Travelers Guilt: 5 Ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down

I blame Pliny the Elder. For the whole ‘home is where the heart is’ claptrap. For providing the ammunition used to torment travelers with travelers guilt.

Whether you are a long-term, ‘round the world, endless adventure sort of traveler or someone who barely manages to stockpile two weeks of vacation days in order to fish off the dock, read a stack of books and ignore your cell phone, I can guarantee you have felt the shiver of traveler’s guilt down your spine.

If you are a reader who just snorted and asked, “What the hell does somebody who travels to cool places, flitting around the world doing sweet Fanny Adams have to feel guilty about?”, you are one of the people who make us feel guilty.

©BGabriel, 2013

You’re leaving me? Like, FOREVER?

The self-recriminating dialogue goes something like this:

What am I doing with my life?!? I should be working…studying…dating regular people. 

This trip is costing me money I should save for a house…a better car…the future. 

I should be home for mom’s birthday…my nephew’s first lacrosse game…the death of my friend’s cat…the season finale of The Voice.


[Guilt /gilt/: a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation: While exploring the markets of Bangkok she felt spasms of guilt about not being home for Christmas.]

According to the internet and a trusted librarian, Pliny is the guy I can pin that most over-used of old sayings about home being a far better place than not-home. As if explaining your life-long wanderlust to friends and family isn’t difficult enough without some ancient, dead, Roman know-it-all with his own twitter account showing up on Pinterest boards. But Pliny isn’t the only person whose words are used to keep the traveler from traveling. Mothers everywhere know how to use guilt on those of us who prefer a less home-centric life by pulling out these well-worn adages and serving them at your farewell dinner.

©BGabriel, 1992

If I’d stayed home, I would never have had a headcold in the courtyard of the Sultan’s palace. Granada, Spain

Here are 5 helpful ways to shut down the terrible cycle of traveler’s guilt, along with the oft-quoted aphorisms you will probably find on your mom’s Keep ’em Home pinterest board:

1. Aphorism claptrap: Home is where the heart is. ~ Pliny the Elder

Traveler’s argument:

Your heart is smack in the center of your chest, dear traveler, joyously pumping oxygen-laden blood to the legs running to make your connecting flight and the arms which shove your pack into the overhead bin. It bangs away at a blistering pace when you press “book this flight” for your next trip, which proves how awesome this little bundle of muscles and nerves is.

In point of fact, Pliny might have done travelers a solid with this axiom. If the location of our heart has anything at all to do with home, then logic tells us home is wherever we travel. As another renowned philosopher, Foghorn Leghorn, said one Saturday morning long ago, “You can’t argue with that, son.”

2. Aphorism claptrap: There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort. ~ Jane Austen

Traveler’s argument:

Poor Jane Austen. Lived with her parents or other family her entire life. Sent off to be educated briefly, she caught typhus and came home. Got a single proposal of marriage from a boring but loud-talking guy whom she had the pluck to turn down. We are all better for that, I am sure. No wonder she wanted to stick close to home and write in peace. But the comfort argument? If Jane had wanted real comfort, she would have burned her corset  and danced a jig atop the fortepiano they were forever forcing her to play.

You, my traveling friend, are not looking for comfort. You start to feel unprincipled if you notice sensations of contentment. That’s how you know it is time to pack your bag and move on. Too much comfort isn’t good for travelers. Unless you come down with typhus. If that happens, by all means lounge around, be taken care of and stock up on comfort. Then get your typhus-free carcass back out on the road.

3. Aphorism claptrap: Home is the nicest word there is. ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder

Traveler’s argument:

Oh Laura, you disappoint me. As a girl growing up in Minnesota I read every word of Ms. Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and home was far from the nicest word in them. A cursory glance inside one offers much better examples. Prairie, for instance. A gorgeous late 18th century word from Old French praerie, from Latin pratum, meaning ‘meadow.’  Now, isn’t that a nice word to lie in and spend a few hours?

The Ingalls family moved around the middle part of the United States during Laura’s childhood, having all manner of adventures with wild animals, drought, blizzards and poor crops. Ironically, I credit Laura with my desire to be an explorer, a pioneer, and at ease with discomfort (pay attention, Jane Austen). Clearly, I missed Laura’s point about home, but I am comfortable with that.

A traveler can come up with hundreds of words they probably like better than home. Words like paella, sarong, Marrakech, and over-night train to Sapa. Words the traveler cannot even understand the first few times they are heard, like selamat datang (welcome), Teşekkürler (thanks), and je t’aime aussi (I love you too).

©BGabriel, 1991

See what you miss if you don’t travel?

