Travel: San Gimignano sunset

Travel changes us. Whether it’s a trip around the corner or around the world, travel has the ability to affect us in so many unexpected ways. Find out why where you are affects who you are and how to travel better, no matter where you go.


This is why we travel

Ever wonder why we travel? Or do you need a reason to travel? If so, watch this video from the Copenhagen-based travel site Monmondo.

Powerful video, isn’t it? It makes its point about our commonalities very clear. But it also made me think about some other aspects of travel that may not be as obvious.

Meaning rarely comes without reflection

First, the video is moving in part because it is a highly produced video. All the extraneous elements have been edited out for us as the viewers. But even for the participants, the producers have condensed the meeting of these diverse people and the revelation of the findings into a singular “aha” moment where what was abstract and different now becomes personal all at once. It makes for great drama, but also for strong impact on each person there.

With travel, I don’t get usually get my lessons delivered so neatly. No one with a lovely British accent has ever personally explained the implications of travel (or DNA) to me.

Instead, I tend grow into the awareness of things like similarity and trust over time and on my own. As a result, I’m usually not even aware that as I travel, my perspective has shifted. Thus, unless I make an intentional effort to reflect on what has happened to me on a trip, I often miss the main takeaway. I have the experience, but not the learning.

I need reflection for my trips to have their full value. Either that, or a film crew that can document my entire trip and then show me the meaningful highlights complete with insightful narration and a moving score.

Travel makes the abstract personal

Notice in the video that everyone talked about other countries when asked who they didn’t like so much. By all being in the room together, the revelation through the DNA of family history made the whole concept of “the other” more tangible. But even more important, seeing each other in the same room and hearing each other’s stories made the experience highly personal.

That’s what travel does for me. It eliminates “them” as an abstract concept and makes people into relatable individuals. What once were vague notions about cultures and countries become recognizable faces and relationships that completely shift how we think about a place, region or ethnicity. Personal is powerful. It also is the single biggest factor in overcoming prejudices.

We are more alike than we realize

The overt point of the video was to show how we all share bloodlines from all sorts of other places. But a more subtle point was this: We all have our biases and we all react to the revelation of our linked humanity in the same way. The fact that I tend to react in similar ways as you and millions of others like us reveals even more how much we have in common.

Why we travel

For me — and I suspect for many of you — I travel in part to see what is different, what is unique to a particular place or culture. But as the video reminds me, I also travel to see what is the same, both around me and even, remarkably, within me.


The best way to find a great local guide

The best way to find a great local guide: Local guides in the desert What’s the best way to find a great local guide?

A great local guide can dramatically enhance your trip. But how do you find a great local guide? This means more than looking up a list of options. The best way to find a great local guide starts with knowing what you’re looking for in a guide, doing some research and then asking the right questions. Let’s explore all of those steps and more.

Realize that your best guides may not be the ones you pay

Often people you meet along the way may turn out to be wonderful informal guides. The man who invites you to his mother’s house for a family supper or the group of children that lead you to a hidden courtyard that takes your breath away, these are all guides. You may informally tip them or not. But guides show up in many guises. Being open to the possibility of encountering them can enrichen your trip. What we’ll focus on here, however, are people who professionally guide you in a variety of ways on a trip.

Research before you go

You have essentially three overall ways of finding guides before your trip: offline printed resources, online resources and personal connections. Let’s look at each.

Offline printed resources

Your primary source will be written guidebooks. Many have some listings of local guides, drivers or tour operators in various locations. Because the printing cycle makes some guidebook listings obsolete by the time they are published, you’ll want to go online to double check if the guide is still around. However, the good news of guidebook recommendations is that usually only well established local guides get recommended there.

Travel magazines and even newspaper articles about destinations may mention positive experiences the writer had with a guide. Follow-up on these since the number one way to find a great local guide is to leverage a trusted recommendation.

Though not a print resource (but not “online” per se) are travel shows. Get the names of the local guides used by the hosts of travel-related shows (e.g. many cooking or sports shows that visit foreign locations in addition to typical Travel Channel fare use guides as part of the program). Get the names and follow up with them. And no matter where the local guide’s name comes from, always research online for reviews about him or her. Being on TV doesn’t necessarily make them a great guide for you, but it could be a good starting point.

The best way to find a great local guide: Telouet guide

Rashid was a great local guide at the kasbah at Telouet. He came recommended by our main guide in Morocco, Abdul. If you find one great guide, ask for recommendations of others.

Online resources

There are literally millions of options online. So what’s the best way to find a great local guide that is right for you?

Start with a strategy

Here are some key points in your search to find a great local guide.

