Travel Addiction Is Real, Science Says

By Paul Gaita 08/10/17

"Vagabond neurosis" is one of the many monikers for travel dependency.

Female traveler holding suitcase and passport

An estimated 44.2 million people took a vacation 50 miles or more from their homes to celebrate this past July 4th, and statistics show that for 28% of family travelers that trip might be just one of three or more they take this year. But for some individuals, even that amount of extended getaways won't satisfy their need to travel.

As a recent feature in Conde Nast Traveler noted, their wanderlust can take on compulsive qualities akin to substance dependency. The condition—known under a variety of names, including "travel addiction" and "vagabond neurosis"—has even earned mention in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which described it as an "impulse-control disorder" characterized by "an abnormal impulse to travel [in which sufferers] are prepared to spend beyond their means, sacrifice jobs, lovers, and security in their lust for new experiences." 

But does "travel addiction" qualify as an actual dependency? For social psychologist Dr. Michael Brein, the answer is simple: "Yes, it's possible," he says. "Travel addiction is much more psychological [than biochemical, but] like anything, if you let it overwhelm you, it can have serious effects on other aspects of your life."

Lee Abbamonte, a Connecticut native who at the age of 32 became the youngest American to visit every country in the world, is quoted in the feature as having personally encountered people in his journeys that meet the criteria of the DSM's definition. "They can't stop and are willing to risk everything in life to travel," he said. "You'll see a lot of people who have lost their spouses, their fortunes, and even their houses."

But as the Conde Nast feature also notes, there are thousands of people who have devoted considerable time and energy to earn Abbamonte's crown or similar laurels. The story cites websites like Most Traveled People and Shea's ISO List, which keep tabs on more than 30,000 individuals—known as competitive travelers, "country collectors" or "tickers"—who amass international travel experiences like others seek out rare baseball cards or bottles of vintage wine.

Do they qualify as people with travel addiction? Dr. Brein says that while many of the people he's met and treated have taken their travel passions to extreme levels—even winding up in jail in their efforts to get from Remote Point A to Even More Remote Point B—very few actually qualify as psychologically dependent on travel. "Figuring out what causes it is incredibly complicated," notes Brein.

So a dependency on travel can be, in many cases, defined by how one views the experience—as a literal ticket away from the rigors of everyday life, or a genuine craving to be somewhere else. "Travel is an escape," says Brein. "But it shouldn't only be an escape. You can only do it so much."

Abbamonte, who now divides his time between jaunts around the globe and his own business, advises against wholesale investiture into competitive traveling. "Whenever someone asks me how feasible it is to quit your job, leave your home and travel fulltime, I tell them, 'Don't even think about it.' It's the slippery slope to madness."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.