woman climbs mountaintop
For competitive travelers, the sky's the limit. | Kar-Tr/iStock/Getty Images
For competitive travelers, the sky's the limit. | Kar-Tr/iStock/Getty Images

For Competitive Travelers, the World Is a Life-Sized Game of Risk

Apps like NomadMania and Most Traveled People (MTP) are turning globetrotting into an extreme sport.

Hiding in plain sight behind the mainstream vacation scene, a small community of extreme travelers are embroiled in a never-ending, worldwide competition. They traverse the planet as quickly and thoroughly as possible, bouncing from wonder to wonder, enduring brutal jet lag while racking up impressive (and wild) stats along the way. The reward? Swagger, camaraderie, online cred—not to mention a seriously inked-up passport.

Competitive travel might seem like a product of the digital age, but its origins actually go way back. The Travelers’ Century Club, a global organization founded for people who have ventured to 100 or more world territories, started recognizing these busy sightseers in 1954. Of course, back then, country-hopping was a pastime for members of the 1% who had tons of time on their hands. Today, travel is more affordable and accessible than ever. But one thing has remained the same: A burning drive to one-up fellow travelers by seeing and doing more—and bringing the receipts to prove it.

These competitive travelers may be propelled by an uncontrollable urge to roam, but the aim of the game for this exclusive group is often quantity over quality as they dash between destinations most have only dreamt of. Whether their amassed global perspective stems from privilege or enlightenment is a regular source of debate, but from a bird’s-eye view, there’s no denying that the world is simultaneously at their fingertips and under their feet.

nomadmania travel app
NomadMania is one of the competitive travel industry’s most popular apps. | NomadMania

How competitive travel works

Since the inception of Foursquare almost 15 years ago, geolocation technology has driven travelers to embed their personal pins all over the map. But many travelers craved services beyond check-ins showing their movements. They yearned for a challenge: a way to measure their travel accomplishments against themselves and, more crucially, their peers.

Developers responded, and today downloads for competitive-travel apps like NomadMania, Most Traveled People (MTP), and Zonder number in the hundreds of thousands.

Each app scratches a different itch. NomadMania’s community focus has an interactive vibe where members can face off with fellow citizens for travel glory. Zonder allows users to decline competing altogether for a more single-player game-like experience. MTP can filter by demographics like gender and age, allowing users of all backgrounds to get the accolades they deserve. Once travelers find the app that best suits them, the game is on.

With 193 UN-recognized Member States and two Observer States (Palestine and Vatican City) spread throughout the world, many travelers take great pride in ticking as many countries off their list as possible. But competitive travel extends beyond simple country-counting. These online platforms parse the planet into micro-regions, must-see UNESCO sites, and even super-niche categories like iconic castles and cable-car rides, thus making a huge concept like “the whole world” feel digestible. And every time a traveler marks a checklist box complete, that location is automatically added to their ongoing destination tracker.

man poses in front of waterfall
NomadMania Founder Harry Mitsidis poses in Epupa Falls, Namibia. | Photo courtesy of Harry Mitsidis

NomadMania divides the world into 1,301 distinct areas, and even offers a directory of fixers for anyone needing guidance while visiting harder-to-reach regions. MTP’s 5,800 possible checkmarks equate to points that award members funky titles tiered from “Couch Potato” to “Indiana Jones” to the cherished “Hall of Famer.” Zonder takes wanderers through an endless menu of collectable locales in over 150 countries.

For extreme nomads, digging into subcategories within travel tends to garner the best representations of their exploratory quests. This ultra-granular ranking mode helps more travelers, especially those with very specific tastes (see MTP's 29 Arctic areas), rise to the top of their specialized pool.

On most apps, there’s no set-in-stone standard for how much time or trekking is required to earn that coveted checkmark. In the spirit of “you do you,” members decide for themselves whether they’ve covered enough ground to earn the check. Some say a layover counts. Others believe they need to set foot on foreign soil, rather than just walk around an airport. And still others insist on a 24-hour minimum stay.

