Travelers vs. Tourists: The End of the Debate, Why Labels Don’t Matter and The Real Purpose of Travel

Travelers vs. Tourists. Which is better? If you’ve traveled at all, you find that everyone has an opinion on this debate. The debate ends today. Here are the two sides:

The Tourists
Tourists are quite obvious. They’re usually the large group with cameras near any semi-important monument/site. They’re usually fully outfitted with fanny packs and cameras and depending on their time in the location, they may or may not all be wearing identical T-shirt as proof that they indeed did see the location in question. They’re more interested in the guided tours, obvious attractions & 4 star hotels than the traveler is and they are easily amused by quaint little things like accents.

The Travelers
Travelers see tourists and usually end up going in the opposite direction. While they will go see historical sites, they’re looking for the indie/hipster place to go. They want to see the place only the locals know about. They’ll try to learn the language, meet the locals and fit in with the culture. They’ll laugh at the travel faux pas the silly little tourists commit as they bumble through the city.

I used to consider myself a traveler. I usually stay away from the typical “touristy” things. I’ve slept under the Eiffel Tower for multiple nights, I’ve lived in the mountains of Jamaica for weeks on end and I’ve spent months in a  living  in the the Dominican Republic in some interesting conditions. When I travel, I usually tend to “rough it” and I was pretty proud to label myself a “traveler.”


This last trip to London was different though. I didn’t feel like a “traveler” at all. In fact, the only “traveler” type thing I really did was stay in hostels [if that even really counts].

I was attending a conference that met in a very nice [i.e expensive] hotel where we spent a solid 3 days. During my stay I mostly socialized with the conference attendees and went to lunch at the nearby locations. I didn’t spend really any time with local Londonesians and I honestly didn’t get much off the beaten path. I didn’t try to learn much of the native tongue [my English accent is horrendous] and I even went to a McDonalds once.

This was tourist behavior! *gasp* The horror.

But a funny thing happened: I still had a really good time.

My former “traveler” self would have had a heart attack seeing me do such “touristy” things, but I started to realized that didn’t matter and I didn’t really care. I don’t travel because I want to be labeled something. I travel because I want to have memorable experiences that shape me in meaningful ways.

That’s what I want out of travel. That’s what I want out of life.

Sure that will look differently for different people, [some people will do that in a touristy manner, some in a traveling manner] but I believe that’s the biggest underlying reason for everyone traveling.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big advocate of true cross-cultural experiences, language study & truly getting to know the locals, but any travel is better than no travel at all: including tourist travel.

After all, the tourist visiting Paris is wanting the same thing out of the trip that the traveler is: an amazing experience. How they go about it will be different, and what they experience will be different, but if they both come away “wowed” at their experience, their mission is accomplished. [Now if both of them do “nothing” and come away with nothing, I’d argue what’s the point?, but that’s another issue].

Before the travelers out there get too upset with me. Ask yourself: When did you take your first trip? Describe what you looked like. Got it?
You probably looked a lot like a tourist.
I know I did.

I was gawking, ignorant and said lots of stupid things. I got lost and ripped off and spent way too much.

Why does selfish cycling annoy me so much? For the same reasons that I believe anything annoys anyone — because it represents something about myself which I dislike. – Jim Hodgson

Jim is writing about newbie cyclists, but I think it applies a lot to traveling too. I find one of the reasons I used to be annoyed with tourists so much, is because they represented how I used to travel. I used to be that guy with the t shirt, and camera who spent a disproportionate amount of time looking at bad souvenirs.

Everyone starts somewhere.

The Take-Away

Tourist-type travel can be fun. And it’s where most people start. Whatever you do, whether you’d rather spend the weekend in the park in front of the Eiffel tower and sleep in your car while on a cross country road trip, or spend your vacation in an all-inclusive resort while exploring Disney World and getting as many pictures with the Disney Characters as possible, don’t worry about the “label” you’ll get from doing it. Make sure it’s memorable.

What do you think?

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  1. says


    Excellent post – I figured I’d comment cuz it’s a topic that I, along with so many others, have thought about endlessly. I feel like there’s a whole growing trend of those (especially in our generation) who thrive on labeling themselves “travelers,” and are more preoccupied with not looking like a tourist than actually enjoying the place/people! Like you said, we all start somewhere, but I hope that what I just mentioned isn’t where we end up!

    Just have fun and learn as much as you can! PS..when were you in Jamaica?

    Ps) can I ask what conference you were at in London?

    • says

      Exactly. I sometimes worry that we’re more focused on “not-being a tourist” than actually doing something because you genuinely enjoy it.

