The Science of Travel. Part I.

The Science of Travel. Part I.

Everyone can travel…or can’t they? The current state of play seems to prove that literally everyone has enough skills to travel around the world and instruct others how to do this later on. I am pretty sure that you read at least once an article that was inaccurate, lousy and just irritating. In recent years, more and more poor travel writing contributed to the increasing number of misconceptions related to travel. Instead of complaining about the poor quality of travel writing I’ve decided to publish a series of articles in which simple but scientifically proven facts will shed some light on travels as a human activity.

Eventually, here is no need to reinvent the wheel every time you travel. After all the science should explain and help us understanding the reality.

I am fully aware that not every traveler is an academic. On the contrary, the major part of the contemporary travelers comes from the non-academic backgrounds. In fact, a variety within the traveling community is outstanding. Not everybody has time, patience and knowledge to go through the existing academic literature on tourism and travel. It happens that I am both: an academic and a traveler. Here is a short review of what sociology, psychology, and urban studies say about traveling today. It might help you to understand the reality of travel.

The first post discusses three basic issues related to travel: what defines a tourist, what is a travel, and why anticipation is important.

Voluntary action

It is not uncommon that the scientific body finds it difficult to agree on definitions. Tourism as an academic discipline is very young. No matter how polarized the opinion of the academics are there is a basic consensus: we are talking about tourism when there is a voluntary act of traveling.

This is important. In contrast to a migrant, forced migrant, refugee, expat, or asylum seeker, a tourist always WANTS to travel. Work or business related travel does not count as tourism, even though some part of the journey might look like a travel (i.e. taking pictures).


Although nowadays it is possible to travel virtually through the digital media, there is a consensus that the actual travel demands a physical MOVE from place A to place B. You can sit in your chair and watch TV for your whole life and know more about this world than any traveler, but this will never make you one.

Science knows a phenomenon when an expert on the particular country or culture never went to the site in person. In fact, quite a few wise man never went to a place that they were the experts at. Some of them stated they were afraid of being disappointed while some others appreciated the comfort of their own homes too much. You don’t need to visit a place to become an expert, but you need to move to become a traveler.

Science of Travel


A considerable part of the travel happens in our minds BEFORE the actual journey. We live in a world where literally every site on earth has been photographed and made available to watch online. Any place saw in advance in hundreds of photos through somebody else’s eyes tricks our minds.

It creates a huge excitement and expectations. Some of them are totally unrealistic which often turns the highly anticipated travel into a disappointment. Science says that our previous knowledge about the place we visit influences our perception. In other words, what you know before you go influences what you see when you go. This issue will be developed further in next posts.

If you found these few information useful, please leave your comment below. Read the next part of this series, The Science of Travels Part II, focused on the history of travels (pilgrimage, the Grand Tour and mass tourism).

Disclosure: all posts ‘The Science of Travel’ are based on scientific literature. The authors of the books and articles included in these posts were s follows: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Eric Cohen, Chris Rojek, John Urry, Tim Edensor, Judith Adler, and a few others. Any comments are more than welcome!

About the author

I get easily fascinated with people and places. I am passionately curious. I get often seduced with the beauty of nature. Blue sky, pure water, white snow and endless horizon seams to be enough to make me happy.

View all articles by Agata Mleczko
  • Catherine Sweeney

    I have to admit that at first I had a negative reaction to any kind of attempt to define and differentiate travelers versus tourists, etc. The reasons being that in the travel blogger community, I’ve read criticisms by some of others who just happen to travel in a different way or for different reasons than they do. Travel is a very personal thing and everyone should take from it want they want and want they can. However, this is all very interesting from an academic perspective and I’m looking forward to more articles in your series.

    • Yes, Cathy, you are right. The major part of our lives is our private business but this does not mean that science is not interested in. Let’s say your saving habits. It is a very private and personal matter but the economy as a science is very much interested in the way you save your money in order to understand the process. Bringing the kids is also very personal and still there is a huge branch of science called education that helps us understand the process. For me the science is all about helping us in understanding our reality. And travel is one of the human actions that the science do research on, analysis and makes conclusions.

  • Megan Claire

    Interesting post coming at this from a scientific point of view Agata. It’s interesting to see the definition of what we are broken down and compartmentalized. It’s definitely interesting for me on the anticipation front , because Ive started struggling with anticipation after we began to travel more and more. I guess you could call it “wanderlust fatigue” – you travel so much that your brain becomes kind of numb to new experiences and it dilutes what it should normally feel like.

    So interesting concept of whether it’s still travel if there’s not the anticipation.

    • Thanks Megan. Anticipation will be further discussed along with the visual consumption and overstimulation. Keep coming back every Wednesday! Cheers!

  • Gemma

    Any place saw in advance in hundreds of photos through somebody else’s eyes tricks our minds – this is so true. I booked a trip to Vietnam solely from images of Halong Bay – turns out Halong Bay was awash with litter and not the idyllic pictures from tourists magazines and online. Sapa Valley was the real winner! Interesting post.

    • Yes, watching the pictures before you go changes your perception significantly.

  • Jools Stone

    Def agree that anticipation is almost the bets bit – that and first arriving! Int point about travel being a choice, which of course not everyone has the luxury of being able to make, i.e refugees. Nice, thoughtful post!

    • Indeed, this is the reason why migrants and refugees are not treated by the science as tourists. They have no choice. Sociology decided on this when they put travels into a basket called leisure rather than a necessity.

  • Miranda P

    I love how you’ve taken probably some very thick academic texts on travel and tourism and simplified them. I’m really interested to read your further thoughts and findings on how what we know before we go influences our experience. At its base, this is aperture simple notion but in today’s world more complicated because of the mass exposure most places receive and how you an Google almost anything. Excited to read this rather informed sounding series of posts :)

    • Thank you Miranda. I hope the next episodes will not disappoint you. It is always good to reflect for a while on an activity that we perform and look at it from the different perspective, isn’t it?

  • Really interesting article, Agata! I look forward to the rest of the articles in the series. It’s amazing how much we can know about a place without having even been there…I remember some friends of mine were going to Thailand, and I was like, “Are you going here? or here?” and named places that I’d read about in blogs or seen pictures of…they asked me, “Have you been to Thailand?” Well, no I hadn’t. They were surprised about how much I already seemed to know about the country having never been! I find nowadays when I learn about a place and want to go there, I try not to look at too many photos or learn too much about it because I still want there to be some element of surprise.