By Matt Long
Too many travel articles start with the premise that most people don’t know what they’re doing, that although they lead productive lives and manage to not catch themselves on fire or get eaten by a bear, once they leave home on a trip they lose all ability to function. I’m guilty of writing these posts, so I’m criticizing myself as well, but I think it’s time to tell travelers what they’re doing right instead of wrong, patting them on the back for a job well done and hoping they get out there and see even more. I’ve spent a lot of time watching my fellow tourists and above everything else, I’ve been most impressed seeing these wonderful traits exhibited in folks from around the world.
1. Trying new things
The bobsleigh experience at WinSport in Calgary, Alberta — one of many travel experiences that can help you push out of your comfort zone. (Photo: Matt Long/LandLopers)
If you’re like me, being at home isn’t exactly about breaking down barriers. We tend to do the same things, eat similar meals and in general just fall into a routine. When we travel though, something changes; a switch is flipped. I’ve seen in myself a willingness to really push my own comfort envelope when I leave home, and I’ve noticed the same of others many times. Whether it’s flying on a zip line for the first time or trying a new food, I’m always impressed by the ability of my fellow travelers to take chances. That’s the real advantage to travel of course, more than seeing nice buildings and enjoying the scenery, it really is about becoming better people.
2. Having fun
We tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to enjoy the perfect vacation that we can become our own worst enemies. Either we overplan to the point of exhaustion, or we stress about details we can’t affect. Either way, it’s always refreshing to me to see people out there traveling and having a great time doing it. While sailing on a river cruise recently, there was an extended family onboard of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins. They were all ages and when I first saw them I groaned because I thought the kids would get bored and start acting up within a couple of days. I was very wrong though, and instead of ignoring their kids, the parents engaged them. They had fun and by the end of the trip the entire family was about as content as any I have ever seen. It was great to see teens put down their phones to play Scrabble and for their parents to take time showing them around new cities. Travel is a gift, and that family knew how to deliver it — with a smile and a few laughs. When we travel it’s always meant to be fun, so open yourself up and allow for some opportunities to relax, go slow, and enjoy the moment.
Related: In Defense of Tourists
3. Being respectful
Wake up early to participate in the monks’ alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos. (Photo: Matt Long/LandLopers)
For some reason, I’ve noticed an unnatural tendency amongst my fellow travelers to treat the rest of the world like an amusement park. They seem to forget that they’re not in Disney’s EPCOT (If you are, then ignore this) and have expectations for locals that are just bizarre. Leaving aside the man I once saw in a hotel screaming for two croissants and coffee, I also mean respect in terms of local traditions and beliefs. I’ve read a lot of articles recently about tourists thrown out of Cambodia or Myanmar for disrespectful behavior and I was shocked by it. Just as in Luang Prabang, where I saw dozens of tourists harass Buddhist monks just to get a photo, these individuals had no care or concern for the country they were visiting. Travel is all about personal and intellectual growth, so take some time before you even leave home and learn more about the places you are visiting. While most destinations forgive accidental rudeness and taboos, you don’t want to have to be in the position of being forgiven. Don’t give anyone the chance to feel insulted by your actions and do all you can to be respectful of the new country where you are but a humble guest.
4. Going local
An eating tour, like the one I took in London’s East End, can be a way to sample a neighborhood’s local flavor and feel. (Photo: Matt Long/LandLopers)
I’ve only recently begun to see this from my fellow tourists, but I love it. Instead of holing themselves up in a resort or hotel, more and more people are at least trying to get closer to the communities they visit and to learn more about them. Experiences are the new luxury, and from what I can tell the average tourist has become a quick convert. It doesn’t mean that you have to plan a voluntourism trip to India in order to really go local, it can be almost anything. One of my favorite ways of quickly learning about a new community is by taking a great and hopefully slightly unusual walking tour. While in London I joined the Eating London tour, which took us through some beautiful neighborhoods in the East End. During the four-hour walk we learned a lot about the food culture, why it’s important, sampled many delicious morsels but we also experienced the neighborhood and local life in a way that would have been hard to do independently. By the end of the tour, I walked away full, but I also walked away with a much better understanding and appreciation for London, a city that has taken me a long time to enjoy. No matter what it is you do, be sure to get out into the local communities and learn as much about them as you can.
5. You’re traveling!
I remember a couple of years ago while traveling in South Africa, I was amazed by one fact – Americans were everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love South Africa and think everyone should visit, but I was shocked that so many of my countrymen had made the admittedly long journey to a country they knew little about. It made me proud, and I’ve since seen it around the world (and not just Americans, of course). Every year around 1 billion people cross a national border — that’s a lot of people on the move. And while only some are on vacation, enough are getting out there and facing their travel fears that it is actually changing our culture. As much as we may complain about it, the fact is that international travel has never been as accessible as it is today. Flying halfway around the world isn’t the chore it once was and we are seeing an entire generation of travelers exploring the world. Who knows what the implications of this will be when they return home and start their lives in earnest, but whatever they are they will certainly be entirely positive. Travel is a lot of fun, yes, but it also makes us kinder, smarter and more tolerant people. We understand other cultures in ways that are impossible to learn in books, and these are the important experiences that don’t just change lives, they change the way we all view the world around us.