‘The White Lotus’ Season 2 Understands the Emptiness of the Instagram Vacation

the white lotus
Yes, ‘White Lotus’ Is Dragging Your Insta VacationFabio Lovino/HBO

A few months ago, I read a Vox story about traveling to the "Instagram capital of the world," Positano, that has haunted me ever since. After the writer Rebecca Jennings' week-long trip to the Italian city, she wrote that the whole vacation left her feeling suckered, in part because she took basically the same vacation as everyone she follows on Instagram. Watching this season of The White Lotus, it's clear the show not only understands the idea of the "Instagram vacation"—complete with recommendations from friends, Resy reservations, and Google review-based activities—but it also wants to call me out for it. And frankly, I deserve it.

Towards the beginning of season 2, episode 3, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) is having a conversation with Albie (Adam DiMarco) about how boring life seems. "I've been feeling so depressed at home, and I just thought I'd come here and feel something.... And now you come somewhere like this and it's beautiful and you take a picture and then realize that everyone's taken that same picture from that exact same spot. You just made some redundant content for stupid Instagram." And Albie responds with a half-hearted idea that even he doesn't buy into: "Throw away your phone. Throw it in the ocean." Notably, Portia continues to sit there and text on said phone, doing the literal opposite of throwing it in the ocean.

Later in the episode, there's a scene with Daphne (Meghann Fahy) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza) that gets at this same idea in a different way. Daphne asks Harper to go on a day trip with her to a palazzo in Noto, but when they get there, Harper discovers they're actually spending the night. In a rush of excitement, Daphne explains the hijinks by saying, "So I was reading about Noto in Architectural Digest, right? And there were pictures of this palazzo. So I was like, maybe we could get a tour. So I called them and they told me, 'You can rent the whole place out for the night.' So I did!" And when Harper responds with hefty and correct skepticism, Daphne says, "I was going to wait to see if it was worth it but now it's like, we kinda have to, right?"

There's something deeply funny and cringey about this exchange. These two women end up spending the night in a gigantic palazzo alone, without their husbands, because instead of seeing something in a magazine and saying, "Maybe I want to do something similar to that," Daphne said, "I want that exact same thing." There's a difference. We don't vacation for ourselves anymore, we vacation in part for other people—to prove we can go to the best hotels, eat at the most Instagrammable restaurants, and rent our own proverbial palazzo. We all need to be in the club for whatever place we are going to. We let people tell us what we want, instead of figuring it out ourselves.

And part of the reason it's so cringey for me is because I recognize myself in this idea. For every vacation I've taken recently, I've spent hours scouring the internet for the best restaurants. I've crawled endless Google pages trying to decide which neighborhood is best to stay in—cute, quaint, and photographable. I've asked countless friends for recommendations and compiled them all in various Google docs to make sure my vacation is the most "fun" it could possibly be. But, like, for what? So a vibey picture of the hotel bar can live on my Instagram stories for 24 hours and then never again see the light of day? So I can tell my friend I also tried the ravioli at XYZ restaurant and yes, it did change my life? I do all that prep because I want to fall in love with whatever place I am visiting, but maybe that's not how traveling should work. You can't fall in love with everything. And there's nothing magical about coming away from a trip and having the exact same stories to tell as your best friend who also did a solo trip to Paris the year prior.

aubrey plaza and meghann fahy in white lotus season 2
Fabio Lovino/HBO

That's what Portia is getting at with her conversation with Albie, too. She wanted to take a trip to Italy to feel something, and instead she ended up feeling completely empty. (Granted, she's on vacation with her boss, but the point still stands.) She sees her time in Sicily as rehashing the same stuff as everyone else. In fairness, people have been vacationing to places like Italy for hundreds of years, so she is technically rehashing the exact same thing as everyone else. But the difference with social media is that we know about it in a way we didn't before. There's a FOMO element. If you don't hit all the spots someone else did, you're missing out.

I'm not here to claim I've figured out a solution to this problem. I think the show is asking us to ask ourselves what we're missing out on by eliminating vacation spontaneity. My favorite stories from my travel experiences usually involve abandoning the checklist altogether, like stumbling on a restaurant that smelled so good from the outside that I just had to try it. The whole reason we go to new places is exactly that, because they are new to us. And it's a privilege to do so. But if we do the same thing as everyone else, something that we've watched on Instagram Reels 128 times, does it really count even as new? Like Portia, I'm also not throwing my phone in the ocean anytime soon, and I'm still knee-deep in a Google doc for a trip I'm taking next week. But maybe, just maybe, I'll leave the "vacation inspo" Instagram folder untouched this time around.

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