by Annie 

Published: June 20, 2022

Updated:  July 1, 2022
images of people in large and small tour groups to demonstrate the difference between tourist vs traveler

Tourist vs traveler is a conversation that’s been around forever in the travel space. Some people use these words interchangeably, but there are differences between the two groups. I’m sure you’ve noticed them yourself when you’ve been traveling! At the core, it comes down to mindset. 

The major differences between tourist and traveler are in how approach the act of leaving their home and venturing out into the world. It’s in the way they think about travel and the purpose behind their trips. In this article, I’ll share a handful of the fundamental contrasts I’ve noticed while out adventuring. 

My intent is not to pass judgement but to simply highlight the different approaches these two groups take when they’re out traveling. It’s just my two cents on the traveler vs tourist debate. And yes, I would love to see more tourists turn traveler!

***This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase using the link, I receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps me keep the lights on around here. 🙂 I ONLY recommend products and services I personally use and love. ***

Who Benefits from Tourists?

Let’s start with how travel has been presented to the masses, especially here in the US. Travel has been pitched as a commodity, a product to be consumed. Have you ever noticed that we’re told to take a vacation rather than live an experience? There’s a huge difference between those two ideas! 

We’ve been seeing these messages since childhood. Unless you’ve intentionally taken the time to examine these ideas or had people in your life to provide an alternative, it’s easy to assume that this is just what it means to travel. 

Who is really benefiting from the “tourists”? Big businesses selling cruises, generic group tours, and all-inclusive resorts. Sadly, you can even find locally run businesses in some destinations selling exploitative activities like paying to ride an elephant. These organizations care about profit, not the individuals (or animals) who work for or travel with them. 

Having spent a couple decades of my life in various corporate roles, I’ve sat through many meetings about the future of whatever company I was a part of at the time. The conversation was never about the employees or customers well-being. Seriously, never. It was always about shareholders and maximizing profits. But I digress…

Tourist vs Traveler: Vacation or an Impactful Experience

image of an abandoned bobsled track in the forest with colorful graffiti covering the concrete.

Being the only two people walking along the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics is an experience to be lived not some item to check off a list!

Tourist vs Traveler Question: why do you travel?

Tourists travel to “get away” from life. They want to check out. They want to be catered to and entertained. Tourists don’t really want to work for the experience. They just want to show up and someone else makes it happen. This also means they don’t thing much about how those experiences come to be and the impact they have on local communities or the environment. 

Travelers want to go feel fully alive! They want to be present. They’re looking to explore and learn. Travelers are willing to work for it. They’ll talk to the locals to find out where to find the best food or a unique cultural experience. They take matters into their own hands and engage the world around them rather than trying to escape from it. They tend to be more thoughtful about how their presence and the activities they participate in affect the destinations they visit.

Tourist vs Traveler: Iconic Sights or Hidden Gems

image of turquoise water below white cliffs with two sailboats in the distance

Thanks to a conversation with locals, the adventure partner and I found our way to Mons Kilt in Denmark. We wouldn’t have known about otherwise since it only got a paragraph in our guide book!

Tourist vs Traveler Question: What do you do in your destination?

Tourists travel to sightsee. Their main goal is checking off a list of iconic sights. They’re perfectly fine with being shuttled from one place to the next and back to their hotel without really ever getting to see or know their destination beyond what’s popular.

Travelers will also visit the iconic sights (they’re iconic for a reason, after all!) but also seek out places the locals love. They’ll ask their servers or bartenders what else to see in their destination. Travelers want to get a sense of how locals live and spend their days. They want to better understand what it’s like to exist in the place, not just consume it.

Tourist vs Traveler: Perfect Photos or Being Present

image of a rooftops and green church domes with a mountain in the background. You can tell tourist vs traveler by how they capture the moment.

Over the course of six-weeks, I only took about five pictures with me in them. I wanted to look back and remember what I saw in that moment, like this view from a quiet secluded spot in Salzburg, Austria!

Tourist vs Traveler Question: How do you capture the moment?

Tourists are more concerned with documenting the moment than living it. You can find them taking multiple selfies, trying to get the perfect Instagram photo. Once they’ve taken all those pictures, they’ll still be staring at their phone trying to choose the best one or sharing it on social media rather than basking in the wonder of the actual experience. 

