The English language is full of interesting expressions and peculiar sayings that we often use in certain situations without thinking – and one of these is “safe travels”, something we normally say to somebody before they leave to set off on a trip or a journey.
However, the more you think about this expression, the more peculiar it becomes. Why do we say it? Is the person really in danger? And is there any reason not to say it? In this post, we answer all these questions and more as we look at “safe travels” meaning.
What does it mean when we say “safe travels”?
When you say goodbye to somebody who’s setting off on a journey, you may catch yourself wishing them “safe travels”, and perhaps you might then wonder why we say this and what it really means.
In fact, it can mean several things, so first let’s think about when and why we usually say it.
We don’t usually say “safe travels” when somebody is about to embark on a short journey. For example, it wouldn’t be normal to say it as somebody gets in the car to make the 20-minute drive home – in this case, it would be more normal to say something like “drive safely”.
Rather, we use “safe travels” when somebody is at the start of a longer journey or trip.
For example, if somebody is about to leave to go to the airport – and perhaps they are expecting to change planes at least once or twice before they reach their destination or maybe catch a bus or a train too – this expression could be appropriate.
In this case, it refers to the various stages of their journey – this is why we say “travels” in the plural.
On the other hand, we could say it to someone as they leave at the start of a multi-leg trip, either a domestic one or one abroad. In this case, the “travels” may refer to the various elements of their trip – for example, the various cities they are planning to visit.
In any case, what it literally means is that we are expressing our hope that no harm comes to them and that they will reach their destination or return home safely.
However, more broadly, we are also expressing our wish that they have a good time, that the journey goes well and that they enjoy their trip.
Why do we say Safe Travels or Safe Travel?
It might seem obvious why we use such an expression – after all, it’s normal for us to wish for the safety of family, friends or loved ones before they leave us to set off on a journey.
However, when you think of it, this could be considered a little strange since nowadays, most travel isn’t really that dangerous, and it’s not that likely that something bad is going to happen.
Perhaps this expression dates back to times when people traveled much less, when the world seemed a whole lot bigger and more dangerous and when travel really was fraught with danger.
In the days long before the internet or smartphones – or even before planes, cars or trains – embarking on a trip of even a few miles by horse or on foot was perhaps much more dangerous, and wishing someone a “safe journey” was to express a much more literal hope.
Nowadays, however, in most places, the chances of meeting bandits or highwaymen on the road are all but non-existent, and the odds of being involved in a plane or train crash are virtually nil.
Instead, wishing someone “safe travels” comes under what is known as phatic communication.
Phatic expressions are those we use by reflex – things like “nice to meet you”, “how are you?” and “have a nice day”.
These expressions serve as a kind of social lubricant that makes our interactions go more smoothly, but when we say these things, we don’t necessarily mean them literally.
You might not be especially pleased to meet somebody, and you aren’t asking for a detailed summary of somebody’s health – but these are the things you’re expected to say in certain situations, and so we do so automatically.
And saying “safe travels” when somebody leaves can be placed in the same basket.
Which is correct, “safe travel” or “safe travels”?
You may sometimes also hear people say “safe travel”, but which is correct?
The answer is that neither is more correct than the other, and they can be used more or less interchangeably.
If we want to be pedantic, “safe travel” is more appropriate when expressing a wish that somebody travels from A to B without mishap while “safe travels” could be used to express the hope that somebody enjoys a trip to various places without meeting any dangerous situations.
However, both are common, and both could be used in either situation – again, they should be seen as phatic forms of communication and not taken too literally.
Which is correct, “travel safe” or “travel safely”?
You may also hear people say “travel safe” or “travel safely”, so which of these is more correct?
Again, the answer is that they are both correct, and you can also use them interchangeably.
Some people might disagree, saying that “travel safe” is incorrect since a verb should be followed by an adverb (“safely”) and not an adjective (“safe”), but this is fallacious reasoning.
While the grammar stated is sound, it doesn’t apply here since “travel safe” is an idiomatic expression.
Another example of this would be the expression “hold tight” as opposed to “hold tightly” because “hold tight is an idiomatic expression.
“Hold tight” means something like “hang on” or “be careful not to fall off” while “hold tightly” would mean literally to squeeze whatever you are holding onto until your knuckles turn white.
(There’s a monorail at London’s Stansted airport with an automated voice advising riders to “hold tightly” – the person who chose those words obviously thought it was grammatically correct, but in fact, it sounds a little ridiculous.)
In any case, with “travel safe” or “travel safely”, both can be used, and again, both are forms of phatic communication that we use mostly because that is what we’re expected to say.
Why shouldn’t we say Safe Travels or Safe Travel?
So we understand that when we say something like “safe travels”, we do so mostly because we’re expected to say something appropriate, not because we’re really worried about the person and their safety (although sometimes, there may be at least some element of this).
However, there is an argument that expressions such as these should be avoided.
It’s true that some people are natural worriers, and either the person departing on the trip or the person they are leaving behind may be feeling some anxiety about the upcoming trip.
In this case, saying something like “safe travels” only serves to remind us of the perceived danger of the upcoming trip and reinforces our feeling of foreboding, even though the danger is often mostly just in our minds.
When you think of it, saying something like “have a safe flight” just reminds us of the perceived (yet minimal) danger of air travel – and if we’re honest, it could equally be expressed as “I hope your plane doesn’t crash”, words that nobody would think of uttering.
Similarly, “safe travels” can also mean “I hope your train doesn’t derail”, “I hope you don’t have a car accident” or “I hope you don’t get pickpocketed”.
These are all extremely negative things to say when somebody is departing, giving voice to our suppressed but largely irrational fears and anxieties.
When we travel, we usually do so for pleasure, or in the case of a business trip, for profit – so surely it would be better to send people off with more positive blessings rather than reminding them of these imagined dangers.
What else can we say?
So what are our other options? What other expressions do people use when people set off on a journey?
Along with “safe travels” and “travel safe”, you can also say things like “have a safe trip” or “have a safe journey”.
However, if you want to say something more positive rather than dwell on the usually minor potential dangers of traveling, you might prefer to say something like “have a good trip”, “enjoy your trip”, “have a good vacation” or “have a good flight”.
These expressions all focus on the enjoyment and pleasure of the experience rather than dwelling on what might go wrong.
If you want to be a little fancier, you can equally employ a French expression that’s also commonly used in English, bon voyage – which literally means “good trip”.
A phatic expression but maybe one to avoid
As we’ve seen, when we say things like “safe travels”, we don’t necessarily mean them literally. Often, we don’t really think about the words we use since these types of expression are part of phatic communication, and we just repeat them automatically because it’s what’s expected.
However, if you dig into it a little deeper, while wishing someone “safe travels” may have once made sense in the days when traveling was time-consuming and full of peril, nowadays, travel is mostly safe, and this formula focusing on danger is unnecessarily negative.