There will always be someone who has traveled more places than you. When confronted by this person, the mature thing to do is to except that fact, and move on. The immature thing to do is to suddenly blurt out that you’ve actually been to about five countries more, all of which were countries where you were in transit.
But sitting in an airport, whether it’s for one hour or for twelve, does not mean you have visited that country. Below are six reasons why transit travel doesn’t count as real travel:
1. It’s not real if there’s no stamp.
“Pics or it didn’t happen!” — it’s a common phrase that has resulted in us taking pictures of every possible situation we find ourselves in. But for those who travel, “passport stamp or you weren’t there” is probably more applicable. To be able to enter a new country from an airport, you are required to show your passport. In most cases, you’ll get a stamp or a sticker saying you are free to enter. And we all know that the highest glory amongst travelers is reserved for those who need a new passport because the current one is filled with stamps.
During a layover, you are considered in transit and so you do not get the magical stamp. You are “just passing through.” Of course, some countries do give stamps to in-transit passengers, but these actually say “in transit” and so I don’t count them.
2. The food lacks authenticity.
When visiting my in-laws in New Mexico, everyone was most disgusted that the nachos we ordered at the “local” restaurant in the airport had some tex-mex sauce on it. It tasted fine and was probably quite popular with non-locals, but as my father-in-law said, “My biggest problem is that people flying through here will think that this is how we eat nachos!”
Food is a very important part of a cultural experience, and is a distinguishing aspect for most countries. It’s about new flavors and smells, and even ingredients. Airports usually only offer fast food, a token “healthy” salad-and-smoothie place, and something that might resemble local food (from a tourist point of view). What you find in an airport is usually boring, over-priced and in no way resembles what people really eat there.
3. You miss out on personal connections.
In Paris, two older gentlemen bought my friend and me a glass of red wine and cherry pie at 10 am, because my friend had “beautiful Spanish eyes.” On that same trip, I met a bunch of guys from a local rugby team who were so impressed that I knew about South African rugby, that they invited me to their next game. I went to the game, had a great time, and was invited to hang out some more.
One of these guys actually let me sleep on his couch for three weeks when my money ran out, and in that time he fed me, took me out for drinks and even organized a trip for us to Disneyland where his cousin works (so we got in for free). His parents also invited me to their family Easter gathering. He ended up coming to visit me in Namibia.
At the same time my money ran, out an American girl at my hostel was willing to pay for my room for another two nights while an American guy I met a few days earlier was willing to wire me money that I can pay back later. Even the random guy I met on the New York subway who chatted with me all the way to my stop is one of my clearest memories; a local guy who made my first trip to this hectic city start on a good note.
This does not happen in an airport where everyone is stressed, hurried, tired or just not interested. The people you meet while travelling play a really big role in the whole experience. It does not include the airport personnel, airport security, immigration officials or the other harried passengers waiting for their next plane.
4. The smell and the air are different on the outside.
Few things evoke memories the way that smells do. The smell of petrol when we go camping. The smell of fermenting grapes in the country of Georgia. Even the smell of the cleaning agent from the hostel in Madrid. If I smell any of these scents, I’m immediately transported back.
I have no idea what an airport smells like, mainly because it doesn’t smell of anything. The air in an airport, and on a plane, is also completely stale and recycled. I can distinctly remember the feel of the fresh air every time I stepped outside an airport in a new country. These are the first impressions of a new country, and I still carry them with me. I definitely do not carry the air-conditioned feel of any airport with me.
5. You can’t bring anything “back” with you.
Whenever a bunch of people who travel get together, there is a lot of talk about “the next trip.” As soon as you mention your destination, you become inundated with recommendations from where to stay, to where you should eat to what you should see. Sure, you can find standard recommendations on the Internet or in guide books, and these are what transit travelers would recommend e.g. “if you’re in Paris you should definitely go see the Eiffel Tower.”
The secret is the recommendations that only come from truly having experienced a place yourself. We were told just before going to the country of Georgia that not drinking can cause grave offense, but if you really didn’t want to/weren’t able to drink anymore to just mention that you’re taking medication for rabies (there are a lot of stray dogs that bite) and that you can’t drink. This is the only acceptable excuse.
I fell in love with this little crêperie close to the Moulin Rouge in Paris. It looks kind of dingy so most tourists stay away from it, which means no long lines and the food there is awesome and completely affordable. I’d never have found it from sitting in an airport. It’s just not the same, telling someone traveling to Istanbul that they should definitely check out the Starbucks next Boarding Gate 3.
6. You remain unchanged.
In Madrid, I learned how truly independent I can be. It was my first time overseas, on my own in a country where I didn’t speak the language. In Paris I learned that it’s not a bad thing to ask for help when you need it. Camping all over southern Africa taught me how friendly people can be (an important thing to bear in mind sometimes in an increasingly cynical world).
Countries where I’ve only been in transit have not taught me similar lessons, but here is what I did learn: the Istanbul airport has really nice Starbucks. Doha’s airport is hot all the time, and not somewhere fun to spend a 10-hour layover. The airport I traveled through in France is overpriced, and unfriendly; what I paid for a sandwich at that airport is what I paid for an entire meal at the right brasserie.
When we stay in an airport, we are not changed by the experience. What I remember about airports is either stress, boredom or laughing/crying about how much a simple sandwich costs. It’s definitely part of the experience of traveling, but it’s not where memories and friends are made and sitting in transit is not the reason we travel.