THE BLOG
11/19/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unexpected and Unrepeatable: How to Enjoy a Truly Authentic Travel Experience

By Eoin Bassett, InternationalLiving.com

This article comes to us courtesy of InternationalLiving.com, the world's leading authority on how to live, work, invest, travel, and retire better overseas.

These days it's easy to get the sense that there are just no more blanks on the map. And that if there were, then a specialist travel agency would be charging us a fortune to visit them.

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Photo: Eoin Bassett, InternationalLiving.com

I'll wager that even in the most exotic and mysterious destination you can think of, chances are the first person you'll meet will be a seasoned tour operator with a well-practiced sales pitch.

Mass tourism, cheaper flights, and globalization are all to blame. Travel is big business and the very things that make it easier for us also mean it's easier for everyone else.

But we want authenticity when we travel. We want the real thing: to step outside our own lives and connect with other peoples, cultures, and ways of life. We want to learn something about ourselves and our place in the world. We want to taste the food, learn the customs and talk to the people, to lose ourselves, at least for a little while.

It can seem difficult these days though. All paths appear well trodden and travel agencies have discovered what we want. Slickly marketed "authentic" travel experiences can be yours for just a few thousand dollars. You can plug into a network of socialites in Reykjavik, Iceland, hang out in Athens, Greece with an expert classicist, or have an Italian count show you around his vineyards. Just pay at the door.

This is fine if you can afford it. It sounds fun. But whatever way you spin it, it's not particularly real or original. Because a truly authentic travel experience is unexpected and for the most part unrepeatable.

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Photo: Barbara Diggs, InternationalLiving.com

At least, that's what I have learned in my travels around 20 or more countries. It's the unplanned and unforeseen experiences I have got the most from: Eating fresh baklava with a Sufi musician in Turkey; sharing a nargile pipe with locals in the Arab quarter of Lyon, France; spending an evening with Cuban cigar makers; or talking about butterflies with a campesino amid the ruins of Monté Alban, Mexico...
These were the real thing, and definitely not part of the plan.

But they didn't just happen. I'm not a particularly free spirit. I like my plans. I certainly always have one. I've just learned to make a conscious effort to "go with the flow" and embrace the unknown.

I didn't plan to share tea and an afternoon with a Kurdish teacher in a cattle town on the Turkish-Armenian border. Like all the best encounters that came about by accident or fate. We started talking on the street and I accepted his invitation, fully aware it meant I wasn't going to make the fortress city of Ani that day. I did finally visit Ani and its magnificent churches a few days later, and I have a hundred photos of that impressive citadel (which I never look at). But it's the time I spent with Ismail and the insights he shared with me that I remember most clearly.

Like Hemingway said, "It's good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end." Once you accept that the plan can change and often should, you're much closer to authentic experiences.

Of course, it's not always obvious which road to follow. There's nothing wrong with traveling to see the sights. Who in their right mind is going to miss an opportunity to stand in the coliseum in Rome, or visit the pyramids in Egypt?

But beware of marketing, and resist the urge to "checklist travel," that is ticking things off a prepared list while missing out on the untapped opportunities for adventure all around.

And indulge your curiosity. Nosiness has led to my greatest discoveries. If you see an interesting lane, walk down it. If you hear about an intriguing town nearby, visit it. Allot extra time for exploring. See an interesting old building? Ask the nearest local about it. Who knows, they might have the keys.

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Photo: Barbara Diggs, InternationalLiving.com

One of the things I love most about traveling is that it reminds me just how fundamentally decent and good most people are. And talking to them is crucial to unlocking the genuine and authentic in travel. To be honest, instead of bemoaning the evils of tourism I should really be delighting in the advantages of the Internet age because plenty of opportunities to connect with real locals now exist.

Couchsurfing lets you stay with folks around the world. These aren't professional guesthouse owners, but like-minded fellow travelers willing to put you up. AirBnB is a similar concept. Or you could take care of someone's house for a few months, mind their dogs or cats, water their plants, and get to know their neighbors by house-sitting.

The longer you stay in a place, the more you'll discover, the more friends you'll make, and the more authentic your experiences will be.

Bottom line, when you're on the road the only person who decides what direction you're going to take is you. That's the real joy of travel, the exhilarating feeling that you're free. Free to go where you want, talk with whom you wish, and experience as much as you can.

If you want to have authentic travel experiences, then travel authentically. Step outside your comfort zone every so often, feel your heart race a little, and open your mind...or rather, empty it of preconceived ideas, ask questions, and say yes.

As someone once said: "If at some point you don't ask yourself, 'What have I gotten myself into?' then you're not doing it right." The gods reward the brave.

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