The Psychology of Travel


Several years ago, partly because of my interest in the topic and partly to justify my obsession with travel and turn it into an academic endeavor, I created a 1-unit psychology course entitled, “The Psychology of Travel” which I now teach on a regular basis at Dominican University of California.

We begin the course with an historical perspective on travel (The Great Explorers, Religious Pilgrimages, Migrations and Immigration, and the Grand Tour of Europe, which in the 17th and 18th centuries, was seen as the finishing touch of a formal education). Next we cover topics such as travel trends, psychological motivations for travel, different types of travelers (mass tourists, adventure travelers, culinary travelers, etc.), and choice of travel destinations. Finally, different aspects of the travel experience are explored, including the psychological and physical benefits of travel, travel stressors like adjusting to different cultural norms, dealing with language issues or coping with homesickness, why we collect souvenirs, how tourism impacts travel destinations, and how natural environments help restore our psychological health and well-being.

Readings and videos used for the course include material by authors such as Paul Theroux, Judith Fein, Rick Steves, Jeff Greenwald, and Pico Iver. Students also watch two travel-related films: 2010’s The Way, which is a study of a man who walks Spain’s pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago in honor of his deceased son and the bonds he forges with people he meets along the way and 2007’s A Map for Saturday, a documentary that follows the experiences of travelers from all over the world who are undertaking long-term solo backpacking trips. Assignments for the course include a reaction paper regarding the two films, and a final travel reflection paper in which students analyze their own relationship with travel based on some of the concepts discussed in class lecture and readings.

An interesting “after-effect” of this course has been the fact that several students have decided to embark on short international trips sponsored by the university or have opted to spend a semester doing study abroad in another country. Somehow the exploration of travel through this class has inspired students to make travel a priority in their lives, and this is something I have found extremely exciting.

Taking Students Abroad: City/Country as Text

As a faculty member at Dominican University of California, I have also had the opportunity to lead several groups of students on a number of exciting trips to Europe, providing those who are simply not able to manage an entire semester abroad with a short-term international experience. Using a model called, “City/Country as Text”, developed by my Dominican colleagues, Dr. LeeAnn Bartolini and Dr. Patricia Dougherty, students take a preparatory course to learn about the history, geography, art, culture, social norms and language of the place to be visited. We then travel together, usually during Spring Break or shortly after the end of the Spring semester, to the international destination where readings and class lecture are supplemented with local tours and activities. Students from various disciplines may take this course and assignments can be tailored to each student’s major.

I have led three trips to Italy, one to Greece, one to Berlin & Prague, and one to Northern Ireland & the Republic of Ireland. Most recently, in conjunction with Dr. Bartolini (Psychology), Dr. Dougherty (History) and our colleague Dr. Leslie Ross (Art History) we led a group of 20 students on a two-week Mediterranean cruise, starting in Venice and making numerous stops in Italy, Croatia, Greece, and France.

Feedback from our students has been almost unanimously positive. Frequent comments made by students in their evaluations emphasize that the experience of traveling abroad adds a dimension to their learning that could never occur in a classroom. For many students, this is their first trip abroad and the experience seems to stimulate a desire to engage in further travel and/or to attempt a semester doing study abroad. And many of them cite that their favorite aspect of the travel experience is the relationships they forge with fellow students and with faculty members. I know that for me, this is the most rewarding aspect of leading these trips.

One example of this was a trip I made with students in 2007 to the Greek mainland and to the island of Santorini. On one of the final days of our stay on the island, a group of students accompanied me for a cruise of the bay and a trip to the volcanically active island that lies in the middle of the bay. We hiked to the volcano’s crater where I gave an impromptu lecture about how Santorini was originally formed and shaped by volcanic forces. On the sail back, the boat anchored in the rather chilly Aegean (it was March) and allowed us to dive off and swim a few hundred yards to some volcanic hot springs bubbling in the sea. I was one of the first ones into the water, and as I frantically swam toward the warmer water, I can still remember the combination of laughter and blood-curdling screams as each of the students hit the icy water and paddled after me like ducklings. Later in the day, we found ourselves in a Greek Taverna, the owner of the place hovering over us and bringing us platter after platter of traditional dishes and telling us stories about his family and the island. By the end of the meal, several students became very emotional, and I remember one of them saying, “This has been the best day of my life.”  I’m not sure it gets any better than that.

On another trip to Italy, I arranged to bring my entire group of 23 students to my favorite restaurant in Rome, Trattoria Monti. However, the restaurant is small and could not accommodate such a big group, so I made the ultimate sacrifice and led four separate groups of six students each to the restaurant for lunches and dinners over the course of a few days. I hated having to dine at my favorite place four times, but I’d do anything for my students! With one of the groups, we were seated near the kitchen and my students were raving about the amazing food. Suddenly, the chef came out to visit with us, chatting with the students as best she could and using me as an interpreter, since she speaks no English. After spending quite a bit of time with us, she then asked the waiters to bring us an assortment of complimentary desserts. The next thing I knew, I had several students who were in tears, and when I asked what was wrong, they told me that this had been the most special meal they’d ever experienced and how grateful they were that I was willing to share my favorite place with them. These kinds of interactions rarely happen in the classroom.

Teaching has been my career and one of my greatest passions in life; travel has been another. How fortunate am I to have been able to find a way to merge these passions and hopefully make a difference in the lives of my students?

One thought on “The Psychology of Travel

  1. After reading this, I did a quick search for psychological research related to travel and found a lot that is interesting. Sounds like a fascinating course. And fun!

    Liked by 1 person

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