How To Be A Traveller (Not a Tourist)

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Tourists. Don’t you just hate them? Standing around on the pavement taking photos, blocking the doorways on the tube or babbling away loudly on the bus when you’re trying to read your book. Why can’t they be more like the natives; soaking up the real experience of the places they visit?

Image by Seth Werkheiser used under a CC 2.0 License

Image by Seth Werkheiser used under a CC 2.0 License

That, fair friends, is the difference between a tourist and a traveller. The traveller makes their own decisions. They go to a foreign land to see what it really has to offer. The tourist goes to another country and laps up a packaged experience.

Be honest; how often have you been that tourist? The guy claiming the sun lounger with his towel at 6.30 in the morning? The girl pickled in sangria, one shoe lost in the high street?

The next time you go away, be a traveller instead – doing what the locals do and going where the experience takes you. You’ll come home a a lot more interesting than you were before you set off.

Stay in one place for a while

Get any train from London Kings Cross to Aberdeen and you’ll be seated near an American family “doing” Europe. There’s a least one in every carriage, by law. They’ve just finished “England” (they’ve seen Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus and the Tower of London) and now they’re on to Scotland. That’ll be Edinburgh; a visit to the Royal Mile and a tartan shop.

Traveling should not be a whistle-stop tour of pins on a map, but everyone does it. Even backpackers are guilty. To experience a place you have to linger longer, get to know the alleyways and shortcuts, talk to the locals and soak up the true atmosphere.

Avoid city centres

There’s always an area in the centre of any big city – near the main sights – where tourists are wooed like flies to chip shop strip-lights. In London it’s Piccadilly Circus. In Barcelona it’s La Ramblas and in Paris it’s the areas around the Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur.

By all means, visit these places. Even the locals do it at least once in their lives. But don’t eat there. Don’t buy a coffee or splash out on souvenirs – unless you’re planning to remortgage your house. Make sure you know where your wallet is at all times. And when you’ve had your touristy afternoon, don’t go back.

Eat where (and what) the locals eat

Home away from home. Boring. (Image via TripAdvisor

Home away from home. Boring. (Image via TripAdvisor

If you’ve done the Spanish package thing in Magaluf or Majorca, you’ll know well that you can travel hundreds of miles from home and still live on a steady diet of egg and chips, roast beef and spotted dick. Where’s the fun in that?

You don’t have to stray too far off the beaten track to eat what the locals eat. Asturias in Northern Spain is famed for its rich seafood, for example – squid, sea bass and wholesome stews. Instead of heading to the seafront cafes with English menus, look for places packed with local people. It’s a trick you can transpose to anywhere you visit and you’ll always come home with a taste of something new.

Or, if you’re feeling nervous, try Spotted by Locals


Avoid package trips

Bundled coach tours out to see the sights are brilliant if:

  • You like spending hours in a bus with lots of old people
  • You enjoy not really knowing where you are
  • You relish listening to people retell the history of places you’re visiting in a suicidal monotone

You shouldn’t even feel pressure to see all the big sites. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t get to climb the Empire State Building or kiss the Blarney Stone or hang around one of a kabillion crumbling ruins in the blistering Mediterranean heat for three hours.

Think about what you really want to do – and then just do it – instead of trying to tick off the stops on an imaginary list. You’ll have a much better time.

Want to spend your foreign trip stuck on a coach with this lot? Of course not. (Image in public domain via Wiki Commons)

Want to spend your foreign trip stuck on a coach with this lot? Of course not. (Image in public domain via Wiki Commons)

Use public transport

If you do want to see some of the sites nearby, use public transport. Make a real day of it and plan how to get there – then just do it. The advantages?

  • You’ll get to travel with real people who live in the country you’re visiting
  • You’re in control of how long you stay
  • You’ll know exactly where you are
  • You can give yourself permission to head off the beaten track and explore

One good ground rule about things-to-do when you’re travelling; if it costs you nothing, it’s probably something local people do. Walking trails, exploring local parks, going to museums and galleries. Follow the natives.

Dress like the locals

No one expects you to clobber up like a Greek fisherman, but the English abroad are known for a certain, um, style. So – ban the following and you’ll be more traveller than tourist already.

  • Football shirts
  • Any T-shirt with the flag of St. George/Union Jack on it.
  • Flip flops
  • Three quarter length shorts
  • Walking around with your shirt off
  • Bandanas
  • Swimwear away from the pool or beach
  • Hot pants
  • No pants

If it’s scorching, go for linen and cotton togs. A short sleeved linen shirt, lightweight trousers or knee length skirt are fine. You know, like normal people. And also, don’t sun bathe. Tanning is for oompa loompas. Wear factor 50 sun protection at all times – because there’s nothing that gives a tourist away more than skin like freshly cured leather.

Speak the language

Funnily enough, shouting doesn’t translate English into Thai, German or Greek.

Even though most of the world speaks English, you should learn the basics of the local language before you travel to a country. How to say please and thank you, hello and goodbye.

And, if you want to speed up the process, you can always cheat. Here’s one we wrote all about that earlier.

Avoid big hotels

Large hotels, especially the chains, are like self-contained bubbles of tourist contentment. Go into a Hilton in London, Berlin or Dubai and it will always be, pretty much, a Hilton. Resort hotels take it to another level, providing you with all the facilities you need to enjoy your time abroad without a single authentic experience.

We Brits are famous for it, positioning ourselves between the pool and the all-day buffet for two weeks and calling that a holiday.

Here’s a thought… try staying in a local guest house instead. Or use a service like AirBnB to rent a room in someone’s house. You’ll have access to real, local people who can tell you the best places to go and what to see.

The most powerful advice of all is also the easiest to follow; when you’re abroad, be yourself. Don’t be that special holiday version of yourself, dressed up like you’ve got somewhere to go every day, determined to have fun no matter what. Just go with the flow. You’ll have much more fun.