How to be a better traveller is something I constantly ponder, particularly after a year in travel that saw a rise in anti-tourist sentiment across Europe and the emergence of beg-packing in Southeast Asia, and an explosion of naked tourism and public pooping all over. Now is really the time to travel more responsibly and here’s how.
No wonder locals have been hoisting “tourists go home!” banners across buildings everywhere from Barcelona to Dubrovnik. We’ve long said that it’s not where you travel but how you travel that’s important and it’s more important than ever in the current environment, with the backlash against tourists and in particular badly-behaved tourists.
Responsible travel, greener travel, sustainable travel, and ethical travel aren’t trends, they’re here to stay, so it’s time to learn how to be a better traveller. These 18 ideas for how to be a better travellers are your’s for the taking.
How To Be a Better Traveller – 18 Ideas for Travelling More Responsibly
A new year means fresh starts and new beginnings. It’s a time when I jot down a list of New Year resolutions and this year was no different: tell loved ones I love them more, speak to family and friends more, spend less time on social media, read more, write better, get fit, lose weight, get better at chasing debtors, get better at meeting deadlines, get less angry about global politics, go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, savour more sunrises, cuddle more grandmas, stroke more cats… that’s a recipe for better well-being right there.
But you’ll note there are no New Year travel resolutions on my list. I’m terrible at a lot of things, but if there’s one thing I’m good at, it is travelling. And you’d certainly hope so after travelling professionally and writing about travel for as long as we have. But there’s always room for improvement.
I go slow and local, I travel responsibly and ethically, I’m culturally sensitive, I give back, and I make considered decisions about every aspect of our trips. That means you’ll never see us travelling on a cruise ship the size of a small city and if I have a choice, I’ll stay in a boutique hotel over a 10,000-room behemoth any day. So I’ve got the travel thing sorted. But while I’m good at travelling, I can always travel better, and so can you. Here are 18 ideas for how to be a better traveller this year and every year.
How To Be A Better Traveller – 18 Ways to Travel More Responsibly
Last year saw the rise of over-tourism, beg-packing, nude tourism, and public pooping among other things. No wonder locals were hoisting “tourists go home!” banners across buildings. Make this the year that we all travel better and we do good when we do. Here’s how to be a better traveller this year:
Travel Off Season
One of the main reasons for the emergence of the anti-tourist movement across Europe in the last few years has been the incredible over-crowding of places such as Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Iceland, and Dubrovnik, which heaved with huge numbers of tourists during the summer high season. (One of the other reasons has been de-regulation and the so-called ‘sharing’ economy.) Locals have felt like their homes have been invaded and their city infrastructure stretched to breaking point. So instead of travelling to places in peak periods, travel off-season and travel during shoulder seasons. Siem Reap, for instance, is much more appealing in the quieter, monsoonal, low season months – everything’s gorgeous and green and even Angkor Wat is devoid of tour groups. Europe’s cities are equally alluring and much more comfortable in autumn/fall and winter. Visit off-season and the locals will love you, the pace will be more relaxed, people more friendly, and you’ll gain more of an insight into the lives of locals – not other tourists.
Travel to Lesser Visited Places
If you must travel in high season (we get it: families have no choice but to travel during school holidays), then another way to ensure you’re welcomed rather than reviled is to travel to lesser-visited places that need tourists and their dollars more than those that want to see the back of the travellers: Montenegro instead of Croatia, Java instead of Bali, Cambodia instead of Thailand, Uruguay instead of Argentina. Consider second cities too – Perpignan is a lovely alternative to Paris, Valencia instead of Barcelona, Bologna over Florence, Split in place of Dubrovnik. Explore regions less visited by foreigners – Calabria is a great alternative to Puglia, Galicia a substitute for Andalusia, Northeastern Thailand instead of Northern Thailand, Battambang is a breath of fresh air after Siem Reap. I’m not saying not to visit the other destinations (they’re some of our favourites), I’m just recommending you visit them off-season instead of high season and in high season try lesser visited places instead.
