To be a traveler, or to be a tourist?
It’s a cliche to say “be a traveler, not a tourist.” Sometimes it’s fun to be a tourist! Package tours, all-inclusive resorts, immersive theme parks…they’re popular for a reason – they make things easy and allow you to just relax and enjoy your time.
But tourist activities like these are truly different than what I think of as traveling. Tourism is an escape; travel is a challenge. There is room for both in our lives, but I find that travel is enriching and empowering in a way that tourism isn’t. Travel is sort of a nutrient-dense version of a vacation.
So how do you go from tourist to traveler? In order to be a successful traveler, you don’t need to know everything. You just need to be willing to learn as you go and take advantage of the resources around you.
This post will teach you the basics of travel so that you can go anywhere in the world. Read on for tips and advice for beginner travelers who want to see the world and find themselves along the way.
Make peace with discomfort
One of the biggest hurdles to becoming a traveler is making peace with discomfort. No one loves the feeling of being out of control and out of their element, but in many ways it’s the biggest driver of personal growth. And it’s the way that travel changes us most, for the better. In order to explore new places and experience different cultures, you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone.
This doesn’t mean that you have to go on extreme adventures or put yourself in dangerous situations; it just means that you need to be okay with feeling a little bit uneasy sometimes.
If you enter into any travel situation with the expectation that there will be challenges to be faced, you can develop skills that allow you to view those challenges as opportunities.
Discomfort helps us grow
When I was 20, I took my first multi-country solo trip to Europe. I visited Ireland, France, Spain and Italy. With the exception of visiting a friend for a few days in Spain, I spent weeks alone, having to figure out every element of the trip by myself – and this was before smartphones.
One evening in Paris, I went wandering around a lovely neighborhood, thinking that getting lost on a stroll in Paris sounded just so romantic. And it was certainly a nice night – up until it wasn’t. At a certain point I realized that I wasn’t just “wandering around” lost, I was “I don’t know where I am and I don’t know the language” lost.
Figuring I would just keep walking until I found a Metro station (remember: no Google Maps on my phone back in 2001 – no cell phone at all, actually), I spent multiple hours – yes, hours – walking around, desperate to find a landmark or a hotel that might have English-speaking employees. By the time I found the Metro, my legs were burning, I had cried in public and I felt totally defeated.
At the time, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to figure out such a seemingly simple situation. But more than 20 years later, I recognize that this was a formative experience for a young me. That trip was the first time I had to solely rely on myself in every situation. Did I get lost? Yes. Did I find my way eventually? Also yes. A good, relatively low stakes lesson in trusting my own abilities – and in the wisdom on always having access to a map.
Ease yourself in to culture shock
I realize that the first tip I had was to get used to discomfort, and now my second tip is to minimize your discomfort. But these ideas aren’t as contradictory as you think. As you get used to traveling internationally, you’ll find that your adaptability grows and with it your experience of culture shock diminishes somewhat.
When you’re starting out, even similar cultures will give you a sense of culture shock, and that’s good! If you give yourself more of an on-ramp into that feeling, you’ll find over time that the newness of the experience may be what you like most, as oppose to presenting an obstacle to you enjoying your destination.
The first country I ever went to outside of the United States was Great Britain. I remember vividly the feeling of waking up and looking out my hostel window at chimneys that looked straight out of Mary Poppins. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I’m not in America.”
Britain was a great choice for my first international trip, precisely because it’s not fundamentally all that different from the US. Everyone speaks English, we share similar cultures with regards to things like lining up to wait (you’d be surprised how challenging it can be to get used to different culture’s attitudes towards waiting in line!), and it’s easy to access food and accommodation standards that are similar to what you’d find in America.
Maybe this doesn’t sound as adventurous as you’d like, and you’re right – the United Kingdom doesn’t present a major challenge when you’re traveling as an American. But this kind of place, which is just different enough from your own culture to stretch your boundaries, is a great place to start when you’re going abroad for the first time.
Alternatively, you can try to ease the experience of culture shock when traveling to a culture that’s quite different from your own. The first country we took my daughter to (well, the first she was old enough to remember anyway) was Egypt.
Egypt is significantly different in many ways from the US, and we wanted her to learn about and appreciate all these beautiful differences. To do that, however, I wanted to make sure we didn’t push her too far, as sometimes too much culture shock can lead to the person experiencing it to feel negatively about the place where they are.
So we chose to stay in Western-style hotels with an American standard of accommodation. As someone who has visited many parts of the world, I would have been happy to stay in smaller, more local establishments, but I respect that my daughter might not be at the point yet.
