3 Men Visited 19 Countries in 24 Hours—or Did They?

A travelers' guide to counting countries

Steven Depolo/Flickr

This week, three friends from Norway accomplished the seemingly impossible: They passed through 19 countries in 23 hours and 33 minutes—a feat they're calling a new world record for most nations visited in a day. Their journey, which was sponsored by an online gaming site, began on the Greece-Bulgaria border at midnight on Saturday and ended in Liechtenstein on Sunday night, and would have included Italy (#20) had it not been for bad weather in Switzerland. Questions about transportation (three cars, two planes) and bathroom breaks (gas stations, an emergency pee bag) are addressed in the video below:

Scan the photos from the trip, and you'll notice that Kosovo doesn't look all that different from Croatia. Or Slovakia, for that matter.

The group in Kosovo and Croatia (Gunnar Garfors)

That's because the Norwegians were following a world-record rule that they "physically stand in each country," nothing more. One of the trio, Gunnar Garfors, told the BBC that the group literally spent a minute in Kosovo, snapping a hurried selfie in a passport line on the border.

The journey reminded me of a debate I often have with fellow travelers: What counts as visiting a country? Were you 'in' a country if you spent time in its airport or in a train racing through it? Do you need to actually set foot in the place? Have a meal there? Stay overnight? Spend a full day exploring your surroundings?

I'm not the only one to struggle with these questions. Here, for example, are the rules listed by one reader of Travel Weekly:

1. Flying over a country or state does not count.

2. Traveling through the territorial waters of a country without going ashore does not count.

3. Driving through a country or state—even if one does not stop—does count.

4. Landing in a country or state, even if one does not deplane, does count. It is not necessary to clear customs/immigration of the country in order to count.

5. If you've visited a country that no longer exists, it still remains on your list.

6. Official territories of another country do count as separate entities.

Given all this uncertainty, I put the question to Garfors, an Oslo-based media executive who has traveled to every nation in the world: What qualifies as visiting a country?

"I must have done something there and have a story to tell," he told me by email, matter-of-factly. "And no, I do not count transit stops in airports. I don't count driving through a country by car or train either. I must have had my feet [on] the ground."

He said that in the case of the 24-hour world record, the emphasis was on timing, not on visiting a country according to his standard definition. He also firmly rejected the idea that you need to spend a night in a country to have officially visited it. His argument, in full:

I may have visited a country 10, 20 or 30 times in a year without having spent the night there. That is easily achievable by taking a morning train or plane, spending all day in meetings, having breakfast, lunch and dinner, running a marathon, meeting friends, drinking a dozen of umbrella drinks, shopping to the limit of your Platinum Am Ex or having amazing sex with that special one. Or a combination of the above. And still manage to leave the country by midnight. If you still think that I need to spend the night, should I ignore the examples above, including a possible conception of a potential first born daughter?

I can alternatively have landed at 23:40, taken a taxi to the airport hotel, gone to bed, risen six hours later for a continental breakfast with burned toast, a very soft boiled egg and a slice of Edamer [cheese], returned to the airport, cleared security and been safely in seat 8A to another country by 07:00 the following morning. Yes, I have spent the night, but experienced next to nothing. Do people still insist that staying the night is required?

For these reasons, Garfors isn't buying the criticism that he and his friends didn't truly visit 19 countries last weekend.

"We saw loads!" he told me. "We experienced dawn, saw animals, incredible forests, wild mountains, small villages, big capitals and a lot of countryside. What do most people achieve in 24 hours? Most don’t do a whole lot. And we have a story to tell."