We Love to Hate the Travel Bucket List. Why?

In recent years, the travel bucket list has been much maligned—and for good reason. But one writer makes the case for not throwing it out completely.

Pyramids of Giza in northern Egypt

Photo by Leonardo Ramos/Unsplash

It had been four years since I had last spoken with my childhood friend Ray. It was no fault of his; my predilection to ignore his calls was to blame. I had aged out of the relationship, the sort of thing that happens over time, and any communication felt like holding onto the last vestiges of the past.

But when he passed away in March this year, I was overwhelmed by sadness. I locked myself in my house, 200 miles from my childhood home, questioning the suddenness of it all. I dove back into my memories of him, and finding them scarce and flimsy, tried to bring him back to life by scrolling through his Instagram account. In his last years he had dabbled as a photographer, then tried his hand at becoming a musician. On his account were songs he’d released, mostly to inattention. I spent hours listening to them on repeat, ignoring the lateness of the hour, sorrow my companion.

In the morning, with the clarity of grief, I booked a four-day gorilla trekking trip to Uganda for the following month. I’d wanted to go trekking to see mountain gorillas for years, but I kept on postponing it, telling myself that it wasn’t the right time yet, that I’d do it later. Ray’s death, however, shifted something in me, and I decided that I wanted to tick off this trip from my so-called bucket list. Yes, this is a story about bucket lists. But it is also, inevitably, about privilege and death, that invincible fiend.

The idea of bucket lists was popularized by the 2007 film The Bucket List, which starred Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two terminally ill men who decide to list things they want to do before they die. Freeman’s character, Carter Chambers, had the ideas (though he started off with vague notions such as “See something truly majestic”) and Nicholson’s Edward Cole had the money to bankroll their adventures. In the span of a few months, the two men go skydiving; visit the North Pole, Mount Everest, and the Taj Mahal; go on a safari in East Africa; ride their motorcycles on the Great Wall of China; drive classic cars along the California Speedway, fly over the North Pole, and climb the Great Pyramid of Giza. “By any measure, Edward Cole lived more on his last days on Earth than most people manage to ring out of a lifetime,” says Freeman’s character, who is also the movie’s narrator.

This, then, is at the heart of the idea of bucket lists: a capitalist efficiency whose aim is to extract as much value from travel, or from adventure, or from whatever desires a person has. By doing so, we’ll be able to, like the fictive Edward Cole, live more in a few days or months than most people manage to do in their lifetimes.

The idea of the bucket list has taken root, and travelers have been given various bucket lists based on interests. The New York Times has published multiple options, ranging from a crowd-sourced bucket list highlighting the 25 best travel options, to a moral bucket list, to the summer bucket list of a 35 year old. There are Harry Potter–themed bucket lists, bucket lists for married people, bucket lists for young people joining college. Beyoncé and Jay Z reportedly came up with a joint bucket list as a way of saving their marriage.

Such thinking has its detractors. Bucket lists have been criticized for creating unrealistic ideas for our travel, for prioritizing new experiences over the familiar ones that bring us joy, and for making travel experiences seem like obligations one has to tick off before they die. Travel writer (and AFAR contributor) Sebastian Modak has argued that such travel-by-the-numbers thinking has to end. Instead, he advocates for slow travel, whereby rather than trying to tick off travel destinations from a list, we tamper “down our own built-in, conditioned obsessions with time and allowing the world to move just a little slower so that we can actually notice it.”

But bucket lists can’t just be written off. For one, the mere fact of traveling slowly doesn’t automatically lead to us paying more attention—one can choose to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around them, whether or not they have a bucket list. Bucket lists are also not only a practical way of organizing travel but they also suit the fact that people still want to do the big popular things. In addition, they reckon with the fact that time is not a privilege that all of us have. Passport inequality means that not everyone is able to travel without planning, or just meander. Modak, in recognizing this, offers, “Traveling slowly can mean exploring your own backyard.” But then, I don’t always want to spend my travel holiday exploring my own backyard. I want to go and see somewhere completely different. I want to do those big things, too.

Wandering, exploring, and going with the flow is framed as a sort of anti–bucket-list approach, and while well-intentioned advice, is impractical: The ability to travel freely, largely without planning, is not a privilege equally shared.

When I traveled to Motown in 2022, my approach was very much an in-and-out, by-the-numbers, I-came-to-do-one-thing-and-one-thing-only jaunt, my travel limited by my schedule and by money. The aim was to visit Hitsville U.S.A., the iconic studio that had fostered the talents of The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five, Diana Ross, and a conveyor belt of African American musical talent. Perhaps had I taken the time to explore Detroit, I would have had an experience that would have changed my life. I likely would have noticed the city itself and enjoyed it. But I wasn’t as interested in Detroit, or in Michigan. All I wanted to see was Motown’s recording studio, and what joy it was to move through the house, to sing and dance in the same room The Temptations and The Vandellas had done, to peer into Berry Gordy’s house, to see the records on the walls, to stop and take in the musical history. To be in the same building about which Esther Gordy had said to her brother, “Berry, I think we made history and didn’t even know it.”

