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Travel vs. Vacation: What is the Difference?

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Travel vs. Vacation: Is There a Difference?

Vacation. Travel. People sometimes use these words interchangeably, but they aren’t actually one and the same. When I talk about travel vs. vacation, different things come to mind depending on which word is used. But that’s not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, although I do have my preference.

Consider the “travel” that consists of five nights at Disney World and a cruise through the Bahamas every year. This is all relaxation and fun. Or maybe just fun, as a trip to Disneyland with three kids hardly proved to be relaxing for my wife and I as new parents. In any case, this is vacation. Not travel. Not convinced? Let’s explore this debate of travel vs. vacation.

What Is Vacation?

If you’ll permit me the use of some very stereotypical scenarios, the epitome of vacation is jetting to Cancún and parking it for five days at a beach resort for five days during spring break (at least this is what a particular music professor thought all his students did every March). If you have kids, vacation is flying down to Disney World for a few days. The focus is on having fun, relaxing by a pool, eating good food, and getting away from the stresses of “regular” life.

Relaxation is the key ingredient of vacation. Weekend in Vegas? Vacation. A five day cruise to the Caribbean? Vacation. Maybe you’ll get to see a bit of each island during a couple shore excursions. But this is just a small taste of a place. You’ll be back on your ship and headed off for your next destination by evening.

I’m not saying it is bad to get away from the office for a week to refresh, relax and de-stress. This is totally fine. Some trips are vacation, but not truly travel. This is the distinction I’m trying to make. Now let’s delve into what defines travel.

travel vs. vacation

What Is Travel?

While you may travel for vacation, at least in the sense that you fly, drive, bus, and/or spend time on a cruise vessel. But there’s another word for that sort of travel that is not travel. You can call it transit. It’s the other definition that I want to explore.

Travel, in its purest sense, is crossing the globe to experience the new places. It may be for natural beauty, but more often it is to discover a new culture for yourself. It means learning new languages, immersing yourself in history, and trying new foods.

Travel should also provide growth. It is a challenge. There is effort required when it comes to exploring new places. Travel is an adventure that stretches you. You end up growing new skills, such as figuring out a mass transit system on the fly, or how to ask where the nearest bus stop is without knowing the language. The experience may be hard, but it is entirely worth it.

Travel opens your eyes to the world in a way that vacation simply cannot. Vacation means finding enjoyment in fun activities (or lack of activity). Travel means opening up yourself to the world.

travel vs. vacation

Blending The Two Is Possible

Many trips may blur the lines between vacation and travel, or they may have aspects of both at different times. I’ve done my best to incorporate elements of both travel and vacation into various trips. It doesn’t need to be one or the other, nor does there need to be a debate over whether a specific trip is travel vs. vacation.

My daughter and I enjoyed exploring South America this past April. The focus was on the history and culture (although we did end up in the hotel pool every night). However, we spent two nights in Miami Beach at the end of the trip, enjoying sunny Florida. Act I: primarily travel. Act II: totally vacation.

I don’t often really vacation. More than one day doing nothing, and I go stir crazy. This may sound odd, but spending time in airports and on airplanes is essentially a vacation. It’s enjoyable, and oddly relaxing, as long as my phone is not ringing off the hook and I can ignore the email for the day. Recently, I flew to Newark and back for fun.

Travel vs. Vacation: Which One Is For You?

Ultimately, whatever sort of trip you prefer and plan should work for you. I’m not going to judge. I definitely prefer to travel and admittedly have an odd way of vacationing. But if parking it at a resort for a week is what you love (or *gasp* spending it at Disney World, the worst vacation ever), go for it. Make it happen with miles and points!

Travel is what I want for my family. Part of the allure of visiting China is how completely foreign it is. Our kids are adopted from Costa Rica, so we are already an international family. But there is far more similarity among the five of us than between any of us and China. From getting laughed at when I butchered the little Chinese I’d practiced, to the mesmerizing exercise dance we observed in Beijing’s many parks, to wandering food stalls offering scorpions on a stick for a snack in Wangfujing, it was quite the experience.

Personally, I find travel to experience culture, history and natural beauty to be the most compelling and invigorating. I’m less interested in planning “fun” trips, where the end goal is simply fun (i.e. vacation). Yet the ideal, especially with kids, is planning a trip where there is a balance between the two. It doesn’t always need to be travel vs. vacation. There can be travel with some vacation. But I definitely still prefer the former over the latter.

Which do you prefer? Do you prefer to travel? Or do you prefer vacation? Or some blend of the two?

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Ian Snyder
Ian Snyder
After igniting his passion for award travel while planning his honeymoon, Ian now enjoys using points and miles to see the world with his wife and three internationally adopted kiddos. He loves dissecting loyalty programs to find maximum value. His goal is to demonstrate that extraordinary travel is possible for the ordinary family.

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  1. Not what I was expecting at all. I used to ask folks whether they were going on a trip or a vacation. A trip was really what many folks were taking. Driving to see family, sightseeing, anything with a schedule planned.
    I would never consider something as stressful as Disney a vacation! If a vacation is supposed to be relaxing, stress should be minimal. If you are feeling the constant urge to do something to get your money’s worth or for other reasons, is it relaxing? Now it is possible that the kids are having a vacation even if their caretakers are stressed!

    • If you’re considering that “transit”. I’m willing to spend more time than that in the air, if needed. But if you don’t make it overseas much, I can certainly agree. I used to routinely stretch any trip to the maximum possible.

  2. I’d say that the difference is that vacation is for enjoyment while travel is due to necessity. Some people enjoy running around from dawn to dusk. Back in my travel agent days when I was around your age, I saw all kinds of vacation travelers. I noticed that city vacation types tended to be a bit more manic on seeing a lot, while country, beach, and cruise types were more inclined toward relaxation. To each their own.

    • It’s a balance. I go stir crazy if I’m still for more than a day or so, which means the cruising life doesn’t sound all that great. Except for Alaska, since you can constantly appreciate beautiful scenery.


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