Too Many Places: Overcoming the Paradox of Choice

One of my fave travel bloggers, Nomadic Matt, recently posted this piece and it struck a chord as I was pondering where to go in September. Check out what he advises…  – Nick


A man staring out of an airport window looking at airplanes

“Where should I go?” is a question I frequently ask myself.

Wanting to escape the oppressive summer heat of Austin in August, I’ve spent the last few months staring at a map, unable answer that very question. I toyed with the idea of heading to Madagascar, Hawaii, Malta, Kenya, the Caribbean, the Maldives, Dubai, or Sri Lanka.

And, because I couldn’t choose and was so afraid to commit, it wasn’t until this week I finally decided — just weeks before I wanted to go. (More on that later.)

Why?

I was suffering from what psychologists call “choice overload.”

Whether we have two weeks, two months, or two years, deciding where to go is the hardest part about travel. Once you have the time, picking the destination becomes a task of whittling down a long list of “must-see” destinations.

When people are faced with too many options, they are sometimes so paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice that they don’t make any choice.

Think of standing in the cereal aisle. We have all these options right in front of us, but we keep going back to our old favorite, Fruity Pebbles. (Or, Cinnamon Toast Crunch if we’re feeling crazy!)

We may want to try something new, but we can’t figure out what we want the most — there are just too many options! How do we choose? How do we know we won’t make the wrong choice? So, paralyzed with indecision, we go back to what we know. And, if we don’t have a favorite, often we just choose what is popular and familiar to our mind (Cheerios).

In psychology, this is called “analysis paralysis.” Contemplating our options becomes such a taxing mental burden that we don’t make a decision. Our minds want shortcuts. It’s how we process all the information thrown at us each day. It’s too difficult to think about every simple decision all the time. Going with what you know and is familiar is how we shortcut our analysis paralysis. (This is all explained in the 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, which I highly recommend reading!)

Think of the world as the proverbial cereal aisle. We’re looking forward to picking a cereal (a destination), but suddenly realize we have too many options. Faced with so many choices and without a strong opinion (e.g., I really want to go to Thailand this fall!), we stare blankly, wondering if picking a destination is the right choice, so we end up (a) fretting about it for months like I did, missing flight deals and precious planning time or (b) end up with what is big, popular, and familiar (let’s visit Paris for the tenth time!).

I often get so paralyzed by choice that I don’t book a trip until the last minute, and even then, I often suffer from buyer’s remorse. Did I really want to book that flight to Dubai? Or should I have gone to Madagascar instead? If I do this trip, will I have time to visit Peru later this year, or should I just go to Peru now?

Last week, after months of fretting, I finally bit the bullet and booked tickets to Dubai, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. I’m beyond thrilled (especially for Sri Lanka) but in the back of my mind I still find myself thinking, “Is 15 days really enough to enjoy Sri Lanka? Maybe I should go somewhere else until I can spend more time there!”

Of course, when I get to the destination — any destination — all of that second-guessing melts away and I have the time of my life.

If you’re a long-term traveler, you can go anywhere for as long as you want. But when you only have a limited amount of time — because you’re like me and slowing down, or because you just have a few weeks off from work and need to make the most of them — you have to be more selective.

So how do you narrow down your destinations, get on with your trip planning, and not suffer the anxiety that comes with choice overload?

This experience has given me a new philosophy on trip planning. I’ve changed how I decide on destinations:

First, embrace the variety. You’re always going to be overwhelmed by choice. There will always be more destinations to visit than you have time to see. The list of places to visit will only get longer the more you travel, not shorter. Don’t fight it. Recognize it, but don’t let it control you.

Second, start with list of ten places you want to go right now. Come up with the destinations that are at the top of your mind. This year, now that I am taking fewer trips, I want my trips to be to places I’ve never been and are as culturally different as possible, so I came up with the list at the top of this blog (yes, I know not all of the places are culturally different from each other!).

Third, figure out when you can go and how long you have. For me, since I was only going in August, I knew I had exactly a month (since I have to be stateside for weddings in September and October).

Fourth, think of the time of year. Which country has the weather you want to enjoy the most? I’m trying to escape the heat of inland Austin, so I wanted beaches. I crossed Hawaii and the Caribbean off the list, but I still wanted something beachy and adventurous. The Maldives and Sri Lanka may be hot, but they have beaches!

Fifth, make the length of your travels proportional to the size of the country. I didn’t want to attempt to visit large countries like India, Brazil, or China when I have just a few weeks. I wanted to see smaller destinations that I could explore more in depth during a shorter period of time. By this point I knew I was down to using Dubai as a hub and finding destinations from there.

Finally, look up flights. From Dubai, it was $1,700 USD to Madagascar but $400 to the Maldives, and $0 to get to and from Sri Lanka, thanks to airline miles. I didn’t have enough points to fly on the African carriers I wanted (I burned 100K United points last month on other flights — whoops!) so Madagascar and Kenya were out of the question. That left the Maldives and Sri Lanka as the best places to visit from Dubai.

And, with that, where I’m going was settled.

Once I stopped letting too much choice keep me from making a decision and after logically going through my checklist, I stopped hemming and hawing about where I wanted to go, found my destinations, booked my trip, and got on with getting excited about visiting new places.

Overcoming choice overload in travel is about first realizing that there will always be more places to visit than you have time, then figuring out what destinations fit what you can do right now. Once you start with your list of destinations, getting down to the perfect one becomes a process of elimination.

I know many of you suffer from the same problem I do (your emails to me are proof), and I hope you use this advice to overcome choice overload.

Because there will always be too many destinations to choose from and too little time to see them in.


Rio Celeste Falls

Rio Celeste Falls

Nomadic Matt is author of the New York Times best-selling book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. He’s been travelling the world since 2006 and created his website to help others travel more while spending less. Growing up in Boston, he says: “I was never a big traveler. I didn’t take my first trip overseas until I was 23. Outside a cruise and college trip to Montreal, I had no travel experience. After college, I got a job and the standard American two weeks a year vacation. I wanted to use that time to travel. After all, it was vacation time, right? So for my first trip overseas, I went on a tour to Costa Rica. That trip changed my life. It opened me up to the possibilities of the world. I was just a sheltered middle class suburban kid before that trip.

In Costa Rica, I experienced other cultures, got lost in a jungle, saw real poverty, conservation projects in action, and met people from around the world. From that moment on, I was hooked in travel. All I wanted to do was travel, see more of the world, and learn more about the people in it. But like most Americans I only had two weeks of vacation per year and I didn’t know any of the genius ways to save money and travel longer.”

You can find Matt on http://www.nomadicmatt.com/

 

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