Travel Expectations vs. Travel Reality – Part 1

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Every once in a while, travel lets us down.

Or, perhaps to put it differently, we let ourselves down by expecting one thing and being delivered another.

Sometimes, travel expectations just don’t match up to travel reality.

We build destinations up a lot in our minds. We see beautiful, postcard-perfect photos, and insert ourselves into stunning scenes of natural beauty, already picking out which photos we’ll have printed and hung on our walls once we get home.

We thumb through guidebooks and lay out ambitious itineraries of the museums we’ll visit, the restaurants we’ll eat at, and the history we’ll soak up. We imagine spontaneous connections with the friendly locals, who we’ll surely remain friends with for life. And we’re already practicing the conversations we’ll have with others when we return, sharing with them every detail of the perfect adventure we’ve just had.

Travel reality

Amanda at Victoria Falls

But, of course, this is never how it happens. Things never go completely according to plan, and even the most-visited and most-loved destinations can rub us the wrong way under the wrong conditions.

Travel reality can strike in any destination, and strike hard.

Not every destination is postcard-perfect. In fact, most aren’t. Photoshop was invented for a reason, my friends. Cities can be dirty. Hotels can be bug-ridden. Locals can be rude, heart-wrenchingly poor, or simply disinterested in talking with you at all.

The weather can be uncooperative. We can get sick, get lost, or have commercialized culture shoved down our throats when we aren’t looking.

Many places simply cannot live up to our lofty expectations.

It happens all the time, even to the most optimistic travelers. Sometimes it’s our own fault for simply expecting too much. Other times, it’s for reasons completely out of our control.

Do we expect too much?

Wellington, New Zealand

The main reason for disparity between our travel expectations and reality is that, sometimes, we simply expect too much. We imagine everything is going to be a certain way, and, when it isn’t, we feel cheated. We feel underwhelmed, or perhaps unsatisfied with the experience as a whole.

And, often, it’s not anyone’s fault. Travel is a fickle creature. Places and people are constantly changing, and a hiccup here or there in travel plans should be expected. We probably will get rained out of at least one thing we really wanted to do. We’ll most likely get lost somewhere and feel hopeless for a brief period of time. Maybe we’ll feel homesick if we’re gone long enough, or have car trouble, or even get hurt.

Expecting too much – or overplanning, even – is often a recipe for disaster.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we should embark upon travel with a pessimistic view. We shouldn’t expect the worst in hopes of being pleasantly surprised. Because, while this may work initially, eventually this pessimism can spill over into all aspects of our lives, and we’ll approach new situations detached and expecting very little from anyone or anything.

So what’s the answer then? How do we balance high expectations with the stark realities of foreign countries and cultures?

Go with the flow

Lake Erie sunset in Sandusky

The key, I think, is flexibility and an open mind. Allowing for uncertainties, freak storms, or a spontaneous adventure can turn traveling into a totally different experience.

It’s okay to gleefully anticipate a destination. But we should take each lofty expectation with a grain of salt, realizing that nothing is ever as it appears – especially when it comes to travel. And, if something thwarts our plans or goes against our expectations, we should view it as a challenge, or a new adventure – not a sign of a doomed trip.

Better yet, why not just forego the expectations altogether? Live in the moment instead of in the expectation. Throw plans and preconceived notions out the window.

If we forget about the expectations altogether – whether good or bad – then all we’re left with are authentic travel experiences, whatever they may be.

So, instead of comparing that destination to all the photos we’ve seen of it and accounts we’ve read about it, how about just simply experiencing it as-is, right now?

I guarantee looking at travel this way will never leave you disappointed.

READ NEXT: Travel Expectations vs. Reality – Part 2

Have you had a travel experience in the past that didn't live up to your expectations? How did you handle it?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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13 Comments on “Travel Expectations vs. Travel Reality – Part 1

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  1. Good points. Of course, this theory should be applied to places which are perceivably bad as well as great. How many times have we, as travellers, gone to a place we expected to be awful, scary and dingy, only to find it refreshingly vibrant and authentic?

    The internet has made mature research professionals of us all; but what we really need is a return to childlike innocence. Just to know the destination, and not have a mindmap of expectation before we arrive.

      All great points that you’re making as well, Ant. And yes, this theory can be applied the other way around, too (which is why you should look out for Part 2 later this week!).

    I’ve definitely blogged about this topic on my personal blog before. It’s not something you can really control, and yes having an open mind is the best way to deal with it… however, when you planned for an amazing 2 week vacation at a sunny beach and it rains the entire time I am more likely to be upset than if I didn’t like one place on a long term trip.

      It’s funny how something so ordinary as a weather forecast can make or break certain types of trips, isn’t it?

    My last trip disappointment came on the tropical island of Bequ, Fiji. After hearing about the beauty of the place and the great diving I was a bit sad to find the skies overcast almost every day and the dive boat a challenging roller coaster ride. All made better when I sank beneath the waves and I’d do it again in a moment. Didn’t get the perfect beach sunset picture? It can be had elsewhere. The rains forced my small group to mingle more in the protection of the big bure, sharing drinks with the Russian contingent and trading stories with the locals. Much better than a few snapshots. The key for me is planning and plotting well before boarding then letting it all go and welcoming the adventure. Sometimes things unfold that a carefully plotted itinerary would never have allowed. Life is good!

      It’s good that you were able to enjoy the trip, even if it didn’t go quite as planned. Your story is the perfect example of being disappointed, and yet turning it around into a meaningful travel experience that you’ll remember.

    I love this! You’ve really hit the nail on the head regarding overplanning. I recently traveled to San Francisco and planned the trip to the nines but I found my expectations, my knowing too much, slightly tempered my enjoyment. Now I’m planning to travel to Savannah and I’m taking a different approach. No guidebooks. No looking at image galleries beforehand. I want to go and be surprised. I want to embrace the spirit of discovery. It’s becoming a way of traveling that, for me, just feels right.

      Thanks so much, Marsha. I’m glad this post has resonated with you.

      I’m not completely against planning. I think it’s fine to do a little bit of reading up on where you’re going so you don’t arrive and look (and feel) completely lost. However, embracing “the spirit of discovery” like you mentioned is always a great way to approach any sort of travel.

      Enjoy Savannah! It’s a great city.

    This is a great post!

    I try not to do too much prior planning or reading about a place. I also seek out bizarre or off the beaten track encounters. Honestly, I’m more let down by typical travel experiences like beach resorts and organized tours. But I’m never disappointed at all when I strive to do something different.

      Glad you liked the post, Mary. While I am guilty of sometimes overplanning things slightly, I also try and make sure my plans are flexible. Some of those bizarre, off-the-beaten-track things you mention turn out to be the best travel experiences, and I certainly never pass them up if I stumble upon them during my travels.

    Anything you do long-term will have its high points, and ultimately its low points. Travel is no exception, and it really surprises me how many people go away for a year expecting it to be non-stop fun and nothing ever going wrong, when by the laws of averages things will go awry and you will have down times. When it happens to me I just think of the alternative – feeling low on a tropical island or historic city centre is SO much preferable to feeling low at my same old desk in work. That usually cheers me up.

      I completely agree — long-term travel especially has the potential to provide you with the ups AND the downs that you’d likely experience in your day-to-day life at home. They just come attached to a new place. There may indeed be more “ups” when you’re abroad, but the “downs” will still show up, too.

      I like your way of looking at things, though. It’s definitely better to perhaps have a “down” day in some foreign or exotic locale than to have that same “down” day stuck in a cubicle!

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