So, you’re wondering how to travel off the beaten path for your next trip? So am I! Every destination has its own best practices, but there are definitely a few ideas that work most places. Sometimes I arrive in a place with grand plans, which quickly get shoved straight into the trash. Other times, I find the most amazing things just by being in the right place at the right time.
However, I believe a traveler’s demeanor will decide their luck 80% of the time. Smile, be interested in what is happening around you, + ask for help whenever you need it (or even if you don’t). Connecting with another person or a place can change your life, in my opinion.
Numero Uno: Cleaning Up
After traveling for a week, I feel dirtier than normal (do you feel that way too?). Simply sitting in plane, bus, + train seats, walking city streets, + handling money (money is one of the filthiest things you can touch, since it is never washed + you who knows where it has been?!?) means I am much less clean than at home. It is perfect for experiencing the local culture— it is exciting + sometimes a little scary, so take a deep breath and roll with it!
Get a Haircut.
Bring a photo of the style you want. Or, have fun + try describing and gesturing your preferences, if you do not share a common language with my stylist. If this seems too risky, request a trim—your hair stylist back home can fix it up later. Trust that no one will purposely mess up your hair.
In Vietnam, for just a few dollars, I got an experience of a lifetime! At least 6 different people touched me along the way, including the lady who gave me a face massage and another who gave me a leg massage! Who knew I was going to get a face massage along with a haircut? Not me!
Take a Bath.
Local bathing, whether in a glacial river, tropical stream, or a steaming sauna, will likely give you an unforgettable story. If you do not like getting naked in front of other people… well, close your eyes + take a deep breath. Or, put on your swimsuit. Then, go for it!
I went in a sauna-bath in the highlands of Guatemala. While living there, I visited my indigenous friend for a weekend. She + her family were taking their baths on Sunday morning in the short and wide wooden building, like a mini-cabin, beside their corn field. She invited me to bathe last. It was obvious that I did not plan on being naked in front of her, so once my friend set me up with soap + I learned how to rinse off, she left me on my own to crawl through the waist-high door into the dark room heavy with steam.
Get a Manicure or Pedicure.
Both men + women enjoy a nice nail cleaning. If you’ve never been and aren’t sure, know that you will feel better afterwards than you did before. (If you don’t, at least you had an experience!) Often the treatment includes a lovely hand or foot massage. And, if it is not a typical treatment for men in the culture you are visiting, but you are a guy, then your manicurist will think you are a funny foreigner + have a great story to tell their family over dinner that evening! Even if you feel awkward, go + have a good time!
In Thailand, I had a great pedicure. Mostly, it was simply that it was really hot and the cool water on my feet was so relaxing after having walked in the insufferable heat all day.
Number 2: Events
Research local events. In small cities or towns, locals will know of upcoming festivals and fairs. However, major cities often have so many events that no one knows them all.
Attend photowalk events with locals and you’ll likely be the only tourist. Wander wonderfully photogenic parks, gardens, bridges, + monuments that you might never find on your own. The locations are often way off the beaten path, because what local wants to do tourist things?
I had fun exchanging photography tips with others in Mongolia, for example. There is always a range of photography skill levels in attendance, from people who enjoy taking snap shots all the way through professionals.
Search on Instagram for city pages or related hashtags of places you plan on visiting. Reach out to people who are running the page and ask if there are any upcoming events during your dates. Sometimes this idea encourages them to set up an event, if there was not already one planned.
Parades + Festivals
My best resources have been Couchsurfing (totally free!) + Airbnb hosts (use this Airbnb link for a $40 discount off your 1st stay!), tourism offices in smaller towns, flyers in windows or community bulletin boards (wow! something that is not on the internet), and Facebook. Search a town by Events and see what appears.
#3: Wander Around
It sounds simple, and you can take it to any level. Some people prefer wandering with a map. Personally, I get the address and phone number of my ‘home away from home’ printed in hardcopy— a hotel business card is perfect. Or ask your host to write it down in their own language—have you ever seen Polish or Khmer written?!
