All Travelers are Created Equal

Travelers having fun in australiaI was looking over my interview with Rolf Potts and thinking about how he talks about the false distinction travelers make among themselves. How we compete to prove who’s a better traveler or how we aren’t like “the tourists.” In what is only a make believe competition, you see many travelers on the road trying to prove their status and superiority by talking about how much longer they’ve been on the road, where they’ve been, or by emphasizing the number of local buses they have taken. But let me tell you a travel secret – all travelers are created equal.

While I’d rather take advice from someone who has been traveling for 10 years over someone who left yesterday, the older traveler (and Rolf would probably agree) is no “better” a traveler than the younger traveler. You are not a better traveler simply because:

“You’ve been traveling for over two years!”

Really? Wow! That is truly impressive but do you want a cookie for that? I rarely answer this question in hostels because few people can say they have been traveling longer than me and I hate the “Wow! That’s awesome!” response. But Uncornered Market are the King and Queen of long term travel and put me to shame. So does Rolf Potts. So do a million other people I have met on the road. We are all beginners at one point and there’s always someone who has been out longer than us.

Travelers from around the world“You’ve been to over X countries.”
Travel is not about quantity, it’s about quality. In my three years backpacking the world, I’ve only been to about twenty-five or so countries. There are many people who have been to a lot more in a lot shorter of a time. But traveling slowly is a much better way to learn about the places you visit. I’ve lived in three countries since I have been gone. I’ve spent extended time in England and Australia. Anyone can visit a lot of countries but not everyone can actually see a lot of countries.

“You don’t go there – it’s too touristy.”
There’s a reason why people go to Bali, Paris, hike the Inca Trail, or head to Vegas – these places are fun. They may be commercial, overpriced, and full of “tourists” but they are still exciting places to go visit. The number of small local villages you have under your belt is not proportional to how great of a traveler you are. I think people should get off the tourist trail as often as possible. Explore the unexplored. Wander into local neighborhoods to see the rhythm of local life. Find a map, pick a random place, and go there. Some of my best travel memories are when I went to random cities. But I also have great memories from places like the Gold Coast, Amsterdam, Khao San Rd, and Barcelona. A good traveler sees a mix of both and understands that neither is perfect.

“You only do what the locals do.”
If you really want to live like a local, buy an apartment and get a job. The world may be filled with different cultures and foods but the more you travel, the more you realize people are essentially the same. It doesn’t matter if you live in Egypt, Mongolia, America, or France, everyone gets up, goes to work, wants to be happy, live well, and hopes their children have a better life. You can eat at all the local restaurants you want and take as many local buses as you can but that doesn’t mean you know the local way of life. If you really want to live like the locals and learn the culture, don’t spend three days in a place – spend three months. Then maybe you’ll be a local.

Travelers having fun in italy“You don’t do tours.”
People who say this often forget that the boat ride they took in Phuket or that trip to Fraser Island in Australia was also a tour. Not all tours are big double-decker buses filled with sandal wearing tourists. They can be little backpacker tours too. Most tours aren’t inherently bad. I’ve taken quite a few and enjoy them. It all depends on the tour group and the company you go with. Talking trash about tour group travelers doesn’t make you better than them, it just makes you an ass.

Travel is a highly personal experience. Everyone takes their own path around the world. No two journeys are alike and therefore no two journeys can be compared. Travel is about opening your mind up to new experiences and people. The competition mindset simply closes you off to that. If you are a “real” traveler, you know that all travelers are equal and these false mindsets don’t matter. Remember that there is always someone out there who has been to more places, seen more things, and spent more time on the road than you.

  1. Great post. I laughed at being referred to as the “King and Queen of long term travel.”

    Like you, it’s gotten to the point where we try and avoid the question as to how long we’ve been on the road when we meet other travelers. It doesn’t matter – you both are there in the present and that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a long or a short trip – we spent years doing short trips that fit into our allotted vacation from work. The important thing is to get out there with the time and resources you have.

