For the average holidaymaker, a few short days in a foreign land usually means trying to cram as many touristy sights as possible into their itinerary. And with that, one misses out on the real reason for travel. To quote English poet and philosopher GK Chesterton, “The traveller sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
It’s a sad fact that you can spot a tourist a mile off, but you wouldn’t notice a traveller because they wouldn’t be caught dead going to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but rather wander down La Rive Gauche and experience their holiday by immersing themselves into Parisian culture, with no DSLR or street map in sight.
If you really want to feel the pulse of wherever you’re planning to go next, here are some key pointers:
This should always be your first port of call when planning your itinerary. Read up on the history, culture, and customs of the places you plan to visit. What may seem perfectly acceptable to you may well offend someone else. Since you are a stranger in a strange land, the onus is on you to ‘fit in’.
2. Learn the language
We all know it takes many moons to master a language, and no one would expect that of you. However, there are key phrases that will stand you in good stead when at a train station, in a cafe, or while asking for directions. We all appreciate it when someone makes an effort, and that’s usually good enough, even if your diction and accent may leave the locals slightly bemused.
3. Dress to fit in
Clothes are a giveaway, and more often than not, this is the first thing locals will notice about you. Make sure you respect a country’s culture or religious beliefs, and avoid wearing items that may offend its citizens. For instance, if you are travelling in Thailand, don’t wear clothing that depicts the Buddha. If you have a tattoo of the Buddha, cover it.
4. Get lost
A goal at the end of your journey is great, but be open to changing the way you get there. Sometimes it’s nice to aimlessly wander the streets of a city and stumble upon your own little treasures. That’s what a traveller does, and the experience remains far more memorable than jostling through the crowds to get a glimpse of the Crown Jewels.
5. Be spontaneous
Plans are for tourists, changing plans are for travellers. Restrict your planning to travel dates and booking accommodation, but avoid tours or excursions so you can go with the flow – and often against it – and follow local recommendations.
6. Try the food
Food is a representation of culture, and for a traveller, this is as fundamental as breathing when in a foreign land. So not only must you try the local delicacies, you must be open to unusual flavours, foods, and cooking methods.
7. Skip big-city hotels
Opt for a local bed-and-breakfast or a small countryside hotel. Besides being cheaper, who better than a hotel owner to teach you the best way to experience the local life!
8. Go off the beaten track
Whether it’s the Tower of London, Machu Picchu, or the Sydney Opera House, you won’t really ‘miss out’ if you don’t visit any of them. Go ahead if you truly want to ‘experience’ it, but for a true traveller, it’s about being true to yourself and your desires.
9. Ask locals for advice
While you can ask a random passerby on the street, a restaurateur, bartender, or taxi driver would be a much better bet to find out about places to visit, things to do, food spots, bars, and nightlife. And instead of attending the opera, play, or theatre, ask about a local musical or cultural performance instead. It really is the best way to have an authentic experience – and perhaps make some friends on the way.
10. Participate in the local economy
Avoid buying souvenirs at tourist shops, as locals probably didn’t make them. Instead, look for locally made crafts. They may be more expensive, but you’ll have a real souvenir, not a mass-produced trinket. Similarly, visit a local bar, cafe, or family-run restaurant. It is the best way to transform from a tourist to a traveller.
10. Use public transport
Even if you can afford taking taxies everywhere, walk, take the bus, or try the subway system for a more immersive experience. It’s often quicker, you see and hear more than you would otherwise, and you can save yourself a packet.
11. Take the train
When you take the train, you’re encouraged to look at the scenery and appreciate your surroundings, so head over to the dining car and make friends over coffee! You never know, their advice may totally change your plans, and you could have some truly memorable experiences.