THE BLOG
08/03/2010 11:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Learn to Travel Like a Local -- Instead of Standing Out as a Tourist

Many people view travel -- especially overseas travel -- as something reserved for the wealthy, for elite businesspeople or celebrities and for times of indulgence. But in reality, travel is a must for everyone, because the rewards you get from travel far outweigh the financial costs.

Travel enriches our souls, broadens our horizons and introduces us to a world of new friends. When you travel and take the time to appreciate other cultures, no matter how vastly different they may be from our own, you gain an understanding about others that you simply cannot get from a book or by watching a television show. You open your eyes and your heart to new experiences, and in the process you gain a wealth of self-knowledge.

The key to gaining these benefits is to be a "traveler," not a "tourist." What's the difference? A traveler immerses him/herself in the culture, while a tourist simply sees the sites. Travelers make lifelong friends along the way, get off the beaten path and experience the culture as a local would. Tourists keep to themselves, visit the usual "traps" and leave the location with lots of trinkets, but few amazing moments.

Equally important, you've likely heard that people in some countries don't like tourists. That's true. But they do like travelers. They enjoy when foreigners take a genuine interest in their country and culture (as travelers do), and not just view them as pawns there for their amusement (as tourists often do).

The challenge is that many people are afraid to be a real traveler. They like staying in familiar chain hotels, eating in the hotel restaurants, going to the tourist spots, and buying lots of souvenirs along the way. Many even tour unfamiliar countries in tourist groups, being herded from one tourist location to the next with little time for truly experiencing the land.

When you put your fears aside you can travel in a whole new way, recognize things you normally wouldn't notice, and gain a lifetime of experiences that will enrich your world outlook forever. The following strategies will help you stop being a tourist and experience new places as a traveler.

• Blend in with fashion.
While how you dress really isn't important (as long as you're observing local decency rules), you will find it easier to be a traveler when you dress like the locals. Therefore, bring very few clothes with you. Within the first couple of days of your visit, buy clothes there in the local style. When you do so, the locals will respect you more and will be more likely to engage you, even though they know you are a visitor.

• Express yourself non-verbally.
If you don't know the local language, don't worry. Almost everywhere around the world people speak some English. If they don't, they likely know someone who does who can help translate. Additionally, you can often get along easily with sign language and by expressing yourself with your hands. Bringing a translation dictionary with you can help with specific words. No matter what the local language, always express yourself with a smile. Don't go in fearing people, always frowning, or afraid to look people in the eye. Adopt the mindset that you're going out to meet new friends. When people see that you're friendly they'll go out of their way to help you.

• Talk to locals in the hospitality industry.
If talking to strangers intimidates you, start by talking with waiters, bartenders, hotel desk clerks and other people who are "paid" to be nice to you and answer your questions. Since all people enjoy talking about themselves, start by asking these people questions about themselves: "Were you born here?" "How long have you worked here?" "What does your family do?" Also, compliment them on their country or their food. Explain that you're excited to be visiting their city. Ask for their advice on what you should see or do that's not a typical tourist location. Finally, ask if they have a friend or know anyone who can help you get you someplace or show you around. In most cultures, once you ask for a favor, you're a friend.

• Do a little acting.
Talking to someone who is supposed to be nice to you is one thing; talking to total strangers in shops or on the street is another. If you're too shy to talk in the latter scenario, pretend you're the star of a movie and your character is trying to discover something -- and talking to people and asking them questions will give you clues to the mystery. While this approach may at first seem a little silly, it is a psychological tool to help people out of their shell and interact with strangers. Think of it like role playing -- a mental exercise that helps you meet new friends.

• Seek out groups.
Most hotels have a concierge that offers tickets to local trips. Ask your hotel's concierge to set you up on one - particularly one that goes off the beaten path. Granted, with this option you have a higher chance of doing a tourist activity, but you'll meet other travelers who are not from your country. And since many people feel safer in a group setting, you may just get the courage to ask a local on the street for some tips on what to see or do next.

• Always go bearing gifts.
When you travel, especially to a developing country, always go with gifts in hand. In other words, don't just purchase souvenirs from them, but actually bring them souvenirs from your country. The gifts you bring don't have to be expensive. Pencils and pens, T-Shirts with HOLLYWOOD written on it, over the counter medicines, and other "everyday" items that are not available in their country are always welcome surprises. Giving the locals gifts helps build a trust between you and them. Your recipients will be thankful and overly generous to you in return - especially in terms of helping you. Additionally, when you're on a day trip, always bring extra water and snacks with you and offer some to the person you're sitting next to on the bus or at a location you're visiting. It's a good conversation starter that could lead to a lifelong friendship.

• Friendly Places Await
Travel is venue for personal growth -- both for you and the people you meet along the way. You gain an understanding of a new culture, and your new friends gain insights and experiences with a foreigner. Remember that many people in other countries never get an opportunity leave the village where they were born. So you'll be enriching the lives of others, as well as your own. Therefore, the next time you have an opportunity to visit a new country, whether for business or pleasure, vow to do so as a traveler rather than a tourist. When you do, you'll gain a treasure chest of experiences that will last a lifetime.