  • Know what kind of guide you’re looking for. A person who can point out the highlights of the Louvre is a very different animal than someone who will bike with you through the Mekong Delta for five days. The greater the time, cost and even risk, the more homework you want to do. Sounds obvious, but many travelers don’t check references and rely only on a few online reviews even for guides taking them way off the grid. Do your homework when necessary but for a two-hour tour, don’t spend two hours researching.
  • Know if you need to reserve a guide in advance. Even on crowded days at Machu Picchu there are guides waiting at the entrance. Some are better than others so again, a bit of pre-trip research can help, but you don’t necessarily need to pre-book. Some friends just got back from Normandy. They booked their guide two months ahead of time to tour the WWII beach sites there and were fortunate to get a guide since all the others were already booked that far ahead of time.
  • Determine your own travel style and needs. Personally, I’m not a fan of big group tours. But if I just show up in some locations, those are the only ones available to me. Do research on alternatives before your trip if you want a private guide since they obviously take fewer people and thus may have fewer slots open. In addition, know specifically what your interests are. For example, I didn’t even think I needed a guide in Fes, Morocco until I saw a listing for one that introduces you to local artists. Researching guides can reveal all kinds of possibilities you may not have considered and that don’t show up in the normal list of activities in a particular place.
  • Know the right terminology. “Guide” can refer to a person, a guidebook, an online planning tool or a brand of dental floss. So to make your searches more accurate, try using the term “local guide” or if you need a specific type of guide (e.g. museum, fishing, hiking, cooking instructor, etc.) add that phrase. You may be brighter than me, but when I first started searching on “guide” I got way too many irrelevant results.

Check out travel forums

On travel forums, you can ask about other people’s experiences and get specific recommendations. Here are ten of the most popular travel forum sites listed alphabetically. They are useful for all sorts of destination and other travel-related questions, not just guides, so consider bookmarking some of these for your next trip.

  1. BootsNAll. This site for independent travelers has a forum organized by destinations, travel resources, ways to go, etc. Some topics get more recent posts than others.
  2. Cruise Critic. This forum is geared toward people taking cruises, so if you want to find a local guide to avoid paying the high price of cruise excursions, this site has some great advice. But you can also use it even if you’re not cruising to find guides in major cities frequented by cruises.
  3. Fodors. The community here is very helpful and can often recommend other sources of guides such as a recent response noting how, for example, the Japanese National Tourism Organization has a listing called Goodwill guides of free volunteer guides in Japan. Who knew?!
  4. Lonely Planet. From destinations to general travel question, this active community has over 1 million members.
  5. Rick Steves. If you’re going to Europe, this is the forum to check out. Lots of insights and tips offered by an engaged community.
  6. Travbuddy. The most popular topic here is around travel buddies but they have a large number of discussions on both destinations and other info like gear or travel alerts.
  7. Travelfish.  Going to Asia? Check out this forum of questions and answers pertaining to that part of the world.
  8. Travellerspoint. This site offers a large community plus many other resources like an interactive travel planner.
  9. Trip Advisor. The most popular site of those listed in terms of traffic, here you can get people’s recommendations in addition to finding guide listings on the main part of the site.
  10. Virtual Tourist. This forum isn’t structured as some of the others where you can search based on category of topic. But for general travel questions and answers, it has a dynamic community that regularly contributes.

Review local guide websites

If you’re not getting any decent recommendations on how to find a great local guide on the forums, try going direct. Here are ten sites (listed alphabetically) where you can find, review and hire a great local guide. I tested each out by searching for guides in Seattle, Washington and Granada, Spain. My results varied greatly as noted below. Thus, what may be a great resource for one destination may have few if any options for another. It gives you a chance to explore them all!

  1. – This site isn’t necessarily the first place to go to find a great local guide, but it’s useful if you want to BE a local guide and help improve Google Maps by adding your own photos and comments about places. The community aspect is fun: You get the chance to meet others through periodic hangouts in different locations.
  2. – This is a relatively new site aimed at matching you up with a guide in certain countries. The nice thing about this site is that they vet the guides well so that you only get recommended guides that have been screened. Most of the guide opportunities here are for multi-day adventure type trips rather than city guides for a few hours.
  3. – This is supposed to provide tips and tours by locals. Nice idea, but looking through the site, it seems to need more contributors at this point to make it more robust. As noted above, however, you may still find what you need depending on where you’re going.
  4. – This site offers guides in over 110 countries and though the English site works well, the options for Europe are better than tours in the US which makes sense given this is a Germany-based site.
  5. – Advertised as “the world’s largest marketplace for travelers and guides,” the interface isn’t quite as seamless as some of the others but it does provide many choices, depending on the destination. It isn’t clear how they vet the local guides.
  6. – Like many of these guide sites, they offer a way to pick and choose which local guide you want in a particular city (assuming that city is on their list). Their selection process makes it easy to find a great local guide that matches your interests and needs.
  7. – As the site states, “Request a tour, let the locals bid for your tour and enjoy authentic experiences.” The emphasis here is on cultural and experiential tourism.
  8. – Another site where you can choose your own guide. These guides are selected and approved by the site. Tours here are priced by the tour, not the person. So it pays to have a bigger group.
  9. – This site has (to me) some of the most interesting local tours listed. A search for Seattle offerings presents tours ranging from local islands to thrift store tours to art and food tours. The focus here is on the experience more than the guide (though you do get a full profile and reviews of each guide).
  10. – Listed as “the largest online network of qualified local guides,” like many of the others, you get to select your guide, contact them for details then book through the site where they offer a 100% guarantee.
  11. – The site provides guides of all sorts from cooking to outdoors, freelance tour guides to tour companies. But my test of “Seattle, WA” produced results for Washington, D.C. so it’s hard to say how many options they have.
The best way to find a great local guide - local guide on steps