  2. Such an excellent post! You hit on so many points that I completely agree with. The issue with “X amount of countries” is something we’ve learned to get over the past few years even though there are so many countries we want to see. Now we would much rather spend several days in a city than see five for one day each. I’m so glad you mentioned the tourist destinations too. There is nothing better than getting off the beaten path, but we also LOVE Vegas, go back almost every year simply b/c it’s fun.

    And the local thing. We’ve lived in Brazil two years and I would never come close to describing myself as a local. I think it takes multiple years as an ex-pat to ever get close to that point. There will always be something seperating you.Traveling is just different and I actually wrote up a post about that issue the other day. Such a great post, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. GREAT post, Matt! I’m a rookie traveler for sure (weekend trips to easy-to-get-to cities so far), but I’m just as excited about having been to Vegas recently as I am to one day seeing Tuvalu. Your points are great and really speak to the fact that travel is an individual experience and no matter how long you’ve been at it or where you go, can have a really great impact on your life.

    Hope our paths cross one day!

  4. Oh funny that you wrote this post b/c the school I am currently studying at I noticed there is nothing but this hidden competition between everyone and who has traveled the most or knows more spanish. It’s interesting but yet at the same time can get really annoying if you know what I mean.

  5. Andrew

    Amen Matt!

    I love this list and laughed reading most of it because of just how true it is. Sad, but true. Some travelers seem to travel to say “hey look where I am” or act better than other people. The listing how many countries is especially funny to me. I knew a friend that would list countries he visited and included the layovers in airports. If you stopped in Dublin for 90 minutes, you really did not visit Ireland.

  6. Kudos to you Matt, I think that’s one of the best pieces you’ve written.

    “Travel is a highly individualistic experience.” That’s also one of the best things to say to shut the I’ve traveled to 80 countries, lived in with the locals for years, and have a Phd in culture people up!

    No single person can dictate to another about “how to travel”. Though, there are exceptions such as if you spot a person about to make a cultural no no.

    I’m in my fifth year traveling. I travel in my own way to find a place to call home. When I enter a new country I am like a new born baby. So much is different from the last, and at the start I’ll make mistakes that others who’ve been there for only a week before won’t. But I take with me the experience of having been in that situation plenty of times before.

    So no matter the traveler type, I think it’s important we help each other out with the knowledge we’ve acquired along the way. We are all individuals, but we all share common needs.

    Again, well done for writing this,


  7. Excellent writeup! One of the best I have read lately. I actually agree with all the categories you tackle. Traveling is a very individual experience, kind of like wine :)

    Keep up the good writing

  8. This sounded so familiar! :-) I admit that in the early days the how many and how long did matter – I was proud of getting out there on my own and time actually did make a difference.

    The longer I was on the road the more I changed. I slowed down a lot, I became more engaged in my surroundings, I started living in the moment…

    Eventually travel stopped being a quantity thing, and turned into quality. The mere fact of being on the road for so long made me better at who I was. It wasn’t about comparing myself to others – but comparing myself to me.

    OK, I’ll stop being serious now. And I definitely agree – time didn”t make me a better traveler – just an older one 😉

  9. Hi Matt! You have it all at the book from Jean-Didier Urbain «L’Idiot du Voyage» (Histores de Touristes… ;). Excellent!

    Blogtrotter is anticipating the 4th of July fireworks; but in a different country… 😉 Have a great weekend (or vacation, should you have that chance…)!

  10. This is one of the best posts I’ve read on travel for a while, and although its sad to say, you are correct on all your points. Conversations about travel can get like a competition, which is completely pointless, especially as the people of different ages and from all walks of life who converge in hostels etc., are bound to have different views and ideas of what constitutes a “real” traveller. At the end of the day, as long as you are enjoying yourself and are not hurting anyone else, what does it matter where you’ve been or what tours you have taken.

  11. Richard Smalley

    Like the others, you read this and think is he talking about me? It’s funny how similar we all really are. But like you say how many countries how many years. I’ve managed XX countries in X years, I do am slow and thorough and learn the some of laungages of a countries I like and the way of life and gently move on.

