Have you ever come home from a vacation feeling more exhausted than you were before you left? Many Americans live hectic, stressful lives, and the frantic pace only continues while they're on a trip as they rush from one tourist attraction to another. But there's a grassroots movement that's quietly emerging as a solution to tourist burnout: slow travel.
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Imagine living for a week in a little French cottage, buying fresh vegetables from the farmer's market every morning, sipping cafe au lait on your favorite sidewalk terrace, and taking leisurely day trips to neighboring villages and chateaus. Sound appealing? That's the magic of slow travel, where the emphasis is less on manic sightseeing and more on taking in your surroundings at a relaxed pace. This is no "four cities in seven days" tour of Europe — instead, you'll see new places and explore new cultures in a way that's less stressful to you, more respectful of the locals and easier on the environment (and maybe on your budget as well).
What is slow travel?
Slow travel is an offshoot of the slow food movement, which began in Italy in the 1980's as a protest against the opening of a McDonald's in Rome. The slow food movement aims to preserve regional cuisine, local farming, communal meals and traditional food preparation methods. This cultural initiative has since burgeoned into a whole way of life known as the Slow Movement, which emphasizes connection — connection to food, connection to families and, in the case of travel, connection to local peoples and cultures.
Slow travel is not so much a particular mode of transportation as it is a mindset. Rather than attempting to squeeze as many sights or cities as possible into each trip, the slow traveler takes the time to explore each destination thoroughly and to experience the local culture. As founder Pauline Kenny puts it on her Web site, SlowTrav.com, "Slow Travelers assume that they do not have to see everything on one trip, that there will be other trips." In other words, it's more important to get to know one small area well than it is to see only a little bit of many different areas — that way you'll have something left to see on the next trip.
Slow travel can mean renting a cottage or apartment for a week at a time and exploring your immediate surroundings on foot or by car. It can mean taking a biking tour from one village to the next, or driving along back roads instead of taking the highway. It can mean crossing long distances by train instead of air, so that you can see the scenery along the way. But no matter how you do it, the key is slowing down — and making the most of each moment of your vacation.
Benefits of slow travel
The most obvious advantage of slow travel is reflected in the overall nature of your trip. Traveling more slowly allows you to form a stronger connection to the place you're visiting, and you'll feel much less rushed. With a "slow" itinerary, you won't experience the stress of attempting to knock out every site in your guidebook. Instead, you'll stay in one place long enough to recognize your neighbors, shop in the local markets and pick a favorite coffeehouse. Few societies move as quickly as Americans do, so slowing down in other countries not only allows you to escape your own stressful day-to-day life but also to slip naturally into the pace of another culture.
Another less obvious advantage of slow travel is that it's generally much easier on the environment than other types of travel. While airplanes have recently been pinpointed as major contributors to global warming, trains are a much more eco-friendly alternative — as are bikes and, of course, your own two feet! And even traveling by car becomes less damaging to the environment when you're only driving short distances.
Slow travel is often kinder to your budget as well. Staying in one place for a week or more at a time reduces your transportation costs, and vacation rentals are often more cost-efficient than hotels since they allow you to cook your own food instead of eating out for every meal. If you choose a home exchange instead, you'll save even more.
One thing to keep in mind: While the pace of slow travel may be leisurely and laid-back, getting up close and personal with a new culture is much more challenging than just breezing through the major tourist sites. Part of the reward of slow travel is overcoming language barriers, differences in customs and other potential stumbling blocks to make connections with the new people you meet.
Where can you travel?
Europe is the most popular destination for slow travelers because vacation rentals are plentiful, public transportation systems are efficient, historic attractions are relatively close together and English is widely spoken. SlowTrav.com focuses primarily on travel to Western Europe with special sections on France, Italy, Spain, the British Isles and Switzerland (though it does have sections for North America and the rest of the world as well).
However, slow travel is a mindset, not a destination — and with a little planning, you can do it almost anywhere.
How to "go slow"
Accommodations: Slow travelers generally stay in vacation rentals, which tend to be more cost-efficient than hotels for longer stays as well as more spacious and homey. Be sure to book your vacation rental well in advance and keep in mind that many properties, especially in Europe, must be booked from Saturday to Saturday.
Home exchanging is another good alternative for lengthy stays. Often your home exchange partner will leave an introduction to friends and neighbors, allowing you to immediately feel part of your new community. You may even get to use your exchange partner's car while you're in the area.
Meals: In the spirit of slow food, try to seek out local ingredients and experience the regional cuisine of the place you're visiting. Cooking for yourself? Join the locals at the fish market first thing in the morning to pick up a fresh catch for dinner that night, or pop by the bakery for a baguette right from the oven. If you're eating out, patronize locally owned cafes and restaurants.
Transportation: Traveling by rail can be a relaxing and often luxurious way to see the countryside, particularly in places like Canada and Europe. Trains in both of these regions are comfortable and efficient, and a variety of rail passes are available to help you cut costs. Learn more about train travel.
A road trip can also be considered slow travel if you take the back roads instead of the highways, and stop often to get a taste of local life. Get tips and ideas in our Road Trip Center.
Tours and special programs: Planning your own trip is all well and good, but you may also be interested in special offerings from tour providers such as cooking classes, organized volunteer trips and guided walking tours. Don't forget to look into these resources (either online or in a good guidebook) while you're planning your trip.
When "slow" is a no-go
While slow travel is an increasingly popular option for people looking to enrich their travel experiences, it's not for everyone. For one thing, it can be very, well ... slow. If packing a lot of sightseeing into each day makes you feel excited and energized, then you may find a more laid-back pace of life frustrating or dull. And while "there's always another trip" is the unofficial motto of slow travel, we recognize that this isn't the case for all travelers, particularly those on a tight budget. If you think this may be your one and only trip to Italy (or New Zealand, or Morocco ...), then you need to decide what's most important to you: traditional sightseeing or an intimate cultural experience.
The following sites may inform or inspire your own slow journeys:
SlowTrav.com: Trip reports, vacation rental reviews and other resources for slow travel in Europe and around the world.
SlowMovement.com: The Web site of the worldwide Slow Movement, including info on slow travel, slow cities, slow food and slow money.
ConstantTrek.com: One woman's solo walking journey across the Sahara Desert.
LowCarbonTravel.com: Traveling around the world without flying, or "reveling in the slow movement through landscape, culture, people and language rather than just passing over it all in an [aluminum] sausage!"
A four-week home exchange in Vienna, Austria: Member LSKahn's trip report about her month-long trip to Europe.