In the world of traveling, there's an old debate of "travel vs. tourism" and which approach to experiencing the world is best. Being a traveler and being a tourist are two very different things, and most people only experience travel as the latter.
While many identify themselves as travelers in an attempt to place themselves above others, we don't see it that way – travel is part of our identity and we simply want others to open themselves up and experience travel outside of the tourist approach.
Being a traveler is a mindset. It's about chasing experiences over souvenirs, gaining a deeper understanding of people and culture, and challenging yourself to broaden your horizons.
Being a tourist is something you do. Being a traveler is something you are, and fortunately, can become.
When I think back to my days as a tourist I realize I was missing out on the full potential of what traveling offers. I don’t want you to make the same mistake.
The first time I ate like a traveler, I was in Bangkok and I was incredibly hungry, but according to TripAdvisor, there weren’t any restaurants around worth eating at. So, walking by a crowded street full of food vendors I decided I would take the leap and try something different.
At first, I was a bit turned off by the lack of sanitation. No one was wearing gloves or hair nets, the food wasn't covered, and many of the items were served in plastic bags, instead of plates or boxes.
After the first bite, I was hooked. The combination of flavors was unique, even compared to the Thai restaurants I had been to back home. I vowed in that moment to never eat at a chain or hotel restaurant while traveling ever again.
What do all hotel and chain restaurants have in common?
They're all completely predictable. If you've dined in one four or five-star resort, or any of the many American chain restaurants found anywhere in the world, you've basically tried them all.
Tourist destinations are known for having exceptional (and expensive) dining. The food is usually considered to be good and it's conveniently located, so what's wrong with it?
There's a reason the food in tourist areas always tastes good – it's specifically created to appeal to the known tastes of tourists from the Western world. If you want a tasty meal, you can't go wrong in tourist traps. Then again, you can always get that same exact food back at home.
When you venture outside of the tourist areas, the food is invariably a more authentic representation of the food eaten by the locals. The chef doesn't care if you think it tastes funny or what you'll say about them on TripAdvisor. They're cooking for the locals – with local ingredients and flair! The flavor and presentation tell a story.
Sometimes, eating the locals food can be riskier, but more rewarding. There's a chance you'll love it and there's a chance you won't like it at all – but you're guaranteed to get a new experience that you can't get anywhere else and that, in itself, is well worth the risk.
Another upside is that the local cuisine is usually much cheaper, because you aren’t paying the tourist up-charge. Perhaps more important than the saved money and the unique flavors is the connection you can make with the locals. Nothing brings complete strangers together in conversation like a delicious meal.
Despite what the media often says about some foreign countries disliking American tourists, I’ve found that showing a genuine interest in the local culture and food earns immense respect from the locals. They actually want to connect with you and share their culture if they can tell you are sincerely interested.
Finding the best food in a foreign land doesn’t require hours of research online. All you have to do is ask the locals where they go for their meals – not just what gets recommended to Americans, but where they like to eat with their friends and family.
I used to believe that you have to completely uproot your life and move yourself, along with all of your things, to a new city for it to count as actually living there. Traveling has taught me that you can live anywhere in the world, even for a short period of time.
Tourists tend to see the most popular destinations and landmarks, then head on to the next location or back home. They are simply visiting.
Being a traveler is a mindset and part of that mindset is attempting to live in every location you visit. Even if you're only going to be staying somewhere for a week or two, the traveler is living there for a week – not just visiting.
For shorter trips, the traveler will often choose a hostel over a hotel or resort. The reason is they have no intention of spending any significant time in their room while they're awake. They're going to be out exploring, absorbing, and living life in their current location.
On longer stays, the traveler will opt for an airbnb. Why? Because it feels more like a home than any hotel or resort ever could. It offers the experience of actually living in that location and usually for a much lower price.
Airbnb has been a game-changer for me in my transition from tourist to traveler. They make it more affordable to stay in great locations for longer periods of time. They also allow you to do more “normal” things like buy groceries and cook a meal, with local ingredients at home.
An easy way to “live” in the places you travel is to just do normal things like getting a haircut, going to the grocery store, or working from a coffee shop (if you have the option).
These everyday-type tasks, seemingly mundane when experienced in your home town, give you tremendous insight into how people go about their average day in another part of the world. Plus, it challenges you to overcome language barriers while proving to yourself that you can indeed live anywhere in the world.
There’s no other way to gain these kinds of insights other than actually doing it yourself. You can't experience life in a new city if you aren't actually living there. All it takes is a shift in mindset.
There was a time when I couldn’t even go to a restaurant alone, much less travel the world. Then a business trip forced me to spend two weeks in London by myself. Other than a few hours in meetings each day with older guys that had families, I was all on my own.
