There’s little doubt it’s a great time to be a traveler. With so much available to the modern nomad it’s amazing everyone’s not dumping their possessions and flagging down the next nonstop to Points Unknown.
Because travel is currently so accessible and cost-effective, you may want to take advantage of this time. But being among the new traveling masses, it should also be important to be as sensitive and considerate as possible while on your journey. Being a courteous traveler is the new standard, and it says a lot about your character just how you travel. You owe it to yourself, and the world, to be as thoughtful as possible in the face of the unfamiliar.
So how do we do it?
To be the best world-citizen you can, keep in mind a few things as you go. As never before, the world is watching.
Consider your destinations: These days virtually no place is off-limits for the traveling connoisseur. But to be a conscientious and responsible traveler it helps to consider local need, cultural and environmental impact and even political agenda when choosing your destinations. A great part of many world economies rely on tourism and the financial support it gives. This may put you at odds because locals tend to pray on the tourist targets. But karmically speaking, you’re doing them a big favor by going there.
On the personal side, removing yourself from your comfort zone is a surefire way to conquer your fears, open your mind and grow as an individual. Making easy destination choices (e.g. places you’ve been before, places that speak your language or ones with strong economies) won’t automatically make you a more knowledgeable person of the world. Removing yourself from the confines of expectation will.
Consider how you’re traveling: Plane tickets are still expensive and you’ll likely be spending inordinate amounts of money on them, but there are other, more edifying options to get around once you get there. Stay on the ground instead of flying from city to city. Your money will spread out into the countryside more quickly. And try to avoid the tour bus option. It will alienate you from the people you’re out there to understand. Traveling with locals gives you an organic and unique experience; use the same forms of transportation they do and you’ll appreciate them so much more for doing it.
Consider what you’re doing there: If you’re inexperienced it’s tempting, if not completely second nature, to hang out only where other tourists congregate, but there’s other things to do that may be better for your overall experience, not to mention keeping the grass growing. Volunteering will provide you with an intimate connection with the local community and give your trip a sense of purpose. There are a slew of organizations out there that can help you find volunteering opportunities while you’re on the road.
If you’re not cut out for the hard-knock life of volunteering, perhaps you may want to give teaching a try. English is fast becoming the world’s common language and with a birth-right to it, you have a golden ticket. Many academies and language schools don’t need prior teaching experience and will train on the spot. A time commitment is usually necessary but it will certainly be a useful pursuit and give you the pride of accomplishment when you’re done.
Consider who you purchase from: If you do buy a tour it makes sense to cut out the middleman. Local tour operators will actually make more money if you contact them directly, giving your dollar more leverage. Arrange for your tour once you arrive in the country as opposed to setting it up before you leave. Many (but not all) big tour operators have a bad habit of unfairly marking up their tours, giving the people that actually do the work the short end of the stick.
Which brings up the topic of whether you should go with…
…an FIT or prearranged tour? Many people would say fully independent travel is the way to free yourself from the capitalistic shackles of established tour operators and let you integrate best with the people. While this may be true, there are times when hopping on a small group tour can help give you insight into the culture you wouldn’t otherwise have. But don’t forget to take the tour experience with a grain of salt.
Consider where you’re staying: While big resorts do employ the members of the local community, many are biased about who they hire and may have unsavory working conditions the locals put up with because of the better pay. In addition, most of the money you’re spending to stay there goes into the pockets of the resort owners, not the employees doing all the work. Elevated prices usually don’t mean a better life for the community. While they may be happy to have jobs there, the employees’ best interests aren’t usually high on the list of their employer’s priorities.
Consider your impact: Did you pay inflated prices for the items you bought from local vendors? While haggling may not be the most enjoyable pastime only to get a discount of birdseed, paying the seller’s over-inflated full price creates an uneven rift in the local market, driving up costs for everyone. Try to get a fair price, not a gift.
At the risk of sounding daddy-like, consider your behavior too. As a traveler you are an ambassador to your home country and the impression you make on the locals is representative to how they’ll see your entire country, not just you. I recently heard a story about a group of backpackers telling a guesthouse owner they were going to sue him because they thought they were overcharged for their room—the difference was only a few dollars! Be pleasant, be sensitive, be mindful of your actions. These things matter when you’re away from home.
In this unprecedented new era, being a traveler is not just about getting on a plane anymore. We must do our best to adapt to the new place and promote behavior we would be proud of as citizens in a global community.