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What's Experiential Travel and Why Does it Matter?

Experiential Travel

Most young people today (us!) live fast-paced lives, driven by mantras of carpe diem, YOLO, and "work hard, play hard." Our intense desire to maximize our experience portfolio and live life to the fullest is fueled by the idea that life is short and we have to move fast in order to cram everything in.

Instead of consuming ready-for-purchase destination packages, millennials place our value on the not-for-sale, serendipitous experiences that constitute a journey into, what's now increasingly being referred to as, experiential travel.

We unconsciously favor quantity over quality in many aspects of our lives -- and our favorite ways to relax usually involve streaming, uploading, downloading, scrolling, clicking, browsing, posting, liking, and consuming. We're non-stop -- and social media only feeds a new "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality.

Fortunately, however, the opposite seems to be governing our travel psychology. Instead of consuming ready-for-purchase destination packages, millennials place our value on the not-for-sale, serendipitous experiences that constitute a journey into, what's now increasingly being referred to as, experiential travel.

What is Experiential Travel?

Experiential travel is synonymous with "insider travel," or the pursuit of slow, immersed, and authentic experiences abroad. Even more than a genre of travel, experiential travel is a mindset that requires travelers to redefine their relationship to places and spaces, to see them as fluid and dynamic, not one-dimensional bucket-list items to stand in front of, photograph, and walk away smug and satisfied.

Experiential travelers know -- in contrast to the rest of their lives -- that it's not about how far they go, how fast they arrive, and how much they see, but about the depth of their adventures and their closeness to the heartbeat of the places themselves.

It also requires travelers to redefine their relationship to time, to see it as plentiful rather than scarce. It requires them to take a deep breath and say, "I have the time" or, more powerfully, "I will make the time" to engage in a better breed of travel.

Whether they're studying, working, volunteering, teaching, or anything in between, millennials are traveling abroad to engage with communities -- not just to catch a glimpse.

How is Experiential Travel Changing Travel?

In previous generations, travel was treated as ordinary consumer good, a game of keeping up with the neighbors and prioritizing hop-on-hop-off visits to trendy places that yielded impressive pictures. To those people, travel was a status symbol, a vacation or an escape from reality, not a by-product of genuine curiosity.

Immersion travel in Asia

Experiential travelers of today recognize that this kind of hit-and-run tourism simply confirms what we think we know and teaches us what we knew we were already going to learn. Instead, experiential travel introduces an element of delightful uncertainty and authenticity into our journeys.

If we fly to China and have seven days to see "the sites," there's a pretty safe range of what we can expect to see and experience.

But if we score an internship in Shanghai and spend four months doing business in China, learning the language, and immersing ourselves in Chinese culture, we gain access to a kingdom of sweet serendipity that belongs exclusively to our hearts and memories.

This is the kind of adventure that leaves a fingerprint on us for the rest of our lives, enriched with colorful stories that were not packaged for mass consumption. This is when the magic happens.

What Do Experiential Travelers Do Differently?

Traditional travelers spend a week bouncing from Barcelona to Granada to Madrid; experiential travelers spend a week couchsurfing in Segovia, hiking through nearby villages in the mornings, taking Spanish classes in the afternoons, and cooking with their hosts in the evenings. And they learn more about Spain in that week than those who go on a whirlwind tour of the "must-sees."

The usual tourist who parachutes into a country for ten days winds up observing how people live their lives in other parts of the world; experiential travelers stop observing from a distance and become part of the landscape.

They develop relationships, learn the language, engage in the community, and speak intelligently about the place after they return home. They shop in local markets, drive the back roads, and favor conversations over cameras. They linger, guilt-free, because they have no checklist.

This kind of travel is far more likely to be sustainable, kinder to local communities, and result in genuinely improved cross-cultural understanding.

Experiential travelers strive to calibrate themselves to the pace of a new place and culture. They seek out experiences: long meals with the Italians, partying until dawn with the Brazilians, and sipping coffee for hours with the Ethiopians.

For them, it's amazing to see the pyramids, but it's even more amazing to spend several months living in a tiny apartment in the back-alleys of Cairo, studying Arabic, and smoking shisha with a new group of local friends.

Slow travelers don't hostel-hop across South America; they volunteer in the Amazon. They don't "do" Southeast Asia; they go off the radar in outer Mongolia.

Why Does Experiential Travel Matter?

Experiential travel matters because it rebukes one of the greatest epidemics facing our generation today: the fear of missing out. It's about chucking the Lonely Planet into the garbage, hopping a train to a place we've never heard of, and staying put.

How are experiential travelers different?

For instance, I've been to Taiwan twice, but I still haven't been to the top of the famous Taipei 101 building. Each time I went, I was more interested in staying with locals (thanks, Couchsurfing!), hitch-hiking up the coast, sleeping in temples, and taking boats to islands with no names.

I experienced Taiwan on my own terms, unafraid to respond with an unapologetic "no" when other foreigners asked me if I had visited this temple or that mountain. And no, I am not afraid I missed out.

That's experiential travel at its finest. It decelerates the pace of life so travelers are not just gaining more experiences, but gaining more value in each experience. This kind of travel is far more likely to be sustainable, kinder to local communities, and result in genuinely improved cross-cultural understanding.

Sound Like Your Kind of Travel?

The good news is you're in the right place! Spending an extended period of time living overseas, whether to study, volunteer, teach, or travel independently, provides you the opportunity to sample experiential travel at its best: engaging in the local community, productively contributing to and learning from the new people around you, and creating a home away from home where the real learning can begin.

Discover opportunities on Go Overseas to study or volunteer abroad, or plan your own independent adventure. Now is the time to not only see the world, but to fully absorb all the ways it can shape, challenge, and delight you.

How do you want to explore? Tell us in the comments below.

Photo Credits: Ellie Talyor, Chelsea Perez, and Jessie Beck.
Elaina Giolando

A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20-somethings. She currently works as an international project manager and has traveled to over 50 countries and 6 continents for both work and play. In her spare time, she focuses on providing her peers inspiration to proactively create rewarding and unconventional lifestyles. You'll find her writing here on Go Overseas and also on Business Insider, Fortune, Fast Company, and Huffington Post.