Lonely Planet Writer

The luxury of travel

Travellers are very competitive. You'll regularly meet other travellers who want to demonstrate how much more authentic their experience of a destination was than yours. They saw more, met more locals, stayed there longer, had more fun and everything was in consequence 'more real'.

The dominant feature of their stories is almost always the austerity of their trip; 'real travel' is considered to be without luxuries. The precedents for this position are the deprivations and dangers endured by explorers and adventurers such as Lewis and Clark. The modern-day appeal of hiking through the wilderness of national parks is to retrieve some of the reality of such explorations. Extreme nature lovers see luxuries such as hotels as having supplemented the real experience of destinations to the point where hotels are the main experience of a destination.

Image by thombo2

The next level down from these quasi-explorers are travellers who avoid the fancy hotels with jacuzzis, room service, etc. I confess I'm one of these travellers. I don't need shiny faucets and marble when I spend 90% of my time at my accommodation asleep. And, like the quasi-explorers, I also see the uncalled-for luxuries of fancy hotels as supplanting the experience of the destination. I'd rather stay at a locally-owned guest house or hostel than an international hotel chain, whose experience is designed to be similar whether I'm in Hong Kong or Buenos Aires.

Image by Mark Broadhead

But is there really such a difference between 'real travel' and 'luxury travel'?

Post-structuralism has taught us to be suspicious of such privileged binary oppositions. For example, Derrida has demonstrated how philosophers through the ages (like Plato) have maintained that communication by writing is somehow less 'real' than the communication of speech. One of the criticisms of writing is that while speakers are present (for their listeners), writers can be absent (from their texts and their readers) and if absent, writing may be understood in ways that were unintended by the author. And yet, as meaning in both speech and writing is constructed by re-presenting words from previous contexts, the full presence of their words is always already absent for the speaker to some degree. In the same way we can see how the opposition between real and luxury travel can be easily undermined by pointing out that all leisure travel, including so-called 'real travel', is a luxury.

Image by prayitno

No one's life depends on going to a national park or a museum, although it may prolong and enrich said life. Also, a lot of my travel involves enjoying luxuries by proxy...most of the world's great buildings were once upon a time (or still are) the luxurious domiciles of royalty or similar dandies, and who doesn't like to visit castles and palaces. Then of course there is the art in museums and religious buildings. Art itself may be the very epitome of luxury.

Image by Mark Broadhead

So all leisure travel is luxury travel, whether you're sleeping in a tent or staying at the Bourgeois à l'Arabe. In the realists' defence, however, I do agree that the more gratuitous luxury one incorporates into a trip, the less one experiences a destination as a local knows it. Moreover, extreme luxury not only distances yourself from the destination, it is usually a bigger waste of the world's limited resources. On the other hand, cheap doesn't always mean more real. Sleeping only in train stations may be less insightful of a destination than sleeping in farmstays where they make their own cheese. Instead of staying only in either extreme (austerity or luxury) try instead to be 'post-structuralist': occasionally splurge on fancy meals where your wallet allows, and skimp on luxuries to see how a destination can surprise you. With both sides of the coin you'll get a more complete picture of a destination.

Further reading: The freedom of travel.

Mark Broadhead is Research Librarian at Lonely Planet

How do you like your travels - with lashings of luxury or a bit of penny pinching - or both? Check out Lonely Planet's travel debate: budget vs luxury travel.