before I die, but I don’t use it as a guide for what to do. When I travel, I see what I see. I don’t make it a point to see certain things, I see whatever I can and as much as I can. Having a list doesn’t make it impersonal, it just gives you something to look forward to.

Laurene Quateman 06.21.08 | 3:23 PM ET

Enjoyed each review, and think of the many times my friends suggest that I pin each place I’ve been on the map.  What a mess that map would be!  It’s the people, their faith, their food, their art, their music, their outstanding product, and most of all the scenery - mountains, flowers, waterfalls, ...
I am inclined to do a round trip on Delta (since I am a Delta
retiree) from America to Japan to visit a couple my mother and I met in Norway (on their honeymoon).  I’ve kept a constant exchange of Christmas cards ever since, and they now have grandchildren.  It’s these memories that make the trip special. The people, and in some cases certain incidents.  Take a cruise and where it’s warranted, read up on the stop and rent a car.

kait 07.31.08 | 8:57 AM ET

I don’t agree with your thoughts. Travelling is not about wasting money, its about going out and having experiencees, seeing different cultures, lifestyles, and sights. It’s about experiences and taking in what the world has to offer. It doesn’t have to be “a journey of a lifetime
, its a journey nonetheless. I reccomend going through those books and actually travelling to some places. You’d be amazed at what else is outside your front door.

Butane 08.26.08 | 3:20 PM ET

Geez am I glad I don’t have to live my life with such a cynical depressing attitude.  I love to travel, and have found something worth recalling, something worth photographing, and something worth telling my friends about everywhere I go.  I’ve stayed in five star hotels, and in tents in the desert, and found wonder and adventure wherever I’ve been.  It has always been money well spent.  I’m glad I’m not Frank.

Rohit Roshan 11.10.08 | 12:05 AM ET

bravo! nicely done Frank. Dis one seems to be truly from d heart.Yes I love to travel & believe that travelling jst fr covering distance is pathetic.U lose d ‘uncertainity’ which is d soul of travelling.Go out there,meet n greet ppl,let d place sink into u n then comes one moment u feel like u hv lived d place.n dat makes ur presence and travel worthwhile.

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