When, say, enjoying an ice cream and a quick people watching session on a piazza, you can usually spot the difference between the two: The tourists and the travelers. They're both there in the same spot for the same reason, yet they're going about the experience completely differently.
They move differently, they look at things differently, and they have a different energy about them at that. This isn't a difference between Team Fannypack and Team Harem Pants, or whether you have a hotel key or a hostel card in your back pocket; but rather it's a split between how you take in an experience. Let me explain – here are the six differences between being a traveler and a tourist.
1. Tourists Are In A Hurry; Travelers Have A Schedule Per Say
When you only have enough days off from work to cram in a week trip to Brazil, it's no surprise you're going to board that plane with a laminated page binder holding your itinerary. The second your passport gets stamped it's go time, and you have to make every second count before you get sent back to your four-wall cubicle.
But there's a difference between being prepared, and tripping into a rush to check everything off of your list. When I was a tourist, I'd stand in the middle of the Brazilian market, nibbling on my ogre-sized kabob (check), thinking of what to do immediately after. But when I switched to traveler mode, my favorite thing to do was to sit on a stoop nearby and take an hour to enjoy the color and vibe around me.
When you're a traveler, “the next move” isn't always at the forefront. The here and now is. And if you happen to really enjoy watching the kids play soccer or the girls practice samba dancing barefoot in the street, then maybe you'd cancel your plans for tomorrow and stay an extra day there. Because schedules aren't meant to be laminated.
2. Tourists Rush Passed Details; Travelers Notice Them For Too Long
One time I was sitting on a bench in the National Gallery in London when a determined tourist marched in, spun around in her puffer vest three times, took a couple strategic shots, and rushed off into the next room. She completely missed the wall of Van Goghs in front of her. No squiggly sunflowers as if seen through soda bottles for her.
Meanwhile, when I discovered the Politechnika building in Warsaw (a university building that makes you feel like you're inside a chess board that's surrounded by the symmetrical gardens of Versailles), I sat in one of the chairs propped against the rail for about an hour, letting myself memorize the pretty lines of the place, staring at the floating staircases like a girl poking her head into a doll house.
And completely ignored my lunch plans because I found something that clicked with me.
When I was a tourist I'd rush passed the details because I was in a hurry to discover the next thing around the corner, but when I was a traveler I'd linger too long, reluctant to let go of the moment I was in. Both have their advantages and drawbacks, but one thing that's for sure is that they're completely different ways of going about things.
3. Tourists Like Structure; Travelers Like To See What's Off The Beaten Path
When you have a cozy routine back home, it can be scary tipping yourself into the world. There's just so much unknown out there, and how exactly are you supposed to get your hands around the unknown? Because of that, when I was a tourist I'd ease my way in with some structure. I booked tours. I hired porters. I took the path that looked more stomped down. I went to the cafe with the TripAdvisor review.
But if you're a traveler, you've been doing this for awhile. Which means the structure has gotten boring; you've already worn that to the ground. Instead you want to see something that isn't mentioned in the tour books; you want to eat where the locals eat and hang out in a neighborhood that's a couple of tram stops away from the city center. So you veer left instead of right. You cross the stream in nothing but your gym shoes. You go into that one restaurant no one is sitting in but smells ah-mazing. You go into the punk bar alone. You see what's out there that's waiting patiently for you to find it.
It's a little more fearless, a little more exciting, than doing the standard tourist circuit, but travelers have had a longer time to get used to the idea of getting off the path. At one point or other, we all started with a Fodor's clutched to our chest. It's up to you to be brave enough to throw it away.
4. Tourists Bite Their Lips; Travelers Say Yes
If you've been on the road longer, then you'll figure out that the more times you say the word ”yes,” the more interesting your journey becomes. But saying yes takes practice- it doesn't necessarily come easily to the bulk of us.
When you're somewhere completely new, you have the urge to stick to what's familiar and can find yourself bowing out of interesting but intimidating ideas. But if you've been sleeping in hostel beds and packing and unpacking backpacks for months now, the answer can be easier to bite into. Which is why you see travelers doing so many inspiring, beautiful things on whims. I've met people who have rented motorcycles with no real idea of how to turn them on, and then ride them down the coast of Vietnam. I've met travelers that walked along mountains on planks as wide as appetizer plates, and girls that slept on rooftops because hostel rooms were too expensive.
All of these things happened because of a “why not?”
5. Tourists Get Frazzled With Wrong Turns; Travelers Embrace Them
Picture this scene: A woman standing with her palms planted on the hotel counter, leaning over the receptionist with a wild look in her eye, asking why the seaside room she requested wasn't available anymore. Frazzled, annoyed, her whole trip ruined. Tourist or traveler? When you're out on a quick vacation, a kink in your plans can easily make it feel like the whole thing has fallen into shambles. A rainy day during the only night in a new city, a cathedral being rehabbed and stacked with toothpick-like scaffolds, a famous painting touring outside of the museum, a missed train to the next city – all these things can make you want to throw your fannypack on the ground and quit.
But when you have a good stretch of time ahead of you and you're traveling, your goal is to see the world. And the world is messy. Which means you'll have to tramp through puddles and get your socks wet sometimes, you'll have to enjoy the Gothic arches from underneath metal, and a missed train means a new chance to see a small town you didn't know was previously taking up room on a map. It's all part of the adventure- there are no wrong turns, just unexpected opportunities.
Sure travelers get frazzled every now and then, but they take those loops with curiosity; with a mindset of “What experiences will I meet here?” and not “This day is in tatters.”
6. Tourists Sanitize; Travelers Get Their Hands Into The Dough
When I was a tourist, I'd look for hotel rooms near the hub of city centers, preferably in a spot where all the main attractions were within walking distance so I didn't have to bother learning how to move around the city. I liked my trip sanitized- where I had the comforts of home, and everything fell into place easily.
But then I thought, where's the fun in that? Why treat a place like an amusement park, where you wait in lines to see their attractions and eat at the places only nearest your hotel room? Why not experience the place like a local, appreciating the city like they would? Ride the tube in London, rent a bike in Amsterdam, grab a chicken truck in Peru. Eat local food and try the questionable alcohol they knock back like shooters. Learn the history behind buildings, the significance of the breakdown of neighborhoods, and see something that isn't on the tourist trap circuit. Take a tram a couple of neighborhoods out; go into a bar where there isn't a lick of English spoken. Understand the city like a local, and don't skim past it like a tourist.
The difference between tourists and travelers is that tourists are visiting, whereas travelers are experiencing.
I've been both at different points in my life, and the way I travel is completely different from the way I used to tour. So next time you book a ticket outside of your city, see if you're up to the idea of putting your traveler boots on and getting a little messy with your trip. You might just like it better.