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How to Embrace Slow Travel, Even When Your Itinerary Is Packed

Family hiking on trail

A few years ago, my husband and I made the big decision to take a family gap year. This meant quitting our jobs, giving up our New York City apartment, and pulling our two kids out of school to travel for 366 days straight.

When we talked about how we wanted to spend this once-in-a-lifetime year, we knew we wanted to travel in a way that would let us see what people out in the world were doing in non-touristy places. We wanted to chat with barbers, watch subway riders on their morning commute, check out local playgrounds—that kind of thing. We didn’t want “authentic,” we wanted authentic: malls, dog parks, markets.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we were aspiring to become “slow travelers,” those who wander off the beaten path to make friends and try new foods; who eschew sightseeing box-checking in favor of personal connections and deeper local understanding; who go, well, slower, just to take it all in.

We wanted to chat with barbers, watch subway riders on their morning commute, check out local playgrounds.

The problem was, we wanted to visit a lot of places. And despite our intentions of getting off the beaten path, our list expanded to 29 countries across six continents, and included monuments and ruins that would put us squarely on the well-trod sightseeing circuit.

All of a sudden, “slow” wasn’t going to cut it.

Family on boat with snorkelling gear

How to balance “living like locals” with sightseeing

We would have to find a compromise. We made the decision to spend the year as slow travelers…who moved quickly; who were even tourists from time to time. The balance took us a few months to master, but eventually we hit our stride. Here’s what we learned:

01Say yes!

I have a fun-loving aunt and uncle who always warn: “Don’t invite us anywhere unless you mean it, because we will show up.” We adopted that sentiment on our travels and expanded it to include, “And don’t recommend anything to us unless you mean it because we will go.” When a laundromat owner in Stockholm said to try her favorite neighborhood restaurant, we went. When a gas station attendant in Tasmania insisted we see this one waterfall, or when someone in Bali suggested a surf film festival in town, we went. We went trick-or-treating with kids we met at a playground in Australia, and scored invites to barbecues in Chile, Sweden, and South Africa. When we only had a few days in a place, we’d prioritize a meal or outing with a local over any sightseeing, knowing these moments would teach us more than any tour ever could. The many strangers who extended these invitations and made recommendations were our best shot at getting off the beaten path to enjoy slow travel. All we had to do was say yes.

Family visiting ruins in mountains

02No sightseeing for sightseeing’s sake

Despite what passionate guidebooks would have you believe, many of the “must-see” stops in places…aren’t. We learned to be ruthlessly discerning. Great Wall? Petra? Pyramids? All touristy — yet all worth it. But some of this other stuff everyone posted about on Instagram and blogs? Arbitrary, if you ask me. Take the bronze statue of Hans Christan Andersson’s tragic Little Mermaid character perched on a river bank in Copenhagen, where hundreds of tourists jostled to get a good picture. We had all been led to believe this was the thing to see in town, which made me wonder who was even writing these lists. It was a reminder to stay vigilant with our time.

03Not everything has to be a tour

We came all this way! It’s right here! Shouldn’t we just do the tour? No. A misguided sense of obligation to take tours is one of the quickest ways to fill precious time with unnecessary sightseeing. This is especially true when with kids. It took us booking one too many tours we didn’t care about—all while our kids whined and begged for us to please make it stop—to realize how foolish we were being. After all, at home in New York I enjoy a special thrill every time I passed the Brooklyn Bridge, but I’d never taken a two-hour tour of it. Here’s the compromise: go, admire—and move on. In Sydney, on an afternoon spent riding the ferry, we detoured past the Opera House to catch a glimpse. In Paris, a thirty-minute break between playgrounds was just long enough to admire the Eiffel Tower from an elevated distance. In Japan, we passed dozens of temples on foot, stopping to admire, then carrying on. We learned to treat these special places as “texture” that added to our experience as we wandered.

Family sitting on boat at sunset

04Region-hopping over country-hopping

Resist the urge to see more than one country in a short amount of time. Fast travel can actually feel quite slow when you keep your movements within a single country. We visited nine different places in South Africa over the span of two months, for instance, and rather than feel crazed, it felt like immersion. So many different angles from which to understand a single nation’s many facets, cultural and physical. We could dive deep and process what we were learning as we moved—unlike when we bounced from country to country in quick succession (four days in Denmark, five days in Germany, four days in Norway—you get the idea), skimming the surface and finding it impossible to differentiate one cobblestoned place from another.

There are ways to cover a lot of ground without compromising the joys and deeper meaning slow travel can deliver. While our gap year itinerary was ambitious, it was still slow in all the right ways. In hindsight, years later, our experience seems epic, not fleeting.

For more inspiration, read Margaret Bensfield Sullivan’s book: Following the Sun: Tales (and Fails) From a Year Around the World With Our Kids (2023). This account of the year she and her husband quit their jobs, took their young children out of school, and left the U.S. to travel around the world, visiting 29 countries across six continents, will leave you inspired to get out there and do it the right way!

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About the author

Margaret Bensfield Sullivan is the author of Following the Sun: Tales (and Fails) From a Year Around the World With Our Kids (2023). Before her big adventure, she spent nearly two decades in brand marketing. She was a partner at WPP’s marketing agency Group SJR, where she designed storytelling campaigns on behalf of clients like TED, Target, Disney, and USAID. Today she is a writer and illustrator living with her family in New York City.

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