Travel Bucket Lists Are Dangerous

Travel bucket lists are dangerous to your health, your approach to travel, your travel experience.


We all have different ideas about travel and opinions to match. I’ve watched spirited discussions between advocates for roll-on versus duffel. Bangkok versus Paris. Hostel vs the Ritz. I’m tolerant of most opinions, but one thing has to stop—travel bucket lists.  Travel bucket lists are dangerous to your health, dangerous to your approach to travel, and likely to dull your travel experience.


Travel bucket lists are dangerous to your health.

It seems everyone has a travel bucket list.  President Obama, on his way back from the NATO Summit in Wales, stopped at Stonehenge for a look.

“How cool is this?” Obama told reporters. “Knocked it off the bucket list.”  While walking through Stonehenge, Obama also said: “It’s spectacular, it’s spectacular. It’s a special place.”
I’m glad the President has an interest in places like Stonehenge. I’m glad he visited. What’s got me going is even the President of the United States has a travel bucket list. I can’t blame Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman for their B- “The Bucket List” movie. Heck, I like Obama, Nicholson and Freeman.

But this bucket list thing has to stop. Especially a travel bucket list.

A travel bucket list is a list of things to do or see before you kick the bucket. Demise. Pass away. Die. Croak.

Really, what is a bucket list? It’s a list of things to do or see before you kick the bucket. Demise. Pass away. Die. Croak. There’s a finality to it and travel bucket lists do not adjust well to finality. I often admire those in their twenties who’ve worked out a career path, an elongated bucket list of sorts. I’ve met few in their fifties who stuck to it. As the Beatles’ John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens while you’re making plans.”

Travel bucket lists are too easy.

Travel bucket lists are easy things, too easy. They contain places as known and almost as easily reached as a Taco Bell. Sure, it takes more time and money to get the Coliseum in Rome than to the local iteration of the Olive Garden, but it’s ridiculously easy to do.  Instead of first exploring inwardly–“what destinations would expand my world view?” or even “what would be really cool to do?”–the most popular sites get listed because, well, because they are popular.  Not because they hold promise, present a challenge, expand horizons.  Simply because everyone else is doing it.  That’s a strong argument for a 10 year old; it’s a weak position from which to explore the world.

Andy Tope just posted on his blog “Five Things I Want to Experience by 2015” which I think is an excellent alternative to the tired old bucket list.  His choices are far ranging, sometimes difficult, sometimes a model of beautiful simplicity, and all deeply personal.  It’s worth noting, they are things he wants to “experience” which is why we travel.

Travel bucket lists sanitize and change each place listed.

Travel bucket lists sanitize and change each place listed. What happens when some charming place makes everyone’s bucket list? Look at Key West, a former lovely dump of conch houses and ratty bars which made the place so incredibly fun and attractive. Tourists invade, and the houses get million dollar do-overs or were bulldozed down, replaced by sterilized versions of what had been. The bars spend tens of thousands on bar and menu consultants to design faux-ratty. And how many tee shirt shops does Key West (or the world) need?

Walking through Santorini two years ago and admiring the admittedly lovely view (no one has figured out exactly how to commoditize sea and mountains yet) I wondered where all the local people had gone. Obviously, the shops full of knickknacks, gewgaws, and doodads were at one time the homes of the people who lived there. They don’t live there now. Displaced by progress and tourist demand I suppose.

Recently I found myself in Chania, Crete, wondering how many sunglass shops could survive on a single street. Apparently many more than I thought. Well, it’s a boost to the local economy. Sweet old Luang Prabang, Laos, is booming, which is another word for rapidly changing. Hotels in Chiang Mai are going highrise and local restaurant prices along with them.

Millions of tourists make travel bucket lists of places which were exotic and small and a little rough around the edges twenty years ago. But all that travel changes places. That’s the way of the world and probably always has been.  We humans overrun things.

 Travel bucket lists diminish us by diminishing what we came to see.

Travel bucket lists diminish us by diminishing what we came to see. It’s the “McDonald’s Effect” of popularity. I understand going to McDonald’s. The food tastes ok. It’s inexpensive. You know what you’re getting when you order it. But unless you thrill to walk under the golden arches, there’s precious little sense of discovery in, “Oh look, a raspberry McFlurry! Is that new?” It’s comfortably standardized so there is a predictability, a comfort level, and a uniformity.  It’s just a lousy set of standards for exploring new places.

In the same way, the most visited places develop a certain standardization. Hordes of tourists grow to expect certain amenities which were never there before, never a part of the culture. In countries with avaricious governments, as I wrote elsewhere, permits come easily to those with friends, money or guns, and the destructive change is even more raw. We are loving places to death or into a Disney vision of the afterlife when all real life is drained from it.

