Why I Stopped Making Travel Bucket Lists—And Won’t Make One Again

Many of my favorite experiences were moments that weren't even on my bucket list.

Why make a travel bucket list?

We live in a day and age of road trips and budget travel. If possible, we can take a long weekend and drive a few hours within the United States to a new city, or have the luxury of staying home for a staycation. Travel bucket lists were a great way for me to organize dreams into one consolidated list. One of my dreams is still to hike the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, along the Camino Frances route from the southern part of France across the northern part of Spain until ending at the tomb of St. James. However, I’ve found that by putting these experiences into a list, I just end up with the following question: am I cherishing the list or am I valuing the experience? If you’re looking to create your own bucket list, here are 50 iconic adventures for each of the 50 states.

Madeline wahl Why I Stopped Making Travel Bucket Lists

Is an experience something to be checked off of a list?

For the longest time, I’ve paged through travel books and read through travel blogs and watched travel videos, all with the desire to explore new places and the dream that one day, I will be able to travel, too. However, is what someone else doing what I want to be doing? After seeing bucket list places like the Colosseum, the leaning tower of Pisa, and the Mona Lisa on a group tour, I loved the experience. But did I enjoy the experience because I’ve been told by everyone and every outlet to enjoy the experience, or because I was actually enjoying being there in the moment? In truth, while I did enjoy visiting the tourist spots, many of my favorite experiences were off the beaten path, or experiences I hadn’t even considered in the planning process of my trip. Along with exploring tourist destinations, I’ve found it’s great to explore underrated travel destinations.

Over time, I realized that when I’d plan for a trip, I’d place so much pressure on the experience. This had to be the best experience ever because I’d invested so much time and money into it. I requested days off of work, I budgeted my spending for a long time, and I wanted to have the best experience. After looking forward to an event for so long, there’s an added layer of expectation that’s imperceptible at first, but becomes more apparent the more the trip continues on. When I finally arrived in certain places, I began to feel this pressure of having to like a place because I’ve been looking forward to it for so long. It took time to switch my way of thinking around. Instead of going to see everything I wanted to see, I began to have an open mind. Instead of choosing a place because all the guidebooks tell me to go there, I decided to select places from word-of-mouth recommendations that piqued my interest.

Madeline wahl Why I Stopped Making Travel Bucket ListsCourtesy Madeline Wahl

How I travel without a bucket list

After spending so much time on the road, I realized that many of my “bucket list” experiences weren’t actually on my “bucket list” to begin with. One of my favorite memories from my first solo trip to Iceland was going to a concert to see an Icelandic band I’d never heard of before with a friend I met while on my trip. Our very last-minute decision resulted in us renting a car the next day and driving about 45 minutes from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik to the nearby city of Keflavik, where the major airport is located, to buy concert tickets at a small bar. Once we arrived, we found out the band was having dinner next door, so we, too, had dinner next door and met the band. We made our way to the concert, where they sang in English but spoke in Icelandic, so everyone would laugh at a joke while my friend and I could only wonder what had been so funny. Traveling to Iceland in winter alone became one of the reasons why I decided to take solo trips every single year.

Another experience that was nowhere near my bucket list was my cross-country road trip across America. The trip came about because my grandfather had died and my cousin inherited my late grandfather’s car, so instead of hiring a random company to take the car, I offered to take the car on a road trip… alone. The journey took a little over a month, and along the way, I met some of the kindest people I’ve ever met and toured places I never thought to experience. Wandering around White Sands National Park and looking out into a sea of sand under clear blue skies, descending to the depths of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, and driving through Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, sometimes being the only person for miles, turned into experiences I will forever cherish.

By far the experience I will hold close to my heart is attending Hogmanay in Scotland. The Scots word for the last day of the year is Hogmanay, and the celebration is closely tied with celebrating the New Year. I was in Vienna over Christmas (another experience not on my bucket list) deciding whether to celebrate the new year in Prague or Budapest. However, deep down I wanted to go to Scotland but was nervous about going—for personal reasons. I enjoyed my previous trips wandering around Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Isle of Skye, but this time I thought I should go somewhere new, and didn’t know if I was ready to return to Scotland. Turns out, I was, and in the end, I knew I had to go. As soon as I made that decision, I booked my flight, booked my accommodation, and flew off on another trip to spend New Year’s Eve solo in a different country. That experience of walking in the Torchlight Procession, having New Year’s Eve dinner alone, listening to Franz Ferdinand live in concerts and fireworks illuminating the night sky at midnight became an experience I’ll never forget. That fierce independence, that experience of knowing everything will work out, and finally enjoying my own company was well worth the moment not being on any bucket list.

Since these experiences kept happening, I unconsciously decided to stop making bucket lists. Many of these moments were inspired by moments on the road. I never would have gone to that experience had I read it in a book; I had to see it for myself. Looking forward to your next trip? Here are 23 travel quotes that will inspire your wanderlust.

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com