The Battle to be World's Most Traveled Man

Credit: Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Of the many highlights on Bill Altaffer's CV – surfed every continent, skied six; visited every country in the world, plus 300 island groups, disputed areas, territories, and colonies; visited both poles; among the first tourists into post-Mao China, Midway, Socotra, East Timor, and post-Khomeini Iran; one of the first Americans to visit modern North Korea and Saudi Arabia and last into pre-war Iraq; more than 450 sea days, 50 equator crossings, 50 international date line crossings, 12 passports, 130 visas – one item stands out (in a much bigger font): World's Most Traveled Man, 2005-2006.

Which begs a few questions: How does one measure that? And who holds the title now?

"No one is the world's most traveled man," says Altaffer, 66, hunched over the dining room table at his second home in Mammoth Lakes, California, beneath a collection of spoons and exotic masks. There's a glint in his eye as he says it, a slight lifting of jowls, as if to say that he knows better, that in fact there is one person on the planet, maybe in this room, who's been more places than anyone else. The trick is how you count the places – and who's keeping score.

Four years ago, when a young dot-com millionaire named Charles Veley created (and and unveiled his own "master list" of "673 divisions of the land area on Earth," Altaffer punched in his credentials – and came out on top. But then, as Altaffer explains, in the way one might explain losing the first match of an ongoing tennis tournament, "Veley bought tickets and went rat-a-tat-tat – and got me."

Today, Veley, 44, is still the leader on his own list – a list that expands and contracts (but mostly expands) based on the votes of thousands of users. Altaffer has slipped to number three, just behind a woman from Beverly Hills whose accomplishments remain somewhat dubious – e.g., a visit to Mount Athos, a monastic state in Greece where women are forbidden.

Thanks to his website, Veley has been touted in magazines and newspapers, including the 'New York Times,' as the World's Most Traveled Man. The publicity has cost him friends. Or maybe it's his personality – his incessant optimism, his lack of gravitas, his eagerness to bear the mantle. Or maybe it's the made-for-TV haircut, the Harvard degree, and the scary resemblance, as Altaffer (and others) points out, to "that fucker John Edwards."

Altaffer, having traveled feverishly since 1949, is not quite the svelte surfer dude he once was, but he's sure he's been more places than Veley. As examples, he cites many that no longer exist – like China in 1979 ("the whole place was Mao suits") or Malibu in the '60s ("when Miki Dora was king"). He admits he's slowed down a bit in the past decade, due to two young kids ("by-products of a trip," he calls them) and major knee surgery. But with his recent conquest of 63 Siberian oblasts, he's still very much in the game.

"There are ways of measuring this crap," Altaffer says, then reminds his seven-year-old that he's too close to the TV. The front hall is littered with as-yet-unpacked suitcases. His daughter is practicing piano with his wife, Qing, just back from Shanghai. He winks: "If you screwed a chick in every country, you should get something for that, I suppose."

Humans were tracing lines on maps long before Magellan hoisted square sails for Tierra del Fuego. Ibn Battuta wrote in the 1300s of saddling up for a three-decade journey across Africa and Asia: "Swayed by an overmastering impulse, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from home." The airplane, of course, opened the world to travelers whose skill sets differed from Marco Polo's. And the Travelers' Century Club (TCC), founded in 1954 as an association for "travel pioneers" who'd visited 100 countries, inspired the most extreme to boast of their exploits. The TCC had all of 43 qualifying members in 1960; today, there are more than 1,800. The UN divides the globe into 194 independent states and entities, which for diehards like Veley and Altaffer is barely a starting point. The TCC's register of "approved countries," derived from a list used by ham radio operators, has grown to 319, including some – Easter Island, Alaska, Madeira, the territories of Antarctica – that are counted separately from their parent countries. Recent additions include East Timor, Kosovo, Transnistria, and Cabinda.

"If you're going to be up with the big boys," says Altaffer, you need three things: (1) time; (2) money – he figures $3 million to get 300 countries ("You could hedge it a mil," he admits; if you had to, "you could backpack and stuff"); and (3) "balls, or stupidity."

He tells of a foray he led to Socotra with his travel agency Expedition Photo Travel in 2000, the first year of air service to the island. "We got on a plane in Sanaa, this Yemen Air piece of shit." He sketches a map of the Gulf of Aden. "This is Socotra, an island full of blond descendants of Alexander the Great."

As they're about to lift off, there's a bang. Flames shoot out of the engine. Nobody knows what's wrong. Options? Maybe there's another flight out of Aden, where the USS Cole was recently attacked with C-4 explosives. Maybe not. People get off, get back on. "This is bullshit," says the pilot. "This is not a restaurant. We don't know what's wrong with this plane, but we're taking off in five minutes."

Socotra isn't on the TCC list; it's just another part of Yemen. But Altaffer wants it. "Our butts never left the seat," he says.

