Travel and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Propaganda exists everywhere, plugging away, and travel is no exception.

If you follow the magazines, you know what I’m talking about—article after article catering to a romantic perception of some incredible perfect idyllic place just on the other side of the hill, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the ocean. Some place you haven’t been to yet.

It’s designed to make you question yourself.

I’m as susceptible to this urge as anybody. That’s because I’m also as capital-r Romantic as anybody, except maybe Samuel Coleridge or Percy Bysshe Shelley. Still I’ve had to admit a hard fact: Wandering the earth like the Ancient Mariner is not necessarily the best way to go through life. Nobody reads that poem anymore, so let me remind you of the fact that all of the Mariner’s sailors died of thirst and the Mariner himself chewed into his arm to drink his own blood.


Gustave Dore’s famous etching of the mariners gazing in horror upon the Albatross.

Don’t get me wrong. Travelling the world is important to build wonderful qualities like empathy and equanimity and enthusiasm and a whole lot of other words that start with ‘e’. As you probably know, I’m writing an entire series based on the urge to pursue international adventure.

In fact, I even recently counted up the basic travel stats of my life:

Nations visited, total: 23

Time spent abroad, total: About 13 months

Foreign languages spoken: 1

That’s not too shabby by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have as much time abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer or a trust-fund baby, but a lot more than the average member of the U.S. population. In fact, only forty percent of us even have a passport. If you find that startling, get ready for this—according to the linked page from the State Department, in 1989 less than 3% of the U.S. population had a passport. I’ve doublechecked those numbers, and it’s still incomprehensible. Didn’t Woodrow Wilson start knitting the United States into the fabric of the world back in 1914? Apparently it took more than a century for the idea that travel is beneficial to penetrate into our collective noggins.

Ainsley Walker stands as the exception, of course. She would rather not breathe than not travel.

The Dismal Science Helps Us Understand

I never studied economics (another ‘e’ word) in college, being too focused on literature and history. Ignoring it was my error. (Same with Elton John, whose music I didn’t discover until twenty years after everybody else. And another ‘e’ word.) It’s been the great discovery of my adult life that, more often than not, economics forces everything else into the backseat. As a result, it’s a revelation every time I discover a new economic idea, especially when it can be applied to other parts of life.

That includes the law of diminishing returns. Let me explain.

Prescribing antibiotics in your medical office? Fifty years later, those medicines won’t work as well, if at all. Applying chemical fertilizers to a field? Ten years later, your harvests lose their superpowers and return to baseline. Writing a term paper late into the night? The hour that starts at 11 pm will be much more productive than the hour that starts at 5 am. That’s guaranteed.

In layman’s terms, the law of diminishing returns describes the way that stuff grows less effective over time.


So too with travel. There is a finite point at which travel becomes Way Way Too Much Overload. Frequent travelers know very well that point I’m talking about. You’ve reaped all possible psychological rewards, and the benefits of being on the road begin to shrink. That moment is the highest data point on the curve—or, in economic terms, the point at which the marginal per unit output decreases. That is also the moment when, optimally, you pack up and go home. Of course, travelling doesn’t work that way.

This point of saturation is reached at various different times, depending on the individual. Let’s look at four of them.

The weekender. This person reaches that saturation point in a matter of just a few days. I once went to a tropical island paradise with a group of people that included a fiftyish woman, let’s call her Dolly, who had asked that our vacation be limited to six days. The group had ended up deciding, despite Dolly’s objections, on nine days. I watched Dolly, on day seven, suddenly and literally clam up at dinner. She just went mute. Her entire body shut down. After we paid the check, Dolly beelined directly to her rented condo and didn’t come out again until it was time to go to the airport two days later.

In retrospect, I see that she’d tried to warn us: I’m not designed to be away from home for a week. Some people call this a plantation mentality, but it’s better not to pass judgment. Lo que es, es, as the Spanish say. In English: It is what it is.

The modern HR vacation. Others reach that saturation point after a longer period of time. A two-week vacation, for example, seems to be the ideal length for most people, particularly office workers who’ve structured their own travel mentality around what’s allowed by the boss. And even then, the perfect moment may be reached midway through the vacation, on the seventh day. Then the second half of the trip serves as a total letdown, an emotional postscript. This is where the value of planning arises. To avoid peaking too soon, I like to save the most interesting activity for the end of the trip. Otherwise, it’s like getting a hangover while you’re still drinking.

Slow travelers. Still other travelers prefer long journeys, four to six weeks each, maybe even a couple of months. These people tend to stay in a single city or location, enough to establish routines, meet the locals, and feel as though they’ve become part of the fabric of daily life. This is what the term slow travel refers to, and these people usually pursue classes in language, cooking, and culture. I’d include myself in this category, ever since living in South America in 2014. That particular trip lasted four months, including two months parked in a single city—Medellín, Colombia. The entire experience, while exhilarating, lasted too long for my own tastes. It taught me that I don’t need more than six weeks abroad at any given time. That may sound indulgent, yes, but keep in mind that, prior to that, my fantasy included spending a solid year traipsing around the world.

The vagabonds. Those people, the ones who consistently disappear for months or even years at a time, are in a class by themselves. They’re the wanderers, the ones who basically keep little home base, if any. They’re professional photographers, musicians, writers, ambassadors, relief workers. They’re often young, sometimes idealistic, sometimes deeply wounded by family, and occasionally just plain crazier than a shithouse rat.