I thought about just hanging out around my hotel, but I couldn’t stand the thought of not exploring one of the greatest cities in the world. Just to test the water, I went to a pub down the street from my hotel on my first night there.
I quickly realized that not only is it not weird to travel or go out alone, but it actually opens up more opportunities to meet new people. You don’t really notice when you’re out with a group of friends just how many other people are out alone. However, when you’re alone yourself (and not buried in your phone), you spot all of them and they spot you.
Next thing you know, it’s 2 AM and you’re trading stories with your new friend from Australia who travels the world to find inspiration for his fiction novels.
Everyone fantasizes about traveling the world alone. The difference between tourists and travelers is that travelers face their fears and actually do it.
When it comes down to it, often, the tourist doesn't travel solo because they want to make sure they have someone there with them to experience everything with. The traveler knows that alone, they will meet plenty of people to share experiences with - traveling feeds their soul and can be a very personal experience, whether they are with others they know or not.
Traveling solo doesn't have to be about "finding yourself" or any other kind of spiritual rite-of-passage. Traveling to new places is deeply fulfilling to the traveler.
It's not about meeting idealistic expectations – it's about finding joy in the act of traveling without worrying about the outcome. Traveling solo is the ultimate test for finding out if you're a tourist or traveler.
Quite frankly, it's not for everyone, but if you have the urge you are doing yourself a disservice by not at least trying solo traveling. No blog or travel show can give you the insight you'll gain by experiencing solo travel firsthand.
You don’t have to jump straight into long-term, international travel. Plan a weekend trip to a city within a few hours of where you live. If you put yourself out there, and truly make a go of it, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
“...having an adventure is sometimes just a matter of going out and allowing things to happen in a strange and amazing new environment—not so much a physical challenge as a psychic one.” -Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
As a tourist, my travels were dictated by my itinerary. I wanted to see all the sights worth seeing and didn’t have time to sit around.
Then, a missed flight out of Paris completely changed my perspective. I now had 36 hours to kill, but I'd already seen the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, and everything else on my tourist landmarks list. Now what?
My girlfriend and I decided to throw caution to the wind and simply wander around, eat, and explore. That afternoon we met a group of people our age in a local cafe and they invited us to go out with them and their friends that night. We were somewhat hesitant because they were complete strangers, but they seemed friendly enough, so we agreed. That single night ended up being the most fun we'd had on our entire trip throughout Europe.
There are no rules to follow when being a traveler (other than the law of your current location's government, of course). You never have to worry about missing out on a specific, recommended destination, because the perfect destination is always wherever you end up while having fun.
It's not that you don't have an itinerary as a traveler, it's just that you're quick to toss it away when something else interesting pops up. The funny thing about being open to spontaneity is that something interesting always presents itself!
As a traveler, as long as you're being smart about staying relatively safe, and using your common sense, there isn't much to worry about. Sure, the local cuisine might not always sit well, you might end up getting over-charged for a purchase, and you will likely get lost at some point – but those things are all part of the experience!
As a traveler, there's a lot less pressure to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because you no longer have to view your travel as a once-in-a-lifetime event.
If you end up loving a city you visit, you'll be back. If you didn't care for it as much, it frees up more time for visiting other places on your extensive to-travel-to list.
As a traveler you put yourself in a position to have great experiences and just allow whatever happen to happen. A simple way to start to allow for spontaneous events in your travel is to always schedule an additional day or two without any plans, for after you’ve seen the tourist sites. That way you don’t feel like you’ve missed out on anything and you have time set aside for the world to deliver whatever experience it has in store for you.
There's nothing wrong with being a tourist – unless, of course, your goal is to experience a new local culture, make new friends, learn new languages, or to gain entirely new perspectives on the places you go. In which case, you're doing it all wrong.
Being a traveler is not about being better than tourists. Although, admittedly there is a certain satisfaction of knowing you're getting an experience tourists never will, and often for much less money.
Chances are, if you're still a tourist, you can relate to a traveler's mindset, but you've still never taken the next step in experiencing life as a traveler. I can't blame you. Most of the information you'll read about destinations around the world encourages you to be a tourist, and I was a tourist myself for many years.
If you're interested in making the leap, start with taking a few small steps first, such as eating the local cuisine or staying in destinations for longer periods of time are great ways to get started.
After you've made those first steps, take it to the next level - travel to a city with absolutely no game plan other than to just absorb everything around you while just living your life and enjoying yourself. Once you experience travel outside the world of tourism, there’s no going back.
Becoming a traveler has had a truly profound effect on my happiness, my understanding of the world, and my overall sense of fulfillment. My life can now be broken down into two major periods – the time before I experienced real travel, and all the time since. I can tell you firsthand, now as a long-time traveler, taking the leap will change your life for the better.
-Kyle Stout, Team Zero Grid
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