4. Aphorism claptrap: It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I have gone and come back, I will find it at home. ~ Rumi

Traveler’s argument:

We all love us some Rumi. The Persian poet, another long-dead ancient, is a darling of social media and lovers everywhere. Who hasn’t cadged one of his lines to use in a hand-made card or a tinder message?

But any traveler worth her boots can take on this adage with one hand tied behind her back. Our understanding of satisfaction is achingly similar to our take on comfort. We aren’t too comfortable with being satisfied, or we find satisfaction on the road where we are searching for…something else. Often we don’t even understand what that something else is; a deeply satisfying notion.

5. Aphorism claptrap: Where thou art, that is home. ~ Emily Dickinson

Traveler’s argument:

If by thou, she meant us, our traveling selves, Em was right on target. Where we are is our home.

If, on the other hand, Ms. D meant my home is wherever that guy over there on the moor that I’ve been pining for lives, then my advice is: just say ’No’. Unless the moor-dweller has a traveler’s soul too, in which case you can take turns following each other on your adventures.

Maybe these philosophers and writers were travelers at their core and home was a secure place from which to dream of riskier exploits. Certainly some of them were constrained by gender, culture, class, and finances so perhaps home came to represent what hampered them.

The elder Pliny, it turns out, wasn’t just a know-it-all philosopher. He died attempting to rescue friends and family from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius by loading them on his boat and sailing off, except the winds were against him that day, so his life and his travels were cut short by a monumentally bad stroke of luck.

Rumi’s family did a bit of traveling, searching for a new place to call home after the Mongols invaded central Asia. Being forced into wandering as a child can turn the most spontaneous person into a homebody.

Emily Dickinson became a recluse, rarely leaving her room and communicated through written correspondence.

I give Laura Ingalls Wilder credit for perseverance. After trying out a few places in the USA with her husband, Almanzo, she settled in Missouri to farm. It took decades for them to prosper only to be wiped out by the Great Depression. Writing tales of her assorted childhood homes may not only have saved her sanity but offered her a small bit of cash as well.

I’m from St. Paul. I return there occasionally, going home to see birch trees and lakes, eat corn on the cob and see family and friends. I say “going home” even though I haven’t lived there for over 25 years. Even though I have traveled and lived in many places and I honestly think home is wherever I am in the world. For me, that version of going home to Minnesota is a touchstone. It is the yardstick against which I gauge the rest of the world.

So I offer travelers a counter-argument aphorism. Another way to quiet the dissenting voices that attempt to keep you at home when your heart and your traveling boots say go. This one is from TS Eliot:

Home is where one starts from.

That seems like a good place to begin our next trip.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. Oh so true! Thank you for understand my guilt and making me fell, well, just a bit less guilty.

    • Absolutely. I’ve spent years politely answering the “When are you going to settle down and have a normal life?” with “Well, this IS my normal life.”

  2. Wonderfully put, all of this—though I’m not entirely sure that Foghorn Leghorn’s POV should trump that of Pliny the Elder. But I was chuckling hard over many of the sharp witticisms and examples sown throughout the text. My favorite? Your response to Jane Austen’s “comfort” argument.

  3. You’re my kind of people. In an alternate universe, I’d be living anywhere but here in suburban New Jersey, but only temporarily of course. Because, like Lyme disease, the traveling bug infects for life. And I find that small doses of travel only make the wanderlust worse, not better.

    • Anyone who can combine Challah and haggis can travel with me, even if it’s vicariously. Happy to have you along for the read and the ride, Rachel. Best wishes in dealing with Lyme. I have more friends with Lyme than I can count on a single hand…

      • Weirdly, I replied yesterday but it’s not showing up? I apologize for any misunderstanding regarding the Lyme comparison. As far as I know, I do not have the disease, but was merely comparing one bug with another. (I think it was on my mind because of the tick this week).

  4. Barb, Wonderful as usual. I especially liked the Foghorn Leghorn reference. I say, I SAY, they don’t make cartoons like they used to. In fact, most people younger than about forty-five don’t know that coyotes fall faster than anvils.
    Pliny the Elder, by the way, is a much sought after, hard-to-get-in-the-Midwest pale ale out of California.

    • I’m afraid old Foghorn Leghorn may be lost on the young, much to my regret. I learned a fair bit of my philosophy from him, my encyclopedic knowledge of classical music from Bugs Bunny, and all I know of physics from the Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote. Basically, I could have been home-schooled on Saturday mornings.

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  7. Just found this to add to the discussion: From

    Kevin Kunitake: Where do you call home?

    Paul Salopek: Out walking, I get asked this question almost every day, as you might imagine.

    I was born in the United States, raised in central Mexico, and spent most of my career moving around Africa. So it gets complicated.

    The simplest and most honest answer is: “The square meter of Earth I’m standing on right now.”

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