FOMO: Fear of Missing Out

I went to Nuremberg.  It was the third time I have visited.  And I regret it.

I hope you stuck with me into the second paragraph, because I want to explain.  I don’t regret GOING to Nuremberg.  In fact if you read here and here and here you will know that I love the city and find it’s history fascinating.  Which is a lot considering I have barely even been there.  I regret how I went to Nuremberg.

On my first visit, we stayed for 26 hours.  The second time we were there for 8.  And this time, only 6.  So while I could tell you have been 3 times, I have yet to spend even 48 hours there.  And that is just sad, because Nuremberg deserves so much better.  At the end of the day, there is a love hate relationship between being glad for what I have seen, but being disappointed with how I approached it.  I don’t regret that I have visited, but I regret how.

I won’t claim there is a right or wrong way to travel.  And I’m not here to scold you if your way and my way don’t line up.  But I will share some advice and insight from what I have learned in the last decade of exploring the globe.

FOMO will eat you alive.  And it can drive you to do the wrong things.

It is so easy when traveling to develop a fear of missing out.  Your vacation days are travel dollars are previous, and you want to get the very most out of them.  You look on a map and realize you are “only 1 hour away from [insert city name here], it would be a shame to miss out on going there,” or “who knows if we will ever return to [insert city name here], it be a shame if we didn’t see [every single monument and museum of note].”  Chances are, if you are a traveler, at some point (or many points) something that has crossed your mind.

So here is what happens.

You lean into saying yes. and yes. and yes. and yes again.  You go town-to-town, spending 1 night in each city.  Spending every evening and morning packing and unpacking.  Spending hours getting lost, only to eat at that one crappy restaurant build for tourists right next to the hotel.  Your precious hours in the city are ticking down as you get oriented.  You make an aggressive plan, causing you to panic or sprint from site-to-site, muttering under your breath about the long lines that are ruining your ability to make it to that one last place before it closes.  And when you don’t, your day has been ruined, or you feel like you have been robbed of something.  Because now you will never see that one thing that was absolutely crucial to visiting [insert location here].

This may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not far from the truth.  When you say yes to everything a few thing tend to happen:

  • You will always be a tourist, and never a traveller.  Travelling at such a fast pace means you will only ever see the highlights of a place, and rarely get to know the true essence of a town.  You will focus only on the key tourist attractions.  Because you are in such a hurry to see “more” places, you will never fully see any of them.  And that’s a shame.
  • You will feel rushed at every site you do see.  Your patience will be wane, lines will become more frustrating, and crowds more tiring.  You will likely eat bad cafeteria food in museum restaurants, to save time to you can rush to the next location.  The the spontaneous and authentic in between moments and experiences have no place in your day.
  • In order to make it work you will spend too much money on tourist oriented bus tours or quirky tourist train, that give you the photo ops you crave, with minimal substance.  While there are some great tours and guides in every city, the ones that get you to the most “big” places in this shortest time generally overcharge and underdeliver.  More often then not, this is the least authentic way to see a city.    *please note: these are not terrible for all people in all cities or all circumstances.  Context matters of course.  
  • You waste time.  Moving from city-to-city, whether on a road trip in North America, or by train through Europe, means you spend a lot of time in transit, packing and unpacking, checking in and checking out.  You also spend a lot of time getting oriented every time you arrive somewhere new; as a consequence you tend to stick to your hotel and tourist neighbourhoods.  Your precious travel hours get used up on things like trying to fit your toiletries back into your suitcase for the 9th time in 2 weeks or trying to figure out which way is North, instead of checking out the best 3 coffee shops in Le Marais.  I can promise you, the latter is a better use of your time.
  • You burn out.  Trying to see too many places turns each day into a game of strategically maximizing every minute.  If you have only 6 hours in Nuremberg, you aren’t going to waste them at a sit down restaurant, or taking a stroll in the park.  You go from site, to site, to fast food, to site.  The go-go-go sprint leaves you exhausted and sore.  Your feet and [insert body part here] hurt, you fall asleep at inopportune times, and, I’m not saying that I do this, but one may lose their patience, get cranky, and start to snap at their loved ones.

