Traveling is a privilege, but do you know just how many travel privileges you can possess?
Let’s Unpack That is a travel education series where we process and unpack our baggage of social identities, issues, and travel privileges to understand how they impact our travel experiences. We will cover everything from conscious travel to voluntourism. In each post, we focus on a topic or social issue to dig deeper and reflect on our travel experiences. Whether in our own countries or abroad, understanding our impact can help us be more responsible and conscientious travelers.
By definition, a privilege is a particular advantage a population has over another. At this point, I do not think it is a secret that travel is a privilege. Yet, it is time we go more in-depth about how it is a privilege beyond the mere act of booking a trip. Complexities are occurring that we may not be fully conscious of on our adventures. Yes, travel privilege is about having the means to explore the world for leisure. However, our social identities affect our social location and inform the benefits we possess when we are, or are not, traveling. And there are many to unpack.
Let’s dig more into this topic.
Table of Contents
Types of travel privilege with examples
As travelers, we cannot stop and just say, “travel is a privilege.” Yes, traveling to an exotic island for fun is a privilege overall. However, there are other identity-based privileges that are linked to our travel privilege. The list below does not mention every possible privilege. Nevertheless, here are some types of travel privilege to start processing your experiences and understand if these have applied to your journey.
Aside from white privilege, passport privilege is one of the most highly talked about benefits. This travel privilege refers to your nationality and citizenship, which determines how many countries you can access visa-free/visa-on-arrival. Passport privilege shows up when you book a vacation without completing extra paperwork or pre-visa interviews. There are ways to check this privilege too.
Passport privilege occurs if you submit visa paperwork without the fear that rejection can hinder future travel opportunities. A third example is going to an embassy/consulate without fearing discrimination or longer wait times based on your passport color. Additionally, if you can avoid being detained and intensely questioned at customs, that is an example of passport privilege.
We know travel is all about money. But certain currencies have more power than others, and that is currency privilege. It is defined by your country’s currency and monetary value compared to other destinations. Money in countries from the Global North is worth more than countries in the Global South. Currency privilege also means travelers in these countries get better exchange rates and can make their money stretch “on a budget” because your currency can stretch more in other destinations.
Other examples of currency privilege include going to a destination and not worrying about exchanging money because your currency is accepted regardless. Traveling and spend money without worrying about losing much money due to conversion rates is also an example of travel privilege. The U.S. dollar is the “international reserve currency” as it has become the main currency the world uses to trade and save.
There is power in language, so it is no surprise that language privilege exists. This travel privilege refers to the language you speak and knowing that someone will communicate it to you without understanding the destination’s language no matter where you go. As a native English speaker, language privilege applies to us and includes finding menus and transportation signs in your chosen destination. Traveling for months in multiple countries and not learn their languages or people apologizing for not knowing your language when you don’t remember theirs are other examples.
Sexual orientation privilege
Sexual orientation plays a massive role in how we travel. An immense impact is that being LGBTQIA+ is illegal in countries around the world. Therefore if you are a heterosexual person, you have this privilege. Other examples include showing affection publicly without fearing harassment or violence. Furthermore, you can openly show affection to your partner without worrying if your sexual orientation is legal in your travel destination.
Another example of sexual orientation privilege is openly discussing dating, relationships, or your partner without fearing the consequences if someone overhears you. As you plan a trip, you book it without worrying if you have to hide your sexuality for your safety is an example of this travel privilege. Also, there is a privilege in traveling with a partner. With sexual orientation privilege, you do not worry about the optics of booking a one-bedroom and not a two-bedroom accommodation.
Have you ever thought about how your physical mobility affects how you travel? Well, that is all linked to accessibility privilege. Booking hotels, any accommodations, or transportation without checking for elevators or asking the staff to accommodate you is an example of accessibility privilege. A second example is participating in free walking tours without worrying about the street’s quality or chronic pain.
If you attend large festivals or use air travel without worrying about small and enclosed spaces or being around many people, those are also examples of accessibility privilege. One last example is traveling without packing any medicine required for you due to a health condition or checking food and water precautions.
