When I was a college student hell-bent on seeing the world, the biggest insult I could receive from a fellow traveler was to be called a tourist.
The term was always uttered with such disdain. Tourists were people who only skimmed over the top of a destination’s culture. They didn’t really dive in or experience it for themselves. They probably stayed in a fancy hotel, ate at McDonalds or other recognizable Western restaurants, and only visited the top tourist attractions with a guided tour. The horror. The shame.
A true traveler was someone who stayed in a hostel or with a host family. They found ways to interact with the locals and looked at the tourist destinations with disdain because that’s what “everyone else” was doing. A true traveler wanted to make sure everyone knew how different and special their travels were when compared with the tour group’s. These markers somehow made them deeper, more reverent, more cultured than everyone else.
For awhile I felt embarrassed or like I had to explain myself if I experienced any type of travel that wasn’t aggressively uncomfortable. If I went to Disney World with my family, I felt like I had to downplay it as a joke. If I ate at a fast food restaurant while on the road, I had to make sure there was no photographic evidence. I even felt like I had to put a disclaimer on the fact that I took my honeymoon to an all-inclusive resort. (“That’s not how I would normally travel, you see.”)
Off the beaten path was equivalent to morally superior travel and tourist destinations were equivalent to everything that’s wrong with the world.
Well, you know what? I’m 31. I have 3 little kids. I’m a lot more confident in who I am as a person than I was in my early 20s. I no longer care what other people think about how I travel. And you shouldn’t either.
Anyway,, this topic has been on my mind lately. We have 3 very young kids and a limited budget. International or super adventurous travel is something I dream about, but at this stage of life it’s really tough to pull off. I made a decision that I still wanted to have a traveler’s mindset and immerse myself in local travel - from Florida day trips to other destinations around the U.S.
It would be easy to compare myself to other families traveling the world full time and think local travel doesn’t “count,” but the fact remains that I want to teach my kids to be good travelers, and I want them to be curious about the world around them, so we have to start somewhere!
Here’s why I think whether you’re like me and exploring your own city, state, or country, or you’re preparing for an epic international trip but feel like you’re betraying your “travel values” to make it more convenient since you have little kids, you should know that there’s no ONE right way to travel. I commend you for even leaving the house with the kids!
WHAT IS TRAVEL?
At the risk of sounding like a 9th grade English essay, let me go ahead and give you the definition. Webster’s dictionary defines travel as “a journey especially to a distant or unfamiliar place.”
That’s it. A journey to a distant or unfamiliar place. Those are the only boxes you have to check off to consider yourself a traveler. In truth, I’ve come to believe that travel is more of a mindset than a specific set of rules governing how we see the world.
Travel can be anything you want it to be. The travel mindset is being open to new experiences, a respect for the place you’re visiting, a willingness to learn something new. It’s stepping outside your daily routine to view the world from a different perspective. It’s enjoying what’s right in front of you and embracing the present moment.
With that mindset, a trip to the local state park could be considered travel. A week at Disney could be considered travel. A weekend at the beach could be considered travel.
NO “WRONG” WAY TO TRAVEL?
I was going to title this post, “There’s no wrong way to travel,” but after giving it some thought, I realized there are some wrong ways to travel.
Anytime you’re disrespectful of the culture you’re visiting, that’s wrong. If you’re harming local animals or natural habitats or ecosystems in the name of getting a good picture, that’s probably the wrong way to travel. (And hey, no judgment here about wanting to get great photos of the place you’re visiting, just not at the expense of other people or nature). If you’re rude and belligerent and want everything to be exactly the way it is at home, that’s probably not great. Why are you traveling in the first place?
I think it’s safe to say that your style of travel isn’t what makes it wrong. Stay in a luxury hotel, eat wherever you want to eat, see the most popular tourist attractions if that’s what you want to do. Or don’t. Who am I to tell you how to spend your time and money? But whatever you decided to do, just be polite and open to new experiences and you’ll be good to go!
SO WHAT MAKES A GOOD TRAVEL EXPERIENCE?
We all have different levels of comfort when we venture away from home. We all have different goals for travel, too! And many times, the same person can have different goals for different trips.
For example, if you’ve just finished a season in your life of hard work with little to no down time, you probably want your vacation to be a little more relaxing and a lot less intrepid. Go ahead and book your spa, your time at the beach, your all-inclusive, or your cruise and don’t think twice about it.
Maybe you’ve always been curious about a particular part of the world or another culture, or you’ve been studying a foreign language and want to put it into practice. Those trips are going to be a lot different than the relaxed vacationer.
Another person wants to explore nature and all that it has to offer. They’re more likely to camp, hike, stay in an RV, and visit National Parks. They probably won’t be doing much interacting with humans.
Still other travelers have babies and toddlers, and are nervous about how parenting far from home is going to go. They might stick to kid-friendly resorts, theme parks, and places that are easy to navigate. They’re not looking to challenge themselves, since caring for young children is exhausting, especially in another city or country.
Each type of traveler deserves to decide what’s best for them in their current season of life and according to their interests.
For example, I studied Spanish is college, so I would love nothing more than to attend a language school in South or Central America, live with a host family, and immerse myself in the customs and culture of the area. That’s a very specific adventure I’d love to have, but I wouldn’t expect everyone else to have the same passion for it.
On the flip side, I’m not the world’s most adventurous eater. When I travel, I make the rule to try what’s offered to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll eat the whole thing. So visiting somewhere where the food is very unfamiliar would give me a little bit of anxiety. Does that make me less of a traveler than the adventurous foodie? I sure hope not!
Keeping in mind that every person has different preferences and goals in different seasons of life, it’s ridiculous to paint travel with a broad brush and say “this is how you need to experience travel or it’s not authentic.”
IT’S ALL IN THE ATTITUDE
Travel has so many benefits if we are only open to new perspectives. It can…
educate us in an authentic way about other cultures, history, language, and geography
help us see other people as unique humans who simply do things a different way
improve our creativity
make us appreciate home and routine
empower us to conquer challenges.
You can gain all of that if you simply keep an open mind, be respectful, and maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder. It doesn’t matter if you’re spending a month in a village in Peru or a week at a Central Florida theme park.
TRAVEL HOW YOU WANT TO TRAVEL
If it’s not clear by now, I’m of the very strong opinion that you should travel how you want to travel. Take a cruise. Fly halfway around the globe. Take a road trip an hour away. Relax at an all-inclusive. Go camping. Hike through a national park. Do the touristy museum. Or skip all the museums and go to a park! Take a picture in front of the cheesy attractions and landmarks. Or fill out pages in your journal and contemplate the meaning of life. Try the local cuisine, then follow it up with a burger if you didn’t like it.
Whatever works for you. Remember, travel is about making memories with the people you love (or to treasure yourself if you’re a solo traveler) and getting a change of perspective. That can be accomplished in millions of ways. Find what works for you and do it.
And don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.