      I was in jamaica last summer–gorgeous little place up in the mountains…Took FOREVER to get to but a lot of fun =)

      It was a marketing conference :) [sort of keeping it on the DL, but if you really know, dm/email me :)]

  2. says

    Amen brotha!

    The tourist/traveler thought came to my mind when I was with Tim and David in New York. We were instantly identified as out-of-towners everywhere we went.
    Was it what we were wearing? Maybe. Was it the fact that we were the only people amongst 6 million that were smiling? Most definitely. But you’re right – it was memorable.


    – Josh

    • says

      I’ve stopped worrying about what other people think about me when I go places. Sure, some places its smart not to try & stand out, but most of the time, I just try to be myself and enjoy the place for what it has to offer :)

  3. says

    If the end goal is to enjoy and experience something new and different then the way we go about obtaining that shouldn’t matter. Stop worrying about the label is good advice all around. Worrying about what people think of us or what we are doing is one way we limit ourselves in the things we want to do. I like the approach you took to point that out Joel.

    • says

      Thanks Matt
      It’s amazing how we let “labels” limit us in what we do. The things we won’t do just because “what other people” will think or what “category” we’d get lumped into. I *still* lean towards the “traveler” side of things, but hey, if that’s not your thing, then I’d rather you travel like a tourist than not travel at all.

  4. says


    Mcdonald’s in every other country other than US still sells deep fried Apple pies :). Tourist or traveler, I will never deny myself that guilty pleasure. They stopped serving them sometime in the mid 90’s probably because of the rising heart disease incidents. HAHA.

    • says

      Haha, So awesome. Stupid FDA regulations :). So good.

      McDonalds seriously is the unofficial US Embassy in other countries. When I went homeless in Paris for 4 days, that was the first place that opened in the morning and we’d spend an hour or so warming up, drinking cappuccino :). Not very “french” but definitely memorable. Thanks McDonalds :)

  5. says

    Ah, I love it! From “tourist” to “traveler” and back to “tourist” again… and it’s all good!

    First: McDonalds. I visited Spain a few years back with a friend, and when I spied the McD’s in Barcelona I had to give it a try. After all, I’d heard they sell BEER in MCDONALD’s in Spain! My buddy scorned my decision. “I didn’t come halfway around the world to go to a f***ing McDonald’s.” He waited outside while I went in. No beer, darn, but, as I informed him when I came out with my bag of fries and a couple of cheeseburgers, “they have a euro menu.” By that point the price of restaurant meals in Barcelona was beginning to take a toll on our finances. “A euro menu?” My “traveler” pal changed his tune pretty quickly at that point.

    While on a trip to China (yeah, a tour group), our fellow tourists derided us the day we decided to forgo the “Peking Duck” dinner for a local McDonald’s. Guess what we discovered? The organized “local dinners” on the China tours are all about… TOURISTS! Where do the locals eat in big cities in China? McDonald’s and KFC! Later I asked one of the local guides about this, and he laughed. “My kids LOVE KFC,” he said. “I tell people KFC is America’s plot to secretly conquer China!” The service in the Chinese McD’s was prompt, and we could tell by the curious looks we received that “tourists” don’t often turn up in Chinese McD’s. Since that experience, I make a POINT of visiting McD’s in any country I visit. It’s where the locals dine!

    • says

      The McD’s in Spain i visited DID serve beer. [Wasn’t that good, but STILL]. Also, their ice cream at mcdonalds was 1 euro compared to the 3-4 euro ice cream at the local places in the plaza mayor. McDonalds for the win!

  6. says

    Didn’t want to ramble on TOO long in one comment, so I’ll split it in half.

    Regarding sleeping under the Eiffel Tower — I’d love to have done it, but… is there a campground there, or what? Does the place look like a homeless encampment every night? It seems like every “traveler” I’ve talked to who has visited Paris talks about either “sleeping under” or “partying all night under” the Eiffel Tower. Like you say, it seems to be an “indie-hipster” thing to do, rather than anything particularly exotic anymore.

    I don’t mind an element of comfort when I travel. When I see “travelers” doing the backpacking thing, my initial response is envy. Quickly, however, I come to appreciate that my gear is securely tucked away back at the hotel, where there’s also a shower awaiting me at the end of a long day, while these poor stiffs are trudging around with 70-pound packs on their back all day because they can’t leave their stuff at the hostel for fear of theft. Traveling light (by leaving my clothes and toothbrush at the hotel) allows me to cover a LOT of ground on foot during the day. Of course I’m lugging my camera with me most of the time. I’d rather have a REAL camera than a trendy yuppie indie hipster iPhone camera. Sure, you’re up to 5 megapixels with your shiny gadget these days, but it’s still a quarter-inch diameter lens. Not being rich like the “trust fund traveler kids” roughing it on Daddy’s dime, I may not make it back to Valencia or Manuel de Antonio any time soon, so I want some decent photos to take home from inside the cathedral or under the rain forest canopy.

