The debate about what makes a “traveler vs. tourist” is never-ending, and those in the travel industry are increasingly pushing visitors to travel like a local. “Don’t be a tourist,” they say. “Get off the beaten track.” You’re advised to step away from the formalities and impersonal accommodations, to “take the road less traveled.”
But the truth of the matter is: you’re never going to really, truly feel like a local anyway. You’ll always be a newcomer, a stranger to that city, traversing the streets like the foreigner you are. (Unless, of course, your vacation turns into a permanent one.) And that’s okay. So relieve some of the pressure to be such an organic non-intruder. It’s okay to not be a local.
I am a budget traveler (often a backpacker), immersing myself in the local day-to-day culture, cooking my own food, and experiencing a city or region the way its citizens do (indeed, I usually try to travel like a local.) I avoid anything that sounds remotely like a tourist trap, skip restaurants in favor of cooking pasta and locally-selected produce from the street market, and walk around a city all day long, soaking up the sights and sounds, rather than pay for a guided tour. I sleep in hostel bunk beds to save my dimes instead for snorkeling, or paragliding, or ziplining. Or, just to be able to extend my trip another week. I’ve always striven to be a traveler vs. tourist.
This past January, my boyfriend and I spent a week at Disney World and Universal Orlando, a far less organic vacation than I have taken in years. We stayed in hotel rooms with no kitchen, ate out for every meal, paid a fortune for multiple day park passes, and took Uber or shuttles to get where we needed to go. I was worried I’d feel like a “travel traitor.” Instead, I came home feeling more relaxed, rested, and recharged than I have in a very long time (including after 3 weeks in Italy last summer.) So much so, that it led me to start embracing the stereotypical, “packaged” vacation a bit more than the “low-key traveler” type. In this case, I was happy to not be a traveler vs. tourist, and not travel like a local. Why?
For one thing:
You don’t have to plan (or cook) your own meals
In the mornings, your hotel most likely has free breakfast, or there’s a coffee shop within spitting distance. When you’re hungry during the day, you can find a restaurant, eat your meal, and they’ll clean up after you. Naturally, it costs more money to eat out for every meal, but there’s real meaning in the phrase, “time is money.” You’ll be saving the time otherwise spent shopping for food, cooking, eating, and cleaning, which can instead be used on another activity or an extra hour spent sightseeing.
Staying in a hotel has fringe benefits
While a hostel bed is cheap and allows you to feel like a traveler vs. tourist, and a vacation rental gives you the intimacy that feels like staying with a friend and travel like a local, sometimes, the privacy, anonymity, and catered services provided in a hotel just hit the nail on the head. The concierge can give you the inside scoop on the best places to eat or hang, and often provide discounts for hotel guests. They can book activities, tours, and reservations for you (and just might be able to get you into that exclusive restaurant everyone’s vying for.) There’s a pool, spa, gym, bar, and if you forgot your toothbrush, they’ll have a free one at the desk. Think of a hotel as the travel friend that’s got your back.
There’s privacy when you need a vacation…from your vacation
There’s something so satisfying about returning to your hotel room at the end of a long day, lounging around in a plush bed (that you don’t have to make in the morning) and watching a movie on HBO. Or heck, you can even take a day off and spend the entire day on said bed, ordering room service, and never leaving the room. You can’t get that if you travel like a local. 😉
I will always be a cultural traveler, as I feel the most rewarding and beneficial way to travel is to actually see and absorb what makes a place live and breathe. But sometimes, there is nothing wrong with indulging in the benefits of a fully catered vacation. Sometimes, travel can be both of those things. And whichever one you decide it to be is perfectly okay.