Stop Ticking Off Countries
Stop ticking off stuff. Counting countries, air miles and passport stamps is pretentious, pompous and puerile, don’t you think? You’re trivialising something that we’re privileged be able to do. If you want to be a member of the Travelers Century Club – a club for people who claim to have visited 100 countries, with ambitions to tick off all 193, and ‘benefits’ beginning with ‘bragging rights’ – then perhaps a reassessment of values is in order? Worth noting: many of those people only spend 24 hours in a country, don’t leave the airport, and fly in and out of places on the same plane – which in our books, doesn’t count. Visiting an airport is not visiting a country. Some think of themselves as explorers or adventurers but in reality are the worst kind of tourist, as they give nothing back to the places visited. Confession: I counted countries, too, once (72 at last count, some years ago) but I realised how meaningless it was. Countries aren’t there to be ticked off. They should be experienced. Stop rushing through. Your travels will be a blur one day.
Stop Saying You’ve ‘Done’ Places
It was an excruciating proclamation I overheard at a Siem Reap bar last week – “we’ve done Asia now, we’ll do South America and Australia by the end of next year…” – that partly inspired this post (and also made me want to puke). Firstly, it’s impossible to do everywhere. My family travelled around Australia twice, the first time over five years, and didn’t see everything. It’s a colossal country. Terence and I been living and travelling abroad for almost 20 years, but we haven’t done the world. By using ‘done’ these sort of people are reducing what should be enriching experiences of places and cultures to something on par with household chores like mowing and laundry and taking the garbage out. My only hope is that when they get home (utterly exhausted by their ridiculously fast-paced travels), put their feet up, and turn on the Travel Channel, that they see what they’ve missed out on and feel pangs of regret.
Go Green and Leave Only Footprints
Say no to plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic bottles, and other non-recyclable, environment-polluting and completely useless things. Travel with cotton or string bags you can take shopping and refillable water bottles, such as these brilliant reusable aluminium bottles by Refill Not Landfill, a fantastic initiative launched here in Siem Reap. When you visit attractions such as beaches, national parks and archaeological sites, take your garbage with you. Choose hotels, tour companies, restaurants, and retail businesses that have environmental policies and are making real efforts to be greener. Check their websites and email and ask if they recycle, whether they have stopped using plastic water bottles and offer free filtered water, if they use biodegradable or bamboo straws, do they have solar panels, and so on. If you’re staying in a hotel or dining at a cafe or restaurant that doesn’t offer free filtered water and forces you to buy small plastic bottled water instead, ask to speak to the manager and ask why. Actively seek out businesses that are doing good (in Siem Reap, this list is a great start), such as organic eateries, farmers markets and zero-waste restaurants. See our guide to how to be a greener traveller for more ideas.
Travelling slowly is one of the easiest ways to be a better traveller. Obviously someone who left Australia for three years and stayed abroad almost 20 years, who goes to a place for a week and spends a month, is going to encourage you to travel slowly. Indeed, slow travel – as well as local travel and experiential travel – is what we’ve been advocating since we launched Grantourismo and our quest to make travel more meaningful and memorable on New Years Eve in 2009. To travel more slowly is to travel sustainably – it’s better for the environment and by settling in to live like locals in apartment rentals, holiday houses and villa rentals, you’re giving back more to the communities you’re spending time in. It’s also to travel more meaningfully. Because when you slow down, you become more acutely aware of your surroundings, you pay more attention to the little details of the everyday that are woven into the fabric of life. You soak up more of the culture and observe the nuances of rituals, rites and customs of the community you’re in. Going slowly allows you to not only scratch the surface, but to get beneath the skin of a place, and enjoy a deeper experience.
Go Local and Engage More
When we embarked on our grand tour project and our ‘slow, local and experiential travel’ quest, it was because for us the three forms of travel were intrinsically related and when combined made for a more enriching experience. When you travel more slowly, you have more time for interactions with local people – in contrast to whizzing through a place and only meeting hotel and restaurant staff. If you go further and ‘go local’ – and by that we mean get out of the tourist zone and off the beaten path to explore local neighbourhoods, kick back in local parks and gardens, hang out in a local café or bar – you’ll have a much greater chance of meeting and engaging with locals than you would if you only stuck to the tourist spots. And for many of us it’s those interactions with local people that – as our tagline says – makes travel more meaningful and memorable. For us, travel has long been about the people we’ve met on our travels not the places we’ve been to, and that’s essentially the essence of local travel. Go local this year! See our tips for meeting locals when you travel.
