When I started travelling twenty years ago there was no such thing as social media or Instagram. I wanted to travel to see what was out there, to have an adventure and to put myself to the test.
Of course while I travelled I read my Lonely Planet and I wanted to see all of the suggested attractions, I wanted to see the major touristy spots and experience some of those suggested itineraries, but I also wanted my own specific, individual experience of those things. I wanted to have my own adventure and discover a destination for myself on my own terms. I wanted the adventure of discovering a new place for myself and allowing it to shape and mould me as experience would dictate.
That doesn’t really happen now. Just look at the massive shift in the reasons people say they travel. Travelling to Instagrammable spots for that iconic shot has become one of the number one reasons people want to visit somewhere. They don’t want an experience of their own, tbey want to recreate the exact same Insta shot everyone else has lined up to take just so they can boost their online feed.
Has this trend gone too far now? Is it time we start shifting back to a deeper, more meaningful type of travel? I think so.
Meaningful travel is travel that enriches your own life in some way, makes you grow as a person and tries to in some small way have a positive impact on the destination you are travelling to.
Deep travel, or meaningful travel is more than just the sad and rightly lambasted old cliche of ‘travelling like a local’. It is all about getting to know the cultures of the places you are visiting amd allowing them to open and inform your own ways of thinking. It is about getting to know the history or the significance behind the superficial snapshot and the cuisine behind that manicured meal on Instagram. It is about getting to the heart of a destination instead of just ticking things off a list for social media. It is about more than just your Instagram feed.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of fun with your social media or that you can’t do the tourist thing or laze on an island for a while. It just means that those things aren’t the entire focus or reasons for your travels. I mean is that really such a bad thing?
So here are my top tips for travelling more deeply.
I have always been a huge advocate for slow travel for many reasons, but primarily travelling at a slower pace, where you aren’t trying to fit seeing an entire country into a short week, will allow you a much deeper, more meaningful experience.
Allowing yourself a little time to see the major sights and attractions, but then some empty time after that where you can just sit back and take in the atmosphere and culture at your own pace gives you the chance to delve deeper into the destination you are in. It gives you the time to look past the obvious and start noticing all the little nuances that make each place special and unique. This is the definition of stopping to smell the roses once in a while.
I have been an avid reader of fiction since I was a child, and that love of books has given me so many new perspectives on pretty much everything, including travel. If there are any books set in the destination you are going to then read them, especially if they are across genres that you wouldn’t normally read. This not only gives you a bit of an insight into the culture, history and traditions of the country you are visiting but it can just give you a slightly different lens to look through as well and help you connect with a culture in a way you couldn’t before.
Learn some of the language.
Okay, learning a language isn’t easy. I get that. I am universally bad at it in fact and invariably end up embarrassing myself at my attempts to butcher a local language.
But saying that it is also extremely important, respectful and gives you a far deeper connection to those who you meet along the way. No one is expecting you to learn every language fluently of course, but you will be surprised at just how far a few basics can go. Just learn the simple words like please and thank you, hello or goodbye, and a few basic phrases such as how much is that or where is the … whatever site it is you are looking for.
People’s reactions to you are very different when you show them some basic respect and understanding. If you make an effort for them, they generally make one for you, and in my experience even when you get the words wrong or horribly mispronounce things, people are generally very forgiving and helpful, and you will get a much deeper experience when conversing with them as a result.
Stay local, eat local, shop local.
Supporting the local economy when you travel is not only the responsible and ethical way to travel, it also gives you a chance for that elusive deeper experience. Combined with other tips like travelling slowly, staying in a local run guesthouse, hostel or even boutique hotel, eating at local run restaurants or street food stalls and shopping in smaller local shops rather than large international chains or malls, will help you get an idea of the local day to day life and a glimpse into the smaller aspects of the destination you are in.
Use local guides.
From time to time in your travels you will find that you need a guide, whether to take you on a jungle trek or hike a volcano or a mountain, and when you do it may be tempting to pre book a trip like this with an international company before you even arrive in the country, but it is always better to hire a local guide when you are there on the ground. You will be supporting the local economy, ensuring that tourism has a positive impact on the local community and you will probably get a much better experience as a result with a guide that knows the local area, cares about the footprint you leave and is filled with a lot more local information.
