Avoiding the Tourist Trap: 5 Travel Practices to Make Meaning Abroad

Jacqueline Comola10 Apr, 2024

A valley in Iceland

Traveling internationally is a rich and wonderful experience that allows us to immerse ourselves in new places and learn from diverse cultures. It’s a privilege to explore this world we call home. Interacting with people who lead distinct lives from our own shows us there’s more than one way to live. Travel is a treat for the senses and a way to broaden our minds, expand our comfort zones, and increase our resilience to change.

Not all trips are filled with meaning. Sometimes, you might come home from a vacation feeling like you weren’t able to immerse yourself in the authentic way you’d hoped for. We’ve all fallen into a tourist trap before. It’s not always pleasant. Even with careful planning and research, the experience of exploring a foreign country can feel empty if we don’t travel with intention.

So how do we bring intention with us, wherever we go?

1. Connect with Real People

Speaking with locals in restaurants, hotels, and on the street is a great way to start in a foreign country, but getting to know real people in their daily lives takes going a step further. Signing up for a homestay or farm-stay is an incredible way to dive headfirst into the lives of locals. Experiences like these show people you’re truly interested in their lifestyle.

Many homestay or farm-stay programs allow you to stay and eat meals for free in exchange for an agreed upon amount of work. Spending half your day helping out with interesting tasks unique to the place you’re traveling in can imbue your trip with meaning. The connections made in a garden, playing with children, or sitting around a family dinner table are ones you can’t always find on the tourist trail.

Homestays are an important part of several of our programs. On Thailand’s Best, you’ll get to sample authentic, homemade Thai food and spend evenings with a local family while spending the day exploring temples and meeting rescued elephants. If you crave a chance to practice your Spanish in an immersive setting, Ultimate Costa Rica is the place to look. You’ll have Spanish classes while also staying with a Costa Rican family, the ultimate combination of study and real-life practice.

A group of students dressed in Tanzanian wraps greet a Tanzanian man

2. Write a Letter to Your Future Self

Sometimes in the thick of an incredible experience, there’s too much going on to process how special it is. The meaning of the trip gets lost amongst trying to find your hotel for the night or speaking a few phrases of the local language to order a meal. The hectic pace of a trip can get overwhelming.

Once you get home, it can be easy to forget the rich sensory details of the place you just visited. Consider taking a moment to write a letter to yourself while you’re still in the middle of the excitement. Describe what you smell in the air around you. Tell an anecdote from your day about an interaction you had with somebody or a place that took your breath away. Write down the ingredients of what you had for breakfast and how it tasted different from what you make at home. Seal everything up and write your own address on the envelope.

Chances are, you’ll forget all about this letter once it’s dropped in the mailbox. Your trip will continue in full swing and you’ll lose yourself in the wonderful rush of new experiences. Days, weeks, or months later, you’ll be home and readjusting to normal routines. The letter will arrive and it might take you a moment to remember what it’s about or why you wrote it.

Inside, you’ll find a time capsule of delights. It’ll bring you right back to that warm, tropical morning in the jungle or that ancient cobblestone cafe on a European street. Your senses will remember the flavors, sounds, and sights of the adventure you had.

3. Make Your Own Souvenirs

Buying a magnet or t-shirt from the place you’re visiting is a good way to remind yourself of your trip, but it doesn’t always communicate the richness of the experience. There are many creative ways of making your own souvenir along the way. These homemade mementos make for sweet keepsakes, but they also engage your brain while in the act of creating them. Sitting down to make something unique for yourself creates a time and space for reflection while still on the trip.

Getting creative can look different for different people. One idea is to travel with a miniature watercolor kit and simple notebook with thick, blank pages. In order to watercolor anything, you have to sit and absorb what’s around you. Instead of snapping a photo and moving on, watercolor forces you to really observe the colors and shapes of a place. This practice is meaningful even if the product you create is just some brushstrokes on a page.

If painting isn’t your thing, think about the hobbies you enjoy at home. Is there a way to take them on the road? Writing poetry can happen anywhere, on a scrap of napkin with a pen borrowed from the person next to you. You could embroider designs on your travel backpack while on a long bus ride or knit a scarf in the colors of the country you’re in. Whatever creative pursuit you feel drawn to, there’s likely a way to transform it into a souvenir of your journey.

A man writes at a wooden table in front of a stone building in the Alps

4. Learn The Most Important Words You’ll Ever Need

It’s not always feasible to become fluent in a new foreign language right before your plane takes off. That being said, it is possible to learn just three vital things in any language. If English isn’t the primary language of your destination, it’s worthwhile to do this, no matter where you’re traveling.

Hello. Please. Thank you. If you can memorize these words before your plane touches down, you’ll be on a great path. These are words of greeting, consideration, and gratitude. They mean something to the people you’ll be interacting with and they signal that you care enough to try. If memorizing is proving tricky, write them down on the back of your hand to use as often as possible.

It’s amazing how people respond to being addressed in their own language, especially if you’re a traveler from the U.S. Even if English is frequently understood in a foreign country, it’s a good idea to learn these basics.

5. Take a Screen Free Day

Two women pose in front of a golden Thai temple

If you’re a frequent international traveler, you probably already know that Google Maps is an absolute lifesaver. Navigating a bustling city with signs you don’t understand can feel impossible without the security of our personal devices. Google Translate steps up when we sit down to eat and find a menu incomprehensible. Connecting with loved ones at home soothes the soul when everything around us is loud, bright, and new.

There was a time when we all traveled without smartphones. It feels like a distant past, but it’s still within memory for many of us. In the modern world, it’s a challenge we have to choose. Yes, it will always be easier to travel with a phone. But what gets lost at the price of that ease?

Asking people for directions on the street might seem antiquated, but it opens you up to connections you would’ve surely missed if you asked your phone instead. Taking a chance on a random menu item instead of automatically translating the whole thing might deliver you an exquisite dish you never would’ve thought to try. Being disconnected from home, work, and regular life forces us into the present moment. It can be uncomfortable, but discomfort isn’t always something to fear when traveling internationally. It’s a sign you’re doing it right.

On Bold Earth programs, we believe in the power of screen-free time for all of our participants. It’s not always an easy transition to make, for teens or adults, but it changes how we interact with the world around us.

Travel Intentionally, Travel Well

These tips and tricks are just a few ideas to get you started. If you want to learn more about how we make Bold Earth trips meaningful, check out our story.

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