The Great Traveler vs. Tourist Debate

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As is probably surprising to no one, I am a lover of all things travel. I read tons of travel blogs, endlessly stalk Instagram for trip inspiration, devour travel memoirs – you name it, I probably do it. As much time as I spend thinking about and planning for travel, I’ve started to notice the debate of “tourist vs traveler” on the internet, through quotes, in my Facebook newsfeed, and in books. Not sure what I mean? Here are a few quotes:

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I could go on and on! There are tons of these images and quotes floating around the interwebs.

I’ve read many, many blog posts lamenting the uncultured and annoying traits of tourists, such as sighting seeing on the beaten path, taking guided tours, staying in western hotels, going on cruises, doing group tours, only eating American food…you name it, I’ve heard it. By contrast, “real” travel is defined by those people who eschew the big sights and only head for the local villages and back alleys. They stay in homestays or couchsurf, eat “where the locals eat” and try street food, and they never, and I mean never, take guided tours or go anywhere with a tour group. I mean, tours are for tourists, and if you haven’t caught on yet, “tourist” is starting to be a bad word in the travel community. It’s like being called a jogger instead of a runner, if that helps put things in perspective.

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My trip to Nicaragua would be called “travel.” My trip to Ireland would be called “tourism.” Guess what? I learned things from both.

I’ve thought long and hard about the merits of being a “tourist” versus being a “traveler” and I’ve come to a conclusion: who cares?

Are you a #tourist or a #traveler? @thetrexrunner doesn't care, as long as you go somewhere. Click To Tweet

Honestly, does it really matter whether you prefer to travel like a “tourist” or not? If you aren’t being rude or inconsiderate of the locals, then no, in my opinion, it does not matter. While I definitely got “off the beaten path” in Nepal, I fully recognize that most people would absolutely hate traveling that way and would be much better suited to a different type of trip. To me, there is no point in traveling if you are going to be so miserable or wracked with anxiety that you don’t get anything out of it.

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Yeah, you could say that doing a homestay in the Nepali village of Chalish is “off the beaten path.” Jacket by KUHL

When AJ and I went to Ireland a few years ago, neither of us had ever left the country as adults. Everything seemed overwhelming when we planned our trip, so we made sure we were staying in one place – Dublin – and booked group day tours from there. Yes, group day tours on one of those giant buses – perish the thought! At the time, it was absolutely perfect for what we were capable of handling and we enjoyed every second of the trip. If I had gone there with no plans or without a pre-booked place to stay, I wouldn’t have gone. It’s that simple.

Over time, I’ve certainly become more adventurous and more confident in my ability to figure things out on the fly in a new country. On our most recent trip to Europe, we headed over knowing nothing besides where we were staying (Airbnbs and hostels – my, how far we’ve come!). We had no plans at all for what to do. Three years ago, that would have literally caused me to have a panic attack, but does that mean that my travel now is more valuable or “better” than it was back then? I don’t think so.

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There is something to be said for just wandering around and seeing what you find (Bratislava) – Jacket by KUHL, boots by Keen

I truly believe that regardless of how you travel, you can learn something from it. As much as I personally dislike cruises, you can absolutely learn something from your ports-of-call, even if you are only there for a few hours. Ok, so you fly to the Caribbean and literally stay at an all-inclusive resort the entire time? Well, that’s not the way I’d prefer to do it, but you’re still seeing a new place and meeting new people – even if it is just the locals who are serving you drinks or the European couple sunbathing next to you. Travel in any form teaches us something, and these lessons build on each other over time.

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Visiting a Caribbean island? Sounds like something a tourist would do. (Nevis)

When I talk to people about travel who don’t travel, they usually tell me that it’s either too expensive, too overwhelming, or too scary, so they don’t go at all. If the Option A is not traveling at all and Option B is  taking a cruise or doing the all-inclusive resort thing, I’m going to tell you to go with Option B 100 percent of the time. Why? Because when you do, you’re probably going to realize it’s possible to find a trip that fits your budget. And it’s possible to get from your airport to your hotel without getting lost, even if you take a cab or arrange a private transfer. And you’re probably not going to be the victim of a terrorist attack or a kidnapping or whatever else. So the next time you think about travel, those fears will likely be just a little bit smaller, and maybe the next time you’ll explore a little bit more. Or maybe you won’t! Either way, you’re going.

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Just go. It doesn’t matter if you pick the safest, easiest destination ever, like I did with the Azores. It doesn’t matter what you do when you get there. Just open your mind and your heart. Pants by KUHL

And who’s to say what type of experience is or is not “authentic,” anyway? Is this some type of contest? Why would I personally care how you choose to travel, as long as you are not damaging the environment or upsetting the local people? Again, who cares? The condescending attitude displayed by people who deem themselves “real travelers” doesn’t serve anyone, and it doesn’t encourage more people to get out and see the world. And after all, isn’t that the whole point? Don’t we want more people to see and experience the world in order to increase our global understanding? Am I missing something?

