Authentic travel—it’s an elusive concept that many people strive for.
For travel lovers, authentic travel has always been a conflicting issue. Nearly everyone wants an authentic experience.
But that’s just the thing. If everyone wants the same thing, everyone ends up traveling to the same places. And travel can quickly become quite the opposite of authentic.
Mass tourism can lead to big groups of foreigners getting carted around, staying in westernized hostels and drinking in backpacker bars.
Garbage spoils natural areas, people begin exploiting the environment and visitors don’t engage with local communities.
So how do we know if we’re traveling authentically?
Well, there’s no one right way to define authentic travel. But a solid strategy is to ask yourself whether or not you’re engaging with local culture.
Did you walk straight to the main landmark for a photo and then leave? Or did you look at the landmark, think about its history, stop in a local cafe and have a chat with the waiter?
Usually, you know if you’ve traveled authentically by a feeling in your gut.
Why should you strive for authentic travel?
Yes, it’s easy and fun to get drunk with backpackers on Thai beaches. (Truly, it really is fun!)
But an authentic travel experience is much more rewarding. Here’s why.
You can learn about the local culture
There’s so much to learn from other places, people and cultures.
The magic of travel is that you get to see and experience things you never have before, right?
You can drink beer with Australians anywhere (seriously… anywhere), but if you’re in Perth or Tasmania, Australia, take time to learn about that place.
Authentic travel challenges your views
It’s great to have opinions. But it’s even greater to challenge those opinions.
Authentic travel can change your mind about ideas in ways you never expected.
In other countries, people often have different views, religions and values. Their worldviews won’t always match with yours. Challenging your principles opens your mind and makes you more understanding.
You can put money back into the economy
Have you ever gone traveling and felt like all your money went to the German couple who owned the hostel you stayed at? Or the American tour company you booked with? Or the foreign restaurant chain you ate at because it felt familiar?
Striving for authentic travel helps you shop and eat locally, thus putting money back into the community you’re visiting.
Authentic travel helps you avoid cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation is a tricky subject. It refers to people of a dominant culture adopting traits of an oppressed or minority culture.
When traveling, locals might sell you their local clothes. Or you might be able to buy tribal face paint. Or wear a bindi (a design Indian women wear on their foreheads). It can be hard to know what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
Striving for authentic travel will help you find out more about the things you see and help you identify which items have a special cultural or religious significance. It’s all about considering whether what you’re doing or wearing from another culture would be offensive.
Be More Than Just a Tourist with These 8 Ways to Practice Authentic Travel
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1. Learn the language
Learning the language is one of the best ways to travel authentically, because it allows you to communicate directly with people wherever you go. Even more importantly, you can access a much wider range of people than just those who are on the tourist trail.
When I studied in Medellín, Colombia, neither my classmates nor housemates spoke much English.
Speaking Spanish helped me make friends with local university students, live away from the touristy areas and have a much more authentic experience of true Colombian life.
There are so many benefits to learning the local language. While you should aim to be conversational, even just learning some simple phrases could open up a dialogue with locals and lead you to authentic travel experiences.
Keeping with the theme of authentic travel, want to find an authentic way to study the language before and during your trip? Check out FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in a language the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
Videos are conveniently organized into lessons, so you can easily work towards a particular objective, topic or skill.
FluentU also offers progress-tracking tools and video suggestions based on what you’ve already watched. That means your lessons are 100% personalized. If you and your travel buddy both use FluentU, you could have completely different experiences!
If you’re looking for a method to familiarize yourself with a language as well as deepen your knowledge of the culture, FluentU is the best way to go. Talk about authentic!
Access the full video library for free with a FluentU trial!
2. Speak to local people
It’s becoming easier and easier to visit a place and only speak with fellow travelers. But to travel more authentically, it’s vital to make an effort to speak to locals, too.
Locals are more likely to introduce you to places other travelers would never know to visit. Now you won’t just end up at places designed for tourists!
It may seem difficult to make friends with local people, but there are lots of ways to go about it.
Smartphones and the internet have opened up a whole host of websites and apps where you can meet people.
Through Meetup, people post local events for both natives and travelers. Couchsurfing posts local events and gives you opportunities to stay with people from the area. You can even use the Tinder app to find local friends these days!
3. Eat locally
If you’re traveling on a budget, it can be hard to balance doing everything as cheaply as possible while also putting money back into the local economy. Especially when cooking is so cheap and eating at your hostel is easy.