Travelers soak it in. They revel in the moment! You can often see them standing in gape-mouthed in wonder, totally speechless. Once they’ve had their fill, they will snap a few photos, knowing the images will never do the place justice but hoping to be transported back to that moment when they look at them again.

Tourist vs Traveler: Inside or Outside the Comfort Zone

View of green trees and hills with Prague Castle in the distance. You can tell a tourist vs traveler by how much they challenge themselves.

A six-week solo trip through Central & Eastern Europe was so far out of my comfort zone, but I wanted the experience so I did it anyway. This photo was from my first day in Prague.

Tourist vs Traveler Question: How far outside of your comfort zone are you willing to go?

Tourists look for ways to travel that are the most comfortable. Visiting new places always puts you outside your comfort zone a little bit but how far do you stretch? For example, on a cruise ship everything is comfortable and nothing unexpected really happens. The experience is curated.  For only a few hours at a time do they have to go and experience a place that’s very different than home. Tourists tend to look for familiar experiences like eating at McDonalds instead of trying the local cuisine or getting their coffee from a Starbucks rather than the café down the street. 

Travelers understand that the most memorable and impactful experiences happen outside their comfort zone. They’re willing to try speaking a few words of the local language (usually badly!) and wander off the main tourist track. You’ll see them asking about the best places to try the local dishes and challenging themselves to try something new.

Tourist vs Traveler: Big Business or Local Economy

image of a log cabin building at a campground with ducks in the grass

Choosing to stay in a cabin room at this campground in Shkoder, Albania was so much more fun than a generic chain hotel! I got to meet the family who runs it and hear some of their stories.

Tourist vs Traveler Question: Where do you spend your money when you travel?

Tourists look for the familiar in a new destination which is usually provided by big, global or regional corporations. They’ll stay in a Marriott rather than a local boutique hotel because they know what to expect. 

Travelers want to support the local economies. They’ll choose accommodations and restaurants owned by locals. If they choose to take a tour to better understand their destination, it will be owned and operated by people who live there and can share their knowledge and insight.

Wrapping it Up

Picture of a woman in a black sweatshirt standing in front of yellow and orange buildings and a river in Stockholm, Sweden.

This is one of two pictures I have of myself from my very first overseas trip in 2008. I had no idea what I was doing but quickly learned that I wanted to be a traveler, not a tourist.

Until my first international trip, I didn’t understand much about how to be a traveler rather than a tourist. I’d seen a few episodes of Rick Steves show on PBS growing up and dreamt of backpacking around Europe but had no idea how to actually do it. That first trip was for work and I operated more like a tourist (except for food -- I’m always down for the local eats!) because I didn’t know what else to do. BUT while on that trip, I saw the possibilities of a more authentic and exciting way to travel. 

If you’ve felt called out for being a “tourist”, use this as your opportunity to do something differently on your next trip. Of course, you don’t have to change a thing, but I believe there are incredible benefits to being a traveler. You learn so much more about the world around you and yourself! There are magical moments that come from indie travel that you just can’t get any other way.

If you’ve mostly traveled “tourist” style and being a “traveler” appeals to you, there are ways to do it without totally throwing yourself outside the comfort zone! For example, you can always look for a local business that offers small group tours around the place you’d like to visit rather than choosing a big bus option. If you’d like to go on your own but want some help figuring out the details, check out these consulting services created specifically for indie travelers. 

Additional Resources

The long-term vision for Into the Bold is to provide a place for indie travelers to find all the knowledge, resources, and inspiration they need to create more authentic, exciting, and impactful experiences for themselves. Below you’ll find a few other articles to help you get started on your next journey!

When I decided to make travel a part of my lifestyle, I really wanted other like-minded people to talk to! If you’d like a community of travelers to make friends with and learn from, check out the Indie Travel Collective. We’d love to have you join us!

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to stay in touch! You can sign up for the newsletter which is a weekly email with inspiration, tips, and resources to help you travel smarter and save money. You can also find me over on Instagram or Facebook, if you’d like to connect there!

Now get out there. The world is waiting for you!

Your Turn

What are your thoughts about tourist vs traveler? Which one are you? 

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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About the author 

Annie

Fun Lover. Food Eater. Bold Explorer. Big Dreamer.

Annie is a fiercely independent traveler who loves to create unique and interesting experiences. She thrives on finding the magical moments and hidden gems waiting around every corner. Her passion for helping others make their travel dreams come true fuels her work as a travel planner, consultant, educator, and community builder.

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