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Travel vs. Vacation

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Travel vs. vacation. What are the differences between these two ideas? I’ll briefly explain these ideas from an etymological perspective. That is, we’ll look at the origins of these two words when distinguishing their ideas from one another.


What is “travel”?

Travel is work.

The word “travel” comes from the French “travail,” suffering or to wear out, and is directly related to the English word of the same spelling, the modern Spanish word “to work” – trabajo -, and the modern French word for “to work” – travailler.

Etymologists trace the origin of the word “travel” all the way back to the Latin tripalium, a late Roman torture device. And any seasoned traveler will tell you that travel can be almost as unpleasant, pushing the limits of the body as much as the mind.

The word arrived in the English language with the meaning “to go on a journey” as early as the 13th century, but the word often held a connotation of difficulty and inconvenience. Combined were the idea of the physical act of moving from one place to another and also the idea of the perils, difficulties, and burdens associated with the actual movement. Imagine the amount of time, energy, resources, and work that it took our medieval ancestors to travel. Consider the number of pitfalls that our ancestors encountered along their way. What about the treacheries on the road like brigands, pirates, and storms? The fusion between journeys and difficulty go way back. Indeed, consider the ancient epics like The Odyssey, which involved heroes overcoming fantastic obstacles and hardships while on their adventures.

While modern technology and engineering have made travel easier and more comfortable, it is still a difficult endeavor that puts pressure on and stresses the body and mind.

Travel is work

Transport dush khorog
Along the Dushanbe–Khorugh Highway by wikipedia user Alj87
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What is a “vacation”?

The word “vacation” is almost as old as the word “travel.” One of the earliest examples of this word is found in Chaucer’s well-known The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer describes the Wife of Bath’s fifth husband, Jankyn, reading a book “When he had leisure and vacation / From other worldly occupation.” The implication here is clear. A vacation is a moment of relaxation. It is the very opposite of work in this early formulation. Indeed, it is precisely when there is no work.

This makes sense given the word vacation is related to words like vacuum, vacuous, and vacate. It refers to being free from something, being empty, or in a state of void. Vacations are thus defined as time when one is free from work, struggle, and laborious pursuits.

This appears to be the model upon which the major cruise lines operate: they take care of all the travel details from food, to drink, to planned activities. Everything is carefully orchestrated for you to think and worry as little as possible. The experience is like being in a bubble in which you float around, distracted, and amused. However, like bubbles, vacations are often filled with nothing substantial or weighty when compared to travel.

Vacations are thus defined as a time when one is free from work

Beer on the Beach

Which is best?

I do not intend to argue that having mindless fun is pointless or unimportant. To be sure, there is a time and a place for it. But travel is rewarding in that it gives the traveler an opportunity for growth from the intellectual and physical work one puts into it. I speculate that the more intellectual and physical work someone puts into travel, the greater opportunities of growth travel will yield (think about the benefits a rigorous service-learning trip provides, for example). Travel can be, according to the Roman writer and statesman Seneca, something transformative.

It is my opinion that we should approach visiting new parts of the world as travel, not as vacations, as alienating experiences that involve some type of struggle and result in some type of growth, and not as a vacuous, empty things in which thinking and doing less is the entire point.

Please tune in to my podcast, Travel Writing World, in which I have conversations with travelers who explore and create, who visit the world and cultivate meaning from it, who travel and grow.

You can subscribe to the podcast on whichever app you use to listen to podcasts. Simply search for Jeremy Bassetti or Travel Writing World.


Listen to the introductory episode


Intro music: Daantai – Peach


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