Of course, this general lack of regulation around standard milestones is a huge point of contention in an otherwise tight-knit community. Finding the balance between welcoming all travelers and also enforcing seemingly arbitrary rules can feel about as far off as visiting Kiribati. Yet NomadMania is the exception to this honor system format—the platform spot-checks travelers’ visa records to add a layer of authenticity.

“NomadMania sees itself as ‘breaking the rules’ in terms of a lot of things, including what we accept as a visit,” says founder Harry Mitsidis. “For example, going to the DMZ and claiming you've visited North Korea just doesn't cut it with us: We polled our community, which overwhelmingly rejected such visits.”

camera phone frames the coliseum in rome
Competitive travelers are racing to document their achievements—but what's the cost? | Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images

The good, the bad, and the lonely of competitive travel

While a competitive traveler's literal prizes look like having their names added to in-app scoreboards and posting digital badges to their profiles, travel’s real treasures lie in the collection of moments that make the world perpetually beautiful in light of its own chaos. Hence, the “sport” also encourages travelers to look beyond the obvious, if only to get that checkmark.

While the vacation masses are mobbing Venice and Chiang Mai, competitive travelers are venturing deep into often overlooked areas, spreading the impact of tourism—both positive and negative—a little more evenly. From this perspective, dropping some cash in Algeria instead of lounging around an all-inclusive Costa Rican resort is probably a win for the global economy and the environment.

As things heat up in the extreme travel community, repeat trips are bound to become the norm, and they’re a great opportunity for nomads to dig even deeper. “Visiting twice means that my impressions of the first time have been confirmed—or sometimes not,” says Mitsidis, one of only three people confirmed to have visited every nation twice.

man shows passport stamps
A Most Traveled People (MTP) user shows off his passport stamps at a travel summit. | MTP - Most Traveled People

However, there’s also the matter of the massive carbon footprint that comes with frequent, wide-ranging travel. Commuter flights and solo drives are the two biggest contributors to tourism-related climate change, and carbon offset programs just don’t cut it. In response, some app companies are facing this criticism head-on. NomadMedia, for one, is adopting a plan to help curb CO2 emissions while also keeping up with the demand for innovation in the travel space.

“We just launched a 'slow' travel list—in a way, it is still competitive in that you get a score, but the twist is you compete based on how long you've stayed in one country,” explains Mitsidis. “In other words, those who have not been traveling competitively are actually going to get more credit here.”

“The combined rise of a turn toward sustainability as well as Covid are perhaps dampening the enthusiasm with which people were ticking things off at a fast pace,” he adds. “I believe the younger generation, while still aiming to see as much as possible, is doing it in a way which may be different and ultimately less competitive.”

The NomadMania developer has also found that competitive travel’s structure and defined goals can help people connect in the typically lonely world of global travel. In addition to a bit of earned entitlement, the desire to lead an ultra-nomadic life is often a deeply intrinsic thing, and finding kindred spirits who really “get it” can be life-affirming. “In its own way, it does create community,” he says. “People get to know each other, and even if it appears as competition, they end up traveling together and making lasting friendships.”

woman uses phone on top of a mountain
Travel can be life-changing… as long as you remember to look up from your phone. | Oleh_Slobodeniuk/ E+/Getty Images

When travel becomes a game, does anyone really win?

Still, the whole concept of the competition begs some questions. What’s left when the world’s wonders become trophies? Should we let adventure be reduced to something quantifiable? Really, doesn’t the ability to travel at all make every one of us winners?

In a worst-case scenario, prioritizing striving for bragging rights could transform the art of travel into a superficial sport, one in which meaningful cultural exchange falls victim to a race from checkpoint to checkpoint. And, more pressing still, the world is only so big. What happens where there are simply no checkpoints left for the few completionists willing to scour the entire earth?

One traveler, Jim Kitchen, has visited all 193 nations and flown in suborbital space. It’s only a matter of time before subterranean shipwrecks and cosmic destinations claim a category all their own. And when they do, there will undoubtedly be a slew of apps to help travelers drop pins all over the next frontier.

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Colleen Kelly is a contributor for Thrillist.