    Maturity has certainly changed my crazy years of travel of racing around. Recently I travelled to Bulgaria, I was meant to go to 3 or 4 countries but found Bulgaria was intresting enough for the full 3 weeks. I met a Canadian who told me that Bulgaria was his 100th country. I was taken a back and said well done, I asked him about the current Bulgarian tradition what was going on that week, he didnt have a clue. I thought rather you travel like that than me, whats the point of travelling if you learn nothing?. Then we ate in a restaurant with some other travellers and all he could do was complain about the service. 100 countries? what a cxxk he was.

  12. Great post Matt. I agree that all travelers are created equal. With rare exceptions no one has a leg up or some kind of advantage to anyone else out there traveling. If you are worried about the competition of travel then I think you are traveling for the wrong reasons. It’s not a contest and, even if it were, there will always be someone out there who will beat you out.

    In the end there’s no real difference between travelers. The important thing is the difference between people who have the motivation to get out there and travel and the people who do not.

  13. Fantastic post Matt!

    Far too much of our lives are spent trying to impress others. Everyone wants to be an intellectual, sophisticated connoisseur of highbrow culture. That includes travel, art, food, languages, business and even philanthropy.

    It is like in-line skating through the Louvre. Sure you can say you saw every painting in one hour, but did it make you better as a person? Did you learn anything about yourself or the rest of the world? And more importantly, did you do it for yourself or for the bragging rights to tell others? Telling people you gave money to charity is selfish. You didn’t give for the satisfaction of helping others, you gave because you want your peers to see you as a generous person.

    I love authentic people. I don’t care what you like or don’t like. It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do. The only thing that matters is if you did it because YOU wanted to.

  14. Is that second photo the Olgas – near Ayres Rock (sorry can’t spell the politically correct name!) – I must admit now that I haven’t seen an “off the beaten track” program about Australia tourist which hasn’t been a “been there” moment LOL. The longer I travel the more I slow down – you are right there are plenty of travel snobs out there – but being uncomfortable isn’t a badge on honour – its just uncomfortable! LOL Lissie

  15. I couldn’t agree more. We hate this whole game. Worst question we get since we are in the middle of our trip, “and then where are you going?”. We just fluff it off and give them the site. Answering questions like that change the dynamic of the conversion to a challenge of “Oh your not going there?” and ruins an otherwise fun encounter…

  16. This was an interesting post and I agree with all you said. I have two personal experiences to add. When I was 19 and on my first solo trip around Australia, I was sharing a room with a couple of people in their mid-twenties. They were really patronising to me and kept telling me how I couldn’t possibly appreciate what I was doing as I was sooo much younger than them and had no life experience. I was really offended, but kept my mouth shut as I didn’t particularly want an argument. I felt like I was experiencing it in MY way, which was good for me and I was learning all kinds of stuff that became useful as I got older, some of which was just to do with looking after myself.

    My other observation is just to remember that the locals often like doing the touristy stuff too, because it can be really fun. I live in London with my husband and three children and we love visiting places like the Tower of London and going on the London Eye. Doesn’t this mean that all the tourists doing it too are having an ‘authentic’ experience of living in London? Just as when we take our kids to a cheesy water park in Thailand we’ll be experiencing the ‘real life’ of Thai families. What is an ‘authentic’ experience anyway?

  17. I agree with all these thoughts, though for my comment I’m picking:

    “You don’t go there- it’s too touristy.” — I’ve had amazing experiences in super touristy places – Venice, London, Bali, Bangkok, wherever! I think this is a trap people fall in and it is a subtle way to try and express superiority over other travelers and people.

    That said, I do think it pays to mix it up and visit some out of the way places as you go.

  18. Well said Matt :) I’ll echo Dave and others after him in saying that it’s my favourite post you’ve written! Kudos!!

    We all have our own way of shining. I embrace my inner tourist and feel that the same distinction in this post is something a lot of backpacker travelers (of all levels of experience) could learn from. I may eat the vegetarian option and not drink the local alcohol (usually getting a chorus of how I’m not having an “authentic experience” from those who “know better”), but I try to learn the local language well. We all have our own strengths, but it doesn’t make any of us better than the other.

