Have you ever been scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and felt a sharp pang of jealousy at a particularly gorgeous travel photo? What about feeling your heart sink when someone on your Facebook News Feed jets off to a place you’ve always longed to visit? Do you have a love-hate relationship with the bloggers you follow, devouring every word about their latest adventures while secretly resenting them just a little for having them in the first place?
There have been plenty of instances where I have scrolled through my FLFP Instagram feed (where I exclusively follow other travel bloggers and influencers
“Gosh, that photo is so incredible. Look at the lighting, how the colors have come out! I could never have gotten a shot like that. No wonder that account has so many more followers than I do.”
“I can’t believe she got to stay in a luxury resort in the Maldives. That place has been on my bucket list for ages!”
“Ugh! He’s so lucky to have seen sunshine in Prague when all we saw was rain for three whole days. My blog post looks terrible compared to this.”
Ugly thoughts, right? Most of the time, I’m embarrassed and even a little disgusted with myself for having them. Each of those thoughts shows a complete lack of gratitude for the traveling I’ve been incredibly fortunate to do. They also discount how hard I’ve worked to make Full Life, Full Passport valuable to readers and how much I have grown and improved over time.
Being constantly bombarded by amazing content from professional travelers, talented photographers, and great storytellers makes it easy to fall into the trap of doubting ourselves. It’s amazing how one carefully curated (and often heavily edited) highlight reel can make us feel immediately subpar. We worry that our photos will never be beautiful enough, our destinations exotic enough, our experiences authentic enough, our list of places visited long enough. In short, we feel that our travel will never be good enough. This lie can not only tarnish memories of previous vacations but also paralyze us when trying to plan future trips.
If you’re someone who loves or dreams about travel, the internet can be both your best friend and your worst enemy. On one hand, the level of connection is incredible. We can share stories, resources, and inspiration on a scale that was previously unimaginable. Travel on the whole has become more accessible than ever before.
On the other hand, this level of connection and visibility has brought about the strange side effect of competition. (Or, as my friend Riana so wonderfully put it, the “competitive nature of travel.”) Now, our experiences seem to be judged and valued based on how they appear relative to others’ on social media. Did you visit the right places? Did you get the best photos? Did you do something unique and mind-blowingly awesome that will set you apart? If we’re not careful, we start to evaluate the quality of our vacations – or even our lives – based on likes and comments rather than our own experiences taking them.
And this phenomenon isn’t limited to travel. Across the internet, billions of people are blogging and tweeting, pinning and sharing. We’re silently but constantly upping the ante for who has the tastiest recipes, the most organized home, the cutest and happiest kids, the best sense of style, the most flawless make-up techniques, the speediest half-marathon time, and more.
While I’m certain that much of this social media jockeying is done without any truly malicious intent, the overall effect cannot be denied. Of the utmost concern to me, unsurprisingly, is how social media has affected the way we plan, undertake, and later evaluate our own travel experiences. The more I participate in social media, the more ardently I believe that we cannot allow what we see online to define the structure and quality of our vacations.
In short, we can’t allow ourselves to be travel-shamed.
A lot of my most formative travel experiences would not fit into the mold of Instagram perfection. When I studied abroad in Ecuador and Peru in 2008, I was still deep in that phase of my life where I thought cargo capris were a flattering and functional fashion choice:
All four thousand photos from my first backpacking trip in 2010 were taken on an old point-and-shoot camera. The budget for my second backpacking trip in 2011 meant that I was sleeping in simple, modest guesthouses rather than Insta-worthy luxury resorts. I still tend to prioritize supportive sneakers over cute sandals when I know my number of steps wandering a European city will cross the
(Side note: If you’re the type of woman who loves getting dressed up for travel photo shoots, you do you, sister-friend! I will probably be jealously looking on, wishing I had your sense of style and pictures of myself looking gorgeous in absurdly beautiful locations. While it’s definitely not my style – in more ways than one – everyone is entitled to their own brand of social media posting if you’re doing it because you truly love it.)
On that cargo-capri’d study abroad trip, however, I improved my Spanish-speaking abilities so much that when I later traveled through South America multiple people asked me if I had grown up in a Latin American country. Some of those low-quality backpacking photos are among the best and most beloved I’ve ever taken simply because of the places – and more so the times – they captured. We met some fantastic fellow budget travelers in those rundown, Southeast Asian guesthouses whom we might have missed in classier resorts. I ended each sneaker-clad day in Paris with zero blisters and eight to ten miles of on-foot sightseeing under my belt. And the smile I wore in front of an Icelandic waterfall is no less brilliant because it was accompanied by bulky layers rather than a ball gown.
It was the experiences themselves that touched my heart, challenged my thinking, taught me lessons, and filled my soul. It had nothing to do with the likes or followers or commenters who approved of them. In fact, most of my favorite photos have never graced my Facebook or Instagram feeds.
So when that little, green, whiny monster threatens me with feelings of travel inferiority, I try to keep the following in mind:
1.) You never know how much work, effort, and/or money went into getting the shot that is inspiring your jealousy.