While touring Bolivia last year, I met a young German couple who were in the middle of an epic eighteen-month journey around the world. Days off? Nope—they were in constant motion. Personal discovery? Maybe. Body fat? None. Were they nuts? Definitely a little. Based on what they put up on Facebook after we parted ways, they kept their own little two-person party rolling into Bali and across Southeast Asia for the next nine months. Don’t ask me how it was funded, because I don’t have a clue. By the time it had ended, they’d spent 529 days in a row travelling.

Personally, I’ve got about two weeks of constant moving in me. Any longer, and I need to plant myself somewhere for a while. Also, I really enjoy coming home after an adventure. It’s a universal urge, and it means a lot to people to use their own bathrooms, wear their own clothes, root around in their own gardens. Wasn’t that Odysseus’ goal in The Odyssey? And Steve Martin’s goal in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? I too wrote a novel about that feeling. We all want to arrive home, eventually.

Except for the ones who are being paid for travel.

Travel Bloggers

I don’t even know where to begin with this particular creature. It’s not that I dislike them. It’s more that I distrust them.

For those who don’t know, let’s define our terms first. A travel blogger is a person, or more often a couple, who travels the world mostly for free. All their hotel stays are reimbursed by hotels. All their restaurant meals are reimbursed by restaurants. All their fantastic diving trips are reimbursed by local travel boards.

What do they do in return? Travel bloggers write blogs (duh), tweets, and posts on social media about those same locations. They gush and fawn and adore with the same variety of adjectives as the current occupant of the White House—fantastic, beautiful, amazing. (They leave out words like disaster and loser, because that doesn’t get them free stuff.) It’s not as easy a gig to get as it sounds. Travel bloggers also must have an enormous number of social media followers to be offered such comps in the first place, and that’s no small task.


The only thing that changes is the scenery on the other side of the laptop.

There’s another term for what they do.

Pay for play.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. The travel bloggers always look absolutely ecstatic. After all, they’re having luxury vacations for free. I won’t mention any by name, but you’ve probably seen their enormous perfect smiles as they take selfies every day in front of a different cocktail, a different sunset, a different pool.

Nobody’s getting hurt, you’re probably thinking, so what’s the problem?

There’s a few problems. One, I originally started working in journalism, my first real job being at The Washington Post. There, pay-for-play is such a big no-no that even Christmas presents to Post staffers must be sent to charity—and the staffer must also send a thank-you card to the gifter informing him or her of the charity donation. I know that travel blogging isn’t journalism, but it’s deep in me to avoid compromising my own point-of-view.

Two, it must be damn near impossible to put on such a front, day in, day out. I can only imagine that travel bloggers don’t actually enjoy many of their activities, constantly fiddling with their camera phones to get the perfect shot of the seawall, finding the right filter for Instagram, worrying about replying to that concierge in Prague, etc. All their daily and hourly and minutely experience must be viewed through the lens (pun intended) of what will translate well to followers on social media. And then there’s the eventual emptiness that must consume them. A travel blogger essentially becomes a glorified PR flack for tourism boards, a role that must take its toll eventually. He or she has no job security, no medical benefits.

Three, my intuition says that only a narcissistic personality needs to promote his or her own superiority to the world. Lording it over others is what narcissists are born to do. Plus, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers is something else that narcissists tend to excel at as well. When it’s all about you, then nothing is about anybody else.

Let me offer a different view of what travel should be.

Travel as a Form of Suffering

You’ll never read this advice in any travel magazine, but here’s what I’ve learned. The best form of travelling involves discomfort, particularly for those of us like myself who are afflicted with too much modern comfort.

It’s the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

Life is suffering.

We shouldn’t run away from that. We should accept it.

This is the philosophy I’ve stuck by when writing the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series. It would’ve been too easy to write it as a series of mere fantasy fulfillment. You know, the kind of ridiculousness that certain authors indulge in, such as, oh, I don’t know, **coughCliveCusslercough**, especially when he brings in a character named Clive Cussler to save Dirk Pitt at a crucial part of the story.

It also would’ve been too easy to duplicate the brainless attitude of a glossy travel rag. You know the type—it’s the magazine that always highlights the best civet-oil spa treatment in the Namibian bush. It’s the magazine that uses the word indulge fourteen times in as many paragraphs. (And always, always the word funky to describe a handbag. Aren’t there other types of bags? Angular? Stiff? Classical?)

I’ve gone a different path with my writing.

My protagonist, Ainsley Walker, suffers during her adventures. In fact, as the series has gone on, I’ve gotten better at torturing her. Notice that at the end of each story, while she always recovers the gemstone, she also suffers some sort of personal change or even setback. The North Korea Onyx, for example, is nearly a tragedy, a down ending that I figured might alienate a couple of readers here and there but which accurately reflects the horrific nature of North Korea. These mixed endings—rather than endings that are all happy or all sad—seem to be the most real, the most human, and the most believable.

In the end, Ainsley Walker isn’t a static character, mired in her own blinkered perspective. She’s made of taffy—stretched, pushed, and pulled by circumstances into different shapes. Sometimes, a part of her keeps its new form, even after the rest of her self returns to normal.

That is a real traveler.

In another sense, however, Ainsley isn’t even a traveler at all. She’s just a human, living a full life, experiencing the same ups and downs and lefts and rights that we all do. The only difference is, for dramatic purposes, she experiences this stuff in a very compressed amount of time, and in a radically foreign setting.

In the end, I hope she’s real to you, because I’ve worked very hard to make her seem real to me—and she’s going to continue to get stretched and pushed and pulled for many more adventures in the future.

In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.