Travel Tips

Tourist Vs. Traveler: Enhance Your Foreign Trips

Our newest Wanderlust contributor tells you how to be a traveler instead of a tourist on your next international getaway.

By Bill Wiatrak November 10, 2014

Are you a tourist or a traveler? Many think these words are synonyms but in reality, they are vastly different.

You don’t have to be an etymologist to realize that a tourist takes tours and a traveler travels. Can you do both? Yes. I like to think of travelers as being the ” eco-friendly” version of a tourist; someone who realizes that places they visit should be treated a certain way to help them maintain their uniqueness and takes the time to learn about the people and history of the area so that they can have a relationship with their destination.

Tourists often miss these things because they’re more interested in relaxing than learning. Here are nine crucial differences between tourists and travelers:

  1. The tourist “uniform” — I’ve always wondered if there is some hidden store at the airport that sells this silly prêt-à-porter. I know the people who wear these outfits probably wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like this if they weren’t on vacation. This costume is often a Gilligan style hat, a loud Hawaiian shirt, shorts, black socks and a big camera. A traveler has an entirely different approach. They consider what the locals wear and their customs. Packing less is important so that they don’t have a giant suitcase to lug around. They often choose clothing that breathes well, doesn’t wrinkle easily and can be worn more than once without looking like it. A traveler wants to be less noticeable, so they can observe the normal life of the locals without calling needless attention to themselves.
  2. Booking the trip — Most tourists book a specific itinerary that begins in the morning, has a lunch, “leisure time”, a few sites of interest and involves a guide. A traveler usually does a little more research and either finds the same deals for less money or adds a few extra stops because they’re not taking a long lunch or waiting for other people to get back on a bus. Where you choose to go is also a factor. Would you rather lay on a beach all week, order room service and drink tropical drinks with umbrellas? Or is your idea of traveling visiting ancient ruins, going to out-of-the-way places and looking for unusual sites off the tourist path? Travelers are usually looking less for comfort and more for adventure. Still, everyone occasionally needs a drink with an umbrella.
  3. Learning the history of an area — Pick up a book and learn why people in the country you are visiting have the customs and traditions they do, why they speak the language and what motivates them. Travel guides such as The Lonely Planet have sections to help readers understand a lot of background without having to do infinite research. Phone apps and internet research can also help a traveler become familiar with the country they’re visiting. Tourists tend to rely more on a tour guide to give them information. They’ll rent headsets at museums or attractions. While these can be helpful in understanding what you’re looking at, there is no substitute for a little research before you arrive.
  4. Familiarity with the language — I was flying back from Tahiti a few years ago and started talking to a woman about the marvelous time she had while she was there. I asked if she had any problem with the fact that most everyone speaks French. She replied, “They speak French?” It turns out she had never left her resort. That’s a tourist. It’s easy to spend a few minutes to learn how to say “Hello”, “Thank you”, and “This suitcase needs to taken to my room at once!” Hopefully you’ll never really use the last one, but you can take a few minutes to write down a couple of phrases and start using them immediately so you don’t forget them. Travelers get along better with locals than tourists because they see them as people and communicate with them as such, not as landmarks in a strange country.
  5. Interaction with the locals — I have discovered that the amount of people you’re traveling with (more than two) is often inversely related to the amount of fun you will have on your trip. If you’re with a big tourist group, you might as well be in a giant bubble. You are unlikely to meet anyone as you stand in a group and chase a tour person from site to site. Experiencing the local places and talking to the people that live there is the traveler’s choice. I once spent a few hours in a couple of pubs in the Falkland Islands. There aren’t a lot of people in the Falkland Islands, so pretty quickly I had the lowdown and gossip about almost everyone of them. Not only was it extremely entertaining, but I had a lot more fun than the tour that went to see lighthouses. 

    IMAGE: Chris Hoare — Even with American culture seeped into many parts of the world, looking beyond your comfort zone can open up a whole new world.

  6. Eating and drinking like a local I cringe when I see Americans lined up at McDonald’s or Hard Rock Cafe in a foreign country. I’ll admit, after 3 weeks of eating noodles in interior China, a cheeseburger tastes really good. However, getting outside your comfort zone and trying the local cuisine is part of the traveling experience. Tourists that go to the American side of the breakfast buffet and eat pancakes and bacon are missing out on one of the most interesting part of their trip. Eating weird food is fun. It might not always be delicious, but trying it once isn’t asking too much, considering the thousands of meals you will eat in your life.
  7. Using public transportation You don’t really know a place until you’ve ridden on the buses, trains, boats or walked the streets. Taking a taxi everywhere puts you inside the tourist bubble. Learning how to get around like the locals is invaluable to your travel experience.
  8. Understanding the money — I’m still surprised when I see an American pull out a wad of dollars in a foreign country and hold it out with no idea about what anything costs because they don’t want to figure out the exchange. In most cases, not using the local currency can cost you more since you’ll get the worst rate from the merchant and then rounded off since he doesn’t have change in dollars. A traveler should look up the rate before arrival and have a rough idea of transportation costs before ever setting foot in a taxi. Many countries have a market in which you must negotiate prices for anything you buy. Learning to haggle without being upset or insulting is a great travel tool, but it also requires some prior knowledge of the currency. 
  9. Don’t say "No" until you know why you’re saying it — I’ll be the first one to blow off a time-share salesperson or hurry past hustlers at an airport, but I have learned that being fearless and listening to at least a few seconds of a pitch has given me shortcuts to information I may have not found so easily. Tourists are so afraid of being conned that they’ll often ignore the helpful people they can meet along the way. I have met some amazing individuals who have opened their homes to me, taken me out to dinner, and become great friends because I took a moment to chat with them.

Next time you’re booking a tour or organizing a trip, think about how you can be a better traveler. You’ll save money, have a better time and the locals will be glad they met you. 

Bill Wiatrak is an avid international traveler and renowned local entertainer. To see more of his worldly adventures, tune into Wanderlust for his weekly contributions or check out his personal blog,

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