Body size privilege
Our physical appearance also influences our travel experiences. Body size privilege (and in some cases referred to as thin privilege) is when your body type/size protects you from weight stigma (to a certain degree) and fat-shaming as you travel. An example of body size privilege is booking a flight without suggesting you need to buy two seats. Seeing people with your body type as the default model and represented in travel marketing and media is another example.
Think about the weight limits at amusement parks and other activities. Going to these tourist attractions and not worrying about the weight constraints is an example of body size privilege. Another example of this travel privilege is traveling comfortably on transportation modes without wondering if you will fit in the seats. Additionally, eating and going out and about without people staring, making judgments, or laughing at you due to your body type are examples of this privilege too.
White privilege is one of the most talked-about privileges in general, but we will discuss it concerning traveling. This travel privilege refers to your race/skin tone and the inherent individual and systemic advantages of being white. An example of white privilege in travel means people will not question and ask you, “where are you really from?” That question is common for Black American travelers.
Traveling without worrying about microaggressions, overt and covert racism is another example of white privilege. You are studying abroad and surrounded by other students who look like you is also an example of white privilege while traveling. White privilege is going through customs, airports, stores, etc., without worrying about being racially profiled. And if you are in the travel blogger, writer, and influencer space, being afforded more opportunities and paid more than non-white creators is an example.
First world privilege or Western privilege
The language “first world” is not used as much now (Global North has replaced it); however, that is still the current language. The first-world privilege is unearned advantages based on your citizenship and nationality from “Western” or Global North countries. The ability to get a job in someone else’s country relatively quickly (with minimal qualifications) or work in professions where locals may not be able to are examples of this travel privilege.
Another example is booking trips without worrying about your visa being denied and having more money to travel. The latter is due to currency privilege in Global North countries, aka the “First World.” Additionally, the ability to travel more passport privilege (which Global North countries have) is another travel privilege that intertwines with this one. You may also hear this referred to as “western privilege” as well.
Even though it seems like a no-brainer, location privilege is another travel privilege to understand. It is based on your locality/ geography (ex. continent, country, city) and the accompanying accessibility to resources. Some examples of location privilege include easy access to various types of transportation for travel (ex. planes, metro, train) and having opportunities to secure flights or other travel deals more easily. This travel privilege can also impact layovers and taking flights or trains directly and/or with shorter connections. Additional examples of location privilege includes having multiple options for airlines and flight time availability and living in a city with one large or multiple airports.
Why understanding our travel privileges are important
They affect who can and cannot travel
Though it is a beautiful dream, the world is not set up for everyone to quit their job and travel the world. Heck, the world is not designed for everyone to be a digital nomad or entrepreneur. Even though many circumstances are within our control, many are not, and that is where privilege is present. Therefore we must understand how and why we can travel the world. It is also essential to comprehend how others are unable to do the same.
The world is more significant than us
Life should not revolve around one person, culture, and community. Understanding our travel privileges broaden our viewpoint to empathize with others and check ourselves humbly. There are more complex structures in play that affect these experiences. Whether you are a slow traveler or a country hopper, pausing to reflect and think about what we are doing is necessary. It reminds us that the world, and the people in it, are more significant than passport stamps, Instagram pictures, or even blog posts.
We should not perpetuate harm onto the places we visit
As much as I love traveling, I am still conscious that someone else’s home should not be my playground. Breaking down our travel privileges puts this into perspective. In theory, it would be nice if travel is about cultural immersion and learning from each other. However, tourism, as it is designed, it leaves very little room for reciprocity. We do not want to contribute to another nation’s oppression, especially if we are marginalized in our home countries.
Can you individually dismantle all these travel privileges?
Of course not. We all live in systems that help and harm people based on these privileges. While it may be overwhelming to identify these concepts, know that you can not bring them down independently. One single person did not create them and continue to reinforce them. Thus, one person cannot be responsible for dismantling them. Myself included. We may not have made these privileges, but we benefit from them. However, there are some actions we can take.
So, how do we acknowledge our travel privilege?
Honestly, the list of travel privileges is never-ending. There are many social identities and experiences we can discuss. The plan is a place to start and unpack what it means to have travel privileges beyond socioeconomic class. I am processing, learning, and unlearning each day and through each trip. Yet, there are some things we can actively do to address these problems.
