Crowd Funded Travel: Legit or Panhandling?

Several months ago, while enjoying an IPA with friends at our local brewery, I was reluctantly drawn into a discussion about the virtues and pitfalls of crowd funding. I was aware the topic had potential for contention, but didn’t realize just how opposed some people are to the idea. That point could not have been made more clear when one of my friends distilled his opinion to, “I hate crowd funding––it’s panhandling.”

That harsh assessment aside, there is little doubt that crowd funding is quickly becoming a new force in global finance. Kickstarter, the largest crowd funding source in the world, has raised more than 800 million dollars since just 2009. The success of Kickstarter has in turn precipitated the inception of an entire industry with more than 500 crowd funding platforms sourcing monies for everything from pet health to––travel. For many ardent travelers, the notion of asking strangers for travel funds is not just contemptible, it’s scandalous. Where does my opinion fit in? Let me chew on this a bit more before I give my answer.

The latest entry into the world of crowd funded travels goes by the curious moniker of Trevolta.com. To borrow from their splash page, “Trevolta.com is a global crowd-funded travels website. We enable travelers to submit their extraordinary ideas for expeditions in order to raise funds for it. Projects can be backed by inspired people or sponsors looking for marketing opportunities and brand awareness.” To expound on that, members of Trevolta.com who wish to solicit funds for their travels, must present their project with a compelling pitch if they hope to get so much as a penny. The travel project has to be, in Trevolta’s words, extraordinary. That sounds simple enough. As a Trevolta member, I’d be less apt to donate to the Johnson’s family vacation to Dollywood, but might throw a few bucks at the guy hoping to travel to Myanmar on a photographic expedition. Who knows, maybe Nikon will dub the Johnson’s worthy of full sponsorship. Trevolta is simply the meeting place for those with big travel ideas and those with a little money to share. Their union is not forced, but wholly organic. If a project is unattractive to the collective, it will see no funds. Is this an ignominious gathering of beggars and charlatans? Doesn’t seem like it to me.

At the root of it, Trevolta is an organization comprised of individuals joined in a mutual appreciation of travel. In some ways, they have a lot in common with organizations like the Royal Geographic Society. Few would arraign the RGS as a bastion of deadbeats on the dole for travel handouts, but they have the jump on Travolta’s concept by about 180 years. Every year, the RGS disperses tens of thousands of dollars for travel projects they deem worthy of those funds. The RGS is itself, primarily funded through individual membership fees. While Trevolta is free, RGS membership will set you back nearly $200. You don’t even get to decide which RGS travel projects get a portion of your money. 

If we look at the most significant travels throughout history, we find very few which were independently funded. In fact, many of our legends of exploration were lifelong beneficiaries of organizations like the RGS. Burton and Speke, Livingstone, Stanley, these intrepid explorers did not travel on their own dime very often, if at all. Christopher Columbus didn’t buy the Santa Maria with money collected in a piggy bank on his dresser. His Trevolta came in the form of Isabella and Ferdinand. Hillary didn’t fund his Everest campaign, Shackleton seldom had two nickels to rub together, and right now Ben Saunders is slogging across Antarctica with a big Land Rover patch on his jacket. These travelers, and their exploits, are no less significant because they were funded by donations, grants, and bursaries.  

Adding to the complexity of the discussion, travelers are if anything––communal. There’s a reason why travelers write blogs, compile photo albums, attend slide shows, convene on forums, and rub elbows around a campfire. We bond over our shared experiences, and support each other in our endeavors. How many of us have opened our door to a traveler? How many of us have been welcomed into a home, given a warm meal, and a place to sleep? These may not be monetary investments, but they are contributions to travel, and travelers, all the same.

In the end, everyone will draft their own opinion of crowd funded travels. The more I think about it, the more I like the concept––if the proposed trip speaks to me. If I throw $20 at a Trevolta project, I’m not just supporting a traveler, but the spirit of travel. Or, if I look at it simply based on a return on my donation, maybe I’ll get $20 worth of entertainment through the project’s blog posted on Trevolta. Maybe there’s satisfaction in knowing that while I won’t get to the Galapagos this year, my meager pledge might help a fellow traveler get there. Travelers have always helped travelers, and maybe that’s the greatest appeal to crowd funding. For those willing to give, maybe there’s a return on that investment which cannot be easily quantified. For those opposed to crowd funding, there’s also no obligation to participate. 

As our conversation at the brewery took its twists and turns, and heels were dug in to defend their respective positions, I had to suppress a crooked grin. My friend, so vehemently opposed crowd funding, must not have known the beer he was enjoying was only made possible through a successful Kickstarter campaign a year earlier. 

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Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.