Travel bucket lists dull our sense of discovery.

Travel bucket lists dull our sense of discovery. I still remember the thrill of discovering how large the stones of Stonehenge truly are when I first saw them 48 years ago. The travel shows, magazines, Sunday travel sections, movies set on mock-location, and conversations with friends have made us knowledgeable of the most popular places to seek out. If they didn’t, then our obsessive research on the internet would.

Part of travel is to experience the foreign-ness of it all, to be out of our element, and thus, more aware, more observant, to marvel at the new, the different, the strange-to-us. The already-knowing whittles our sense of wonder down to size. None of us will ever lead an expedition into the deep heart of Africa to discover a previously unfound civilization, but the travel which challenges us, changes us, is travel which inspires a sense of marvel and wonderful newness to us. Now it takes something absolutely immense—the Grand Canyon in America or Iguazu Falls in South America—to overwhelm us.  So many other places are known and too easily conceptualized.

Travel bucket lists reduce the scope of experience instead of expand it.

Travel bucket lists reduce the scope of experience instead of expand it.  In Paris I was doing the most touristy of things—photographing the Eiffel Tower, actually photographing people photographing the Eiffel Tower. A couple with two tired children rushed up to the bus stop where I was standing. They had less than a half hour to reach the Louvre, and I offered to help them get there. The Mona Lisa was their grail, presumably following a gawk at the Tower. Never mind that while on our bus we passed, without note, beautiful boulevards, historical markers, magnificent architecture and fascinating museums. They would arrive with little time, remain oblivious to the beauty of the building, its setting within wonderful grounds, not have an opportunity to take in even a fraction of the museum’s offerings, all sacrificed to stand in a long line to view, at a distance, one painting in its refuge behind bulletproof glass, looking rather wan. One painting among tens of thousands, one artist among thousands, one opportunity to take in a sweep of art, history and a continent’s culture reduced to one painting. One on the bucket list, all else reduced to a blur.

(See Stephanie Rosenbloom’s excellent piece in the New York Times and especially Guia Besana’s wonderfully evocative photo of people pushing to take a picture of the Mona Lisa.)

The travel bucket list is the enemy of spontaneity.

The travel bucket list is the enemy of spontaneity. I know a woman who plans her family’s vacations. She begins at least nine months in advance, carefully researching her choices. And when I say choices, I mean pretty much every choice she will have. Once the location and hotel are decided upon, she phones the hotel asking specific questions. What is on the breakfast menu? How long does it take to walk from the breakfast area to the tennis court? How about from the tennis court to the spa? Is there a waiting period at the spa, or does an hour and a half treatment take exactly an hour and a half? At 7:30 at night, how long will it take a taxi to take them from the hotel to a specific restaurant? (You can bet she called the restaurant too.)  A schedule is developed, broken into 15 minute intervals.

She is able to get an amazing amount of things into her family’s vacation. But all at the expense of stifling spontaneity. When did vacations become more tightly structured than any work day? Sunsets cannot be lingered over. There is not time to stop and listen to an extraordinary street musician. Sore feet cannot be rested while sipping a coffee and watching the world go by. This is an extreme case, but it makes a point—there is a tyranny to a list. We don’t do things because they aren’t on the travel bucket list and there is no time left.

I believe goals and objectives are good. I remained successful in my business for many years because I learned how to set goals, structure my work time, measure achievement. Travel, on the other hand, offers more than achievement, although that’s a part. Travel, even when it is wearing us down, frustrating us, or confounding us, informs the soul. We grow inwardly with a greater innate sense of the scope of human activity, the immense variations of the human experience, the incredible span of time and its force upon the nature we find so inspiring. And, in doing so, we make our weariness a fond memory, our frustrations laughable, and our confoundment a beautiful lesson—all lost when spontaneity perishes.

Whipped on by their travel bucket lists, the goal-oriented miss the richness of travel.

Whipped on by their travel bucket lists, the goal-oriented miss the richness of travel. I’ve chatted with those who tell me of visiting a foreign place. I ask, “What did you eat?” and they look at me as if I’ve asked something completely off the subject. But it isn’t. Travel isn’t just finding, seeing, doing the one thing. It’s taking in the whole. A country’s culture is often revealed in its food, its museums, its shops and streets. You’re in their country: eat their food, use their transportation, think about their architecture, wander through local markets, walk their neighborhoods, experience it all.

Travel bucket lists create high expectations.

