Traveling by the book won’t make you any more interesting. But traveling off the path will.
Ok, you got me. I’m not actually asking you to burn your Lonely Planet or Fodor’s guides. Those books can be genuinely helpful when used right. What I am asking you to do, though, is to stop treating each of those books like they’re the lost gospels. Think of those guides as rule books. Now, rules can be a good idea (see Concussions, American Football) because they lead us to realistic expectations and keep the playing field relatively fair. But when you play by the rules, you tend to have the same experience as everyone else before and after you. But, the moment one errs from the established rule book is the moment a whole new series of possibilities can begin to develop.
At this point, you’re probably asking “what does this mean for my travels?”
Let’s say you have a pretty bad case of the travel bug. Your eyes and ears are open, feeding the absorbent, impressionable, decision-making hunk of gray matter nested under your skull. You flick on the TV after a long day, and the first thing you see are the sights and sounds of the big city. Not just any city, but New York City: Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Museum of Natural History, and pretty much every other New York attraction under the sun. You make your decision, book your passage to the Big Apple, and devour the first guidebook you lay hands on.
Fast forward a few weeks. Now you’re in the here, rigidly sticking to your itinerary and refusing to budge because, after all, you’re there to just take it all in. So you hit the Statue of Liberty, you roam the Financial District, and you may even taste the nightlife of the Lower East Side. After a few days at it, you return home, and can’t wait to tell everyone of your most recent journey. Problem is, when you gather your friends together to recount your adventures, they’ve already heard it. See, the problem is that you followed that book to a T, and lived the same experience as past tourists while failing to make new ones. You stayed safe when you should have dared to be different.
Wait, Why is that important?
Our society is heavily rooted in individualism. Although we don’t actively discourage group experiences, we aren’t exactly encouraging everyone to go with the flow either. I’ve talked before about how travel should be an experience, an arena for growth. Lot’s of times, those books are written for readers that share a similar perspective. If you’re jetting off for various regions or countries in Europe or Africa just to experience them as an American would, what’s the point of leaving in the first place? It’s kind of like the person who goes to a luxury steakhouse and requests a burger. Sure, they may have the ingredients to make one, but all you’ve done is eaten a familiar dish in a fancy location. Ask yourself: how impressive is that, really? Has your palette actually grown? If you honestly think so, great. But for the rest of us, it sounds like ascending the precipice, getting cold feet, and refusing to take in the magnificent view. Maybe you should have just stayed home. Traveling isn’t cheap, and even if you have the money, you’re still sacrificing the time. At the end of the day, you need to maximize that expenditure by investing it in yourself. And I promise you, there is no way you can do that by eating familiar food, hanging out with culturally familiar people in tour groups, and being relatively pampered in the confines of a hotel with all too familiar amenities.
Fine, but how do I break out?
You really want your travels to strengthen you as a person? Well, that comes down to one basic factor– trust of
yourself. You have to trust that you will be OK when you’re on your own in a strange place. You have to trust that getting lost isn’t a scary thing, it’s an adventure in itself. You have to trust you’ve the confidence to talk to locals and get their perspective on the comings and goings of life on earth. It could benefit you to read up on the location you’re planning to visit and craft your own itinerary. If you’re a city slicker, you may want to think about confronting nature and embracing your inner wanderer. And for country folks? Fling yourself headfirst into a bustling metropolis.
One of my favorite methods is to pick a popular travel destination, but then radiate outwards. This works on many different levels. Let’s use New York as an example once more. If you really must visit Ellis Island and Times Square, fine. But do some research and take some time to visit the Bronx and Harlem, two culturally and historically rich areas of the city, that for some reason always seem to be left off of tourist maps. Taking it one step further, move out of New York City all together, and explore the wonders of upstate, like Watkins Glen State Park.
Or, you can use the litany of online resources available to the average joe. Tripzard uses an amazing algorithm that takes your personal preferences and suggests what places you may want to travel to next. Travel forums like those on Reddit or TripAdvisor connect you to actual people who want to share the off-beaten path with other adventurers. The tools are out there, but at the end of the day, only you can take the step to use them.
There are seven billion people scattered across seven continents. It’s wonderful to get out there and explore it. Just don’t waste your time by “exploring” what you already know. Step outside of the comfort zone, and make each experience your own.