Rethinking Traditional Travel: 7 Tips to Break the Mold

Guidebook, phrasebook, itinerary, go!

Sound familiar? It’s the way most people travel—circling must-sees, creating air-tight itineraries, booking tours and hotels, practicing how to ask for the bathroom and haggle for souvenirs in the local language. And while it’s an easy and relatively low-effort way to see the world, this approach to trip-taking runs a serious risk: it can get boring.

The idea of a traveling rut might sound absurd. Pursuit of adventure and the desire to learn new things are what get most of us packing our bags in the first place. But it’s easy to lose this spirit once you’ve been on the road for awhile—another museum, another waterfall, another lumpy hotel mattress. Tourist traps aren’t just overpriced cliché vendors and half-hearted restaurants; they can become states of mind.

But what if you’re unable to rely on a lot of the traveling conventions that lead to such stalemates in the first place? One of the most untraditional travelers I know is my brother. He’s severely dyslexic; activities most of us take for granted, like reading a guidebook and learning basic foreign phrases, are profoundly difficult for him. But instead of holing up at home, he’s learned to travel his own way. Sprung from linguistic disability, his atypical travel techniques have forced to give him to dig deeper and find alternatives to customary trip-taking—and the result has been travel experiences that are off-beat and out-of-the-mold.

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Those of us who can, say, read a guidebook and converse fluently in foreign tongues can still make use of my brother’s dyslexic guide to traveling—I certainly have. What started for him as necessary coping tools have, for me, developed into a set of untraditional travel techniques that serve to get me out of ruts, off the beaten path and back into the spirit of adventure and wonder that got me on the road in the first place.

Got itchy feet? Scratch them with seven tips:

Travel Within Your Own Country

Oh, it’s a hotly debated topic among travelers and it’s easy to see why. Domestic travel seems so, well, unexotic—an easy-out for the unadventurous, full of fanny packs and screaming backseat denizens. And at first glance, it often appears more expensive than, say, papaya-laced journeys through Thailand.

But there’s truly an intrinsic value in traveling through one’s native country—you learn more about your own culture. And because domestic travel does run the risk of being less adventuresome, you’re forced to dig, to delve deeper past that well-trodden tourist façade and find the real pulse of a place. Yeah, you could bum around Fisherman’s Wharf, but you could also take a walking tour of Mission District murals. You could mope through mind-numbing Times Square, or lay out a picnic blanket in picture-perfect Prospect Park. And while accommodations and transportation may indeed end up being more expensive than abroad, you’re likely to save money by avoiding overpriced tourist traps.

How do you find obscure and authentic things to do in a city not your own, domestic or abroad? The rest of the tips are a good guide.

>>read more about traveling locally

Make Use of Your Friends

A fast way to get off the traditional travel track is to tag along with international friends on their trips home. As the world gets smaller, it seems we all know at least one person with family in another country; mention your interest in traveling home with them, and more often than not, you’ll meet a warmly enthusiastic reception. Feel shy? Think about how much fun you had showing that couchsurfer the figurative (or literal) backalleys of your city. People love to show off their hometowns, and you’ll be surprised how a much simple inquiry opens doors.

Even if you aren’t able to travel home with your friends, they can supply you with invaluable insider tips. Fly from Mexico City to Oaxaca? A local will tell you to take the bus, spending a leisurely afternoon in pretty transfer point Puebla; he’ll also tell you to skip seedy Zipolte and park it at Puerto Angel.

The biggest advantage to this kind of travel is authenticity. When you travel with someone from a destination, or even merely get tips, you get to truly experience that place “like a local”—and minus the Rick Steves. You’ll find yourself anywhere from remote Mayan-dialect-speaking villages in Guatemala to illegal underground nightclubs in Berlin. If you’re headed back for a family occasion like a wedding or reunion, you’ll also get to experience the culture firsthand. You’ll gain access to the more intimate side of a place that other travelers rarely see—you might even see one of those stony, sever Moscow faces beam. What’s more, you have a built-in tour guide, someone who can explain any cultural quandaries or confusions.

The biggest “disadvantage,” for some, is lack of independence. You won’t really get a say in your itinerary or how long you stay at grandma’s house on beautiful Tuscan afternoon. This could drive some travelers nuts, but it also leads to the next tip…

Let Go of Your Itinerary

It’s easy to get trapped into a regimented travel schedule: there’s always more to see than there is time, and the temptation to cram as much in as possible via a carefully plotted itinerary is tough to avoid. But when you’re so busy ticking off to-dos that you’re not really experiencing a place, that’s the point at which you’ve stopped traveling and started merely sight-seeing.

Start by leaving a couple days unscheduled, not making room reservations or buying advance bus tickets. Leave yourself open, and you’ll find that some of the best adventures on your trip will come from the random recommendation, the hasty map drawn on a scrap of paper, passed over a café table from one traveler to another. There’ll be regrets in any trip, places you wished you’d gotten to, but if you stay open to spontaneity, you increase your chances getting out of ruts and into the unusual.

Get Lost

No, really—leave the map at home. How many times have you seen frustrated tourists standing on street corners, frowning into their maps, completely impervious to the cacophony of culture surrounding them? While maps are sometimes necessary (say, in finding your hotel after a 16-hour flight), they make for a terribly unfulfilling way to see sights, let alone soak in the soul of a destination.