Another local guide, this one at Ait Benhaddou in Morocco

Personal Connections

The best way to find out just about anything is through people you know. They are (hopefully!) a trusted resource and you can usually determine what they like and decide if it matches up with what you like. But “people you know” is a broader category than you might think. Here are some of your most common options:

  • Friends or acquaintances – Ask everyone you know who has been to the place you’re going and see if they used a guide. But don’t stop there. Ask them if they know anyone else who has been there, then reach out to them asking about any guides they used and their recommendations.
  • Social media friends – You may clump these in with your other friends, but I’ve found followers online that I don’t really know well but who can be great resources. For example, I found Abdul through Kane at Roam and Recon simply because Kane had liked one of my Instagram images and in checking out his profile, I saw he happened to be in Morocco right then. A quick review of his site and then a follow-up email produced a great recommendation.
  • Tourism professionals – You need to be careful you’re getting an objective recommendation but tourist boards and visitor centers often have lists of guides and talking to people there can result in more specific recommendations. But don’t overlook one of my favorite approaches: ask local hotel, apartment, guesthouse or B&B owners for recommendations. Start by asking about general things to see how responsive they are and if you get a good reply, ask about guides. One of our favorite guides, Andy in Granada, Nicaragua came from Chris who runs Miss Margrit’s there. These guesthouse owners know their reputation is tied to your overall experience, so they tend to be quite careful as to who they recommend.
  • Fellow travelers — People you meet while traveling can be another great source because their experience will be fresh. Ask not only about the city where you are, but also about places you’re going. And if you hear of a spectacular guide in a place not on your itinerary, jot it down for later. You never know. A stellar recommendation might cause you to change your itinerary.

Finally, whether you get the name of a guide online or from a friend, don’t stop there. Search online for reviews or ratings for that guide. See what others have said. If you find a particular reviewer that seems to like the same things that you do, email them or contact them through the site with follow-up questions. Again, if it is a 90 minute city overview, you may not need to take so much time. But if you’re investing in a guide for days or weeks, do your homework well.

Key things to look for in a great local guide

So once you get a name, how do you evaluate if they are right for you? Consider these questions either about them or for them.

  • Are they licensed? This isn’t always a requirement, but given a choice, I’ll always go with someone who has some professional credentials. This may show up as a government-approved registration, an actual license or some form of accreditation. If in doubt, ask to see it.
  • Do you feel safe? This isn’t just personal safety, though that’s a very big factor. Does the whole payment process seem secure? Are there any guarantees? What currency do you pay in? Can you pay by credit card (which adds a layer of protection)? Do you have to pay anything ahead of time and if so, can you get your deposit back?
  • Is this a good fit? Do they cater to single women, families, elderly travelers or whatever your category is? Do they know their stuff (and how do you know that, e.g. beyond guide credentials, do they have degrees in the subject, have lived there their whole lives there, have other recommendations or reviews, etc.)?
  • Similarly, do they share your same interests? For example, a guide who is well acquainted with local sports teams won’t be useful to you if you don’t care about sports. But a great local guide will be flexible enough to adjust to your needs. Moreover, a great guide loves what they do. Their enthusiasm will likely be contagious and you’ll walk away with much more insight and excitement about a place as a result.
  • How well do they speak your language? Ask beforehand as to the level of fluency and, if possible, speak to your actual guide to see. I’ve had great guides with minimal English who are more driver/facilitators. But for deeper insights, it helps to have someone who can explain things in detail in your language.
  • What are the logistics involved? Where will they meet you? Do you have to figure out local transportation on your own to the starting point or will they come to you? Are meals or admission fees included in the tour price?

If you can, ask all of these questions ahead of time or at least start off the tour with them. If at the tour’s start, you may be committed to pay already, but at least you can get some norms clarified with your guide so they know what you expect.

Some concluding thoughts on how to find a great local guide

Finally, realize that you can never 100% guarantee finding a great local guide ahead of time because it all comes down to chemistry and compatibility and a host of other factors you can’t control. But if you do some research beforehand and know what you’re looking for, ask the right questions and take steps to find a great local guide who is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and trustworthy, he or she can literally make the difference between a good experience and a life-changing one.

If you have other ideas or have other tips on how to find a great local guide, please share them here.


Want an even better trip? Consider hiring a great local guide

Hiring a great local guide: Abdul and boys

Here’s our local guide Abdul hanging out with my two sons after a day of driving in Morocco.

