Does “Meaningful Travel” Mean Anything Anymore?


We hear the phrase “meaningful travel” being used an awful lot as of late. Travel bloggers write it, education abroad providers have coined it as a slogan, colleges’ and universities’ global education offices slap it onto their brochures, and, yes, the term even gets tossed around in the Melibee hive as well. It has become a hot catch phrase and marketable tagline in international education; the new “global citizen”, if you will. And much like “global citizenship”, it is a term that is largely open to interpretation.

I was asked on a recent job application to detail my experience in “meaningful travel”. Looking at the phrase through new eyes led to the following questions swirling around in my head:

  • Meaningful to whom?
  • Is it referring to personal development, benefitting the host community, or both?
  • What about travel in your own country, state, or even local region, does that count?
  • Does it refer to travel done through a program or with a group? Can solo travel be meaningful too?
  • Is it more than a self-serving term?
  • Does meaningful travel end upon re-entry, or can it continue, or even begin, through reflection?
  • Is it simply a way to distinguish cultural and educational travel from tourist travel?

When I reflected on my own meaningful travel, I realized that I considered so many, if not most/all of my experiences to be meaningful. I consider moving to another state to attend college to be a meaningful travel experience. Studying, interning, and volunteering abroad… all meaningful. Working in the field of international education and cultural exchange is a way of facilitating and strengthening meaningful travel. If I consider many of my experiences meaningful, I’m sure most people categorize their own travels as meaningful too. So if everyone thinks their travel experiences are meaningful, does this term become null?

Sarah explores Morocco.
Sarah exploring in Morocco.

Perhaps we should think of what the phrase does not embody. When trying to discern what I think of as NOT meaningful travel, my list actually looked a lot like the “Bad Abroad” examples given on Some characteristics I would attribute to non-meaningful travel include being glued to your camera/smartphone, using social media too much, not venturing off the beaten path, making no real attempt at communicating with locals, voyeurism, and being concerned solely with how much shopping you can accomplish.

To me and I am sure most people in the field, “meaningful travel” is interacting with other cultures, people, and places with thoughtfulness, openness, respect, and curiosity. When I travel, I try, to the best of my ability and resources, to experience life as a local. As such, I have experienced meaningful travel in the souqs of Marrakech, in a cozy pub on the west coast of Ireland, visiting a small town in my home state of Maryland, in a cafe in Old San Juan, and will continue to do so in many places that I have not yet explored.

Share with us your reaction to this term being used so frequently. How does your organization/university distinguish it from other types of travel? I would love to hear what you consider to be “meaningful travel”.

sarah dilworth

About the Author: Sarah Dilworth is a travel lover from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States whose passion for experiencing other cultures has taken her to over two dozen countries on three continents so far. She earned a Masters Degree in Intercultural Studies from Dublin City University in 2010. Sarah has worked in the nonprofit sector facilitating cultural exchange, primary and secondary education, and is a member of the Melibee hive. She currently lives in South America but has also resided in Ireland and is about to be met with re-entry as she and her family return to the US. 


One comment

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for this post, I didn’t realize that “meaningful travel” was such a prevalent buzzword. I agree it is a buzzword, but only if you use it without thinking (like corporate buzzwords such as “taking things to the next level” or “key accountabilities”). I agree that it is largely open to interpretation, but each person will have his or her own definition.

    “Meaningful” does not necessarily mean “good” or “happy”, but something that makes a lasting impression on a person (in this case travel).

    If truly you find fulfillment in using your selfie stick or drinking your face off in Cancun then power to ya. Who am I to say otherwise?

    The trick is to try different experiences, and strive to find something that really is meaningful to you personally. That’s what we do at my website, The Travel Type. We want to help people figure out what it is that makes travel meaningful, so they can go out and get it!

    We’re also finding our own meaningful travel along the way.

    Whether it’s overused or not, I believe meaningful travel does exist!

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