Do you ever look back on your vacations and think “different place, same vacation”? Are your vacations leaving you feeling a little empty inside? Perhaps it’s time for you to embrace a different kind of vacation experience known as authentic travel.
For us, authentic travel is about immersing ourselves in a destination. It’s connecting with locals, embracing culture, and gaining insights. It’s venturing off the beaten path, using local transport, trying local cuisine. It broadens perspectives, makes meaningful connections and lasting memories.
In this article, we outline 10 small changes that can have a big impact on your next vacation. These 10 steps will help you enjoy more authentic travel experiences as you start to explore the world as a traveller not a tourist. Trust us, it will change the way you travel forever!
What is Authentic Travel?
Before we reveal our 10 steps to authentic travel, let’s dig deeper into what authentic travel really means.
For us, authentic travel is more than just sightseeing or ticking off popular tourist destinations. It’s about immersing yourself in the local culture, connecting with the people, and embracing the true essence of a place by going off the beaten track.
Don’t misunderstand us … of course, we still visit major tourist attractions as we travel around the world. These famous historical sites, monuments and art galleries are an important part of how people learn about the history and culture of a country. We visit these landmarks as they enrich us. Authentic travel is essentially about learning.
However, authentic travel also involves fully engaging with a destination, stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new experiences. For instance, eating local cuisine from a street vendor or staying in a small guest house run by local people. Authentic travel experiences like these help you gain a deeper understanding of a destination’s history, traditions, people and their way of life.
Authentic travel also plays an important part in sustainable travel by supporting small businesses, local food producers and artisans. It can also be a budget-friendly form of travel which is important as today’s costs of living keep rising.
Above all, authentic travel allows you to make meaningful connections and create lasting memories that go beyond surface-level tourism. Authentic travel provides you with an abundance of stories that can be shared and enjoyed for a lifetime.
So, don’t blindly follow that tourist umbrella. Instead, let us guide you towards becoming an independent world traveler who delights in seeking out authentic travel experiences.
10 Small Steps to Authentic Travel That Will Change the Way You Explore Forever
1. Stay in Locally Owned Accommodation
To gain an authentic travel experience, the first change is to opt for smaller, locally owned hotels, guesthouses, or homestays instead of large chain hotels. This will allow you to get a glimpse into the local way of life and to support the local economy. These establishments are an integral part of the local community and help local food producers and workers through food sales and employment opportunities.
Staying in locally owned accommodation is also more personal and will enable you to meet and interact with local people. Rather than remembering the facilities of a large chain hotel, you will remember the warm welcome, genuine conversations and the unique experience of eating authentic, locally sourced food.
The warm welcome and food served during our stays in small, local guesthouses always amaze us and make a stay memorable. For instance, the deliciously sweet peppermint tea and locally bought sweet treats served as a welcome on the rooftop terrace of our riad in Marrakech. Or, the extravagant Sri Lankan breakfast feasts served outdoors including Egg Hoppers, Coconut Roti, Pol Sambol (thick coconut sauce) and, my favourite, Pol Pani (Sri Lankan pancakes).
When you stay in smaller, locally owned accommodation, you will also meet like-minded travellers. We have received and shared lots of travel advice during breakfast or over a drink on a rooftop terrace. In this way, we have discovered plenty of hidden gems to visit and places to avoid.
We use Booking.com to make most of our reservations as they have a great selection of smaller guesthouses at great prices. It’s also easy for us to making bookings on the move as we travel from place to place. Click on the link below to start researching accommodation for your next trip.
2. Use Public Transportation
Instead of relying solely on taxis or private tours, using public transportation to get from point A to point B in your itinerary will give you a more authentic travel experience. Public transportation provides an opportunity to interact with locals, observe their daily routines, and gain insights into the local transportation system.
Before you travel to your destination, always research public transport options online. It is easy to plan your route from the comfort of your home. We use Google Maps to find bus numbers and local public transportation apps and websites to access timetables.
You might be surprised by how far you can travel for very little money. Public transportation is not only a more authentic way to travel, but much cheaper if you are on a budget!