Maybe you’re not either. It’s okay to take stock of what you can handle and meet yourself where you are, rather than where you eventually want to be.
Don’t book a package tour
One of the best ways to learn about a new place is to explore it on your own, without being in a big group of other Americans. When you book a package tour, you’re immediately creating a bubble around yourself that insulates you from experiencing the culture more directly. By exploring on your own or with a private local guide, you’ll learn more about the culture and the people who live there.
Using a private local guide to get more insight into the culture and to help you communicate is different, to me, than big bus tours full of other Americans. Hiring a knowledgeable local guide can be an excellent way to see and experience a new place! But being shuttled from tourist site to tourist site with other people just like you? That’s not it.
You’ll also get to see things that aren’t included in tours. This doesn’t mean that you have to wander around aimlessly; be sure to do some research before your trip so you know where to go and what to see. With a little bit of preparation, traveling on your own can be an incredibly rewarding experience!
Learn some of the local language
In order to get the most out of your travels, it’s important to learn some of the local language. This will allow you to communicate with the locals and learn about their culture and customs. It can also be helpful in case of emergencies. While it’s impossible to learn every language in the world, there are a few basics that everyone should know.
Terms to learn:
Do you speak English?
How much is this?
Where is the bathroom?
Table for [number of people], please
By speaking the common language of your destination, you demonstrate respect for their culture. Remember – you are a guest in their country. It’s not their job to accommodate you, it’s your job to be humble and respectful, like you would if you were a guest at someone’s home.
I have seen so many Americans conduct conversations right away in English, no matter what country they’re in, and it’s so rude. Certainly there are some places, like the airport or a Western hotel chain, where you can reasonably assume that the customer-facing employees will speak English (although that isn’t always the case).
But to go into a shop, a restaurant, a museum, and immediately assume everyone there should be fluent in a second language – YOUR language – is narcissistic, and perpetuates negative stereotypes about Americans.
Even in countries like Sweden, where there is widespread knowledge of English, taking the time to start with “talar du engleska?” will go a long way. In my experience, people are very kind when you try to speak to them in their native tongue, and you will likely find more patience and more assistance than you anticipate when you at least try.
One of the most important things to learn when you’re starting out as a traveler is how to pack light. When you’re carrying all your belongings with you, the last thing you want is to be weighed down by a heavy suitcase.
Packing light will allow you to be flexible in how and when you travel. When you’re bogged down by multiple heavy bags, it’s hard to take the train. It’s hard to change your itinerary and find a charming little independent hotel, because you’ve simply got too much stuff that you have figure out how to get from point A to point B. To go where you want, it’s a good idea to bring as little as you can.
If you can carry a backpack, that will limit you to the weight that you can comfortably carry and create a natural limit. But this isn’t within everyone’s physical possibilities, and that’s okay! Choose the smallest suitcase you can find – ideally a carry on so you don’t need to check it for a flight.
Tips for packing light
Only pack what you need.
This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to overpack if you’re not careful. Make a list of the items you need and stick to it!
Choose versatile items that can be worn multiple ways.
For example, a t-shirt can be worn as a shirt or a dress. A scarf can be used as a shawl or a belt.
Pack clothes that can be washed easily in case they get dirty.
Avoid packing anything that needs to be dry cleaned.
Use packing cubes to organize your belongings and save space.
Many people prefer rolling their clothes and having them loose in their suitcase, but I find that cubes help to condense the bulk of clothes better.
Leave room for souvenirs!
You’ll probably want to buy some souvenirs on your trip, so make sure you have enough room in your suitcase for them.
REmember that you can buy things at your location if you forget something.
Don’t get obsessed with bringing absolutely everything that you’ll need for your trip. Chances are, if you need something, you can find it.
People around the world use shampoo and soap and floss. I always have fun in grocery stores and pharmacies abroad, taking a chance on a new product. Plus, if you’re traveling to a place where the dollar goes further, you’ll even save money.
Of course, you should always be sure to bring your prescription medication and anything of which you need a specific brand (personally, I’m very picky about my tampon brand, so I always bring a stash of them with me).
Do your research
Before you go on your next trip, it’s important to do some research so you can make the most of your time there. By learning about the culture and customs of the country you’re visiting, you’ll be able to avoid any cultural faux pas and learn more about the people who live there. You can also find out what attractions are worth visiting and plan out your itinerary ahead of time.
