We all know that feeling. You’ve arrived in a new country or even a new town, you’re wandering around and something starts niggling at you. Eventually, you realize what it is: you feel like a tourist!
As a world traveler, I know exactly how that feels. I’ve traveled to almost every corner of the world, and it’s always been the same. There’s that need to pretend like you’re a local, to covertly look at a map while looking casual, and above all else to avoid looking lost!
But really, that feeling is something that we fabricate in our minds. Sure, the odd person may recognize that you’re not from around these parts and either lend a hand or mutter under their breath (depending on where you travel to, and how obnoxiously you’re talking). But the majority of people in this new place haven’t the faintest clue that you’re a tourist and, quite frankly, they probably wouldn’t care even if they did!
Nonetheless, feeling like a tourist really affects how you enjoy your holiday. Not only that, if you feel like a tourist, you’re probably acting like one too!
This means that you’re really not getting the full experience. The difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the latter seeks out every facet of the new place they’re exploring. They engage with the locals, discover hidden restaurants and other cultural gems, and stumble upon secluded waterfalls and epic vistas that the average tourist hasn’t even heard about.
Clearly, to get the most bang for your buck, you want a whole lot less tourist and a whole lot more traveler in your life. Here’s how to transform your traveling experience, based on my own adventures.
Chat with the locals
You’re never going to shake off that tourist vibe if all you ever talk to is tour guides, hotel receptionists and high-end restauranteurs. Sure, these people can provide their own stories of life here and sometimes give invaluable tips. But at the end of the day, their job is to cater to tourists. That means they’ll tell you what you want to hear, and recommend things that every single tourist before you has experienced and liked.
To really immerse yourself in your new town, country or continent, you need to get out of your comfort zone and strike up conversations with the locals. This might mean heading down to the Saturday market and striking up conversations with the vendors while you buy your fresh local produce, or perhaps you’ll finally work up to asking the waitress at your favorite local breakfast bar about her life.
Most of the time, these people absolutely love that you’re showing interest in their lives and their town, and they’ll be more than willing to strike up a conversation. In my experience, this leads to all kinds of amazing and hilarious adventures. Once in Bali, Indonesia, simply chatting to a fruit stall vendor led to them inviting me back to their house for a three-course traditional Indonesian meal, and meeting every member (pets included!) of their huge extended family. I ended up hiring the vendor’s husband as a driver to ferry me around the island. Not only was the service cheap and amicable, he also provided a plethora of insider’s tips for discovering hidden gems.
Ditch the guidebook
When you’re in unchartered territory, having a guidebook to fall back on can be a lifesaver. Guidebooks outline where the best (and most affordable) accommodation is, where the best places to eat are, and lay out all the most popular tourist attractions and activities. If your aim is for an easy, stress-free, touristy experience, using a guidebook makes plenty of sense.
But if you’re looking to boldly go where no tourist has gone before, you’re going to need to ditch the guidebook. Being a traveler is all about experiences — both good and bad! In order to really get the full experience, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and suffer setbacks. Often, an unintended experience or outcome can lead to any number of wonderful happenstances, like meeting interesting people and having hilarious or spellbinding stories to tell when you get back home.
I’ve got plenty of these stories up my sleeve, and I enjoy telling them more than I do the more successful (but mundane) parts of my travels!
Avoid the tours
Countless times on my travels, I’ve observed the way in which people on tours behave. They’re actually surprisingly similar to the zombies you see on TV. They stumble out of the bus, shuffle over to the attraction in question, stare at it blankly as the tour guide reads his piece, take a few photos, then shuffle back into the bus. There’s something about being on a tour that takes all the fun and individual thinking out of being a tourist. These people only see one side of the story and, in my opinion, miss out on a lot.
With this in mind, wherever possible I’d recommend passing on the tour option and planning things out yourself or with travel buddies. In doing the research for your next great adventure, you’ll likely unearth secrets that tour groups never get to see or experience. Plus, you’ll probably save a whole lot of money at the same time!
Take more time
This, in my opinion, is the most important part of all. The major difference between a traveler and a tourist is that travelers linger — they become part-time residents.
When my partner and I traveled through Mexico and Central America, for example, we never planned more than a few days in advance. We made our way down through each country slowly, often staying two to three weeks in places we liked but moving quickly on from places we didn’t.
Sticking around for longer meant we really absorbed the essence of the place. It also enabled us to make friends with the locals, who always provided the means for us to experience so much more than we would as temporary tourists.
— Liivi Hess