There was a "most traveled man" in the Guinness World Records in 1995: Indiana attorney John Clouse, who'd survived the Battle of the Bulge and seven marriages and "visited all the sovereign countries and all but two of the nonsovereign or other territories." Guinness's list included 14 places not recognized by the TCC – such spots as Kingman Reef, Gaza, Malta. Clouse had been everywhere but Bouvet Island and the Paracel Islands.

In 2003 Guinness retired the category, claiming it "can no longer strictly be a record once more than one person has achieved it" – except that not even Clouse had achieved it yet. More likely, Guinness realized that "most traveled" was a tough achievement to quantify – especially alongside, as former TCC president Kevin Hughes gibes, "who made the largest salami sandwich and who ate the most fluorescent light tubes." The TCC declined to step in. As Hughes puts it, "We do not condone, sanction, nor encourage this sort of thing."

Which is where Charles Veley came in.

Veley had been turned away from the club in 2000, with 65 countries under his running shoes. Three busy years later, after logging "259,640 miles, or more than 10 times around the world, with 254 flight segments on 94 different airlines," he became the youngest person to hit every country on the TCC list.

As a feat of extreme globe-trotting it was impressive, but hackles were raised. "Charles gets off the plane, bops around, and gets back on," said Clouse. Hughes is more blunt: "Running around the world as fast as you can is a stupid, shallow, childish endeavor." Even Jorge Sanchez, ranked number four on Veley's site, says that "traveling that way is like buying a ticket to the cinema and going home without watching the movie."

Veley is baffled by the animosity. "I view the world as a giant smorgasbord," he says. "You do your best to take a small taste of everything to earn the right to return for seconds." Having burned a decade and as much as $2 million to sample 93 percent of the items (710 of his list's 762), he has, in recent years, been able to put more time into seconds. He figures he's revisited at least 500 places.

For Jeff Shea, a self-proclaimed "true world-class adventurer" based in Singapore, the mere mention of Veley seems to cause an intense throbbing in his ears. What about Emilio Scotto, with his two turns around the planet on a motorcycle? Or André Brugiroux, who hitchhiked 249,000 miles, drinking from streams and gleaning sustenance from the Earth? "There are movie stars, and there are people traveling for the right reasons, who really get out there and do it," says Shea. "I'm just pissed because I'm the most interesting and I'm not being recognized."

Shea has been to every country and climbed the seven summits, took the first photographs of Warming Island and Stray Dog West (Earth's newest piece of rock), walked across New Guinea. His daughter bagged 100 countries before age three, along with the Guinness record for youngest person to travel all seven continents. He's never been to Veley's website (he says). Instead, he made his own list – Shea's Register of the World, based on an International Standards Organization list, breaking the planet down into 3,978 constituent parts.

It was well received: The more places to go, the merrier. Competitive travelers scrambled to enter their data. Veley came up with 1,873. Altaffer scored 2,168, putting him above Veley by 295 places and above Shea by 642. Shea wanted proof, got proprietary, even threatened to sue anyone who used the list to promote his own or anyone else's accomplishments. "There are 1,370 places on my list that I haven't even been able to locate," he protests. "Some of the names are in Arabic! You can't find the maps!"

"It's a slippery slope to meaninglessness," Veley admits.

Altaffer's next stop is his white whale: Wake Island. He has been trying to get to Wake for 15 years; it's the only place left on his TCC list. Since 1974, the WWII battlefield has been off-limits, except to a small Air Force contingent. Clouse and Hughes got there in the '80s by finagling their way onto a memorial flight for the families of fallen marines. Altaffer, who once sailed past on a cruise ship (and later won a lawsuit against Crystal Cruises for falsely advertising the island as a port of call), has considered staging a shipwreck. He plans to finally get there this December, on a military tour commemorating the start of the war in the Pacific.

Veley and I have been going back and forth by e-mail. First he's in Apia, Somoa, boarding a research vessel – "one of the slowest and most unstable in the Pacific" – bound for Tuvalu. Now he's in San Francisco, insisting we meet in person. He'll come to me, he says, so he can fly SFO to Mammoth Lakes (a leg he's never traveled), and though it won't factor on any most-traveled list – not even Shea's – he wants the experience.

I meet Veley for dinner on the first floor of a funky faux-Tyrolean motel in Mammoth. (Sadly, Altaffer is out of town.) Veley is already sitting when I arrive, wearing a cap from Drifter's Reef – the only bar on Wake Island. Veley tells me how he got to Wake by convincing an Air Force acquaintance to give him temporary orders as a military contractor. He talks about balancing a wife and kids (ages five, three, and one) against his need to disappear for six months at a time. He talks about how the money's dwindling, how he hopes to monetize his website, how he loves telling taxi drivers he's been to their village. I take him to a local luge party, where we stand by a bonfire and drink spiced vodka. I lend him a helmet, and he makes a couple of runs. The next day I give him a tour of the ski mountain.

Then I drive him to his flight and he flies away, able to check off Mammoth Lakes.