Because many bucket-list trips are based on the desire to live very specific experiences, the general advice of taking it slow and taking it elsewhere is often an awkward fit: There was no other way to go to Motown but to go to Motown. I went to Motown because I have loved Motown’s music for years and wanted to be in the location where it was recorded—a holy grail for African American music. That the visit was on my bucket list was due to the fact that I thought it would make me happy to visit the studio, which it did. And part of what made me make the trip was a string of factors that worked for me—that I was in the United States at all, that I had been in Chicago for a work trip, a train ride away from Detroit, that I had a couple of free days, and that I had an opportunity to make a pivotal memory.

This is the same emotion that drives people to want to climb the world’s highest mountain, Everest, or visit the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert, or even see the big five game animals—lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinos, and elephants—in their natural habitat. While there is undeniably still space for small, local travel, we can’t write off travel experiences that are about the superlative, the pinnacle, the peak. And when most of your life is lived in a valley, after all, such experiences are thrown into relief.

One of the main denunciations of bucket lists is that as a function of their very existence, they tend to encourage people to travel to the same places—and these places become overrun. What this kind of criticism tends to sweep over is that these places are popular for a reason. It’s the same as in pop culture: Beyoncé is popular, and the movie Titanic was extremely popular, and Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of millennium novels was very popular, but their popularity can’t be a discrediting factor. The Great Pyramid of Giza is a testament to human architectural ingenuity. That a significant number of people want to visit it—like Edward Cole and Carter Chambers did—does not detract from its glory.

Different travelers also have different reasons for taking their trips, and it is too simplistic to lump every bucket-list traveler together. For some travelers, like Safinah Danish Elahi, the bucket list is about quantity of experiences. Elahi is a 35-year-old Pakistani writer and publisher whose bucket-list ambition is to travel to 100 different countries before she turns 50. (She’s currently visited 63.) Life is ephemeral, and for her, part of its joy comes from going to as many parts of the world as she can visit. Together with her husband and her two children, 14 and 10, she goes on multiweek, multicountry jaunts: On a recent trip, they went first to the United Kingdom, then over 17 days, traveled to Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, and Mauritius. For Elahi, it’s more important to visit as many different places during a trip than to stay in one place, which she acknowledges has its cons.

“It would be nice to spend a month in a country, learn their ways, understand (some) of their language, but it’s not practical because of work and financial constraints,” she says. “I try to visit as many countries on a trip as possible, which doesn’t let me leisurely enjoy a place. At the same time, it helps me focus on the most popular and important places to visit. It also excites me to think of different flavors in one trip.”

Grace Chege is a Kenyan travel obsessive who runs a boutique budget travel agency called Leetle Adventures. Chege’s clients are largely people who don’t have unlimited vacation time, whether because of regimented work or school schedules or children, and for them the aim is to get as much joy out of their trips as is possible in the time they have. In this case, Chege says, having an idea of her clients’ travel bucket list makes sense—they can plan ahead and see how their lives have to be moved around in order to make the trip happen. And given that many of her clients are traveling from the Global South, vaccinations and visa preparations are key. Wandering, exploring, and going with the flow is framed as a sort of anti–bucket-list approach, and while well-intentioned advice, is impractical: The ability to travel freely, largely without planning, is not a privilege equally shared.

This is part of the difficulty of thinking about bucket lists. They do encourage focused travel, but in so doing invariably lead to problems such as different people’s travel experiences being caricatures of each other and often harming the destinations, with places like Venice and Barcelona suffering from environmental degradation and housing problems due to overcrowding. In the movie, one of the things Cole and Chambers did was to go on safari in the Serengeti; in East Africa, safari tourism has led to the displacements of communities from their homes due to the number of travelers who want to visit the safari circuit. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t go to Venice, or to Barcelona, or on safari, or that these popular destinations shouldn’t be in one’s bucket list. There are ways of visiting these places and still being a responsible traveler.

The right approach, then, is not to discard travel bucket lists all together, but to approach bucket-list travel in ways that are respectful both to yourself and to the places you visit: traveling during the off-season, when the crowds are smaller; being cognizant of the political dynamics of travel; prioritizing the support of communities on the ground by staying at, shopping at, and supporting local businesses.

Perhaps bucket lists are most useful for this: They make clear what is important to the traveler. After all, when we are in relatively good health, it is often hard to summon up the urgency to do something until is too late to do it. I had spent years thinking about mountain gorillas, but in my mind there would always be time to do it in the vague future. But when Ray died, the urgency of it all was shifted. It became clear that there was no perfect time.

A few weeks later, I was high on a mountain face in western Uganda. Around me were the sounds of the rain forest—the birds, the insects, the animals rummaging through the trees. Tired and dirty after all my falls on the wet grass, I trudged through the thick forest, my guide clearing a path with his machete. We heard the silverback before we saw him, his roar loud and guttural. We stepped forward, and there, in a clearing, was the family of gorillas we’d been tracking. I stopped. The gorillas were eating, and I spent the next hour sitting quietly in their presence, glad that I’d finally decided to make the trip.

Carey Baraka’s writing has appeared in the Guardian Longread, Lonely Planet, Serious Eats, the New York Review Books, and the Johannesburg Review of Books. His writing can be found on careybaraka.com.
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