For most people, especially young professionals, the point of traveling is to feel like you really experienced a new place to the fullest, without a manufactured experience that you paid too much for or that just didn’t feel real.
Evidence shows that the trend for desiring authentic and experiential travel is growing. We want to feel like we got to experience the real thing.
How can you make sure that, even if you have limited time and resources, you get to have a truly special, authentic travel experience?
There’s no secret or personality type that lends itself better to authentic experiences and meaningful connections. Anyone can have them with the right approach. It’s not about being the life of the party, the person who knows everybody at the hostel because he’s been there for months, or being the most gregarious person in the room. It’s not person in the room who who did the most research before starting his/her trip who will get to have those magical, authentic experiences.
The secret sauce is being authentic yourself in your approach and your interest level. That endears you to people, and opens up a lot of doors.
How can you do that? These seven easy steps are my recipe for authentic travel experiences, and they can work for anyone:
1. Take genuine interest in other people
Whether it’s a fellow traveler, the guide for your day tour climbing on glaciers, or the person sitting at reception at your guesthouse, taking a genuine interest in people opens so many doors, not just to friendship but for adventures too.
Even if you’re the shy type, you’ll find that if you stay in social places, conversations will happen, even if you’re not the one to initiate them. Just sit in the common room of a social hostel and you’ll see what I mean.
There are so many times when chatting with someone, giving them not just my full attention but also my genuine interest, led to them sharing a travel secret with me, going the extra mile to make my stay better, or even offering up an amazing opportunity to join them at a local event.
2. Take genuine interest in their culture
Most people really love sharing their culture and the things that they’re proud of about where they’re from. If they can tell you are genuinely interested in learning more about the way that they prepare and eat food, celebrate holidays and milestones, and even how they drink tea, you’ll be welcomed in and will get those unique cultural experiences that money can’t buy.
Once in El Chalten in Argentinian Patagonia, I asked a local girl who was also cooking in the hostel kitchen if she would show me how to properly drink mate, a tea that is popular with locals and also a communal activity. She spent the next hour excitedly explaining the details to me while we drank the mate and chatted with her family, cooking together, sharing a bottle of Malbec wine, and having a lovely evening.
When people can tell that you genuinely care about them and their customs, they tend to be amazing hosts.
3. Remember things that people tell you, especially their names
Do you plan on being in one place for a while, or even just a few days? Make it a point to learn the names of the people who work at the guesthouse or hotel you’re staying at, who you see the most often in the common areas, or who helped you plan something.
Names are one of the hardest things to remember when you travel because you meet so many people, but if you can say it in your mind a few times or even write it down if you need to, it’s much easier to make, and keep, friends on the road.
As Dale Carnegie said in his incredibly insightful book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (affiliate link), “Using a person’s name is crucial, especially when meeting those we don’t see very often. Respect and acceptance stem from simple acts such as remembering a person’s name and using it whenever appropriate.
Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
4. Eat where locals eat
If you want an immersive experience and particularly if you’re on a budget, you’ll love that eating well can be both cheap and authentic – just eat the street food! To someone who has never seen or eaten it before, that can sound like it would be dirty, but it’s often some of the best eats around, particularly in places like Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and even Germany, just to name a few.
In Jodi Ettenberg’s book, The Food Traveler’s Handbook, she emphasizes how affordable, fresh, and delicious street food can be. Along with a bunch of other helpful tips, one of the things she suggests is to eat where local people eat and bring their kids. If it doesn’t get them sick, you’ll be fine too.
Eating local is what led me to a coconut brawl in Nepal, something that I didn’t see any other foreigners at and haven’t really heard of anyone attending since, just outside of Kathmandu. When a local saw a friend and I eating traditional Nepalese food at a tiny stall instead of at the fancy tourist cafes nearby, he felt compelled to tell us about the festival, which was one of the coolest things I did in Nepal.
5. Be kind with people even when they’re not kind with you
Not everyone is going to be receptive to your friendly approach. Sometimes, people are having a bad day or they just seem disinterested at first. In these cases, it’s even more important to be friendly.
When I approach people, I think about the way my mom’s dog, Ollie, does it. Everyone has the potential to be his friend, it doesn’t matter how they look. You’d have to just not like dogs in order to not like Ollie, he’s so friendly, excited, and genuine with his approach.
When I approach people in that way, with friendliness and a smile, it makes it a lot harder for them to dislike me. Even if I don’t get a warm response, I don’t take it personally, and I don’t lose my friendliness.
I’m not always successful at being a ball of joy, radiating happiness, but when I am, things go my way more often than not.
6. Read up on customs and learn how to say hello and thank you right away
In Thailand, it’s rude to face your feet at someone, a temple, or the front of a boat. In India, pointing, especially with your left hand, is considered particularly rude. It’s helpful to know this cultural etiquette and to practice it when you’re on the road, as well as learning how to say the basics like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’
It goes back to point number 2 – if people feel you’ve not only taken an interest, but genuinely respect their culture, they’ll be a lot warmer towards you. For etiquette around the world, check out this listing on eDiplomat.
7. Remember you’re not so different than the people in the country you’re visiting
How often have you heard fellow travelers talk about the people in the country they’re visiting like another species?
“Can you believe that’s what they eat?”
“Have you seen the way they do XYZ? It’s absurd!”
It seems obvious when written out in plain black and white that this would naturally be a negative behavior when traveling, but it happens all the time in hostels, and I’ve even caught myself doing it, to be honest.
We’re all human beings, though, and we have so much more in common than we often realize. We all love, laugh, cry, sleep, hope, dream, and yearn for meaningful connections. When we acknowledge that about each other, it’s a lot easier to find some common ground.
Basically, authentic travel experiences come down not just to being an egalitarian traveler, but an overall kind and genuine person. When you’re the open-minded type of person who takes an interest in things that other people can feel and see is real, your world literally opens up.
Give a few of these tips a try and let me know if they work for you! If you have any to add, please do so in the comments.