There’s a lot of chatter in the travel sphere these days about whether you’re a “traveller” or a “tourist” (see here, here, and here, to start). I personally think this distinction is a bit obnoxiously self-righteous, but I also understand where it’s coming from. We’re probably all a little bit of both when we’re somewhere new; tourist locations are popular for a reason, and I think it’s okay to want to see them. After all, only once you have the experience for yourself can you judge whether it was overrated or whether it really does merit a place in your itinerary. However, I do appreciate the “traveller” vs. “tourist” distinction when it comes to how you travel.
People have different comfort zones when it comes to travel, and everyone travels for different reasons. People also have the right to choose how they journey- where they choose to stay, what they choose to eat, and when they choose to go. Whatever your style, I do think that there are universal travel habits we’re all better for adopting, no matter where we’re from or where we are. To me, these are the habits that positively differentiate the “traveller” from the “tourist”- those that enhance our experiences while respecting our destination.
Embrace public transport
Buses, trains, metros- public transit gives you a unique view of your destination and its locals, and it almost always costs much less than using a hired taxi or rideshare app. While it can be intimidating, remember that public transportation is literally designed to be easy enough for the majority of the population to comprehend. And these days, lots of major transit systems have apps that let you map out your route from beginning to end, eliminating the need to decipher the master map in the station.
Start at a museum
Museums help you to understand the history and culture of a place, and are a great introduction to a new country or even just a new town. You can learn about notable figures from local history, develop an appreciation for regional art forms, and understand how major events shaped the identity of your destination. As a bonus, many museums are free, and knowledgeable guides will be happy to give you their own pointers. (See also: habit #4.)
Spot tourist traps
Tourist traps come in all forms- landmarks, restaurants, gift shops, museums (Madame Tussaud’s, anyone?)… the list goes on. A dead giveaway? Advertisements outside the establishment in several different languages. This is especially true for restaurants: if they have posters of menus in multiple, non-native languages, you know who they’re targeting. (Even worse if the menu isn’t seasonal or never changes- they’re probably not using local produce.) This isn’t to say you’ll have a bad meal, but it may only be mediocre and cost you more than the going rate. Tourist traps aren’t bad- there’s something endearingly kitschy about them sometimes- but knowing how to spot one is a valuable skill for any traveller to have.
Ask a local
On the other hand, don’t be afraid of “looking like a tourist” (there’s a good chance you already do) by asking a native for recommendations. Become comfortable chatting with the bartender, waitress, grocery store clerk- and ask where they go for a great meal, live music, or a night out. It’s bound to give you a more authentic experience than those tourist traps you spotted earlier.
Respect the customs
Note the saying, “When in Rome…” and remember: you do not live here. You should not expect the native populace to adjust their lives to accommodate your preferences. You may not always agree with the customs, but pitching a fit because you think it’s sexist that women need to cover their bare shoulders when entering a church in Italy will endear you to no one and is unlikely to change the status quo. It’s better not to patronise establishments with policies with which you don’t agree, and put your time and effort into enjoying the ones you do.
Learn the language
You don’t need fluency. But in keeping with respecting your destination’s customs, it’s a sign of respect to learn a simple “Hello”, “Thank you”, and, usefully, “Do you speak English?” It’s a small gesture that shows you cared enough to learn something about this new place, and it’s one that’s bound to be appreciated by locals. (Even if they roll their eyes at your feeble attempts, at least you tried!)
Do a deeper dive
Don’t just go to the Instagram hot spots. Or to get that iconic shot of Tower Bridge. (You know the one.) Do these things- and ENJOY THEM- but don’t let that be all you do. Destinations are multi-faceted. You won’t be able to see every side of them, but it’s important to acknowledge pivotal factors in their identity, even if they’re not photogenic or necessarily even fun. No walking tour around Charleston, South Carolina, is complete without mention of how slavery shaped such a beautiful city. This goes for understanding the Netherlands under German occupation during World War II, the apartheid movement in South Africa, and a slew of other less-than-admirable moments in human history. Your whole trip doesn’t have to sink under the weight of these events, but I think it’s important that you reconcile them with your overall experience.
Explore on your own
Group tours can be great. They allow you to see parts of a place that you may not get to otherwise due to a lack of transportation or time, and, if you’re social, are a fantastic way to meet other travellers. But there’s something to be said about heading out on foot to explore a destination by yourself, navigating interactions with locals and curating your own experience of the place. Many of us are guilty of trying to jam as much sightseeing as possible into our trips. But scheduling in free time (an oxymoron, I know) gives you the chance to take in your destination at your own pace, with no expectations. You might be surprised at what you find.
What habits are important to you when you travel? Do you agree with mine, or are there some I left out? I’d love to know!