Geomagnetic excursions represent short episodes of a few thousand years at most during which the field considerably exceeds its normal range of variability during a polarity state. Paleomagnetic records have now been obtained with extremely high temporal resolution which have improved our knowledge of these short events. We have compiled the most detailed records of excursions that had occurred during the Brunhes and Matuyama chrons. We show that virtual geomagnetic poles (VGPs) of at least one record of each event are able to reach the opposite polarity. In the next step, we have computed different simulations of excursions during which the dipole progressively vanishes before growing back without reversing. This scenario produces very few reversed directions which are only visible at some latitudes. We infer that it is impossible to reach the ratio of reversed to intermediate VGPs present in the paleomagnetic records if the excursions were not associated with a short period of reversed dipole field. Therefore, excursions should be regarded as two successive reversals bracketing an aborted polarity interval. We propose that the same underlying mechanisms prevail in both situations (excursions or reversals) and that below a certain strength the field reaches an unstable position which preludes either the achievement of a reversal or its return to the former polarity. (C) 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.