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Let’s encourage people to travel rather than tell them that they’re doing it wrong.

There are definitely things I do on my trips that are completely touristy and plenty that are not. Some trips are more “off the beaten path” than others, but that doesn’t make those trips inherently better. You get out of travel what you put into it, and I fully believe that if you open your mind and your heart to the people and places around, whether or not you eat McDonald’s when you get there really makes no difference.

LEAVE A COMMENT: What do you think? Where do you fall on the “tourist vs traveler” debate?

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22 thoughts on “The Great Traveler vs. Tourist Debate

  1. I am with you: do what works for you, but do it, see the world, and above all, OPEN yourself to new experiences and cultures. Try not to go to a new place and only eat the same food you would at home (unless they have a really interesting way of doing it). Take a chance.

    1. I agree, I think it misses the point to go somewhere and do the same things you would do at home. But if you want to do that? Well, ok. Doesn’t affect me in any way!

  2. I completely agree. I’ve literally had a post drafted so similar to this!

    I definitely do a mix of tourist and traveller experiences, sometimes it is nice to have things taken care of for you.
    Plus everyone has to start somewhere. Having never travelled before taking the traveller route would be terrifying, it takes a few trips to get comfortable with planning your own travel and getting off the beaten path. And if someone never wants to, that’s okay too. Their experience is their experience and as long as they had a good time, that’s all that really matters.

    1. I totally agree, Jen. Some places are also a little more intimidating than others when it comes to logistics and getting around, and I think in those cases, it totally makes sense to have things taken care of for you! I have definitely become more adventurous over time, but it has all been baby steps.

  3. The discussion behind “traveler” is just the hipster culture seeping in to say “The way I do things is better than what a typical tourist does”. Good grief. My grandparents are in their 80s and they travel like 50% year. They always book tours but they’ve seen just about everything, many places more than once. They don’t even live in the US and they’ve seen more of it than I have. My point is that they’re the most traveled people I know and they have thousands of photos and stories to back up all the immersive cultural experiences they’ve had. Social media/the internet has made people turn into the real life version of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”.

    1. YES YES YES! It’s so frustrating! And I think the worst part is it can discourage people from traveling because they feel bad about the type of travel they’re doing. It’s’ ridiculous!

  4. This is so interesting, I had honestly never heard there was a difference but it all makes sense. I think it’s important to try new things and experiences wherever you go. What’s the point of just staying in a hotel room, eating the same things you normally would?

    1. I agree, Hollie! That doesn’t make sense to me either, but if people want to do that and they aren’t hurting anyone…well, ok. It’s not the way I would do it! But I think it takes time for people to become more adventurous, and travel can be intimidating.

  5. I LOVE travel. LOVE IT. But, I have taken guided tours that have shown me more than I would have seen on my own.
    Some trips I want to explore, others I want to lay on the beach and have someone bring me drinks. Honestly, I think getting out and doing is better than staying in your state or city and never seeing the world, regardless of HOW you see it.

    1. Very true! I actually really love guided travel in the right circumstances because I know I get way more knowledge and a better experience than I would otherwise. I COULD have done a trek in Nepal on my own, but not the one I did, and I never would have met the people I met and had those amazing experiences! Does that make me less of a traveler than someone who hiked the most popular circuit on their own? I’d say no!

  6. I think this is such a silly argument (but don’t call me a jogger!) and just a way for someone to say they’ll “better” than you for an arbitrary reason. I’ve traveled in a bunch of different ways and they all have their perks and downfalls. Group travel? Little planning. Meeting a walking tour guide? Local that tells you things you might not have found out otherwise. All inclusive on a beach? What if your goal was relaxation on a warm beach instead of snow at home? Done. I do think it’s odd when people travel and eat McDonald’s somewhere. I usually say touristy things are touristy for a reason – because they’re great to see, have some cultural significance, or are just popular for some reason (Times Square – still don’t understand it). It’s also great to meet or interact with local people – which might not be as easy to do in a touristy spot because they all hate you for being in the way.

    I think the most important thing is to get out there and travel, whatever works best for you.

    1. I totally agree! There are perks to each different type of travel and I think that it all just really depends on what your goal for your trip is. I feel the same way – touristy things are popular for a reason! While maybe you don’t want to center your entire experience around them, there’s a reason they’re “on the beaten path.” The ideal trip for me is a mix of both!

  7. This debate has been going on since FOREVER! I remember it coming up with in my last years of high school *cough*twentyyearsago*cough* My favourite was a guy complaining about tourists and how it’s not an authentic experience as we sat in a hostel in Paris surrounded by OTHER ‘travellers’. Oh, yeah. Super authentic Paris experience there! Ugh.