Start reflecting about these travel privileges at home
Our values and practices we exhibit at home shape how we move abroad. Begin by understanding how your identity shapes how you move through your hometown, city, country, etc. The internal work is first before the external work begins. Reflect on what identities are more salient to you and why at home. From there, you can start to put the pieces together. Though it may not apply to every situation, move with the motto that “if you are hesitant to do it at home, do not do it abroad.” And even if you think you should ask first.
Think about how you want visitors to treat your community
On top of internal reflections, think about your community too. Whether you are an expat or vacationer, you are still in a country that is not your original home. Staying long-term can build that community, but that is not the case for most travelers. If someone was visiting your origin country and neighborhood, how would you want them to treat it? People have to live there long after your trip is over. Be aware of that and move intentionally.
Support local people when we travel
In an era of intense globalization, supporting local communities as we travel is necessary. If you are debating between a locally-owned tourism company and a more prominent name, choose the locals. Instead of staying in a hotel chain, consider bed and breakfast owned by locals. There are little things we can do to be aware of how we spend our money. Traveling and supporting local businesses is also one of the best ways to use your currency privilege.
Culturally appreciate, do not culturally appropriate
Travel is exciting, and sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and not read the room. As we are visiting another country, we should be respectful of traditions. There is a thin line between cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation. We do not want to get stuck on the cultural appropriation side. Do your research on the destination you are visiting beforehand to make sure you do not appropriate. And even if you do, because we all make mistakes, apologize. Now that we know better, we can do better.
Reject ethnocentric thoughts, values, and actions
Despite our travel privileges, our home country and culture’s customs, traditions, and practices are not superior to everyone else’s. We should be going to destinations to learn and expand our knowledge of what we think is true. Countries in the Global North or “Western” countries treat themselves as the pillars of wisdom. But that point of view is ethnocentric and has led to disastrous consequences. Be open-minded and do not move with the mindset that your culture is better than another because you all have differing practices. Let’s not make assumptions.
Ask for permission, do not exploit people
Power dynamics and privilege work hand-in-hand in oppression. Travel privileges are no different. And yes, there are power dynamics when a tourist asks a local for permission to do something. However, taking photos of naked Black children on a mission trip and posting them on social media is not the way. A child cannot give consent no matter how much their story “touches” you. Asking for permission can prevent exploitation.
Destroy our savior complexes
Collaboration and partnership are one thing. Thinking you can and should “save” a country is another. And it is an absolute no-no. People from the Global South do not need travelers from the Global North to save them. The white savior complex is one of the downsides of travel, yet it is prevalent throughout the industry. Do not make assumptions that you know best because your country “does it better.” Language around good and bad, or better and worse, is all subjective. Also, remember, you do not have to be white to have a savior complex. Black and brown people from the Global North can have one too.
Unpacking who we are never ends, even when our vacation does
Social identities of privilege or oppression are things you didn’t ask for and constructed by society. They can be circumstances you were born with or ones you attain through a skill or opportunity. These travel privileges have real-life implications. They shape how easy it is to country hop to accumulate passport stamps or go to a destination and navigate without knowing its language. We benefit from them, which means exploitation occurs on the opposite end.
Tourism thrives off this power imbalance. And many of us, especially travelers from the Global North, benefit from these circumstances. As travelers, we need to be aware of the travel privileges we hold to make us better and more responsible travelers. It is the least we can do when we visit other people’s homelands for a vacation. So let’s continue to educate ourselves and unlearn!
This section is like homework, but better!
You don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you know learn more! Check out the following resources to further unpack your travel privileges.
– “Stop pretending everyone can travel:” This is a blog post by travel blogger Oneika Raymond. We have to be realistic in what we way and how we say it. Oneika’s post breaks down why we should acknowledge our travel privilege and the double standard of saying everyone can travel. As this post has laid out, there are many privileges behind those who can and cannot travel.
– Let’s Unpack That Series: Now, I usually do not plug myself in this section. But, unpacking our travel privileges and social issues in travel is one of my passions. Sojournies is about going abroad and exploring the world. However, I want us to travel deeper. I want us to plan intentionally and travel responsibly. You can find topics on cultural differences dating abroad, heritage tourism, culture shock, and other travel privileges. Read more from this series to continue to unpack your travel experiences!
Ready to read more? Check out this post on social constructs in travel!