When you might want to hire a great local guide

Group tours are perfect for some people. Then again, so are tie-dyed jumpsuits and lima beans. It’s all a matter of taste.

For me, I prefer to explore and discover something on my own rather than have a tour guide tell me and my fellow herd members about what the guide thinks is important. But there’s a downside to such independence: I sometimes don’t learn as much or see all that I could.

Moreover, I’m learning that if I

  • only have a short amount of time,
  • am in a country where few people speak my language,
  • want to travel far off the usual tourist routes or
  • am in a place where logistics  can be messy,

then I likely want to do what my two sons and I did on a recent trip to Morocco: hire a local guide.

We had the best of both worlds in Morocco: a tour guide/driver without the tour or the group. Someone who drove just the three of us on our trip around the country. Someone who had a general itinerary in mind but was open to alterations and spontaneous departures from the plan. Someone who knew the top tourist sites but also the off-the-beaten-path gems untouched by the wheels of a tourist bus.

Our guide’s name was Abdul. He works with Authentic Berber Tours. If you’re going to Morocco, you should check them out. I cannot say enough good things about Abdul, Samira and the team at Authentic Berber Tours. They literally and figuratively made our trip.

I’ll cover the details of that trip and how to find your own great guide in later entries here. But for now, let’s explore what makes a local guide like Abdul great versus just competent. Here are fifteen ways a great local guide adds so much value to your trip. They align but expand on this list from another guided tour closer to home.

The value of a great local guide: Tinejdad

One of the many places we visited with Abdul

Fifteen ways a great local guide can make a great trip

A great local guide will:

  1. Customize the experience for you. In our case, Abdul learned quickly what we liked and adjusted both the places we visited and the way we visited them – the timing, cadence, length of time there, etc.
  2. Flex. We traveled during Ramadan when many businesses and restaurants were closed during the day. Abdul worked around this and found alternatives. Great local guides stay flexible.
  3. Be relatable without being intrusive. For us, Abdul was there when we needed him, talked when we wanted to talk and was quiet when we didn’t (four males, after all, can comfortably travel for quite some distance without words).
  4. Look out for your best interests. From pulling each hotel owner aside to ensure we had the best room to rousing a chef at a restaurant from a Ramadan-mid-day rest to make us a special lunch, Abdul made sure we were well taken care of. Great local guides go the extra mile for you.
  5. Translate more than words. Sure, you can get by with gestures, but if you only speak five words of the language and vice versa, it’s hard to engage meaningfully with locals. A great guide not only translates the words but explains (usually later) the meaning behind them. Great local guides provide great insights.
  6. Value long-term relationships over short-term revenue. This is their job so of course guides need to make money. But a great guide knows that they’ll likely make more by creating a great experience for you than they will by exploiting you. For example, Abdul made sure that any of the specialist guides he introduced us to didn’t take us to shops where they’d get a kickback.
  7. Help you see differently. A great guide doesn’t just show you different things. He or she helps you see the world in a new way. For example, Abdul’s explanation of the differences between Arabs and Berbers helped us understand both the people and the history of Morocco in a completely different way.
  8. Be careful and considerate. This sounds obvious, but it’s not. In a country like Morocco where drivers either poke along like an ornery camel or treat the highway like the Bonneville Salt Flats, Abdul (who was both our driver and our guide) put safety above everything else. Unless of course we asked him to go off-roading on the sand dunes. But that’s another story.
  9. Empathize well. A great guide can sense when you’re tired, hungry, nervous, excited or even bored and they adjust the plan or their approach accordingly.
  10. Hiring a great local guide: Camel

    Our guide wasn’t the only one with a good sense of humor.

    Have a good sense of humor. With Abdul, there were some moments when our humor didn’t translate, but even then he wanted us to explain it so that his English was continually improving. And later, he’d make a joke about it. We laughed every day with Abdul.

  11. Practice patience. Great guides learn quickly what matters to you. For example, Abdul never rushed us whenever we stopped for me to take (yet another) photo. Great local guides put up with a lot and don’t complain.
  12. Take responsibility. Great guides free you to enjoy the journey rather than worrying about where to go next. With Abdul, he gave us choices, but also allowed me to relax and not worry about having all the answers.
  13. Vet the good from the bad and show you the best. Good guides show you interesting places and give you facts. Great local guides create experiences that change you. They go beyond facts to provide you with a richer understanding of what you’re encountering.
  14. Reveal places and experiences you’d never find on your own. Abdul took us a back route along a gorgeous river that few visitors ever see because they just don’t know about it. Local guides know the back doors that you might discover on your own…if you had far more time than you do.
  15. Make you feel like a local. Abdul taught us various Berber phrases and customs, took us to a locals-only weekly market, offered to find nice Berber brides for my two sons (who politely declined) and even invited us to his home where we met his extended family. It was, in fact, such a personal experience and not the norm that I will say no more out of respect to Abdul and his family. But I will note that this glimpse into a daily life in a Berber village was one of the highlights of our trip.