When you’re not searching for specific street signs, you’re more open to see what’s in front of you: the sights, sounds, smells and overall uniqueness of a place. So meander through that medina, peruse that plaza, amble through those alleyways. Some of the best travel adventures end up being the ones you wander into, unplanned and unanticipated.

Communicate Creatively

Not speaking the local language is one of the chief reasons people opt out of traveling. We rely a lot on our ability to communicate verbally, but it’s truly only one part of communication. Even the most linguistically gifted travelers have found themselves in situations in which they were, well, at a loss for words. What then? Pointing, gesturing, miming and charades—we quickly become experts in these often-humbling ways of “talking.”

But creative communication goes beyond just getting directions and ordering food. A lot of travelers fall into the trap of only meeting and forging friendships with other travelers, simply because they can’t exchange words with locals. Some studies have placed words at only 7% of what constitutes communication. So what makes up the rest? Intonation, body language, energy. A smile or kind gesture speaks volumes more than a hi-where-are-you-from conversation. Go out of your way make connections with locals, with or without the aid of language. A good way to do this? Bring little gifts from home: postcards, keepsakes, pencils. Even if you’re shy, you’ll get tired of carrying them around!

Get Off the Guidebook

Another contentious topic that rages in chat rooms, online forums and around hostel kitchen tables worldwide. While a good guidebook is an invaluable resource, it makes for a bad bible. A novice traveler is likely to clutch to the blue spine of their Lonely Planet like a security blanket. But once you’ve become more experienced, learn to release your grip. (And when you’re traveling with a friend or getting a recommendation from a local, you won’t really need a guidebook anyway.)

You can start by leaving the guidebook at the hotel during day trips. Sketch yourself a rough map, jot down some notes and hit the town on your own. Yes, you’re likely to get lost, but that’s not a bad thing (do be sure to note any do-not-enter neighborhoods before venturing out; getting lost on the wrong side of the tracks can lead to big trouble). Work up to taking multi-day side trips sans guidebook. Eventually, you can go all the way to the extreme of leaving the book on the shelf, at home.

>>read about how to ditch the guidebook

Get Over Yourself

All the untraditional travel tips I’ve adopted from my brother have amounted to one thing, one chief lesson, one guiding principle by which to travel: don’t take yourself too seriously.
My brother misreads maps, stutters over the unfamiliar sounds of foreign words, sends home woefully misspelled, three-sentence emails that encapsulate his blunders, his peculiar experiences, his adventures.

Whenever you’re out of your comfort zone, away from home and immersed in the unfamiliar, you’re going to make mistakes. As a great jazz musician once said, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking risks. An easy way to get stuck in a traveling rut? Stop taking risks.

Sure, mistakes make us look silly: we play ridiculous charades in an attempt to communicate across language barriers; we end up lost and confused in a foreign city; we dress wrongly or unwittingly make a social faux pas. But if we can laugh at ourselves, if we can get over the fear of looking absurd and making errors, we become more open to experiences, both on road and at home. And that’s what it’s all about anyway, right?

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More resources: Uncle Dan’s Travel Secrets

Photo credits: Tourist group by gaobo on Flickr , Meeting the locals by Rob Llewellyn on Flickr , Tourist with map by Ed Yourdon on Flickr , Guidebooks by SheepRUS on Flickr

 

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Older comments on Rethinking Traditional Travel: 7 Tips to Break the Mold

Stephen Bramucci
03 September 2009

Really enjoyed this piece. BootsNAll consistently supports people who write about traveling more as a multi-faceted experience than a set of tourist activities. Great piece Lauren, I really like your take on things!

Ian Rose
03 September 2009

The point about traveling in one’s own country is a good one. I’ve traveled around a lot of the US, but I’ve still been guilty at times of not putting enough value on domestic trips and concentrating abroad. Especially for Americans and Canadians – we have massive countries, and none of us have seen all of them.

jenlara
03 September 2009

I love this article… such great tips about how to travel like a local and off the beaten path. I think I traveled more like this in my 20′s, but now that I’m in my 30′s I’ve fallen into a bit of a travel-guide-and-map dependent rut. I’m really inspired by this article and planning to change my ways, so thanks!

Violet156
04 September 2009

umm ok? No new information here really, don’t clutch your guidebook? How many times have we heard that before? And two of the tips basically overlap. I’m not exactly sure why this article was published, since there are other good ones on the site

LyndenC
04 September 2009

Great article! Especially the bit about slowly going cold-turkey on the guidebook. I’ll use that tip on the next RTW..

Kiwitravelwriter
07 September 2009

Getting lost is one of my best ‘plans’ 4 when I travel .. as long as I get found one more time than I get lost I’m fine :) great tips for the guide book follower .. see my webpages and blogs for more http://kiwitravelwriter.com

ChloeEliz
18 September 2009

Great article. As a map-lover myself though, I’ve found it’s fun to get lost in a city, really experiencing all it has to offer, and then use my map to get back home. That way it’s more of an enjoyable tool and less of a crutch.

jim humberd
13 October 2009

Our Travel concept includes:
If we have no schedule, we aren’t late.
If we don’t care where we are, we aren’t lost.
If we have no itinerary we’re just where we ought to be.
If we can’t see IT this trip, we’ll see IT next time