Use public transport.
Using public transport when you travel is one of the single best ways to throw yourself into daily local life and embrace the local culture, as well as being one of the best and cheapest ways to get around. Nothing gives you that sense of really being in a destination than sharing a bus with a ton of locals or a train with commuters at rush hour.
Now when I say volunteer I don’t mean plan one of those despicable voluntourism experience trips run by large, international for profit companies, where well meaning voluntourists are duped into thinking they are doing good when they are re painting a school for the hundredth time that year or cuddling a baby animal so they can get that selfie for their Instagram feed.
There are plenty of ways you can find to give back during your travels, whether that is contacting a genuine NGO in need of able bodies and giving up a significant portion of your time to do the less glamorous but essential work they need, or finding a non profit charity such as BAWA in Bali, finding out what supplies they need and bring them over for them as a donation.
Do your research.
Travelling the world gives you the opportunity to visit and support organisations that do a lot of good, from local community projects to wildlife and animal welfare organisations, and the money earned from tourism can really make a huge positive difference. The problem is that not every organisation is as good as it may seem on the surface. A wildlife ‘sanctuary’ may seem like a great place to support, but not every sanctuary has the animal’s welfare at heart. A community project may seem like it is doing good but may actually be doing harm instead. There are so many amazing organisations out there that are doing a lot of good and rely on tourism money for support, but there is a lot of for profit organisations with a lot of heavy greenwashing too, and it is imperative that you do your research and support the right places.
Try something new.
Travel is all about experiences, and nothing makes travel more meaningful than pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and doing something new for the first time. Take a cooking class, learn a new language, take the time to practice a new hobby, whatever it is it doesn’t matter. Coming back from your travels with a raft of new skills and hobbies makes your travels all the more meaningful for you.
Travel with a purpose.
Travelling the world is a chance to have a whole ton of new experiences, but it is also an opportunity to indulge in a lifelong passion or a hobby you have always wanted to try as well, and focusing at least part of your travels on that passion is a great way to give them more meaning.
I have trained in martial arts my entire life, I started my first Karate class when I was just five years old, and when I got the chance to travel the world I made it my mission to explore some of the martial arts of the places I was visiting, from Muay Thai in Thailand and Capoeira in Brazil to more familiar ground of Judo and Karate in Japan. It was never the sole focus of my travels but it did add an amazing facet to them.
It doesn’t matter what your passion is, whatever you are into just try and incorporate your passions into your travels, and you will take travel from the tick list they are for many people to something unique and personal for you, and make them far more meaningful in the long term.
Travel beyond the obvious places.
The main tourist spots are obviously on most backpackers must see lists, everyone wants to see the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but take the time to visit the lesser known spots as well. By all means visit Bangkok, it is an awesome city, but after you have explored it head up to the lesser visited Isan as well. Berlin is a great and extremely popular city, so why not head to Wurzburg or Darmstadt instead? Seeing the places that fewer travellers get to will mean that you will more often than not escape the crowds and see a completely different side to the country than most people.
Travelling solo is quite simply one of the best ways to travel, and if you have never travelled on your own before it will push you out of your comfort zone, force you to grow as a person and be extremely rewarding. Even if you are travelling with someone but just take a few days for yourself, you can gain a lot of time to reflect on yourself and the place you are visiting. The time by yourself will force you to look at your surroundings in a new way, to take everything in without the distraction of someone else with you.
Put away the technology.
Technology has become ubiquitous with travel, it seems inconceivable now to travel without a smartphone and constant wifi, or a fancy camera to capture every single moment, and no one would ever suggest you don’t do that, but every once in a while just put the technology away. Put down that camera and leave the phone in your pocket. Spend a day or two just with your own thoughts and your surroundings, pay attention to everything around you instead of whatever is on your screen and just live in the moment.
Meaningful travel not only benefits the communities of the places you travel to, but it benefits you as well. Travel is the best gift you can ever give yourself, and making it a deeper, more meaningful experience makes it even more so.
There are countless ways to make your travels more meaningful, and how exactly you do that will be unique to your own travels because the whole point is that the experience is deeper and more meaningful for you.
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This article was written in partnership with Nomad Spain. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.