As Americans we focus on consumption. We shop to entertain ourselves. We eat thoughtlessly focusing on the quantity of food instead of the quality. American tourists exhibit the same behaviors abroad. We often try to consume culture by buying enough souvenirs to never forget our journey, when our experience will provide lasting memories. I am guilty of all of these things, but the more I travel the less I focus on consuming.
Here are some tips on how to stop traveling like a tourist:
Skip the hotels. Think of travel not as a trip, but as an opportunity to live somewhere else for a while. Try using a site such as Airbnb to book your stay. On Airbnb you can book an apartment or a house for a fraction of the cost of a hotel. You can also choose to stay with someone (you get a private room) which dramatically lowers the cost. Besides the cost saving benefit, you will be living in a residential area offering you a glimpse of life in the place you are visiting. Notice the pace of life for locals and the types of businesses they frequent. Many Airbnb hosts also provide you with a map and recommendations for the area.
Stop Shopping. Browsing stores can be part of the cultural experience, but it should not be the focus. Spending time indoors looking at objects is not a way to truly experience a culture. If you must shop, grocery stores and local markets can be a way to understand the local cuisine and save money on food.
Eat local and cheap food. When I travel I look up lists of cheap eats. For major cities, a simple Google search of “cheap eats in…” will produce many curated lists of low cost food options. This is not simply about saving money. The food will be typical of what locals eat. Expensive, high end restaurants tend to be similar whether you are in London, Tokyo or Mexico City.
Walk. Stroll around, use public transit, avoid taxis and enjoy your life more. Avoid watching cities through the window of a vehicle. Walking lets you see cities up close, watch people, socialize, and admire the architecture. By using taxis you might miss that adorable street or the smell of an amazing restaurant find.
Limit attractions. Some attractions are worthwhile, but many are constructed specifically for tourists to spend money. Let the city be your museum. Explore neighborhoods on your own instead of spending time indoors staring at cultural items.