Pro Tip: Do NOT rely on your phone for something as important as the address of your home away from home. Phones run out of battery, get stolen, fall in water, and do all sort of other things that can make life really difficult if you do not know where “home” is. Imagine if your phone fell in Trevi Fountain on your first day in Rome! (Well, you would have the ultimate adventure, I suppose.)
Then, I just ask for help returning at the end of the day. Invariably when looking for my way home at days’ end, the person I stop on the street (you’ll use common sense and pick someone safe, like a family with kids or a shopkeeper, right?) or my taxi driver finds my pronunciation incomprehensible as I bungle their language.
Small roads do not often have tourists, or anyone else for that matter. As I wander down a main street I look out for any quiet side street that might have something interesting. Guidebook authors do not have time to explore every little thing, leaving it for wanderers to find their own way.
Wander into a Shop.
Choose shops selling household decorations, cooking implements, a bookstore, or something else definitely meant for locals. The salesperson is often surprised a tourist would enter, and will take a few minutes to chat. I use this opportunity for learning about the place I am visiting. Usually they excitedly advise me on their favorite riverside café or hilltop stroll. Also, it’s the perfect place for buying something small, like an interesting soup ladle for a friend who loves cooking.
Ask for Directions.
When I see a neat little path on the other side of the river or a walkway high above church pews, ask for directions. Sometimes the area is private, but more often you’ll be directed to a bridge or someone will unlock a door.
Num. 4: Sitting + Waiting
Have you noticed that many tourists rush around visiting all the recommended sights, only stopping at meal times? Meanwhile, locals have time between errands or work. They meet with friends or chat while waiting at the bus stop.
Find a lovely public place and have a seat for 15 or 30 minutes, same as a local. Maybe at a park or at a street side cafe. While sitting and waiting, the unexpected often comes along. Just watch. Hang out.
I love this, because I am not distracted by watching out for a loose cobblestone on the road or protecting myself from pickpockets. I can focus on the lives in motion around me.
Kids Playparks Are Fun!
Kids are happy + you might learn a new game or children’s song. Bring a super friendly smile + posture, especially if you do not have a child with you, since parents are suspicious of strangers watching their kids. Say something to the parents like “Hi, I’m a tourist in your town for 3 days”, acknowledging that you’re a (harmless) stranger + opening the conversation.
are my favorite place for local flavor. Almost everywhere outside of the United States, buses (or converted pick-up trucks or minivans) are a primary form of transportation. Families, farmers, and school kids all need a ride to somewhere.
Whether a beach, lakeshore, riverside, people congregate around water. Select a spot near someone who looks friendly, say hello, and maybe even start a conversation.
No. 5: Buy Locally
Shopping for practical items takes me off the beaten path every time. Plus, locals are flattered when someone from another place enjoys their sense of style.
Buy a local shopping bag first thing, as it is generally very inexpensive—a dollar or less in developing countries. Plus, it is a useful souvenir and multi-tasks as 2nd carry-on item for flights.
The real advantage of carrying a local shopping bag, whether it is a handwoven basket or vinyl bag, is that when asking for directions to a market locals will chat a moment without immediately trying to steer you towards the regular tourist areas. They figure “if she looks like us, she must not be a tourist.” Also, I believe it helps deter pick pockets, since they assume you must know the country and won’t be as easy to steal from as someone fresh off the tourist boat.
Take a day or two and observe what local people are wearing to keep comfortable. What colors and what type of material is best for the climate? Think about how you might best fit in.
At home I rarely wear skirts (why is it legal for skirts to be made without pockets?). However, plop me down in a Kenyan village and sure enough I will come away with a couple of kangas. Plus, they are beautiful, so make a great souvenir. (Can you tell yet, I’m all about souvenirs?)
I hope this helped you think of more ways you might travel off the beaten path on your next trip. If you’ve done any of these before, how did it go? And, definitely let me know if you have any other tips. Thanks for reading!
Want more? Here are 7 Super Easy Ways to Get Off the Beaten Track. It’s especially good for places that have a lot of tourists.
Looking for some apps for your trip? I’ve written up the various apps I use here.
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