Anyone who is truly skilled at an art form can make it look effortless, and photographers are no exception. What may look like a single photo snapped at just the right moment may, in fact, have taken a tremendous amount of time, planning, and skill to achieve. To get that Lion King-esque sunrise over the Serengeti, for example, the photographer may have woken up hours before dawn, trekked for miles to find the right spot to frame the photo, received dozens of insect bites and blisters, and then had to do it all over again the next day when the weather was uncooperative. The photo you saw may have been one of
(For a first-hand account of the lengths great travel photographers will go for their snaps, check out this eye-opening article from Christy over at Ordinary Traveler!)
Personally, I try to weigh whether I am willing to put the time and effort into getting a mind-blowing photo or if I’d rather settle for a good, solid snapshot and continue exploring. Usually, I default to the latter. In most cases, I prefer to maximize the amount that I can see and do in my limited vacation time rather than devoting a big chunk of it to pursuing the right photographic moment.
Also, chances are that the photo wasn’t captured with just any old camera. The photographer may have invested thousands of dollars into his or her equipment, including high-end lenses, tripods, and editing software. If you don’t have the same quality of equipment, cut yourself some slack.
2.) Traveling slowly and intentionally is much more rewarding than trying to tick off a long list of Instagram must-sees.
With the constant barrage of jaw-dropping travel photos available online, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of places that are out there to be visited. It can also be tempting to think that if you don’t hit certain popular spots and take photos with specific monuments, landmarks, and vistas that you’ve somehow missed out on something important during your trip.
In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Granted, I have absolutely been guilty of trying to fit as much into a trip as possible – our itineraries from Iceland and Scotland are testaments to that! There is, however, something to be said for taking it slowly, for spending real time discovering and seeking to understand a place rather than constantly moving on to the next destination or tourist site. I’m so much more in love with Quito, where I spent extended time living and
Also, it’s not really worth your time to visit places that hold no other interest for you apart from the photo op. For example, we chose to forego some major attractions in Ireland (the Blarney Stone, the Guinness Storehouse, and Temple Bar, to name a few) because they held comparatively little appeal for us. In their place, we were able to visit sites like the Rock of Cashel and Glendalough that we found to be much more rewarding. I may not get as many hits or likes on photos from those lesser-known destinations, but that matters very little in the face of our enjoyment of them.
3.) Your travel doesn’t have to look a certain way or meet with anyone’s approval to have value.
A lot of influencers have expressed biases against certain types of vacations and travel activities, deriding them as “touristy,” “inauthentic,” or “not real travel.” Frequent targets are cruises, all-inclusive resorts, multi-day guided tours, and popular “tourist trap” sites such as the Stonehenge, Times Square, or the Great Wall of China.
As I mentioned, I’ve avoided more than a few popular places that don’t seem to be worth the hype. However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t also stared in awe at the “overrated” Grand Canyon, sipped a fruity drink at an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, or run my fingers in amazement over the perfectly-set stones of a crowded Machu Picchu.
(Side note: I will never understand how someone can see the Grand Canyon and walk away underwhelmed.)
In the end, what matters most taking the vacation that will be most meaningful and rewarding to you. Would you prefer to have all the logistics handled for you so that you can just sit back and enjoy the ride? Book a guided tour! Do you have three kids at home and long to get away to a beautiful location where the only things calling your name are the drinks and the beach chairs? An all-inclusive resort sounds perfect. Have you dreamed for ages about smooching your sweetie on a Venetian gondola? Ignore the haters and purchase that airline ticket. You’ll be glad you did.
4.) If it’s important to you, you have the power to improve your social media presence.
Just because you feel like your experiences or photos are inferior now doesn’t mean that they are destined to be so forever. Not happy with your own photography? Do something about it! Invest in a quality camera. Improve your technique through online tutorials, community photography classes, and friends who are more talented than you. Practice a lot. Learn how to use free editing software, like Photos on Mac, and work your way up to more advanced programs until you’re satisfied.
Similarly, if you’re not pleased with the amount or quality of your travel, take steps to improve it. Adjust your budget and expenses to be able to save more toward vacations. (Cutting down on eating out, canceling a subscription you don’t use, or picking up some part-time or freelance work all help.) Start following deal sites like TravelZoo or Secret Flying to take advantage of steep travel discounts. Reach out to that friend who always seems to take amazing vacations to see how he or she does it. Let me help you plan a perfect itinerary that fits in your budget.
It can be really empowering to realize that the ball is more in your court than you might have originally thought!
5.) Above all, remember that what matters most is the experience you had and how fortunate you are to have had it in the first place.
In the end, the only thing that truly matters is the impact that your travel had on you. Even though the study abroad snapshot above isn’t an Instagram-perfect version of me, I can look back at the photo and love it, and myself in it. I see the joy on my squinty face and remember how awed I was to be in the middle of the gorgeous Andes. I recall how, in that moment, I knew that I would never get enough of exploring the wild and wonderful places on this planet. I remember feeling Ecuador inscribing itself permanently in my heart. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude at how a girl from a farm in rural Pennsylvania has somehow made so many of her travel dreams come true.
And that’s something that Instagram can never touch.
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Do you ever feel insecure in the face of social media? What do you do to combat those feelings?
What experience have you had that was the least Instagrammable but most personally impactful?
This post was originally published on August 22, 2018, and was last updated on August 23, 2020.
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