Above all, using public transport in another country is a fun and memorable experience. We will never forget our many journeys in the colourful ‘party buses’ in Sri Lanka that frequently resembled terrifying rollercoaster rides. Sometimes, we hung on for dear life sandwiched between the open bus door and the smiles of reassuring local passengers. At other times, we sat peacefully marvelling at our first sight of a family of elephants grazing by the side of the road.
In Mexico, travelling on buses was a far more orderly and familiar experience! However, flagging down and using the popular shared minivans (colectivos) enabled us to see how local people get around and go about their daily business. It was always surprising just how many bags, boxes, backpacks and crates could fit in the tiny convivial space.
3. Interact with the Local People
One of the most rewarding aspects of authentic travel is to engage with the local community by talking to local people. Don’t be shy! By doing this, you will learn about their culture, traditions, and daily life.
It is easy to interact local people by simply striking up conversations when you are in a shop, using public transport or staying in small guesthouses. Alternatively, this can be done through organized community tours.
Another benefit of interacting with local people is that they are the best people to give you advice about what to see and do in the vicinity. After all, this is their part of the world, and they are the experts! Not only can locals tell you about hidden gems to visit off the beaten path, but they can also advise you about tourist traps to avoid, public transport options available and food specialties to try.
We discovered an amazing waterfall just outside Ella in Sri Lanka by talking to the local Receptionist of our small hotel. At the waterfall, locals warned us about the slippery rocks, and we spent an amazing couple of hours swimming in the waterfall and sunbathing on the rocks with a picnic. We were surrounded by local families doing the same thing plus taking a shower!
Also, by striking up a conversation with an owner of a small guesthouse in Mexico, we discovered how to travel from the ancient ruins of Coba to the port of Chiquila by bus, so that we could visit Holbox Island. Something we had not been able to find out when we were researching our travel plans at home. In fact, this inspired our first blog post!
4. Learn Basic Local Phrases
Although English is the most widely spoken language around the world, it is not the native tongue of many people. According to Ethnalogue, the languages with the most native speakers are Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
As authentic travel is about fully engaging with a destination, consider learning a few basic phrases in the local language. This simple gesture shows respect and can help you connect better with local people. Don’t forget the universal language of the smile, this goes a long way!
5. Try Local Cuisine
An important part of authentic travel is to eat authentic food, visit local food markets and check out local food festivals. Food is often a gateway to understanding a culture.
Explore the local food scene by trying traditional dishes and street food. Venture beyond touristy restaurants in popular spots, but instead head to the back streets. If you see locals eating in a restaurant, this is a good sign! Don’t forget to ask locals for recommendations about where to eat.
Of course, many people are concerned about eating street food. However, it is worth remembering that street food is prepared with fresh ingredients cooked at high temperatures as you wait. In contrast, the buffet-style food that we trust so readily is prepared out of sight and sits around for ages. In Mexico, I got food poisoning from the 5-star food buffet not the Taco I’d eaten from the street food van.
The main thing with street food is to avoid reusable plates and cutlery. It is often the dirty water that will make you unwell. So, step out of your comfort zone and discover the exciting new tastes and flavours that can be found in different parts of the world!
6. Embrace Unplanned Moments
A big part of authentic travel is leaving room for spontaneity and unexpected encounters. Some of the most authentic and memorable experiences happen when you allow yourself to deviate from a strict itinerary and follow your instincts or the local knowledge of others.
When we travel, it is important that we keep our plans flexible. In this way, we can stay longer in places we love or change our itinerary to explore hidden gems following the advice of fellow travellers or tips from locals.
Embracing the concept of getting lost is also part of authentic travel. Recently, we got lost in the walled Kasbah district of Marrakech as Google Maps cannot navigate the maze of streets. As we wandered through the back streets, we were completely immersed in the daily life of locals and then stumbled on a vibrant local market that was buzzing with life. This was a glimpse of the authentic Marrakech that doesn’t feature in any guidebook.