    A British friend used to crack jokes about “typical tourists” in England with their “Mind the Gap” t-shirts. First souvenir shop I saw when I visited London, I made a point of picking up a Mind the Gap shirt. When I wear it back home, someone will inevitably say, “oh, you’ve been to London,” and strike up an interesting conversation. So don’t dismiss “tacky tourist souvenirs.” They have their place.

    ‘Kay, one more quick story…

    • says

      The Eiffel was more of a “I’m too cheap to get a hostel” than a “hipster” thing. We basically ran out of money & decided to sleep outside for 3-4 nights. Lots of people stay out on the lawn in front of the eiffel, but they sit on picnic blankets and drink wine before heading back to their hostels. The only “hipsters” that were out there were me, my buddy and a bunch of homeless people :). Lots of people party, but most don’t sleep there. It sort of puts a damper on things when you wake up at 4:30am and you can’t feel your hands because it’s so cold. Not really that *exotic*, but it’s a heck of a good story =)

  7. says

    As you can tell, I LOVED this post!

    And this’ll be TWO quick stories, about “dressing like a local.”

    First time to Hawaii, the guidebooks all said local causal attire is an aloha shirt and surf shorts, so that’s how I dressed. Walking down the street in Waikiki, I swear every panhandler approached me and every taxicab pulled over to ask if I wanted a ride to Hanauma Bay. After a few days I switched to a nondescript t-shirt and jeans… and the panhandling and taxi offers stopped cold. T-shirt and jeans are universal, more or less.

    My mother went on a tour to Australia several years ago and brought me back a souvenir, a floppy-brimmed “Crocodile Dundee” style hat. She claimed that “everyone wears these” in Australia. Yeah, right, Mom! A couple of years later I had a chance to visit Australia, and because we’d be visiting the Red Center (where it’s, like, sunny) I took the hat. Now, in Sydney, our first stop, I saw nobody wearing these hats, as I suspected. Nonetheless, one day I wore mine as I ventured out from the hotel. Almost immediately I was stopped — BY A TOURIST — who asked me for directions! Okay, this is fun, I though! Later we drove out of Sydney, and guess what? Practically everyone DOES wear the “Crocodile Dundee” hats (only without the croc teeth). I ended up chatting with numerous locals who were surprised to find out we weren’t locals! Even the people who thought we might be “visitors” figured we were from Sydney!

    So “blending in” doesn’t necessarily mean adopting some goofy local garb. Avoid the aloha shirt in Waikiki! Dress casually and comfortably. If you’re feeling comfortable, you’ll look like you belong.

    Hey, I wore that Aussie hat to Costa Rica, and a couple of times tourists tried to address me in broken Spanish! I guess I had that stereotypical Costa Rican coffee farmer look goin’ on!

  8. says

    Am I spamming your board? Yeah, but this is an awesome topic, so one more thing, then I’ll stop, I promise. (And feel free to edit for brevity or delete altogether, no problem!)

    Back in Barcelona, there’s a noted meet-up place for “travelers” called “The Travelers Bar.” Not being very savvy travelers, we’d never heard of this place until two backpacker guys we started chatting with at a train station told us we shouldn’t miss it. So our last night in Barcelona we tracked down the Travelers Bar, and it was full of… “travelers.” The noisy, half-drunk, college age crowd who “travel” to exotic countries to hang out in a bar with the same kinds of people they hang out with at home. After the crowd, the next thing we noticed was how expensive the beer was. We’d kind of been “bar hopping,” meaning wandering aimlessly with no clue where we were, stopping in at interesting places for one or two Damm Estrellas and then moving on. Two straight guys wandering into a low-key lesbian bar was pretty funny; but hey, the men’s restroom was VERY clean! The low-rent version of a Hard Rock cafe was fun. The joint with the Super-8 film theme was great, full of local “hipsters,” and the beer was cheap (altho the lesbian bar was even cheaper)! The best place to get a beer was walking along La Rambla in the warm evening and buying a couple of cans from local guys selling ’em for a Euro apiece. Meanwhile, the kids at the Travelers Bar were signing up for an overpriced “pub crawl.”