Learn Things and Experience More
Experiential travel completes our triumvirate – or troika, seeing I’m posting this on Russian Christmas. When you slow down and give yourself more time to spend in a place, you have time to do and learn things and experience more than you would if you were just rushing through in a day. Whether it’s a street food tour or cooking course, some lessons on a musical instrument or a dance class, there’s nothing quite like learning to do something new in a place renowned for that art, craft, skill, or sport – like learning how to master the art of making macarons in Paris, France, or to make silver jewellery in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, getting a flamenco guitar lesson in Jerez, Spain, or learning how to surf again in Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica. You not only feel that sense of achievement you would anywhere, but there’s the added bonus of forming local friendships and gaining insights into local life that makes for a much more immersive and deeper experience.
Get Off the Beaten Track
I know I’m at risk of making travel sound like it has to be some sort of grand life project as it has been for me. I’m not and it doesn’t have to be. There’s much to be gained simply by getting off the beaten track a little. On my first trip to Paris I made a beeline for the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, in Rome it was the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps, in Moscow, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, and in St Petersburg it was the Hermitage. Those iconic monuments have become their city’s star attractions for good reason. But after you experience those, stray off the beaten path – just a smidge. It doesn’t take much. Sometimes you only have to stroll a few blocks from that main attraction or slip off the main square and into the backstreets and alleyways and you’re in an altogether different world inhabited by locals who don’t work in hospitality and tourism. Sometimes the small experiences that are possible and the peek into local life will stay imprinted in your memory longer than the panoramic Paris views.
Getting lost is that thing that happens after you’ve well and truly gone off the beaten track and lost your way. To enable this to happen you’re going to have to lock your phone in your luggage before you head out so you’re not tempted to check Google maps. Instead, rely on your instincts, sense of direction, and the kindness of strangers to get you back where you came from. Trust me, it’s worth it. Some of my greatest travel memories are of getting lost – going way off that beaten path and completely off the map and having absolutely no idea where we were. There’s a sense of exhilaration that comes with venturing into the completely unknown and it’s a feeling that’s elusive to most travellers these days who wouldn’t think of going anywhere without some kind of technology and data plans. Once ‘there’ – you know, when you have that feeling of “where the heck are we…” look around for a local café, pub or neighbourhood restaurant…
Eat Local, Drink Local
We’ve had some of our best times in local pubs and eateries that we’ve never put in a guidebook. The increasing popularity of food tours and bar crawls and the demand for bespoke itineraries like those that I create can partly be attributed to an increasing desire for travellers to drink and eat with the locals. Of course we’re happy to take some credit for that. But worth noting: local food is not always going to be the best food, particularly in developing countries where most of the population is still living in poverty. A watery curry with a few pieces of vegetables won’t compare with a richer, heartier rendition you can find in restaurant popular with foreigners. Yet in developed countries, where tourist restaurants generally serve poor quality ‘international food’ and you’re only eating with other tourists, the best food will always be where locals eat. Quality aside, what the local watering holes and eating spots will give you once again is that ability to get a glimpse into local lives and engage with local people in a way that’s hard to do in the tourist zones. Which is why you need to learn how to say “cheers” in the language of the country you’re heading to… or, get your new local friends to teach you.
Learn Some Local Language
Planning a trip overseas later in the year? Why not enrol in an introductory language course? No time? At the very least, resolve to study the basics. We attempt to learn around 10-12 words of the language of the place we’re visiting before we go: hello, goodbye, yes, no, how are you, good thank you, please, excuse me, you’re welcome, how much, etc. “Sorry, I don’t understand” and “I don’t speak much xxxx (the language)” also come in very handy. When we arrive we try to use those basics every day, beginning with “hello”, and I can’t tell you how much fun it is – you really need to have a go at learning some language basics to understand what a delight it can be. Locals love it when foreigners make an effort and it makes a tremendous difference to how you’re treated. You’ll find that people will then help you to learn more of the language and as they’ll do you’ll become more confident, learn more, and communication will improve. The rewards are often small – a smile of appreciation from adults or the wide eyes of a child astonished to see a foreigner speak a language they’re still learning – but they’re special.
