Without a Passport: Is Traveling Domestically Really Traveling?

In all my jaunts to locales within the United States, never have I considered myself to actually be traveling in the true sense of the word. I go on vacation, I go away for long weekends, I visit family. But travel? Not unless I’ve got my passport with me.

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Then I overheard someone ask a friend of mine if he was going to be around for the Thanksgiving holidays. “No, I’m traveling,” he replied. Traveling? I thought to myself. He’s going to New Jersey.

Stamp Collection
Stamp Collection © hjl

A few months later, I began preparing for my own upcoming trip. Destination: Colorado.

I am simply going on a short vacation to visit family, I thought. Or am I? As I surfed the internet flight sites, the snippet of conversation I’d heard months ago pops up in my mind. My friend had simply gone on a half-day road trip across state lines and considered himself to be traveling. I’m flying across the country, from endless beaches and rolling green hills to miles high mountains that rise out of the sandy desert. I’ll be experiencing not only different sights but different people, different lifestyles … perhaps a different culture of sorts. As I prepare to take a several hour flight only to land right back on American soil, I ask myself, “Is this traveling?”

As I prepare to take a several hour flight only to land right back on American soil, I ask myself, “Is this traveling?”

While studying in Germany several years ago, I jumped on a train almost every weekend. Destination: Anywhere in Europe. I had no doubt I was traveling then, even though my apartment was just hours by land from wherever I ended up. Back home again, though, when traversing my own territory, I’ve never considered myself really to be traveling. No matter how far I go within the borders of the U.S., I’ve always seen myself as going on simple trips or vacations. These differ from travel in that I’m going away not to learn and experience and grow in the world but rather to relax, to get away, to visit people.

I decide to delve into the dictionary definitions of “travel” and “vacation.” To travel, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is:

“To journey through or over.”

… or:

“to withstand relocation successfully.”

The same dictionary defines vacation as:

“a scheduled period during which activity is … suspended.”

… and:

“a respite or a time of respite from something.”

Not only are the two words assigned different concepts in print but also, I think, in the minds of most people who are serious about exploring the earth. If this is the case, I think, perhaps we should reconsider. Maybe short domestic jaunts should be given more significance.

Solo Woman Travel

Traveling Domestically Does Take Us Different Places …

No matter where we live, if we travel just a few hours we’ll arrive at sights that don’t fill our eyes every day. Even if our destination is similar to what we temporarily left behind – if we go from one small town to another small town, from one city to another city – that destination is unique and offers at least a little opportunity to experience something new. The greater differences that exist when we travel somewhere utterly unlike our homes – jumping from countryside to large city, from desert to beach – can allow us to live a very different existence for a short while. No matter that our journey doesn’t take us to a foreign land, we are, in a sense, still traveling.

Sometimes we take trips within the confines of our own country not for the purpose of relaxing on a vacation but to experience what our destination holds, just as we do when we leave the country. Maybe these trips can be classified as travel too. What is a camping trip to Yellowstone Park if not to experience beauty and wildlife unseen elsewhere? Why do millions of people fly into New York each year if not to be a part of a city unlike any other on earth? The U.S., indeed most countries, is large enough and diverse enough that even when we travel within their bounds we can wind up in an area very foreign to us.

Visit a domestic locale that differs very greatly from our own, and we might even feel that we’ve stepped into somewhat of another culture. People’s dress can vary greatly from region to region, from the fashion panicked East Coast to the more relaxed dress of the Mid West. As we travel from place to place, it is easy to see that the ways of the locals vary quite wildly. A great contrast can be seen between the fast paced, aggressive behavior of New Yorkers and the exquisitely polite and laid back attitudes of people living in the large and open Western states.

… But …

At home there’s no experiencing the awesome wow moments that almost stop us in our tracks when we realize we are walking down streets thousands of years old. We’re never completely surrounded by a different language, leaving us to communicate only through expressions and gestures. We rarely have eye opening exchanges with people about how our ways of life, our attitudes, and behaviors differ from theirs.

What Do You Think?

Does traveling within our home country carry the same weight as traveling abroad? We journey across the world to step out of our own tiny corners and experience all that foreign cultures can teach us. But can an education about people, lifestyles and cultures be found, to the same real and rich extent, within our own borders?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

  1. In college, my buddies and I always did long road trips all over the US. Visiting new cities or parks and sites- all of which gave me that “wow moment”. Now I’ve been traveling South America for almost 4 months, and it’s made me want to see more of the States; everything I left behind so I can learn more about my own culture. So, yes, I believe traveling domestically definitely carries as much weight as traveling abroad.

