In Defense of Travel Envy

Jen Willis


In thinking about my complicated feelings about traveling, I found that a lot of it has to do with New York City and money. So, I wrote this piece for my fellow poor people who also get infuriated when other people go on vacation. That’s it.

Before I had wanderlust, I had travel envy.

Travel envy is exactly what it sounds like -- you see other people’s photos or videos of their travels, and you get really jealous. That was me before I had traveled anywhere outside of the US and Canada that no one else in my family had already touched. That was me even while I was studying abroad, and is still me now that I’ve already had that experience and I’m back at home. Travel envy is inescapable to me, because, you know, people are poor and not everyone can afford to travel.

I remember being in high school, coming back from spring break pastier than ever, to find that many of my classmates had gotten tanned, even sunburnt. I was infuriated. I deserved a vacation back  then. I worked hard. My high school was one of the best in the state, and it took me almost my entire four years to get adjusted to it because I came from a nearly failing middle school in an underserved community. In my freshman year, I looked around at my classmates and realized I couldn’t write a proper essay. It really hurt me. I spent the next four years trying to prove myself in a school where most of the other students had been given the tools to succeed: basic reading comprehension, basic writing skills, and basic verbal communication. The Manhattan kids were the ones who had an easier time, and they were also the ones coming back from spring break tanned and refreshed. I’m not sure if any pressure would have been relieved by taking any crazy international vacations, but it certainly would have at least been nice. But my family couldn’t afford vacations back then, and I still can’t really afford them now. I can’t really blame my parents for that.

Being poor is exhausting. Being poor in New York City is exhausting. Being in NYC is exhausting in general, but there’s something about spending $130 a month on a failing public transportation system in a place where $15 an hour isn’t a living wage that is especially soul draining. I don’t care how glamorous Manhattan has to look; people in outer boroughs depend on the subway to get them to work on time, and more often than not, the MTA fails. Try saving for vacation when you have to spend extra money on other ways to get to work because the trains you already pay $130 a month for are totally useless. One day, I was feeling adventurous, and took an express bus to work. I paid my $6.50, and ended up being 40 minutes late because of traffic. Looking at someone’s vacation in Jamaica would piss you off if you saw it on a delayed train that was making you late for work for the fifth time that month; that’s all I’m saying.

So yeah, as a commuting student also working at the same time, I had (and still have) really bad travel envy. Life sucks. I run from classes I struggle in to a thankless job in a harsh city, and then back to my home, where I still live with my parents. All this to still be in debt, living paycheck to paycheck. Anyone else would be pissed off all the time too.

Poor people are allowed to feel angry at their situations. If a white girl posts another picture with cornrows in Jamaica captioned “ya mon,” I am absolutely entitled to lose my shit. As toxic as it is to compare yourself to others, poor people do it all the time. Because not only are we constantly stressing about what we’re going without, on top of it all, the world is telling us it’s our fault.

My first vacation outside the US and Canada was to Aruba, whose relatively inexpensive flights and hotel are still gaining interest on my credit cards. I had to take out my own private student loan to study abroad. Anyone with any financial sense would tell me that those were bad decisions, but they have already been made, so here we are. That’s the thing; poor people can’t even fully enjoy a vacation because they’d feel like the money could be better spent in another way. Even while I was studying abroad, I was torn. I had travel envy because my classmates could afford to go places every weekend, meanwhile I barely scraped by on my summer savings that I tried to make last for the entire semester. I was already mad at myself for taking out the extra loan in the first place, but was also mad I didn’t take out an extra couple thousand to make the trip feel worthwhile. Each financial decision is a struggle between your present feelings and your future burden. Sometimes, the need for instant gratification wins out, but it’s not like you won’t be struggling in the future anyway. It’s always a lose-lose situation.

So yeah, I’m mad to see someone going on vacation with what feels like every three seconds. My previous vacations don’t change that, because I’m still struggling now and I will have to pay off those debts later, and I feel like shit about it. Vacations that put you in debt aren’t any fun, but for some, there isn’t really any other way to do it. And just because some people can afford to just put their travel-envious feelings aside and feel good about their lives doesn’t mean everyone else has the luxury of doing so.

I don’t have a magic remedy to end feelings of travel envy. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this. Wanderlust and travel envy can be easy to succumb to if you find you’re not enjoying your life. There’s no easy answer to this problem. You can either try very hard to save up for a vacation, and sacrifice some immediate well-being; you could take out a loan and sacrifice well-being down the road, if you can afford a loan at all; or you could not travel in the first place and just live life in FOMO. All we can definitely do is take care of ourselves and find small moments of joy. Be mad, please, be mad as much as you need to. Anger gives us power to create change. But remember to take a step back and appreciate any good moments, however few and far between, because you do deserve to feel good.