    I am currently hosting a large amount of Couchsurfers in Prague and I cringe every time I get an email from one of them saying “Hi! We will be spending 2 days in Prague next week and want to stay with someone who can show us the non-touristy parts of the city!” – skipping the “touristy” parts of Prague would mean missing out on its most beautiful sights. I challenge experienced travellers to BE a tourist: eat in a central restaurant, take an umbrella guided tour, get a cheesy picture in front of the monument. Life is too short to maintain a silly illusion. We’re all tourists and we’re all interested in a “local experience” in varying degrees and in our own way :)

    Stumbled and tweeted!! 😀

  19. LOVE, LOVE this post!!! Wonderful piece, Matt! This is one of my pet-peeve when I read a lot of travelers’ blog about how much better they are in traveling to exotic place or how long have they been traveling. I totally agree that traveling is individual experience. Who said my grandma on a cruise tour didn’t have as much fun as a backpacker in Thailand.

    It’s great especially coming from a season backpacker like you!

  20. Well done, Matt!

    Two types, one that is genuine and is enthusiastic about their travels, offering you suggestions that you may like, and the other type, just want to hear themselves talk and love telling you how great they are.

  21. Great post. Thanks for the props.

    The traveler who spends attempting to outdo others by pimping the number of countries they’ve been to, the length of time on the road, how little they’ve paid for everything, how much they know about everything, etc…these folks have missed the point of travel. Period.

  22. Bart

    I feel the same way about the way people throw around the word “ex-pat” like it is some kind of status symbol.

  23. Franny

    Nice Matty – I totally agree. Inca Trail was one of the best things I’ve ever done, who cares how touristy or how many other people have done it too.. like you said, that’s not the point. Love this post!!

  24. Great post. I enjoyed it.

    While they were all good tips and opinions, the one about getting an apartment and a job (“You only do what the locals do”) stood out for me. Living in England for a few months while my husband worked there taught me more about the country than any of our one- or two-week visits. I hope we get to do that again in other countries.

  25. All travelers are created equal but the world is about inequality. I’ve been to XX number of countries is the same as saying “I’m so great, and you’re not.” It’s a human foible to show off.

    We can strive for equality, on a personal level, try not to fall into the traps you mentioned above, but there are many who will never heed your advice. Frankly, I shun other travelers when I’m on the road to avoid what you mentioned above. There are many douche-rific nomads who should be given a wide berth.

    A remember a pair of Brits I met in Thailand. They were decked out in Thai clothes and talked of how much they knew about Thai culture. They had been there 2 weeks.

  26. I agree, especially with the too-cool-for-you type people. We once had a person tell us not to go to the big cities in China because “it wasn’t the real china” and stick with small places. Well, that would be like telling someone not to go to New York City and go to a small town in Kansas instead to see “the real America.” I mean, each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages, and neither is better or more real than the other. It was really just snotty been there/done that ego.

  27. I agree, the context of this post is one reason I am happy to be settling in Bulgaria.

    I will do more travel, but differently than I have been traveling

  28. I got the same when I traveled. it’s all about quality! I did a bunch of tours for many reasons:
    1. they are too dangerous to do on your own
    2. some places, like the inca trail, can’t be done with an organized tour
    3. they’re fun and you meet tons of fun people
    4. most of the time they are actually cheaper to do then trying to deal with it on your own!

    what exactly does it mean to be a local. as far as i see, locals travel, locals eat out.

    for some strange reason, no matter the situation we’re in, we humans need to judge and criticize and sometimes forget to simply enjoy ourselves!

  29. Totally agree with all this Matt.

    People shoul get out of travelling whatever they wish. One man’s eutopia is another man’s hell.

    Maybe the problem comes from when a person goes out travelling pretending to be someone he/she is not and tries to prove to others they are seasoned, worldly people. Having a go at a person because they’don’t have an open mind’ is the prime example of a closed-minded traveller.

    Great article.

  30. Excellent points and well-written (delivered in the right tone) – this should be required reading once a year for travelers, it might help make everybody happier by lowering the on-the-road smug quotient.

