Zen and the Art of Travel Checklists

By alison - February 22, 2011 (Updated: November 21, 2014)

Travel Guides

No, it’s not a shop. It’s my bookshelf…

I am currently mired in travel planning. Andrew and I have several big trips coming up, the soonest and most daunting being our trip to India, next month.

I love planning, organising, researching and coming up with itineraries. Even so, I’ve noticed 6 years of expat life has changed the way I think about planning travel.

Research, Research, Research

If you’ve spent any time on at all, you’ll know I am a travel junkie.  Walking into the travel section of a bookshop is like a drug addict walking into a crack house.  My collection of guidebooks rivals most libraries and my stack of travel magazines resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Don’t even get me started on the jumble of travel related links in my bookmarks folder.  Before going on a trip, I spend hours checking Wiki and google images to scout out locations I want to photograph and visit.

But despite all of this planning, I’ve learned how important it is to give myself time to immerse myself in my destination, leave some things to chance and just breathe.

Travel Inspiration

Travel Inspiration

The (un) Zen of Travel

I wasn’t always quite so Zen about travelling. In fact, during my earlier travels, I couldn’t imagine not having every moment scheduled. After all, I had a long check-list. A moment wasted could have been another sight seen.  And I sure did see a lot – but it was at a cost.

What I sacrificed with those jam-packed schedules, was getting sense of place. I didn’t allow time to go off the beaten track; to discover how the locals live and interact; or to absorb the sights, sounds and smells around me.  Being an expat, these past 6 years, has taught me, you need time to even start to understand a culture.

I also sacrificed my own health. Racing from place to place, with no relaxation time, takes a toll on the immune system. While I’m not the type of girl who spends a week on the beach for vacation, a day or two of R&R is good for the body and the spirit. Returning home after a vacation feeling less tired than before I left is a definite bonus.

The Real Zen of Travel

Since those early days of hectic travel, I’ve learned the beauty of sitting in an out of the way cafe, lingering over a coffee, listing to the chatter around me, even when I don’t understand the language, and just watching life pass by, on the street before me.

I understand the compulsion to collect landmarks like children collect baseball cards. But I’ve also learned that some of the most interesting sights aren’t in the guidebooks.

Will I ever leave the guidebooks at home? I seriously doubt it. Will I stop reading travel books, magazines and blogs? No way! And I will never stop location scouting before a trip, as it is an essential part of my job as a photographer.

What I have learned is to limit my checklist to only a few major sights and to always allow extra time to relax and soak up the atmosphere.

Most of the landmarks we want to visit have been around for a very long time. They will wait patiently for us to come and enjoy them next time.

What kind of traveller are you? Do you have a checklist or just go with the flow? Have you changed how you travel? Leave your thoughts on travel below.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
One of my biggest goals in coming back to my home province was to learn as much as I could about our First... - 3 days ago


  1. Comment by Vera Marie Badertscher

    Vera Marie Badertscher February 22, 2011 at 21:10

    Perfect! I have learned to keep balance in my compulsive planning, too.
    Since I write about books that influence travel at A Traveler’s Library, I certainly would never discourage people from reading all about a place, but I’m more about novels and other books that give a sense of place than the lists of “must see” places. The very fact they are in the guidebook probably has made them overpriced and over crowded.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison February 23, 2011 at 10:14

      Agreed Vera. I will never give up my guidebooks and reading up on places before hand but allowing time to discover the hidden gems is important too 🙂

  2. Comment by Jen

    Jen February 22, 2011 at 21:55

    Well, with your India trip… plan for the unexpected 🙂 !!! Time passes in a totally different manner there…! Your camera will be your best friend… It’s hard to stop snapping away… Visually India is amazing, but it is also amazing to the other 4 senses (smell, touch, taste, sound)… I don’t know how you can capture that on film but I trust you will do your best 🙂 So excited for you 🙂

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison February 23, 2011 at 10:13

      I have no idea how I’m going to capture it all, I just hope I can do it some justice with my camera 🙂

  3. Comment by Leigh

    Leigh February 23, 2011 at 04:57

    Great advice Alison. I love a mix of scheduled & unscheduled days and often its the experiences that aren’t in the guidebook that make the trip memorable.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison February 23, 2011 at 10:12

      It’s true. I think a good balance of the two is the way to go.

  4. Comment by Shweta

    Shweta February 23, 2011 at 18:04

    Before becoming a mom of my two little ones, I used to travel with not much concrete planning. All I wanted to be sure of was that the flight and hotel was booked. The rest I was sure I would figure out.
    It also helped that my mind would never allow me to think about all the what-ifs but just focus on the excitement of getting to make that trip! I remember being too busy telling my family, friends, co-workers about my upcoming trip while having no specific answers to there questions such as where I was going specifically or what touristic destinations I was planning to visit while I am there??
    This story hasn’t completely changed since the birth of my two little ones but I research a lot more on every aspect of my trip being child-friendly. I call it my mommy-syndrome.
    I agree with you Alison! I remember people who need a vacation after their vacation primarily due to over planning and also not allowing as you said, “extra time to relax and soak up the atmosphere.”

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison February 24, 2011 at 10:18

      I’m travelling with little ones is a whole different ball-game and requires a lot more planning to keep them happy and entertained. That said I used to travel every summer with my parents growing up. The difference was we took road-trips in an RV so I could take along my favourite books and toys for the drive. Although I still spent hours just watching out the window. They didn’t do a whole lot of pre-planning, just chose a final destination and headed off to see what we could find. I guess that’s where I get the travel bug from 🙂

  5. Comment by Bluegreen Kirk

    Bluegreen Kirk March 23, 2011 at 19:45

    I think I need you to plan my trips you are def more organized and well prepared than I have ever been. Enjoy the trip to India.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 24, 2011 at 08:17

      Thanks Kirk! There’s something to be said for travelling without a plan but I do think preparation is important for me from the photography perspective. That and I am a serious control freak 😉

  6. Comment by cathy

    cathy April 15, 2011 at 16:28

    Hi Alison….Enjoyed this article…I could have written the exact words on our philosophy of travel. In previous years, our once a year trip to Europe was so un (Zen) now we travel the Zen way! Exactly like you said…”I’ve learned the beauty of sitting in an out of the way cafe, lingering over a coffee, listing to the chatter around me.” For me, now that I live here in Europe, I have the philosophy that I can go back next month, in a few months, or next year…. so I never feel rushed to see everything. And you definitely get to feel the culture and learn about the people by watching and wandering….without a guidebook. Cheers –

    Have fun in India!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison April 15, 2011 at 16:45

      Glad you liked it Cathy! It’s true, living here gives you more freedom to relax I think. Travel, for me anyway, is so much more about experiences than ‘must dos’. India was fantastic 🙂

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