I visited two destinations on most people’s bucket lists — and it changed how I think about travel

The eastern entrance to Nairobi National Park, where big game roamed (outside the view of my minivan).

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The eastern entrance to Nairobi National Park, where big game roamed (outside the view of my minivan).
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Chris Weller/Business Insider

  • Trips to Iceland and Kenya have taught me a valuable lesson about the point of travel.
  • Instead of risking large sums of money on tourist grabs, the real value comes in the unplanned experiences.
  • I’m more likely to cherish the stories of people I met than the things I saw.

Over the past couple years, I had the opportunity to knock off two of the biggest items on most people’s bucket lists: seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland and going on African safari in Kenya.

The experiences were both letdowns, and I’ve gained some valuable wisdom from having suffered the disappointment.

Not what I saw when I traveled to Iceland.

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Not what I saw when I traveled to Iceland.
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Shutterstock/CoolKengzz

Trips of a lifetime aren’t always memorable

On paper, the idea of venturing north where everything is cast in grays and blues and purples, to gaze at some natural phenomena, is instantly enticing. So is the prospect of hunkering down in a rugged jeep, slathered in sunscreen, to witness the raw power of nature out on the plains.

But when I went to Iceland in early 2016, having paid a little over $50 for a Northern Lights tour, the clear skies that welcomed our bus ride quickly clouded over. Our bus and five others, each fully packed with eager tourists like myself, stopped at three different locations throughout the night. At each stop we hoped to catch glimpse of the Aurora.

We ended up waiting outside the bus for over an hour as frigid winds whipped us all about – our cameras at the ready, lens caps still attached. Eventually, I called it quits and got back on the bus. Even through the darkly tinted windows I could see the cloud cover, taunting us to no end.

Eighteen months later, I found myself at the eastern gate to Nairobi National Park, excited to go on the long-awaited African safari that I’d scheduled for the last day of my week-long trip (and paid $150 for). But what I’d expected to be a thrilling, bouncing ride through the Kenyan bush looked more like a fishing trip. There was lots of waiting with little payoff.

When all was said and done, we’d spent four hours in a minivan searching far and wide for something with sharp teeth or antlers. The animals were indeed there – we had caught glimpse of ostriches, impala, zebras, giraffes, and a lion feeding on something long-since neutralized. But the bulk of our time was spent searching, not gazing.

I had way more fun spending time in a local village, with residents, than I did on the big

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I had way more fun spending time in a local village, with residents, than I did on the big “bucket list” activity.
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Chris Weller/Business Insider

At one point, my tour guide was texting while driving. Apparently, the threat of an animal thrashing our vehicle was not something he considered imminent. I was disheartened.

The people are what make trips worthwhile

There are some caveats to these two trips – namely, I only had one day in Iceland free to see the Northern Lights; someone with more time would have a better shot. Same with the safari. Perhaps if I’d taken the afternoon safari instead of the early morning one, I’d have seen more animals.

But overall, I think about the point of major vacations differently now. I’d gone to those places putting all my emotional energy into the big, marquee plans I’d made. But in both cases, the memories I’ve come to savor the most are the chats with local shopkeepers and cab drivers, or the food I forced myself to try. They’re the little moments, the unstructured time to myself.

People have always told me – and I’ve always believed – that experiences, not souvenirs, are what make trips good. I’d now take it a step further to say trips are the best when those experiences aren’t manufactured. It’s why hole-in-the-wall joints almost always beat out the local landmark. Real people carry the stories you’ll tell your family when you’re back.

I also realized tourism is one of the biggest moneymakers for many of these countries. For the most part, people go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights. They go to Kenya to see lions and rhinos. The mere fact these countries will sell you tours is no indication you’re guaranteed to enjoy or remember the experience. Buying a ticket is gambling, even if you never step foot in a casino.

I’ve learned the richer way to travel is to see faraway places for what they actually are: a place other people call home. My late-night conversations about Kenyan politics, over tea with my host family, far surpassed anything I bought a ticket for. Likewise for the people I met in an Amsterdam hostel, with whom I shot pool and drank cheap beer; meanwhile, other tourists were waiting 90 minutes to pay $90 to tour the Van Gogh museum.

I understand some people just want to see the sights and will return home perfectly happy having never veered onto the beaten path. You can pay good money for big unknowns, such as safaris and scavenger hunts for bright green skies. But to my mind, the small unknowns are the ones truly worth discovering.