  31. Great post Matt. Totally agree with every word.

    And I’m also happy to see that Richard Smalley (comments above) felt that Bulgaria is worth more than a check-off-the-list. I’ve probably been to no place where I see more people checking off their ‘100th country’ in a flash and going before seeing/experiencing anything than Bulgaria: a great country.

  32. There are just so many great comments here that it would take me days to go through them all individually but I DID read them all and want to say thank you for so many comments and wonderful insights.

    I heart my readership!

  33. I love this article! I hate all the people who tell you not to do this or that! Everyone should try something once and learn things for themselves! I’m all for good suggestions though :)

  34. Right on about the tours! It’s got to be said because the travel snobs are out there and I have LOVED some of my tours along my own trip!! Thanks for summing it up nicely :-)

  35. Good post Matt! I was wondering how I’d be treated travelling around in Australia since it’s my first trip. I didn’t want to come off as too much of a tourist but that’s pretty much what I am. So far it’s been really good. Everyone is really friendly and doesn’t care if you’ve done a lot of travelling or not. Most are actually excited to tell you all their stories if you’ve never been to a place they have.

  36. Hey Matt!

    Met a person in a hostel common room that reminded me of this great article you wrote. They hit every single point and I could just feel the tension in the room of everyone else wishing they would just shut up.

    So far in our journey, most of our stand out best times have been when we fork the money over for some sort of “tourist trap” tour. We feel we learn way more history about the country when we take a little tour rather then wandering through things by ourselves and wondering what something says and/or what that is for.

    Mind you we also love to speculate and make up our own descriptions for some sights we see just for fun! So to keep within budget since tours can get real pricey real quick, we just choose which cities we feel we should get more info on by taking a tour and which to just wander on our own

  37. Matt-

    Loved your post. Really makes you think. I’m 6 weeks into an 8 week trip through SE Asia and after 7 or 8 countries, I’m quite sure I’ll be more content to see more of less on my next adventure. Keep up the good work. I’m new to your site but am already a fan.

    New Yorker in Bali

  38. Interesting to read this being an expat myself and having never been a ‘long-term traveler.’ I think there is a benefit to staying in one place for a longer period and living like a local (ie getting a job, finding a place to live, having local friends, learning the language). Although you will find that the basics are the same (desire for security, kids to succeed, etc), there are so many fascinating differences and nuances to discover in other cultures when you stay long term in one place. For that, learning the language is key.

    I’d rather have the experience of living in a several different places than to say I’ve seen 100 countries. Among expats it doesn’t seem to be as much about the numbers, although there are some people who take new contracts every 1 to 2 years and move on.

  39. Great post, I don’t care how many countries you’ve seen or how long you stayed in each. My opinion is that travel should be about learning about where you are and respecting where you are. If you choose to travel across the world to sit at a McDonald’s or never get out from behind your camera to experience a new place, that’s your choice. What gets me is the tourists/travellers who disrespect cultures and places, littering or blatantly disregarding signs, that gives a bad name to all tourists/travellers.

  40. I started traveling in ’79, have been hearing and reading and seeing all this since Day 1. Seems to me it’s all word-play, definitions, redefinitions . . . even the word “quality” . . . who’s to define that? . . . I’ve traveled to one country in particular over the years (have almost three years there over the course of five trips), have chosen (for my own reason) NOT to learn the language (and for the reason I’ve chosen, it’s worked for me) . . . Go . . . on a cruise . . . Go with a group . . . Go by yourself . . . learn the language . . . don’t . . . count countries . . . don’t . . . Go . . . simply Go . . . enjoy this amazing this amazing world . . . Go :)

  41. Cassie

    Great post! I think a lot of passionate travelers have these same biases that we have to fight. I’ve just recently come to terms with my objection to organized tours, realizing there are some wonderful small group operators that can teach you a lot and help you experience a culture or community in a very enlightened and responsible way.

  42. Brasilicana

    “If you really want to live like a local, buy an apartment and get a job.”

    That’s what I did. Except I didn’t buy, I rent. Life in Brazil has its ups and downs just like anywhere else, and sometimes it’s really hard… which is why I get impatient when visitors (my term for tourists/travelers/whatever) say “OMG OMG you LIVE here, you are soooooooo lucky!”

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