  2. Funny, I have been thinking over this very same subject for a while now. The more engaged I have become with twitter travelers, the more I realize how travel is ‘loosely’ defined as leaving one’s home country. Up until now, I have spent most of my life searching out and exploring all that America has to offer. And as I plan for my upcoming jaunt around the world, I started to wonder if my adventures domestically qualify as traveling. Even though my explorations were not merely long weekends, but months spent living out of a car moving from place to place with no set itinerary or destination. I’m sure, like everything else, both sides can be argued, like the on-going tourists vs. travelers debate. Maybe it’s not about how far you go in miles, but how far you allow yourself to travel outside of your comfort zone. And for some, just leaving the confines of their own little world is far enough.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view!

  3. Of course it is traveling.

    Culture isn’t the only thing to discover while traveling. Is the everglades the same as the Rocky Mountains? Is the Mohave Desert the same as Alaska?

    Not everyone lives in the United States either. This is a huge country. Domestic travel in the US is totally different than domestic travel in the Netherlands.

  4. I think that worrying about the distinction is, frankly, pretentious and self-conscious. I’ve taken trips halfway across the world where I never left my comfort zone, and I’ve traveled to some of the most mind-bending places on Earth just 300 miles from my house. Worrying about what counts as what is just as empty as calling yourself a “world traveler” instead of a “tourist” or an “alpinist” instead of a “hiker.”

  5. I totally think it’s traveling! I remember I traveled cross country Europe and everyone I was meeting, mainly Europeans and Australians, were talking to me about different places in the US. I felt so out of place, and it’s my country they were talking about! After that I TRAVELED the US for 2 years. And every city, state was different and amazing.

    You know, the States should have a local passport:) We certainly have enough to see!

  6. absolutely still counts as travel. as mentioned above, our country is huge, spanning a variety of landscapes, climates, personalities, histories, etc. there are heaps and heaps of places to check out in our own backyard, ranging from big cities to small towns to open wilderness and most of the time it’s best to visit more than once or twice to get a real feel.

    plus, there are at least a few americans out there that think washington borders california, oregon is where arizona is, and ask, “what state is delaware in?” geography aside, there’s so much history about our country in general, as well as different regions, states, cities, etc. that seems to be largely unknown among the people that call the US home (including myself).

    thanks for writing and glad to see folks in support of travel at home

  7. Absolutely it’s traveling. You can always get national park passport if that will make it more fun. :) The US has so much to offer. I think for any person in any country big or small, travel domestically has as much weight as flying to other countries. I live in Thailand over half my life but I have yet to explore it all.

  8. I think it depends on where you come from.
    Hailing from Chennai(Madras), Tamil Nadu, India, just a 80km trip north would land me up in another state (Andhra Pradesh) where they speak a tongue I can’t understand, a culture that is lot different from ours and so on and so forth.
    Every one of my trip here in India is a constant discovery and re-discovery.
    So, for me back here, travelling within my home country is ‘travelling’ for sure.

  9. Absolutely it is traveling. Just traveling in a different way. The things we immediately see or feel when we cross a border (language, money, food) are not apparent when you stay in country. But that just forces us to look deeper for whatever meaning we can/want to pull out of our new location.

  10. So it is unanimous! – so far, anyway. Interesting. Thanks a lot for commenting, everyone.

  11. Maybe. I think it’s all in the attitude, like you imply in your article. If you think it’s travelling, and go with open eyes, then yes. If you go “just” to visit family and discover nothing new, then it isn’t.

  12. I am guilty of the same thoughts. I rarely get excited about domestic travel, nor do I consider it proper “travel.” After reading your post, I find myself wondering why not. I have a long list of places I want to visit, but almost none of them are here in the States.

    I think I should take a bit more time to explore my own country, however, in summary…I still see the distinction between domestic ‘vacations’…and international ‘travel.’ The distinction, as Linda mentioned…is probably only in attitude.

  13. The real journey is an inward one, as generally agreed above. That said, most seem to seek new experiences and personal growth from their travels, e.g. “leaving one’s comfort zone,” as someone said earlier. Although its entirely possible to achieve this in one’s own backyard, I’d argue that it’s more probable to achieve it abroad.

  14. Thanks again for your comments.

    I’ve known people who intend to explore all of the U.S. before venturing to other countries. Sometimes, though, something unexpected occurs and they never get to see the rest of the world. This is another thing that’s caused me to place so much weight on international travel. It’s something you might not always be able to do, due to health, finances, etc., so you should get it while you can. Traveling locally, on the other hand, is so much cheaper and easier it doesn’t seem as valuable.