Doing research before a trip is especially important if you’re traveling to a foreign country. Without a basic understanding of the local language and culture, it can be difficult to get around and communicate with the locals. That’s why it’s important to start planning your trip well in advance so you have plenty of time to do some research!
Read blogs and sites about the place your destination
Travel blogs (like this one) are both popular and plentiful. You should have no trouble finding one with a guide to the countries or cities you’re headed to, with just a Google search. Instagram and TikTok are also great places to find travelers who have been down that path before, and you can easily get in touch with them through those channels.
My favorite tactic is to watch YouTube videos of people traveling where I’m going. I particularly love food tours. Whatever you’re most looking forward to at your destination, you’ll find someone who has been there and done that – and knowing what you’re getting into can help to ease anxiety.
Make sure to buy travel insurance
Travel nowadays can be unpredictable. Flights are canceled, luggage is lost, systems are overwhelmed. The best defense, in this case, is a good offense.
When you have comprehensive travel insurance, you’re ready for setbacks. If you’re luggage is lost or delayed, most travel insurance will pay to replace the necessities like clothes and toiletries until your bags are located.
If your flight is delayed, travel insurance will generally cover the cost of a hotel stay so you’re not sleeping in the airport.
And in these pandemic times, policies with a covid rider will help you recoup most or all of your expenses if you get sick and can’t take your trip at all.
Policies are inexpensive, and your peace of mind is worth the price.
Take a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees
When traveling internationally, dealing with money can be stressful. In a lot of countries you will want to make most transactions in cash, but being the travel hacker that I am, I always like to get credit card points whenever possible!
So when I travel the world, I make sure to bring a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Sometimes banks will charge a fee for charges that originate outside of the United States, and they can really add up. Both when you are making plans and when you are in the country, a card with no foreign transaction fees will really help you save money.
My personal favorite card with no foreign transaction fees is the Capital One Venture card. But there are plenty of options!
One of the most important things to learn when you’re starting out as a traveler is how to be flexible. When you’re traveling, things rarely go according to plan and it’s important to be able to adapt quickly. If something doesn’t work out the way you expected, don’t get frustrated – just go with the flow and find a way to make the most of it.
This is much easier said than done, I realize. When you’re in the midst of a stressful moment, in a country where you don’t speak the language, it can easy to let anxiety get the best of you. And it can be tempting to preempt those difficulties by sticking with the least challenging destinations in the first place.
But there are ways you can mitigate these problems and learn to handle them – and you’ll amaze yourself at how capable you really are.
Be prepared for anything
One of the best ways to be flexible is to be prepared for anything. This means packing light so you can easily adapt your luggage depending on your needs, and also knowing basic survival skills in case of emergencies. It’s also helpful to have a good sense of humor – when things don’t go your way, a little laughter can help lighten the mood.
The travel insurance you purchased based on the previous tip will help you stay calm when plans change unexpectedly. The bits of local language that you brushed up on will help you to communicate even at a basic level. And the research you did on your destination will help you to get a lay of land so that you are more familiar with your surroundings.
Preparation before you go will be your best shield against feeling overwhelmed after you arrive.
Take it slow
Another thing that can help you be more flexible while traveling is taking it slow.
Don’t try to see everything in one trip – you’ll only end up getting overwhelmed and stressed out. Instead, pick a few places or activities that interest you and spend more time there. This will give you a better understanding of the culture and allow you to experience it more fully. Plus, it’ll leave plenty of room for future trips!
It’s often tempting to try to “do it all” when going to a new place for the first time. But the ambitious itinerary you made at home can be far more daunting when you’re at your destination, jet lagged and sore from a long flight. Build in an easy on-ramp for yourself and definitely build in time to rest and to simply explore.
Be kind to yourself
One of the most important things to learn when you’re starting out as a traveler is how to be kind to yourself. When you’re on a trip, things rarely go according to plan and it’s easy to get frustrated. That’s why it’s important to be patient and understanding with yourself – after all, you’re in a new place and things are bound to go wrong occasionally.
It’s also important to have a positive attitude. If you’re constantly complaining about everything that’s going wrong, or comparing the new location to home, it’ll only make your trip more unpleasant. Instead, enjoy the experience for what it is and embrace what’s new and different. You’ll be home sooner than you realize, so when you’re in new countries, try to really dive in.
Travelling is a great way to learn about new cultures and experience different parts of the world. It can be intimidating to plan a trip by yourself, but with some preparation you can make the most of your time abroad. By doing your research before you go and being flexible when things don’t go as planned, you’ll be able to have an amazing travel experience.
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