I can tell you this, because I have done all these things.  I have fallen asleep (twice) during broadway shows because my day was so jam packed that I was burnt out and couldn’t keep my eyes open. I have limped across bridges because after the 4th day of walking 25 km, my feet just couldn’t take it anymore.  I have broken down and eaten chicken nuggets for dinner in the middle of Europe, taken an overpriced and underwhelming tourist tour, eaten bad cafeteria food and been angry because I missed something that, at the moment, seemed “essential”.  I have also spent less than 24 hours in Luxembourg City, Brussels, Salzburg, Trier, Lisbon, Krakow, Amiens, Louisville, Omaha, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Ottawa, and, of course, Nuremberg (and some of those decisions I regret, while others my 1 day stop was more than enough. That’s right,  I’m talking about you, Lisbon).

Originally I didn’t think it was a big deal.  It was one more place that I have “seen.”  Checked off the “list.”  But after we started spending longer periods in a city, we started to unearth the real beauty of traveling.  It wasn’t until our third time in Paris that we visited a market.  We also started to work our way through the “top 10 cups of coffee in the city” (FYI: best cup in the city is from this little Italian place not that far back from Shakespeare & Co). On day 5 in Rome we found a cat sanctuary.  It was our 3rd trip to Amsterdam where we found De Foodhallen and had the best cheese bread imaginable.  It was on day 3 in Budapest that I watched the most amazing sunset, and Day 4 in Prague were I got the perfect night shots of the Charles Bridge.   Trying to “see” everything and “get” everywhere was the thing that was preventing us from “experiencing” anything. We realized that FOMO drives your decision making you often end up with a trip that is wide and shallow opposed to rich and deep.  And we aim to change that.

We still make mistakes. But with each trip we learn more and become better more seasoned travellers.  So here are a couple of the rules we try and abide by:

  • 3 nights.  When possible, we try to spend a minimum of 3 nights in a place we are going.  Having 2 full days to see things, plus having 1 night/morning that isn’t an arrive or departure day, lets you experience the city without worry of transitioning in or out of it.  After getting oriented and checking off the big ticket items, you want time for the stuff that you didn’t plan for.  To explore, enjoy a great meal, savour a few, and take the long way back to your hotel.  Or to indulge something you never expected or planned for.  If you can swing it, buy yourself a Day 4 (or, for even bigger cities (looking at you London, Rome and Paris), consider 5, 6 or 7).  This is where the magic happens.  Once you are past the main sites, you get to see the small gems that never would have made the short list on an aggressive itinerary.  You get to understand how people live, and what the culture of a place is.  You get to start travelling.  And, you get to slow down.  You get a good nights sleep.  You have a long lunch, or late dinner.  You become fully present to another way of life.  Day 4 is when you start to see the destination differently.  Cities stop being amusement park attractions and start being living breathing entities of their own.
  • Letting go.  Any city really worth going to, is worth returning to.  If we miss something, or if we loved it and are sad that we didn’t get to see it all, that’s good!  Must be a great place.  And when that happens, we plan to go back (someday). But in the meanwhile, it is important to let it go.  We have to be grateful for what we experienced, and not sad for what we missed.  Traveling is not a process of checking things off a list.  A checkmark has no meaning.  Traveling is about experiences.  And hopefully, rich, meaningful experiences.  So make sure the experiences you are having are ones that you are embracing fully.  And if you miss something, it is okay.  You haven’t lost anything.  Savour the memories you have gained, and not the ones you seem to think you have lost.  Those were never your memories to begin with.
  • Big Day, Little Day.  This one is totally stolen from a colleague, after my first trip to London.  My desire to include as MANY things as possible drove our crew to exhaustion, and my feet to the brink of death (hyperbole for effect).  After that, I had to reconsider how I was planning things.  While my trip still has more “big days” that others, I have tried to find a better balance of alternating bigger busy days with many moving parts, places, or itinerary items, with littler days, where we see less, or start later, or finish earlier.  In fact, some times my “little day” is nothing, with just a list of “suggestions” for us to pick from the day of or night before.  Any one who knows me, knows I love me a plan.  But planning for a day with no plan is the kind of plan I require to ensure the over-planning doesn’t ruin a well planned vacation.

So there it is for you.  A few thoughts and opinions for you to take and/or reject as per your heart’s desire.

What rules guide you when you plan your travel adventures?  Is there any place you spent too little time?  Has FOMO every backfired on you?

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