But one thing everyone should spend a little money on is food.
Eating at least one local meal per day can help you achieve more authentic travel. Look for busy places filled with locals, and you’ve just found your lunch spot!
Not only do you get to support the communities you visit, but you can also sample local cuisine, learn what native people eat, see what vegetables grow nearby and discover some tasty new dishes.
When you see something on the menu you don’t recognize, try it! You’ll learn something, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
4. Stay longer
Staying in one place for longer than just a few days is great way to experience a city authentically.
You’ll get used to the area and notice new things each day. Instead of just ticking off the main sights, you can actually get to know a place.
If you have the money, you can simply stay in the region as long as you want and take your time exploring.
But if you don’t have much money, there are still plenty of ways to stay in a place for a long time.
Working abroad is a great way to experience life like local people. It will help you meet people, see how they live and ask them questions.
Study abroad schemes are also convenient ways to stay in a foreign city for a long time. Studying abroad provides opportunities to see differences between young people from various countries and to learn subjects through a different cultural lens.
5. Be cautious about volunteering
Volunteering abroad seems like a great idea.
Helping people while traveling the world. Giving something back. Having a truly authentic experience.
Well, volunteering can be great. But it’s important to be cautious.
Volunteering has become a big business in many underdeveloped countries. Companies have realized that young, Western tourists will pay a lot for this “authentic” experience.
For example, there’s a huge fake orphanage business in Nepal that coerces poor parents to send their children to sham orphanages.
Even when volunteer schemes are legitimate, they can bring up ethical questions about whether we are doing more harm than good.
For example, if we don’t have any specialist skills, are we taking a job from a local who could also do the work?
If we become a teacher, could we inadvertently teach through our own cultural lens and push our own agenda?
Having said that, volunteering can be an amazing thing to do.
There are many places where people truly need help. Especially if you have a special skill.
Just make sure to do your research beforehand. Try volunteering through sites like Workaway where people post listings when they need help with a specific project.
6. Take local buses
Taking local buses is a simple and cheap way to travel more authentically.
First of all, you travel like local people do. Not just in a tour bus, airplane or Uber.
Second, you can people watch. Look at everyone who gets on and off the bus. Maybe even talk to some of them.
Third, you can see the countryside go by. If you fly from place to place, you don’t really get an idea of what a country looks like or how cities and countries connect.
Fourth, you learn about local currency. You can easily compare how much a bus ride costs from city to city and country to country.
Finally, I think different countries’ buses say a lot about them.
Are the buses modern? Rickety? Do people hang off the outside? Or do people jump on to sell snacks? Do they play local music? Do people share seats?
You might learn more than you think.
7. Stop viewing new places as something to check off a list
You often hear people saying things like, “I did Vietnam last year” or “Brazil is on my bucket list.”
Although these are just expressions, they paint quite an inaccurate view of traveling abroad. You can never really “do” a place, because there’s always more to learn.
If you view a place as something to tick off a list, you’re setting yourself up to not engage with the culture. You’ll miss important things about a place that aren’t on your list.
For a more authentic experience, aim to spend time somewhere and learn as much as you can about the place in that time.
8. Remember that people are just people
Sometimes it can feel hard to relate to or empathize with people from other countries. Especially when you speak different languages and come from completely different cultures.
But when you travel, you’ll actually find that people are just people. Nearly everyone experiences many of the same thoughts, problems and joys.
I had this epiphany when I went on a camel safari in Jaisalmer, India. I was with my best friend, and our guides were also best friends around the same age.
The two young men had grown up in the desert in India. They’d never been to school but had learned English from taking tourists on camel riding tours. Now they had saved up enough money to buy their own camels.
Needless to say, these two guides had a completely different set of life experiences than my friend and I who came from northern England.
But we found we were able to all laugh, joke and relate to each other on a human level. We had such similar relationships with our best friends, and we shared similar concerns and dreams.
It reminded me that people are just people. Keep this in mind when you travel to find truly authentic experiences.
There are plenty of ways to make sure you’re traveling authentically.
It all comes down to approaching travel with care.
If you’re genuinely interested, friendly and respectful of the place you visit and people you meet, your trip will be much more authentic.
Hanna Greeman is a language lover and global traveler. After graduating in Spanish and Italian from the University of Bristol, she has lived in Colombia, Peru, Italy, Australia and Thailand, and traveled across four continents. When not working as a freelance writer, catch her salsa dancing, reading or seeing live music.