    I guess my point here is a long-winded and less interesting parallel to yours; that is, calling yourself a “traveler” and hanging out with self-proclaimed “travelers” doesn’t make you a traveler; nor does your choice of bed vs bedroll or camera vs cell phone snap define either “tourist” or “traveler.” Rather, travel is a state of mind involving a willingness to see and hear, to pause and listen, and to learn. Not all of us can do the backpacking / hostel thing, whether for health, family, or other reasons. Not all of us want to, because we like those hot showers and clean sheets too much! Midway through a week stay at a hotel in London, where after supper every night I stopped in at a little convenience market at the end of the block every night to pick up a small carton of milk and some chocolate bars, the clerk started giving me a discount off the posted price. Apparently there was one price for “tourists” and another price for “locals.” Three days in, I rated the “local rate.” Yeah, I saw the (fill in the historical blank) in London, but that few pence discount on a carton of milk, that’s what I think of when I think of London. And that’s what I think about when I think about what it means to be a traveler.

    I’ve been reading you for a coupla weeks now (ended up here via Castles in the Air blog); saw your Tweet about this post.

    Oh, and, for your Impossible Things list: I’d recommend La Tomatina tomato fight over the Running of the Bulls!

    • says

      Thanks for the stories Dave! Sounds like you’ve had quite a few of your own adventures!

      I love your insight on this. Travel is a mindset & everyone is going to get something different out of it, but I think no matter how you do it, it’s always so incredibly valuable.

      I’ll add Tomatina to the list. Why not do both? [Spain is awesome. I can’t get enough of it].

      [pps Nina’s blog is great. Glad you found me :) Hope you stick around!]

  9. says

    I have been in both parts of this as well. I have found that one of the biggest things that I enjoy is to get out of the major cities and get in the smaller towns where you really see how the majority of that country is.

    The second thing I have noticed is time. The longer I am in a certain place the more I become “at home” there. It helps take away that first timer feeling that makes you feel like such a tourist.

    My wife and I love this kind of travel.

    Thanks for the post man. I am glad that you enjoyed London.

  10. says

    I think a lot about this stuff, as I travel more and more I’ve realized that the search for “authenticity” is oftentimes just as oppressive as tourist traps. As I get older I’ve become more comfortable and confident with my own tastes and I seek to engage them where I’m at. Maybe I’ve ended up where I started? Traveling to do what I want to do, not to conform with a new and foreign average. hmm

    • says

      “Traveling to do what I want to do”
      I love that attitude.

      Sure I LOVE seeing the culture of a place, but if you’re just going to “cultural” places because you want to keep up an image you’ve built up, why bother? Spend your time doing the things you like, not what you think other people think you like.

  11. says

    wow! loved this post! loved all the travel comments from your fun readers too! :) okay, so i started travelling at the age of 14. i’m 40 now. had to take the last 8 years off from international travel, but have been to 20 countries or so. love love love travel! what i think the biggest takeaway from travelling, real travelling, is you are forced to examine your interior. i was in barcelona staying at a pension on avda rambla, spoke no spanish (this was in 1996, in february). i was over there in several countries for the winter/three months. yes, moments are “hard” at times when you’re travelling by yourself. i have loved all three times i’ve been to europe. you only need to start walking and you either have a physical adventure or end up in great conversations! bless you for your post! :)

    • says

      Definitely. My favorite thing about traveling is that it forces you to look at things from a different perspective and try to understand them. Thanks for the nice words Marina!

  12. says

    Nice way to put things in perspective, Joel! Tourists and travelers all want the same thing: a memorable experience. That is totally right on the spot.

    Even when we try our best to “blend in,” we can’t 100% of the time simply because we are born and raised in a different country and culture. Unless we lived in a particular area for a number of months or years that would allow those little nuances that distinguish the tourist from the traveler to dissolve, it simply takes time and a lot of risk-taking to get out there and learn.

    But it’s so worth it! Not to mention, loads of fun. 😀

    • says

      You’re dead on about blending in. When I go to the Central America or the Carribbean I think I’m “blending in” because I’ll pick up the accent and slang and hang out with the locals, but I no matter what I do, I can’t change the fact that I’m still a Caucasian American in a predominantly Latino culture. No matter how much I work on my accent, I still stand out :)

      It’s much more liberating just to travel & do what you enjoy instead of worrying about fitting into some preconceived notion of what you “should” do.

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  14. Rob says

    Great article Joel. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few weeks actually. I’m just starting my foreign travel again after close to three years of being in the States, and their seem to be a lot of bloggers advocating the “right way” to travel. Usually this means slow and culturally integrated. Anything faster, more touristy, or less “authentic” wasn’t serious travel. At least, that’s the vibe I’ve sometimes felt.

    It’s a limiting distinction, one that almost got to me for awhile there. For me, I just want to experience the many wonderful things the world has to offer. Yes, some of those things are out of the way places only locals know about, but others are the most gigantic tourist attractions you can think of. It’s all part of getting to know this crazy world we live in.


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