How We Tolerate Travel: A Weekend Trip By The Numbers

I’ve been working on a theory for a little while now about why some habitual travelers continue their journeys, and I’m starting to think that it’s got to do with the level of anguish involved in being on the road – or rather, our tolerance for it. Hipmunk uses a style of this data on their search engine called “agony,” which is a measure of suffering incurred by lower leg room, higher baggage fees and a variety of other variables that can make airline travel miserable. That level of duress can be applied to other experiences as well.

To apply this to experiential travel, it’s first useful to think about the influences presented to any person in motion. While external influences like class of service, traffic and weather affect every passenger, internal factors such as purpose (i.e., business, leisure, wedding or funeral), health and state of mind can vary by each person. Add up the external influences in parallel then multiply that number by each person’s perspective, say, their Coefficient of Travel Tolerance (COTT), and one can produce a relative comparison between each experience.

So someone with a low coefficient of travel tolerance (i.e., someone with a high tolerance for difficult travel) could handle a journey in a chicken bus just as well as someone with a high coefficient (i.e., someone who hates leaving home) could handle a flight in international first class.

Wanting to quantify part of this theory with actual data, I ran an experiment on my weekend trip home for a wedding this past June. The itinerary I concocted was complex but not difficult: leave work on Friday, take the train home to visit my parents in West Michigan that evening and then pick up the train again the next morning for a wedding in Ann Arbor. On Sunday I would take the last flight out of Detroit to return quickly back to my home in Chicago.

I broke down the journey into several categories and separated my time out in groups of five minutes. Travel, whether by car, bus, bicycle, airplane or train was one section, while leisure, work, wedding, eating, sleeping and “other” filled out the rest. A few sections overlapped; for example, the meal consumed on the Amtrak train between Chicago and Niles counted as both travel and eating time (category: meals, dinner, prepared).

Breaking down the data by category at the end of the trip, I found that 25.33% of my time was spent traveling, 28.97% was sleeping, and 9.26% was spent eating and working respectively. Of my time in transit, 44.1% was spent on trains, 23.8% was spent in a car and 18.5% was on foot, while 7.3% of my time was in an airplane, 4.7% was on bicycle and 1.6% was on a bus. Of those in a car, 36% was spent in my father’s Mazda MPV 6 while 55% was spent in my friend Aaron’s BMW 3.28xi. At the wedding, 8.9% of my time was spent in the bouncy castle.

For me, that 25.33% of time in transit for a weekend visiting family and friends was entirely worth my investment. I held a few meetings with colleagues, worked on the train, watched the news with my parents and told stories with Aaron and his wife.

Others might find that 25.33% too high to justify the trip. Whether it’s work or family commitments, high stress levels, reality television or budgetary, for many, a short weekend spent traveling the world is often not worth the destination.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are plenty of people who would be comfortable spending most of their weekend on the road. Mileage runners, people who book and fly itineraries solely for the valuable miles, often fly across the country or the ocean just to spend an hour in the airport and return home. Those travel ratios can be as high as 90%.

Now combine that time on the road with one’s Coefficient of Travel Tolerance. My journey worked well because I have a high tolerance and only needed to spend 25% of my time on the road. The mileage runner works because he’s got a really high tolerance despite being on the road almost exclusively. Our will to travel dictates how complex our itineraries become.

As it is right now, my tolerance is high because I languish in the art of travel and in the problem solving in getting from point A to B. I enjoy staring out the airplane window, people watching and drinking coffee from train station cafes. I’m happy on the road, and will continue to be for the near future. Ask me again after I have kids.