Travel bucket lists create high expectations.  It is, after all, a list of things so important to you that you want to see them before you die, right? The bucket list’s high expectations rob many of their experiences. Many want the experience to be perfect. Never mind that each day of life assails us with small irritations and disappointments; somehow it’s thought that in a foreign land everything will turn out perfectly. It doesn’t. A less than perfect breakfast, slow internet, late pick-up from the hotel, an unexpected fee casts a pall on the entire day. Some things have changed or are over-hyped. “I expected it to be bigger.” “I was surprised by all the tacky shops.” “It smells around here.” Real life gets in the way of the perfect experience.

A travel bucket list’s high expectation set unachievable goals.

And worse, travel bucket list’s high expectation may set unachievable goals. I was chatting with a friend’s wife about a short trip I’d taken to Rome. “Oh,” she said with what sounded like true longing, “That’s the one place I’ve always wanted to go.” I asked what was stopping her. They were comfortable and could find the time. “I’m not going to go until I can go first class all the way,” she said. She still hasn’t gone.


Travel bucket lists are the spawn of the “been there, done that” once-over.

Travel bucket lists are the spawn of the “been there, done that” once-over. A check mark, a tic, another scratched from the list. Saw it. What’s next? Claude Monet, the great French Impressionist, painted more than thirty canvases of the front of cathedral at Rouen and twenty-five studies of haystacks. His study of the effects of angle of view, light, weather, time of day, and season are stunning in both their art and the incredible differences in the way each one looks. The same people who watch sit-com reruns  give Michelangelo’s “David” a 10 minute look-see and move on never to see it again. Is the Eiffel Tower truly seen if not from down the green grass carpet of the Champ de Mars, from directly below staring into its web of metal, from the top scanning the rooftops of Paris, from a bench across the Seine while holding hands, or at night from the window of a cheap hotel high up on Montmartre? If something is worth placing on a list of significantly important things, it’s worth experiencing more than once and in different ways.


A travel bucket list should be a summing up at the end of life.

Finally, a travel bucket list should be a summing up at the end of life, a short list of those long-held desires, still there, for which there was never time. A mature assessment of what truly turned out to be important but not yet done. As I approach my 70th year, midway in my 53rd year of traveling, I know many of the choices I made in life and long ago are no longer important to me. A travel bucket list should reflect the thought, actions, and values of a lifetime. Besides, what are you going to do when you cross the final item from the end of the list? Die? Because if you make another list, then the first one was just a list, not your true travel bucket list, wasn’t it?

I have many things I want to experience before I die. None of them are on a list. I still respond spontaneously to a good idea or a call from a friend who wants to go somewhere. I still go back to my old favorites and find new things there. I still push on in new directions.

I’m not yet willing to submit to the tyranny of a travel bucket list.



Coming later: One weird trick to cure you of  the need for bucket lists.

© Copyright GrayOnTheRoad and Gary Gray

Cartoon by Mike Gruhn, Cartoon Stock

7 Comments on “Travel Bucket Lists Are Dangerous

  1. Cheers for the shout out Gary. I’m must say I’ve never really used the term ‘bucket list’, or taken much notice of it. To me travel is just about following my heart, doing what I enjoy. I reckon the idea of merely skimming the surface of popular places, as you’ve written about here, is invariably tied with population growth. People are always gonna do that, and it’s becoming much more noticeable now the world is filled with more people. And that’s fine for a lot of people too. It’s at their comfort level, and it’s great for me. If people, as you say, need Iguazu Falls to stimulate them these days, that means there will be less people in the quieter places where I like to explore.


    • Thanks, Andy! I’ve read your work, and it’s clear that you follow your heart. I just believe it is easier to listen to my heart when I don’t have a list of “must do” items prodding me in a different direction.

  2. Back in the early ’90s, I read about Phi Phi island (off Phuket, Thailand) and pictured an idyllic place with basic huts on the beach. Was it ever that way? I don’t know. When we went there two years ago, it was full of bars and 20-something partiers with their buckets (literally) of booze. Hardly idyllic!

    Unfortunately, with such short vacation times, Americans usually only have time for the touristy places that they’ve read about … if they travel overseas at all.


    • Your example is spot on, Jenny. Too many people follow the what is / what was popular instead of asking what they really want to do. Your buckets of booze comment is a nice play on bucket lists–everything becomes a little sodden and forgotten.

  3. Like where you’re coming from with this. Our bucket list always has just one item on it, where ever we are at the moment.

    • Thanks! If there were a scale between “where ever we are at the moment” and “I plan my trip in 15 minute intervals” I’d be way over on your side.

  4. Wayne @TaoWest was kind enough to send me a note via Twitter: Really enjoyed reading this 🙂 Many thanks, Wayne, and thanks for the retweet, too!

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