  15. Well, I altogether agree with you. First, we don’t value our country as much as we must do, probably because of the geographic proximity, which in my opinion seems the worst enemy for a domestic tourism or any kind of this trip. Unfortunately, as human beings, we have a tendency to disqualify what we have near us, like a barrier we create and we’re not aware of. For example, here in Brazil, where I live and study Tourism and obviously where I jaunt as well, I am always complaining how Brazilians don’t go on a trip very often within the country, due to many reasons, especially financial problems and lack of motivation. Though these reasons, I reckon it’s about the opportunity that we don’t share a lot, because if we did so, we wouldn’t miss it.

  16. For the most part, I equate traveling with adventure, with “adventure” being an extremely broad term. Therefore, a trip to the grocery store can for me, on occasion, be adventurous. There are people living remarkably different lives than mine in remarkably different surroundings not more than 100 miles away. If I considered myself to be traveling only when I pulled the passport out of the safe, I’d be a miserably disappointed individual.

  17. I have been on the road in the U.S. for over 6 months now. I can truly say that it is traveling in an honest manner.

    If you take the whole of the U.S. you have many different environment regions and even cultural regions throughout. While they may not speak a different language (some accents may qualify) it is a different experience.

    A Mainer vagabonding through the U.S. is like being a Brit vagabonding through Europe. You experience a definite richness of experience that you don’t get at home.

    It’s not a trip to Bali or Nepal but it is still exceptionally valuable travel. It’s quite easy to forget how much there is to see domestically and to reify international travel over domestic travel.

  18. After graduating college last year I spent 5 months as a nanny in Mississippi and am now on my 4th month as a nanny in Indiana. This is all so that I can make money to “travel” and yet, the way I feel about the time I spent in Mississippi is, in some ways, similar to the way I feel about the 3.5 months I spent in Romania a few years ago. I think what most makes me feel like I really am traveling, right now, in the states is the feeling of going to an unfamiliar place and watching it grow familiar. Maybe, in traveling, we don’t always achieve that, but when I think of traveling that’s what I think of and that’s what makes me feel like traveling right now. Hope that makes sense.

  19. I have traveled all over Europe, Mexico and Japan and always considered myself a traveler. Recently, I took a road trip through the deep south, purposely getting off the interstate and delving into the small towns in between the major cities – what an extraordinary experience. In addition, the richness of culture that exists in places like Memphis, New Orleans and the surrounding area of Acadia, the hidden coast of Florida and towns like Apalachiacola all contributed to the experience.

    Remnants of Katrina along the gulf coast and the lower 9th ward in NOLA made strong statements on the failures of our government and the racial divisions that still exist.

    My current job takes me all over the midwest and I am always thrilled at the discoveries I make in places like Fargo, Kansas City, Louisville, and even Detroit. I seek out the local cuisines and love to explore aspects of each city that make them distinct.

    The plague of strip malls and “lifestyle communities” all contribute to the reasons why we write domestic travel off but getting away from these places and digging deep into what makes a place unique will reveal wonderful experiences.

  20. Came across this as I prepared for a trip to Africa in a few weeks. As exciting as that is, I feel inclined to respond to this with a resounding, YES!, traveling within the US is travel. I live in New Orleans and believe me, baby, the tourists coming in from other communities around the country are traveling amidst some cultural experiences they have NEVER encountered!

    People will often make fun of Americans who have no passport, but think about how easy it is for Europeans to get from country to country, as compared to getting around from state to state here. Is there really any difference in their travels, aside from English being spoken?

    There is the traveler who travels in order to say he has traveled. And then there is the traveler who just travels.

  21. Definitely the U.S. varies wildly from region to region. I’ve lived in five states, with no two really at all alike in landscape, indigenous cuisine and, most interestingly, attitudes, habits and lifestyles of the people. Getting to know different areas in the States really allows you to see and understand life from the vantage point of those originally from the area.

    Still, I think maybe it’s human nature to feel that what is farther away is more interesting and exciting than what is easily accessible and close by.

  22. I have traveled out side the usa some, and along with some of my friends…we always viewed the usa as an adventure to be traveled. It is larger than Europe and in some places our states are larger than many contiers. With some many languages and cultures, with english only being the main one…it has always in my mind ben traveling.

  23. Yes, indeed it is.

    Having said that, I’d say yes, you do have point there in mentioning of different environment, different culture, dealing with discomforts etc. Therefore, IMHO there is a difference in travelling locally and domestic travel.

    Further, it also depends on the diversity of the country. I am from India and I can affirm that this is the country which offers such a broad spectrum in all the fields, geology, cultural diversity, language variations In fact, there are a multitude of regional languages. Coming to flora and fauna – almost entire spectrum is there. Areas range from -40 deg Celcius to +46 deg. celcius. We have beaches, deserts, high snow clad mountains, glaciers, forests and such diverse eco environment. Accordingly there is a vast range of Zoological diversity. Social, educationsl and economic diversity is also highly prominent.