7. Explore Off the Beaten Path Destinations
To gain a more authentic travel experience, venture away from popular tourist spots and explore lesser-known destinations. This allows for a more genuine experience, with fewer crowds and a deeper immersion into the local culture.
Of course, if it is your first time visiting a destination, it is still important to visit major landmarks. These sights are of historical and cultural importance. However, talk to locals and ask them about other things to see and do in the surrounding area that are less well known.
So, yes, we’ve visited the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Taj Mahal in India, Chichén Itzá in Mexico and the ancient ruins of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. However, we’ve also walked barefoot amongst holy rats in the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, climbed the ancient Mayan Ixmoja pyramid in Coba and joined the locals for a Sunday afternoon walk across the Nine Arch Bridge in Ella.
The beauty of off the beaten path destinations lies in their authenticity, tranquility, and unique experiences. These hidden gems offer unspoiled natural beauty, a chance to connect with local cultures, and a sense of adventure and discovery.
Before travelling to a country, we research our destination using a Lonely Planet guide. These guidebooks give honest advice and include things to do and see off the beaten path and suggestions of places to stay and eat. Click here to browse Lonely Planet guidebooks on Amazon.
8. Participate in Cultural and Religious Events and Festivals
Another way to enjoy authentic travel experiences is to participate in local cultural events and festivals. Research and plan your visit to coincide with local festivals or events. These celebrations offer a first-hand experience of a region’s customs, rituals, music, and dance.
For instance, visit Venice in February to experience the annual Venice Carnival when locals wear stunning masquerade costumes and masks. Alternatively, travel to India in March to participate in the colourful Hindu Festival of Holi that celebrates love and spring.
Another great way of gaining authentic travel experiences is to attend food festivals. Whilst in Sri Lanka, we stumbled across the annual street food fiesta in Ella. This was a great way for us to interact with locals preparing Sri Lankan dishes and to try new local specialties.
It was fascinating to see a team of ladies (like the Women’s Institute) make Sri Lankan Pittu (a rice flour and coconut dish) in a cylindrical Pittu steamer. We devoured this delicious dish from a banana leaf by the side of the road. Afterwards, we sampled whole fried prawns including head and tail! Ok, so, it’s a zero-waste recipe but the juicy body is by far the best part!
We were also fortunate to have our wedding blessed in a Buddhist Sai Sin ceremony in a small temple in a suburb of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. Before the intimate string tying ceremony with the monk, the etiquette for praying at the smaller shrines was explained to us. This unique experience completely immersed us in another religion and culture and was truly special.
Embracing opportunities like these has deepened our understanding for other cultures and has given us meaningful lifelong memories.
9. Engage in Local Activities
Another way of gaining a more authentic travel experience is to watch or participate in activities that are popular among the locals, such as traditional crafts, sports, or music lessons.
Of course, you can also learn a lot by watching local activities, but having the opportunity to actively participate allows for an immersive hands-on experience and a chance to learn new skills.
10. Volunteer or Contribute to the Community
Our final suggestion about how to make your travel a more authentic experience is to look for volunteer opportunities that align with your interests and skills. This is easier to achieve with a slow travel approach as you will be spending more time in one place.
Volunteer opportunities could involve teaching English, participating in conservation efforts, or assisting with community development projects. Giving back can deepen your connection to a place.
Final Thoughts on Authentic Travel …
Embracing authentic travel is a transformative way to explore the world. It’s about venturing beyond surface-level experiences and immersing yourself in the genuine spirit of a destination.
By engaging with locals, trying local cuisine, participating in cultural events, and exploring off-the-beaten-path locations, you can create meaningful connections and gain deeper insights into different cultures. Authentic travel allows you to break free from the confines of mass tourism and discover the true heart and soul of a place independently.
We hope that you will adopt some of the small changes we recommend in this article. Join us and embark on your next journey with an open mind and open heart, ready to discover the authentic experiences that await receptive travellers. Believe us, authentic travel is the most rewarding form of travel and will forever change the way you explore and see the world.