How to be a traveler and NOT a tourist
As I travel more, assimilating into the culture and country I’m visiting has been really important to me. I’ve experienced rude, uncaring tourists every place I have been and I strive to not be like those people. If you clicked on this post, that probably means you’re already a caring person who is trying to be better traveler.
I hope these 14 tips help you! If you have more that aren’t on this list, leave a comment below.
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1. Research beforehand
Researching and educating yourself on local etiquette is the best thing you can do before visiting a new place. Just knowing which side of the street to walk on can make a world of difference when you’re exploring.
Plus, learning about the history of a place can give you new meaning to it once you’re there! I like to research the architecture and history behind it so when I see it in person, I know exactly what building/structure I’m looking at without having to pull my phone out and google it while I’m there.
2. Be respectful of locals
It’s annoying to live in a place that draws crowds from all over the world, but it’s even more annoying when those crowds are rude and disrespectful. Remember that wherever you travel, it is someone else’s home. A smile and a thank you will get you far and make people hate you less when traveling to a tourist destination.
ASK before photographing someone. If you’re traveling to a place with an amazing culture and you want to capture photo of a local that embodies the culture, ASK before you snap that photo. It’s polite and it’s nice to treat people like humans instead of statues/spectacles.
Locals INCLUDE the animals and wildlife that live in the area you are visiting. Follow all laws, give animals plenty of space, and don’t feed them. A good example of this is sea turtles in Hawaii. It is the law to give them more than enough space while swimming and it is illegal to touch them. Many people don’t follow this which is very frustrating and can be harmful to the turtles.
3. Leave no trace
Clean up after yourself and don’t take any souvenirs that aren’t meant to be taken. When traveling, it’s difficult to live without creating waste when you’re getting takeaway often. One way you can reduce your trash is bringing your own water bottle, straw, and reusable bag, dine-in instead of getting take-out, and shop at a bulk grocery store if available.
Any way you reduce your waste makes a difference!
4. Don’t be a headline
Common sense is shockingly uncommon. The lengths people will go to for a photo or story are ridiculous. Damaging a landmark, injuring yourself, or even dying aren’t worth any photo. It’s sad, but every time I see a headline about someone who fell off a cliff trying to take a selfie, I can’t help but shake my head and roll my eyes.
Putting yourself in danger for a photo or so you can say “I did that” automatically labels you as an obnoxious tourist.
5. Learn the language
It’s always nice to at least learn the basics like, “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, and “Where is the bathroom?”. Knowing just a few words takes you from careless tourist to respectful traveler. In my experience, most people in other countries speak at least some English, but they appreciate people who attempt to speak the local language.
Before we went to Spain I spent a few weeks brushing up on my Spanish with Duolingo and it really helped me feel more integrated into the country and less like another dumb American.
6. Eat at local restaurants
By eating local, not only are you going to have a more authentic cultural experience, but you’re also putting your money right back into the local economy. Instead of eating at an American chain like McDonalds or Burger King, spend some time researching small local places.
In my experience, the small local places have much better atmospheres and incredible service (if you’re a nice and polite patron). I ate at some tiny local restaurants in Santorini and it was so lovely connecting with locals. If you’re lucky, you might even get some tips about good local spots to explore!
7. Stay at an airbnb
Another great way to give back to the people instead of American chains is to stay at Airbnb’s owned by local people. We stayed at a few Airbnb’s while traveling through Europe and had an overall good experience. The best part about them is they are typically in a less touristy area so you get to experience the city/area like a true local.
You can choose to have your own private residence – this is what we did because we like privacy. If you really want to have a more authentic experience, you can rent out a room and share the home of a local.
Staying at a 5-star hotel or a resort might keep you from getting out and exploring like a true traveler.
If you’ve never stayed at an Airbnb before, you can click here to get $40 off your first booking and $15 credit towards an experience worth $50 or more!