    Get out there and see the world. Whatever that looks like for you, just do it.

    1. Great point! That’s another funny thing to me – when people think they are getting an authentic experience, but that experience just revolves around talking to other foreigners. For example, when I was researching Nepal, I read a blog post about why you didn’t need to go trekking with a guide. That may be true for some trails, but you’re also staying in hotel after hotel and talking to other foreign tourists the whole time! How is that “more authentic” just because it is less expensive?!

  8. Love this post! I agree with you 100%. I truly believe that if more people traveled (tourist or traveler), they would be less afraid of other people, countries, and cultures, and more compassionate and understanding. The world would be a better place, because we would all realize we are more alike than different.

    1. Definitely!! I have seen huge changes in myself since I started traveling, and I like to think I was a fairly compassionate person to begin with. I’ve learned so much from others!

  9. My mom taught me…if you have the opportunity to travel…TAKE IT!!! Because you never know if/when you will ever be able to again. And to your point …as long as you are not being rude or inconsiderate (hmmm..this should apply to everyone in general, not just during travel), who is to say what the ‘correct’ type of experience is.
    I think this post spoke to me because my husband and I are COMPLETE OPPOSITES when it comes to travel. I love to plan to see as much as I can, have unique experiences (off the beaten path? Count me in!!!), try anything and everything. My husband loves comforts of home, room service, knowing what to expect. So it’s clearly an exercise in compromise. And as long as we both have a good time, who cares?! I don’t think either one is ‘better’ or ‘real’.

    One thing though that I want to point out that I think is amazing…is how much you have grown through your travels! I often remind my mom when she needs a little confidence boost….how she planned and organized all these amazing trips for us ON HER OWN!!! Booked trains, hotels, rental cars, tours (yes, on those giant buses!). So, regardless of tourist or traveler…something to think about!

    1. That is such a great lesson from your mom! We did travel a lot around the US as kids, but my parents actually discouraged me from traveling in young adulthood. I think it was partially a safety concern and partially that they didn’t want me to spend money I didn’t have. I always heard “What’s the rush? You have years to do XYZ!” I never subscribed to that way of thinking, though – nothing is a guarantee!

      It’s so interesting to hear you say that about your husband because AJ and I are quite different as well. Most of the trips I take, he has absolutely no interest in doing (example: Nepal). It actually works out pretty well because he doesn’t have nearly as much vacation time as me, so he doesn’t mind “missing out” on a lot of my trips because he doesn’t see it that way! It also makes me much happier to compromise when we do take trips together. It’s totally possible for two opposites to both have a great time traveling together, so I love hearing your story!

      Thank you so much for saying that! I have grown tremendously through my travels for sure. Not only have the types of trips I’ve taken evolved, but I’ve become so much more confident in taking them. I have cried before more than one international flight because I was so nervous! Now, I have way more faith in my ability to work everything out, and that has translated to all areas of my life.

  10. I had this conversation a few weeks ago with a friend who doesn’t understand why I love to travel and how fascinated I am with learning about other cultures and regions. “If you always go where tourists go why don’t you just follow their journey?”

    I consider myself both a tourist and traveler. I have taken a guided tour, slept in a Bedouin tent in Israel, eaten food from both local establishments and hotel (Americanized) food and so much more.

    I totally agree everyone should get out there a travel and NO ONE should tell you who you are or what kind a traveler you are?

    Thank you for this post. I just shared on Twitter!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Tracy! I think there is really something to be said for both types of travel. I know many people who don’t like “guided tours,” but there is a such a huge range in what a guided tour can be! I’ve learned so much and had incredible local experiences with guides that I wouldn’t have had wandering around on my own. I’ve also gone on buses of 60+ people and listened to a guide on an intercom. Two totally different things! I think it makes sense to find the mode of travel that works best for you at that particular time in that particular place. No two destinations are exactly alike – why should our travel be, either?

  11. Well, my comment is only 6 months late… but I think a great determining question is: What do I want out of this trip? and what do I need right now in a vacation? If I need adventure, or a place to totally relax, do I want to learn more about a culture I know nothing about? or do I want to experience great works of art? and then you work it out with your comfort zone. After living in Europe for a year, I am totally comfortable with making my own arrangements and finding my way around places, but my first week there, I had a friend who showed me the ropes – how to navigate train stations etc. with some great tips on where to get help – without that I may still be standing on the platform in Aachen Germany 🙂 that being said, sometimes I want someone else to do the planning and arranging for me! that is a vacation in itself of sorts – to take a break from managing everything and everyone.

    1. I love this, Kerry! That’s a great point. Any type of travel is the “right” type of travel if you are achieving whatever the goal of your trip is.

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