I could go on and on but the point is this: a great local guide enables you to gain and discover more in a short time than you could on your own. With a great local guide, as in the case of Abdul, at the end of your time together, you have more than new insights to the country: you have a new friend.

I still may not be a fan of group tours. But I’m starting to wonder if I will ever want to do another trip that doesn’t, at least for part of the journey, include a trusted local guide. A great guide.

Join me next time for ways to find a great local guide wherever you go.


Tourist vs traveler: 25 ways to be a traveler even in touristy places

Tourist vs traveler: Generalife Garden

Peaceful gardens such as this one at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain may not seem so peaceful with hundreds of tourists pouring through them. But even here you can enjoy the place as a traveler…if you know how.

Tourist vs Traveler

The age-old discussion of tourist vs traveler still rages on in travel circles. So what’s the difference? My favorite quote explaining it comes from G.K. Chesterton:

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

A quick trip over to Brainy Quotes revealed a few more pithy statements:

From Daniel J. Boorstin:

“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’”

 From Russel Baker:

“The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist.”

From Agnes Repplier:

“The tourist may complain of other tourists, but he would be lost without them.”

Or, from a different source, I like this one (applied to more than just men) from The Englishman Abroad by Hugh and Pauline Massingham:

“The born traveller—the man who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticise, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognises that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance—has always been comparatively rare.”

tourist v traveler - couple resting at Alcazar

Even people at rest still can choose to be a tourist or a traveler

Does the distinction matter?

Having just returned from Egypt (where there are virtually no tourists right now), Morocco (where there are some, but mostly in the larger cities) and Spain (where in some areas, I heard more American English spoken than Spanish), the notion of tourist vs traveler remains both fresh and relevant to me.

When I see huge hordes of people clearly on a group tour paying more attention to their phones than the surrounding sights, I think, “I don’t want to be like that.” But when I listen to travelers who have been on the road for months or years who condemn these so-called tourists, I think, “I don’t want to be like that either.”

I’ve come to believe that the distinction of tourist vs traveler is similar to that between artist and craftsperson: In most cases, it just doesn’t matter, at least to me as a traveler or a maker. Here are two other similar perspectives I think represent this same attitude:

The difference between being a traveler and being a tourist

Why it’s better to be a tourist than a traveler

To me, the distinction isn’t important because it involves comparison and judgment of others which rarely helps to make your own travel experience a worthwhile one. Your goal on a trip is to discover what matters to you, not how others are spending their time. So instead of looking at other foreigners in a country and classifying them as tourists or travelers, what the last few weeks in some very touristy locations in Spain (mostly Seville, Ronda, Granada and Madrid) has reminded me of is this: You can still operate as a traveler even if you’re visiting places frequented by tourists.

Tourist v traveler: people taking photos at Alcazar

Tourist v traveler: Everyone is taking similar photos. How will yours be different?

25 ways to be a traveler in a touristy area

The real issue isn’t classification or comparison or even location. It’s attitude. It’s about how you engage and go about experiencing a place. So to help you get the most from any location, even ones where millions of others visit every year, here are 25 ways to be a traveler in a touristy area:

  1. Stay curious. Keep asking questions and wondering about all you see and experience.
  2. Learn. As the Chesterton quote notes, you get more from a new place  when you learn something from it. Learning doesn’t have to be formal history lessons about some monument. You can learn about the culture, the food and even about how you react under pressure. Just try and remain open to learning something.
  3. Appreciate what you see. Seeing the positive of every place not only ingratiates you with the locals, it helps them to see their own hometown in a better light.
  4. Learn the language. Even a few words. In Cairo, Egypt, for example, I knew about five words of Arabic. But just trying those few words made a huge difference versus expecting everyone there to speak English.
  5. Engage ordinary people. Knowing the language helps, but striking up a discussion with the people who are used to treating you as just another disinterested tourist — shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers or people you meet on the street — can make a huge difference even in touristy places where such locals are normally treated as expediters of some foreigner’s request.
  6. Pause and reflect. While tourists can be great at maximizing limited time, the downside is that you never make sense of what you’re experiencing unless you stop long enough to think about the experience. Sure, you can do so after your trip, but pausing during your journey allows course corrections and the ability to go back to places that cry out for a deeper examination or greater discovery.
  7. Get off the beaten path. Maps are helpful in showing you where the key sights are located. But you don’t have to take the most direct root. Just one block over from the main thoroughfare lies a very different experience.
  8. Live like a local. Airbnb has made this much easier, but in an urban setting, the next best thing in my book to being invited to stay in someone’s home is to rent an apartment. I’ve had great success with and for apartments. These are usually cheaper than hotels, they avoid the group-think and clustering of other travelers that you sometimes get at hostels (which can be both a good and a bad thing) and best of all, they are usually in neighborhoods away from the normal tourist areas. The hosts can point out local markets and restaurants you would likely never find in guidebooks or on your own.
  9. Use public transportation. Public buses, trains, subways, bikes and boats of all kinds provide a very different experience than being on a tour bus or even in your own car. It’s a great way to do both Number 5 and Number 7 above.
  10. Be present. This sounds a bit ethereal, but I simply mean to listen and apply all your senses to a place. Listen carefully to the people you meet — in touristy areas, they are used to being ignored or only half-heard. But also ask yourself — intentionally — what do you smell, taste, feel or hear around you, in addition to what do you see. It really expands your appreciation of the place when you engage all your senses in a conscious manner.