8. Be mindful of your surroundings
People not paying attention to their surroundings is a huge, frustrating issue when I’m traveling. It is so important to be mindful of other people – especially at tourist spots where it gets crowded. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pushed out of the way so someone can stick their selfie stick out and take a photo, had a group of people crowd me to take a photo of a painting at an art museum, or just bump into me when they’re walking down the street and not even notice.
Your photo is not worth being rude to another person, wait your turn when viewing/photographing something many other people want to see/photograph, and be mindful enough to apologize if you accidentally bump into someone.
9. Don’t join a tour group
I know this might sound appealing as you’ll have a guide to tell you everything you want to know about the landmarks and tourist spots, but it screams tourist. If you’re trying not to be a tourist (I assume you’re not if you’re reading this post), then stay away from the tour groups and take yourself on a tour.
This is why it’s nice to do your own research beforehand so you already know everything any guide would tell you. Map out the things you really want to see and go yourself – you’ll have a much more personal and meaningful experience this way – without looking like a tacky tourist.
This shouldn’t even need to be said on a post like this, but stay away from those awful Segway tours – my goodness!!
10. Take public transportation
I know, public transport in a foreign country can be daunting, but it’s so much fun and rewarding. You get to travel around like the locals do and see things along the way you might not have even known about.
I’ve gotten on the wrong bus/train my fair share of times, but if you have a good attitude about traveling, that’s the fun of it! Maybe it was frustrating at the time, but looking back I’m proud of even trying something that was scary in the first place.
It’s so much less expensive than taking Uber and by the end of the trip you’ll feel like a public transport pro. I feel even more comfortable taking the tube (London Underground) than taking BART in San Francisco now.
11. Have a loose itinerary
This tip could probably be combined with “don’t join a tour group”, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Planning your trip hour by hour can quickly set you up for disappointment and a bad time. It sounds good to planners, like me, to have a clear schedule, but it will inevitably cause more anxiety than it’s worth.
Write down a few must-see, must-do things that you found during your pre-trip research and find a way to incorporate those into a day. Make sure you have at least one day with nothing planned but walking around and exploring – these will most likely end up being your best days guaranteed.
12. Don’t be obnoxious
Well, this whole list goes along with “don’t be obnoxious”. So I’ll leave it at that – “don’t be obnoxious!” I will add one thing: being obnoxious includes being loud. Some tourists (Americans for one) are VERY loud and get many eye rolls and stares when they’re practically shouting their conversation in restaurants or walking around. Don’t be loud! I cannot stress this enough.
13. Step off the beaten path
That day I said to leave empty? Use it for exploring the depths of an area that aren’t on the tourist maps. These areas will be less crowded and may even be better than the tourist spots!
We walked through the back streets of Bruges and it was such a more authentic experience than the crowded square where the tourists were gathered. You’ll find little local restaurants, amazing photo spots without other people around, and an overall local experience. See my blog post about my Day in Bruges for some photos off the beaten path.
I highly recommend just exploring! There are many hidden gems everywhere – don’t let the tourist spots trick you into thinking those are the only areas worth going.
14. Enjoy the moment
Put that camera down for 5 minutes. Take in every thing around you and just breath. Whether you do this before or after taking photos, fit it in. I had seen the Eiffel Tower in photos hundreds of times, so why would I only want to see it through my camera lens or phone screen when I’m actually there?
I LOVE taking travel photos, but I recognize when it’s time to put the camera down and just enjoy and appreciate where I am. Looking at the Eiffel Tower with my own eyes was an experience I just needed to pinch myself to realize it was real. Yes, it’s the MOST touristy spot in Paris, but it’s okay to also see those attractions – there is a reason they become so popular.
A quick summary in case you’ve already forgotten everything:
– Be kind, be polite, be caring of other people also trying to enjoy their travels and locals.
– Take the path less traveled – you will be rewarded.
– Take time to appreciate your surroundings and live in the moment.
– It’s okay to visit touristy spots, just make sure you’re following the above advice.
Leave me your best advice for being a traveler and NOT a tourist in the comments below!