Are you a tourist or a traveler? Many of my friends think of these words as synonyms but I explain that they can be vastly different. You don’t have to be an etymologist to realize that a tourist takes tours and a traveler travels. Can you do both? Yes. I like to think of travelers as being the ” eco-friendly” version of a tourist; someone who realizes that places they visit should be treated a certain way to help them maintain their uniqueness and takes the time to learn about the people and history of the area so that they can have a relationship with their destination. Tourists often miss these things because they’re more interested in relaxing than learning. Here’s 9 differences between tourists and travelers:
1. The tourist “uniform”– I’ve always wondered if there is some hidden store at the airport that sells this silly prêt-à–porter. I know the people who wear these outfits probably wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like this if they weren’t on vacation. This costume is often a Gilligan style hat, an obnoxious Hawaiian shirt, shorts, black socks (which should never be worn with shorts ever) and a big camera. There’s usually a lot of suitcases involved. A traveler has an entirely different approach. The first thing they consider is what the locals wear and their customs. Packing less is important so that if walking is involved they don’t have a giant suitcase to lug around. They often choose clothing that breathes well, doesn’t wrinkle easily and can be worn more than once without looking like it. A traveler wants to be less noticeable so he/she can observe normal life of the locals without calling a lot of needless attention to themselves.
2. Booking the trip-Most tourists book a specific itinerary that begins in the morning, has a lunch, “leisure time”, a few sites of interest and a guide. Typically, excursions are designed for the slowest moving person in the group and an experienced traveler can get more done in a day than what these tours offer. A traveler usually does a little more research and either finds the same deals for less money or can add a few extra stops because they’re not taking a 2 hour lunch or waiting for other people to get on a bus. Where you choose to go is also a factor. Would you rather lay on a beach all week, order room service and drink tropical drinks with umbrellas? Or is your idea of traveling visiting ancient ruins, going to out of the way places and looking for unusual sites off the tourist path? Travelers are usually looking for a little less comfort and a little more adventure. Keep in mind, everyone needs a drink with an umbrella occasionally.
3. Learning the history of an area– Pick up a book and learn why people in the country you are visiting are the way they are, why they speak the language they do and what motivates them. Travel guides such as The Lonely Planet have sections to help readers understand a lot of background without having to do infinite research. Phone apps and internet research can also help a traveler become familiar with the country they’re visiting. Tourists tend to rely more on a tour guide to give them information. They’ll rent headsets at museums or attractions. While these can be helpful in understanding what you’re looking at, there is no substitute for a little research before you arrive at the destination.Seeing what you’ve already learned is much better than learning what you’ve seen.
4. Familiarity with the language-I was flying back from Tahiti a few years ago and started talking to a woman about the marvelous time she had while she was there. I asked her if she had any problem with the fact that most everyone speaks French. She replied “They speak French?” It turns out she had never left her resort. That’s a tourist. It’s easy to spend a few minutes to learn how to say “hello”, “thank you”, and “porter, this suitcase needs to taken to my room at once!” Hopefully you’ll never really use the last one, but you can take a few minutes to write down a couple of phrases and start using them immediately so you don’t forget them. Travelers get along better with locals than tourists because they seem them as people and communicate with them rather than perceiving them as landmarks in a strange country.
5. Interaction with the locals– I have discovered that the amount of people you’re traveling with (more than 2) is inversely related to the amount of fun you will have on your trip.If you’re with a big tourist group, you might as well be in a giant bubble. You are unlikely to meet anyone as you stand in a group and chase a tour person with a flag from site to site. Experiencing the local places and talking to the people that live there is the traveler’s choice. I once spent a few hours in a couple of pubs in the Falkland Islands. There’s not a lot of people in the Falkland islands and pretty soon I had the lowdown and gossip about almost everyone of them. Not only was it extremely entertaining, but I had a lot more fun than the tour that went to see lighthouses.
6. Eating and drinking like a local– I cringe when I see Americans lined up at McDonald’s or The Hard Rock Cafe in a faraway country. I’ll admit, after 3 weeks of eating noodles in interior China, a cheeseburger tastes really good. However, getting outside your comfort zone and trying the local cuisine is part of the traveling experience. Tourists that go to the American side of the breakfast buffet and eat pancakes and bacon are missing out on one of the most interesting part of their trip. Eating weird food is fun. It might not always be delicious, but if you try it once, you don’t really ever have to eat it again.
7. Using public transportation– You don’t really know a place until you’ve ridden on the buses, trains, boats and walked.the streets Taking a taxi everywhere puts you inside the tourist bubble and limits your experiences. Learning how to get around like the locals is invaluable to your travel experience and gives you a chance to interact with the people that live there.
8. Understanding the money– I’m still surprised when I see an American pull out a wad of dollars in a foreign country and hold it out with no idea about what anything costs because they don’t want to figure out the exchange. In most cases, not using the local currency can cost you more since you’ll get the worst rate from the merchant and then rounded off since he doesn’t have change in dollars. A traveler usually looks up the rate before arrival and has a rough idea of transportation costs before ever sitting down in a taxi. Many countries have a market in which you must negotiate prices for anything you buy. Learning to haggle without being upset or insulting is a great travel tool.
9. Don’t say no until you know why you’re saying it– I’ll be the first one to blow off a time-share salesperson or hurry past hustlers at an airport, but I have learned that being fearless and listening to at least a few seconds of a pitch has given me short-cuts to information I may have not found so easily. Tourists are so afraid of being conned that they’ll often ignore the helpful people they might meet along the way. I have met some amazing individuals who have opened their homes to me, taken me out to dinner, and become great friends because I took a moment to chat with them.
Next time you’re booking a tour or organizing a trip, think about how you can be a better traveler. You’ll save money, have a better time and the locals will be glad they met you.
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