    Tourist v traveler - Ronda plaza

    Sometimes the crowded places are the best…if those crowds are locals.

  11. People watch. You’re in an area surrounded by tourists. You can bemoan the fact or behold their behaviors in a non-judgmental way. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from watching them?” Or just sit back and enjoy the show.
  12. Forget FOMO. Actually, this Fear Of Missing Out lies more in the realm of the traveler than the tourist. But since we’re not making distinctions, just relax. Remember this obvious point: You will never see everything. So enjoy what you do see and chalk up what you don’t as something for your next trip.
  13. Go beneath the surface. Get behind the scenes. Talk to the people others ignore. Janitors, market vendors, ticket takers and security guards at museums and other venues can often provide you with information and access you’d never get through “official” channels. Here’s where knowing the local language really helps. Asking them questions not only informs you, it makes them feel special. You may end up with a private tour…or even a new friend.
  14. Have a good sense of humor. Joking with locals can be tricky because humor doesn’t always translate. But even when I only know a few words of the local language, taking a self-deprecating approach, being genuinely interested and staying playful breaks through even to those people hardened by dealing with thousands of tourists each day.
  15. Pay attention to details. While everyone else is gawking at the big sights, look around. There are small wonders everywhere. Often the small moments on a trip end up being more meaningful than the big ones.
  16. Break things up. No one says you have to eat dinner all at once in the same place. In really touristy areas such as St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy or Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain, don’t buy an overpriced meal on the square. Eat elsewhere then just enjoy of coffee or drink on the square itself.
  17. Play with local kids. In really touristy areas, the kids may be used to asking for a handout or trying to sell you something. Instead of giving them money, play with them. I recently spent time with some kids in Morocco making up goofy handshakes with them. We all loved it. Kick a soccer ball, jump rope, play tag. Who cares if you look goofy. Everyone will have a better time and you’ll help them see tourists as more than opportunities to make money.
  18. Take a class. You’ll likely be with other tourists, but even in popular locations, you’ll learn about the culture and a particular area — cooking, shopping, local history or crafts — that you wouldn’t on a tour or even on your own.
  19. Get out during the bookend hours. Get up early or stay up late and see the sights without any other tourists (being aware of safety issues, obviously). Especially early in the morning, you get to see the same people who will likely be serving all of us tourists later in the day, walking to work, getting some shopping done or taking their kids to school. The very same place looks much different in the off hours.

    Tourist v traveler: Ronda at Night

    Even places like Ronda, Spain, can be very different after the busloads of day tourists leave.

  20. Change your focus. Move from “What can I get from this place?” to “Who can I be in this place and how can I enjoy my time here?” The former is a consumer perspective where it’s all about the place itself. The latter helps you enjoy you and your traveling companions where your focus is on your experience rather than just the location. For example, I’ve learned to love long dinners not because of the surroundings so much as from simply being away from the norm and taking time out for deeper relationship building.
  21. Sketch. Who cares if you’re good or not. Pausing to draw or paint or even photograph in a slower, more deliberate manner helps break you from the tourist frenzy and helps you see the place in a new way.
  22. Study up before you arrive. I have a hard time digesting historical facts and figures when on site. But when I do research about the context of the place before I get there, I always enjoy the experience more because I understand more. Plus, I don’t have to wait in crowded lines or huddled up with a ton of other people trying to listen to a guide.
  23. Try new things. Even in the most touristy of locations, you’ll likely find food, activities and sporting or cultural events you’ve never experienced before. Now is your time to give them a shot.
  24. Get lost. Get the card or address of the place you’re staying written in the local language so you can always hand it to a cab driver. Then just take off. Nothing moves you from tourist to traveler faster than figuring out your own way in a new place.
  25. Know what matters to you…then pursue it. This is probably the most important one of all. Even in touristy places, you can home in on areas of interest: shops, crafts, hobbies, food, etc. Discovering makers or chefs or farmers or athletes becomes a form a treasure hunt. Everyone else around you will be looking at the same old tourist sites while you’re off connecting with your passion.

Now its your turn

What else can you do to be more of a traveler even in touristy locations? Share your thoughts. Then go out and try some of these approaches and see if the distinction between tourist and traveler really matters to you.


10 surprising ways to get to know a place before you arrive

Morocco BooksHow can you get to know a place before you arrive? The answer is you can’t. That’s why you travel there because reading about it and experiencing it firsthand aren’t the same. But you can get a taste of it which significantly helps you prepare for your trip.