    Therefore if you are considering variations and diversity the wide spectrum countries like India and US both offer destinations which are significantly different than your Home location and thus I’d rightly consider the domestic travel in such counties a real travel.

  24. Silly, i thought the first time i read it. Then thinking about…you see i live in zimbabwe, i am italian and funny enough, the more i am in africa and the more when i am back in italy i visit around my beautiful country. I think travelling is just travelling, with or without a passaport, even if is out of town for 5 hours…in my opinion is still travelling.

  25. On May 1st, I’m leading a bus trip for travel writers. Our destination? The next county over. We all live in Erie County in Upstate New York, home of Buffalo. Our bus trip will take us through rural Wyoming County, population 40,000. We’ll see sights we have never seen, meet new people, explore many roads for the first time.

    It is certainly traveling as much as Steinbeck’s adventure or Kerouac’s wanderings were.

  26. I can see your point Sabina. But I think you’re misguided to judge domestic travel as seemingly less important. I think it is very important to know one’s own country before one travels to other countries. Also, if you take the US as the example – there is so much variety within our borders, even within some cities and states themselves – you can experience almost as much diversity within our borders as you can by traveling in Europe or Asia. The one point I will happily concede is that no, the US is not even close to as old as France or China, etc. But does that lessen the value of what can be learned during US travel? I would say, no. Also, not every US trip for me is a vacation. Not at all.

  27. I definitely think it’s traveling. Traveling around the US when I was first in college is what got me hooked on traveling to begin with. It’s certainly not the same, but the differences from city to city and state to state and even within one city give you a chance to experience something “different,” which, imo, is the essence of travel.

  28. I think it does, but then I am Australian, and travelling around Aus is always so different. Whish is just like the USA, so it totally counts!
    I mean, some people don’t ever leave their hometown, or their home state, so crossing the country should definitely count!

  29. I have had this exact conversation with other ‘travelers’ on numerous occasions. We (in the US), DO travel. We visit new cities, go to the mountains, the beach, etc. Each new location is a new experience.

    I travel all throughout the US for work. Living in a new city for 3 months at a time. I explore each new place exactly as I would a new country. I endulge in the local foods, the local activities, and the local people. Each place throughout the US is a unique experience.

    If I as an American go to Yellowstone to explore is it any different than someone from Italy going? It’s all the same….

  30. If you don’t have any “wow” moments when traveling domestically, then you’re probably doing it wrong…

  31. I travel in country a lot, and if you thunk that domestic travel is not real traveling, you’ve never been through the delta of Mississippi. Or the wide open spaces of Montana. Where you can see so far it hurts your eyes. I very rarely use the interstates as I find that the true flavor of a place lies in the byways of a place. And that’s domesti or forien travel

  32. Is traveling domestically really traveling?

    Hell no. Leave the country I’d you want to travel. Go some where where the local language isn’t English.

  33. I travel all over the world, and I travel all over the US. But my favorite place to travel is from my couch to my kitchen. It all counts.

  34. I live in Erie County in Western New York. On May 12 i’m leading my Fourth Annual Travel Writing and Photography Bus Trip to rural Wyoming County, the county right next to Erie County. We’ll visit farms and shops, see some scenery, stop at wonderful book store, find lunch at a roadside tavern and generally enjoy ourselves. We’ll never be more than 30 miles from home. Check us out on Facebook at Rick Ohler’s Right Field Writing Works.

  35. Good question.
    Taking a trip out of the country is always exciting, but depending on your attitude you will discover amazing things within your hometown or an hour’s drive away.

    I live in vacation paradise in Florida and it’s wonderful to play tourist in your own backyard.
    Nothing beats a trip where you get a chance to immerse yourself into another culture, but it can be soul satisfying to visit a friend and go see an interesting exhibit or botanical gardenor the local tourist attraction – if nothing else, I do love taking pics out in the country and just breathe a different air from time to time.
    It’s renewal and invogaration we generally seek and you will get it from both.

  36. Wait. To be pretentious, is “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.”

  37. I would count is as travel as I am relatively new to Australia and this year might not be able to do much international travel after already been to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Hawaii and India. So I have planned to visit various places around Australia for short term. Also I guess a lot of people think that domestic travel is not real travel and sometimes that is the reason they hardly explore their own country. India is a perfect example for this where every state seems like a new world completely. Different langage, culture, dressing style and food. I am Indian and when I go to a different state I myself feel like a foreigner.

    Nice article. Thanks a lot for sharing with us.

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