One thing I hear more and more coming from my clients and potential clients is that they want more authentic experiences when they travel. They want to connect with the locals. They want to get to know the people and to understand their culture. They want to do things and not simply see things.
Now I think this whole traveling authentically can be a bit cliché. It’s an overused term in my opinion. Many travel companies will tell you their tours are authentic which I think is a bunch of BS. As a personal travel planner, aka travel agent, I see traveling authentically as more a state of mind, more of an attitude. And, I see it less as traveling authentically and more as wandering your way. So, I’m going to give you some pointers on how to truly wander your way – to really experience a travel destination and to connect with the people and culture.
- Travel slowly – To me the worst thing you can do is breeze in and breeze out of a city, a town or region. You barely have time to talk to anyone. Slow down. Spend some time in one place. Do nothing, yes you heard me, do nothing for a day (or 2 or 5). Have no plans and simply live a normal day as you would back home. Don’t be so damned concerned about checking a site off your list. Yes, it’s fun to see these well-touristed sites. They are popular for a reason. But, take some time away from the tourist trail. Sit in a café and watch the locals live life (and talk to them). Go to a park and sit on a bench and read a book. Watch real life unfold before you. Slow down…and breathe.
- Shop at the local food market – This is a wonderful way to meet locals. Try some interesting and different food. Knowing what people eat tells you a lot about the landscape, the culture and the traditions of a place. Talk to the person selling you that delicious piece of fruit or that tangy cheese. Even if you can’t understand each other fully, smile and use facial expressions and hand gestures. You’ll figure each other out and have a memorable time in the process. And you’ll probably find a few new foods that you love.
- Learn a few words of the language and try to not simply talk to the locals, but listen to them – It doesn’t have to be much, but even words like “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, “your welcome” and “what is your name” are starters. So many folks around the globe speak English. But, there are quite a few who don’t. Knowing a few words can at least open the doors to making that connection. Try asking them if they are married or have children. If you meet them at work, ask more about what they do there. Don’t talk too much about yourself. Listen. Getting to know the locals gives you great insight to what their daily life is like. Once you’ve exhausted your vocabulary, you can resort to hand gestures and facial expressions and lots of laughter. I’ve had some of the best, and funniest, conversations with locals where we used facial expressions and hand gestures and a few words of each other’s language. You’ll be surprised at how much you understand each other.
- Follow your nose or eyes or ears or better yet your travel intuition and throw the plans out the window – Yes, the travel planner is telling you to throw those plans out the damn window! Okay, let me be specific because if you throw all those plans out the window I’ll be out of a job. So, let’s say you have reservations for 4 nights to stay in this lovely agriturismo in Tuscany, Italy booked by yours truly. And, I’ve probably given you some ideas of places to see, things to do, restaurants to try. I’ve probably even routed some nice drives for you. But, you and your travel companion are out driving to go see one of those sites I’ve recommended, and you see a sign for a festival or a vineyard (that wasn’t on my list) or you see an old, run-down ruin of a church or abbey in the distance. Go! If you think, “Wow! That looks like a cool place” or “I’d love to try some wine about now.” or “A festival sounds fun.” Go do it. Be spontaneous. Be flexible. This is when those travel moments happen. These are the moments you’ll be gushing about when you come back home. These are things you’ll remember. And that’s what I want you to do! Make me proud!!!
- Travel with curiosity – Be curious. Be inquisitive. Ask questions. Be open-minded. Be eager to learn. Wander down a quiet pedestrian street because the building down at the end looks interesting to you. Ask what that plate of food is that the waiter just delivered to the table next to you at that tiny restaurant. Don’t be afraid to be curious. It’s something we lose as we get older and I think it’s a shame. Be that wide-eyed kid that saw the ocean for the first time.
- Step outside your comfort zone – This is a difficult one for many people. For those who are so used to set schedules and driving the same route to and from work and home and school and the grocery store, well, it’s not easy to let things happen and to try new things. Some of us are big boundary pushers. Some, not so much. You be the judge, but definitely push – at least a little. Hate getting lost? Let yourself be a little lost. Put the map away and simply wander through the city or town you’re in. I always say, “You’re never lost, you just take an unplanned detour.” I believe this is when the magic happens and you have a travel moment. Picky eater? Try something new, even just a little taste at a market. You might surprise yourself and actually like it. Whatever it is that you’re a bit afraid of, try letting go of some of that fear. Open your mind. Let go of preconceived notions. Above all, say YES. Do you want to see the inside of that building that drew you down that quiet pedestrian lane? Yes, you’ll say to the old woman asking you to come in. Do you want to try that exotic, yet odd-looking fruit with the weird smell? Yes, you’ll say to the man holding out a slice for you to try. Moments that you’ll remember because you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone.
I named my business Wander Your Way because I truly believe in traveling in your own way. Traveling “authentically” is not something you can plan for. It happens. It unfolds. And you have to go along for the ride. Let go of the plans. Let go of the fear. Be curious. Follow your travel intuition – trust it. This is when the magic happens and you have travel moments that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.