I’m putting together a comprehensive guide to planning your trip due out later this year. But for now, here’s a quick overview of ten surprising ways to get to know a place before you arrive. These will help you determine what aspects of that place matter most to you. You’ll also have an orientation so you can hit the ground running when you get there. That way, you can avoid that attractive “what have I done and what do I do now?” look common to first-time tourists.

  1. YouTube videos – How could I not have discovered this sooner? I’ve been checking out videos from the library for years about the places I’m visiting but the number of locations is often quite limited, especially for less-touristy places. Recently I found that YouTube has videos on just about any place you’re going. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the princes there, but seeing videos gives you a much better perspective on how everything relates than simply looking at photos or maps. For example, I can see pictures of the labyrinthine alleyways of Fez, Morocco’s old market area, but it is a very different sense you get from seeing a video as someone winds their way through the narrow passageways in search of interesting food.
  2. Personal advice – Of course we all know to ask friends about their experience in a place we’re about to visit.  It’s the sources of the personal advice that have surprised me. In the last few years, increasingly I’ve started communicating with the locals, in particular owners of guesthouses and small hotels who are geared toward tourists but can provide tips and resources you’d never get on your own.
  3. Travel forums – You have to work your way through these, but almost any question you have about a trip has likely been asked before. Sometimes you can just Google the question and see various forums. Other times, going to the forum areas on sites like Rick Steves (for European trips), Lonely Planet or Fodors and glancing through the threads can help give you a sense of the place that the travel descriptions don’t. Tip: Don’t settle for one person’s opinion or even that of a single forum. I’ve found some that offer advice that later is contradicted by more informed travelers on another forum. But when you find the gem, the hunt is worth it.
  4. Learning the language – You gain insights into a country from learning even a few words of its language. You understand what the culture values (e.g. a male-dominated vs. female-oriented society) and how the origins of language affect how people think and act today. But here’s the more surprising part. Learning the language gives you an excuse to meet with others from that country or region. For example, I recently overheard a guy in a local Starbucks talk about some words in Arabic (which I’m trying to learn for an upcoming trip) so I went up, asked how to pronounce a certain word and was so enthusiastically greeted (because I was even bothering to try to learn his language) that he immediately introduced me to another friend from Morocco who provided great insights. Leverage the language to learn about the place.
  5. Photo books and sites – I learned more about Machu Picchu from some coffee table books than I did from the guidebooks. Go online to flickr, Instagram, Pinterest and other sites searching on the place you’re visiting and you’ll get a visual sense of the place. But here’s the surprising piece: Don’t just stop with the first image. Click on to the person’s site (if you like the image) and often you’ll get many more details and stories you wouldn’t have found using a general search on the destination. Or try my new favorite for getting a more complete picture of certain places: Google Street View. This feature of Google Maps allows you to get a 360-degree view of the most popular places. What’s really helpful is when the places you’re staying have the same thing so you’re able to see the streets around your hotel, guesthouse or apartment. The odd thing is I haven’t yet figured out how to get those same views on my computer. I can see them on my phone when using Google Maps. If you know how to find them on the computer, let me know.
  6. Literature – Increasingly I find that both fiction and nonfiction books or articles about a place provide me with the details of the experience there which, in turn, helps me to visualize and understand the place in ways travel sites don’t. For example, I’ve learned many cultural nuances about Fez, Morocco from reading A House in Fez (the Moroccan equivalent of Francis Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, in this case about an Australian couple that buys an ancient riad (home) in Fez and the trials of renovating it).  A great starting point are guidebooks which usually have recommendations about books, art, movies and music of your destination country.
  7. Booking sites – Normally, Airbnb,, or one of my favorites,, are useful for reservations. But if you read the reviews and look at the photos (same as on TripAdvisor), you start to get a sense of the place as well. Also, (as well as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor) has started city guides in the places where you book (or at least the major cities). Most of the information covers the main tourist sites but a really nice feature on is that they organize this information in respect to your hotel or apartment. You get to see on a map and in the site descriptions where everything is shown in terms of how far the sites are from where you’re staying. This provides a sense of context that is missing on less personalized travel info sites. Tip: Another reason I like is that for a fraction more money, you get to reserve with free cancellation. I try not to abuse this, but I have at times booked a few different places to make sure I don’t miss out on popular ones, then go back a few days later and cancel the ones I don’t want. It makes hotel reservations far less stressful and allows you the freedom to change, usually up to 24 hours before you arrive with no fees.
  8. Social media – Here’s just one example of leveraging social media in surprising ways. I posted an image on Instagram and I then checked out the profile of one of the people who liked the image. I saw that he had images of the very places in Morocco I planned to visit soon. I then linked over to his blog and read detailed description of his trip, complete with costs and transportation information. I ended up emailing him asking for more details and he was wonderful in helping. Here’s Kane’s site: It’s just one of many examples of using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites to not only see what others have done in the country you’re visiting, but to form connections that help you get insights you’d otherwise miss.
  9. Apps – Travel apps are springing up like wildflowers in June. They all have their different function, but here’s the surprising part: Don’t necessarily use them as designed. For example, a great app for finding interesting tours in cities is Check it out not just to hire a local guide, but to get an idea of the kinds of interesting possibilities that city offers. Other tips: Use TripIt not only to store your reservations, but to load in notes and photos you’ve found elsewhere. Use Evernote to record your passport and other info (which works best if you have the Pro version that allows you to secure your Evernote account with a PIN number). In fact, I use Evernote to capture photos of guidebook pages, menus, street signs and directions, voice recordings of overheard conversations or phrases in another language for the taxi drivers, etc.
  10. Guidebooks – These may not seem very surprising. But how you use them may be. Don’t settle for just one. I usually skim through several: Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Moon, Rick Steves, Fodors, Frommers and often country or regional-specific ones. You’ll get a more complete view and find some hidden gems that way. Photocopy or take photos on your phone of the pages that matter to you (being sensitive to copyright laws). Also, don’t just read about the places. Many of these guidebooks have great overviews on the history and culture of your destination. Reading these are some of the fastest ways to get a sense of the place without reading long histories.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve found useful in getting to know more about a place before I arrive and even once I’m there. What have you found helpful in planning your trips?


