Last Updated: 03/02/22 | March 2nd, 2022
I re-reading an old interview with Rolf Potts and thinking our talk on the distinctions travelers make among themselves. Backpackers, travelers, tourists, real travelers, fake travelers, etc, etc. We often compete to prove who is a “true traveler” and not like one of those gross “tourists.”
As you travel the world and bounce from hostel to hostel, you’ll inevitably encounter someone trying to prove their status and superiority by talking about how long they’ve been on the road or where they’ve been or by emphasizing the number of local buses they have taken. They treat travel like a competition as if the bragging rights gained by long bus rides is the most important part of being on the road.
I’ve met more than my fair share of these kinds of travelers. I’ll tell you what I always tell them: all travelers are created equal.
We are all tourists. No matter what you want to call yourself or how many nights you’ve slept in dorms or in bus stations, you are a guest in someone’s country so you’re a tourist. Plain and simple.
All of our experiences and opinions are valuable. You are not a better traveler simply because:
1. You’ve been traveling for over X years!
X years is a long time to travel, and you’ve no doubt had some awesome experiences. But this isn’t a competition. You aren’t going to get a prize because you’ve stayed on the road longer than someone else.
When people ask me how long I’ve been on the road, I rarely answer this question in hostels, because I hate the “Wow! That’s awesome!” response – where then someone chimes in and goes “Oh yeah, I’ve been on the road for X years.” There is always someone who has been going longer than you. Dan and Audrey from Uncornered Market put my decade of travel to shame – so do a million other people I have met on the road.
The length of your travels does not mean anything and you should never make someone feel bad for being a beginner. Travel is a privilege, and not everyone has the luxury of hitting the road for so long.
At the end of the day, we are all beginners at one point – and there’s always someone who has been out there longer than us.
2. You’ve been to over X countries
Travel is not about quantity; it’s about quality. In my first three years backpacking the world, I had only been to about twenty-five or so countries. There are many people who have been to a lot more in a lot less time. But traveling more slowly (that is, spending more time in each place) is, for me, a much better way to learn about the places I visit.
Travel is not a contest. It’s not a race. Spending a day in a country just to say you’ve “been there” is selfish and dumb. I know terrible travelers who have been to all the countries in the world and know amazing travelers who have only been to a couple. It’s the type of person you are not the number of countries you’ve been to.
3. You don’t go there — it’s too touristy
There’s a reason why people go to Bali or Paris, hike the Inca Trail, or head to Las Vegas — these places are fun, or beautiful. They may be commercial, overpriced, and full of “tourists,” but they are still exciting places to go visit.
The number of small villages you have under your belt is not proportional to how great of a traveler you are. Sure, I think people should get off the tourist trail as often as possible. Explore the unexplored. Wander into neighborhoods to see the rhythm of local life. Find a map, pick a random place, and go there. Some of my best travel memories are when I went to lesser-known cities.
But I also have great memories from popular places like the Gold Coast, Amsterdam, Khao San Road, and Barcelona.
No place is too touristy. Locals live everywhere and they often don’t interact with tourists….because they live in local neighborhoods. I barely see tourists in my area of NYC or Paris. Why? Because I don’t live in ground zero tourist area!
A destination is only as touristy as you are.
Don’t try to be cool.
Don’t judge a traveler just by the places they go or the type of travel they embrace. We’re all out here trying to enjoy ourselves. To each their own.
4. You only do what the locals do
You can eat at all the local restaurants you want and take as many local buses as you can, but that doesn’t mean you know the local way of life. If you really want to live like a local, buy an apartment and get a job.
Don’t spend three days in a place, spend three months — or three years.
Then, and only then, can you start to consider yourself a local.
By your very being there, you’re not doing what locals do. Locals don’t sightsee and eat fancy meals. They pick up the kids from school, go to work, run errands, and try to relax.
While the world may be filled with different cultures and foods, the more you travel, the more you realize people are essentially the same. It doesn’t matter if you live in Egypt, Mongolia, America, or France — everyone gets up, goes to work, wants to be happy and live well, and hopes their children have a better life.
5. You don’t do tours
Talking trash about tour group travelers doesn’t make you better than them; it just makes you a jerk. People who say this often forget that the boat ride they took in Phuket or that trip to Fraser Island in Australia was also a tour. Not all tours are big double-decker buses filled with sandal-wearing tourists. They can be little backpacker tours too.
Most tours aren’t inherently bad. I’ve taken quite a few and enjoy them. It all depends on the group and the company you go with.
Travel is a highly personal experience. Everyone takes their own path around the world. No two journeys are alike and therefore no two journeys can be compared. Travel is about opening your mind up to new experiences and people. The competition mindset simply closes you off to that.
If you are a “real” traveler, you know that all travelers are equal and these false mindsets don’t matter. Remember that there is always someone out there who has been to more places, seen more things, and spent more time on the road than you.
And if someone is judging your travels or trying to put you down, they aren’t worth the energy. Like a destination that you have grown tired of, simply move on — and find people worthy of your time and who will lift you up, not put you down.
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