Travel More Sustainably
Don’t book an all-inclusive holiday package with a massive multinational travel company, which rarely benefits the people in the places you’re going to. Instead, book directly with smaller local travel businesses if you’re travelling independently or regional travel companies if you’re keen to do a multi-country tour. Support small local businesses and spend more money in the places you’re going to. If you’re renting a holiday apartment or staying in a villa rental, spend money at small neighbourhood businesses and buy local products and local produce. Skip the cruise ships that are the size of small towns and the group shore tours that overwhelm places and choose smaller cruise boats and book a local guide for a private tour or small-group experience. Avoid big tourist attractions and buffet restaurants and eat and drink in local restaurants, street food stalls, cafes, and local neighbourhood bars and pubs.
Travel More Responsibly
We’ve long said that it’s not where you travel but how you travel that’s important. To travel more sustainably is to travel more responsibly, but responsible travel is also about ethical travel and the travel decisions you make. It’s about how and where you spend your money – shop ethically and sustainably, buy local, check tags, help keep local traditions alive, support fair trade, buy vintage, secondhand and up-cycled, and select local tour companies and hotels that are Responsible Travel practitioners. But it’s also about how you behave. For starters, be more culturally sensitive – research traditions, follow local customs, respect local religions, dress modestly, show regard for the people and community around you, be more aware of what you’re doing, and conduct yourself with maturity. It’s also about what you choose to do or not to do, such as whether you ride an elephant or visit an orphanage. More on those below. If you’re coming to Cambodia, see our comprehensive Responsible Travel Guide.
Avoid Animal Tourism
Some easy ideas for how to be a better traveller in 2018: stop riding elephants, stop posing with tigers and lions, and stop sitting with stoned bears.Yes, those animals are drugged so that they’re docile enough to not eat you and they are most certainly harmed during training. Avoiding animal tourism is one of the best ways you can travel more responsibly and travel ethically. Say no to elephant rides, tiger temples, dolphin parks, bear shows, and the like. Wild animals belong in the wild. Instead: support animal sanctuaries, animal conservation and rehabilitation efforts, and organisations that rescue animals and protect animals from poachers and traffickers. Animal lovers can go further and support local groups that rescue, feed, treat, and neuter stray or abandoned cats and dogs. (We have a post coming soon on this subject). Here’s why you specifically need to stop riding elephants at Angkor Archaeological Park.
Avoid Orphanages and School Visits
Resolve never to go to an orphanage or visit a kid’s school as part of a tour in a developing country and you can feel good about what you did not do. Unfortunately, visiting or volunteering at orphanages and schools is still considered by some tourists to be something good that you can do when you travel to countries like Cambodia and Nepal. It’s not. Orphanage tourism, as it’s called, is big business. Tourists’ interest in visiting orphanages, under the misapprehension that they’re doing good, led to a dramatic rise in orphanages and a high number of children (the majority of which aren’t orphans) being institutionalised unnecessarily. Say ‘no’ to orphanage and school visits. Children are not tourist attractions. Support hospitality training restaurants and social enterprises that work to help lift communities out of poverty instead. Read more here about why you should avoid orphanage visits.
Resolve to travel more. If you’ve travelled, you know that travel is everything they say it is. It relaxes and rejuvenates us – especially if you’re doing a good old bucket and spade holiday and doing little more than lying on the beach with a good book, rather than all these things that I’m asking you to do (!). And it opens our minds, makes us more tolerant, stimulates our creativity, and makes us younger. Not every trip needs to be a grand adventure – although, sure, those sorts of trips are transformative and life changing, but perhaps one of those a year is enough for most people. In between, embark on some micro-adventures – weekend’s away, city escapes, staycations – and old-fashioned holidays, such as camping and caravan holidays. The important thing is just to go.
Leave the Selfie Stick at Home
If you’re addicted to gazing into the lens of your camera at the end of a pole (and, yes, it does look as silly as it sounds), then resolve to go on one holiday without the thing. I’m not asking you to give up your selfies entirely. But try going back to what we all did in the old days and ask someone to take a photo of you. You might find that you actually enjoy that small interaction more than the silent company of your selfie stick. Better yet, don’t take photos. Just be present and enjoy the moment and the place you’re visiting and the people who you will more than likely meet more if you stop taking photos of yourself all day. Narcissism aside, selfie sticks are damaging historic monuments around the world, including Angkor, where there is discussion around whether selfie sticks should be banned. Next holiday: try travelling without any technology.
Pictured above: some of the lovely locals you can engage with on Beyond Unique Escapes interactive Village Walk and Talk tour, operated by their NGO called HUSK.
Those were our ideas for how to be a better traveller. Do you have more to add?