The last place you look

The last place you look: Green Lake road

The last place you look may be just around the bend as on this road at Green Lake Conference Center. Keep going.

The last place you look is last for a reason

“Why is it that when you lose something like your car keys, you always find them in the last place you look?” my colleague Sarah asked her mother recently when Sarah had misplaced her keys. “Because,” her mother replied patiently to her grown daughter, “once you find them, you stop looking.”

When Sarah told me this story, I laughed. In part because her mom’s comment was so obvious. In part because I, like Sarah, had never made that connection before.

Sarah and I were at Green Lake Conference Center, a beautiful gathering place in central Wisconsin, for a set of meetings with other colleagues. After wrapping up our morning session, we headed to the dining hall for lunch. Our other colleagues had filled up a table so Sarah and I joined another one with a sign that read “Road Scholars.”

As I sat down and made introductions, I mentioned that the name sounded familiar. “Didn’t Road Scholars used to be called something else?” I asked. “Yes,” replied a sprite woman to my right. “Elderhostel.” “Oh,” I quipped, “the new name makes more sense since none of you seem either elderly or hostile!” I was in.

Lost and found

Sarah asked about their conference and found out it was a writing workshop. Their theme? “Lost and found.” I looked at Sarah. She just smiled. We spent the next twenty minutes learning about their writing, how they were enjoying it and how long they’d been coming there. One woman said this was her 23rd year attending the event. She noted how she loved the learning, the memories and mostly, the people she met, some old friends, some new acquaintances. “Come back another two years and you get a gold watch,” Sarah said. They all laughed and I could understand why someone would want to keep returning to such a welcoming place and group.

As these Road Scholars headed back to their writing, I got to thinking about Sarah’s earlier comment and how true it is. We do stop looking for things when we find them whether those are keys, people or even dreams.

The problem is, with the exception of the car keys, too often we give up looking too soon. We treat some things like our dreams or even our callings as if they were car keys, tangible, finite objects that we can grasp. And thus we stop looking when we think we’ve found them.

Why the last place you look shouldn’t be the last place you look

But what if there is more? What if we settle for just part of what is there and stop looking too soon? Artists and craftspeople will tell you that 50% of your effort on a project can get you 90% of the way there. But that last 10%? That’s where the difference is made between what is good and what is great. That is where you run the risk of ruining all you’ve done before because that last 10% requires so much additional effort and skill. So what do many of us do? We give up at 90%. We stop looking or trying.

When we stop pursuing our dreams or working through that last 10%, we end up wondering why life feels OK, but not entirely satisfying. Deep down we sense that we’re settling for mediocrity but we’re not really sure why. We don’t realize that we’ve stopped looking.

This isn’t about perfectionism so much as pursuit and relentless curiosity. It’s about applying the explorer’s need to know what lies beyond the next rise to the areas of our lives that matter most, our passions, dreams and creative interests. It reminds me of the phrase from the movie, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” where the father, played by Tom Hanks, shows his son the typo in the newspaper and reveals it as a clue, a mandate actually, to follow: “notstop looking.”

Let’s make it personal

How about for you? What has been lost or maybe just pushed aside in your life? Where have you stopped looking? Where do you need to pursue that last 10% to find what truly matters or to be truly found?

Shortly before the group of Road Scholars left, one woman mentioned that she had come here with her husband who is a writer. They had signed up for another workshop/conference but it fell through so she tagged along on this one. Before she arrived, she didn’t see herself as a writer. Now? Everything had changed. She loved the workshop and planned on coming back. “For another 20 years or so like this other person?” Sarah asked her.

“In 20 years, I’ll be 100,” she replied. But then, with a sly smile she added, “But you never know.”

Here clearly, was someone who was not going to stop looking.