Wondering how to be a more conscious traveler? Discover what conscious travel means to me and easy tips to get more meaning out of your trips.
What is conscious travel?
Travel in the millennial age has shifted away from traditional tourism. Today’s travelers instead seek more local and off-the-beaten path experiences. As an increasingly international and virtually connected society, we choose to travel not just to visit a tourist site or relax in an all-inclusive resort. Instead, we seek to gain a deeper understanding of how another culture lives. We want to be immersed in meaningful and unique encounters that make us feel connected to one another.
From this, the term “conscious travel” has emerged as a recent buzzword that can mean many things to different people. I see it as a mindfulness for the world and the people we encounter on our travels. It’s about thinking differently about the way that we travel: changing our values and perception of the world and seeing a destination through a local’s eyes.
So how do you be a more conscious traveler? During my recent trip to Italy, I made extra efforts to be a more culturally-aware and thoughtful traveler. From doing research beforehand to living in the moment once there, discover my easy tips for traveling consciously and getting more out of your trip.
Do your research ahead of time
Even well-meaning travelers can come across as rude and inconsiderate if unfamiliar with the cultural differences of their destination. Before embarking on your next international adventure, research the history and culture ahead of time. Not only is it respectful, but it also opens the door to more meaningful and authentic experiences.
Make an effort to learn local customs and fashion trends. If you’re visiting sacred spaces, look up what’s appropriate to wear and follow those rules. When visiting Vatican City, I couldn’t believe the number of tourists in crop tops, flip flops, and shorts, disrespecting requests to dress conservatively. If you’re touring a historical landmark, study the context and significance beforehand to get more out of your visit. I enjoyed my tour of the Roman Forum all the more having studied so much about it beforehand.
Make an effort to learn the language
One of my biggest pet peeves is traveling to another country and overhearing American tourists who don’t even attempt to say hello in the local language. With so many resources out there, there is no excuse to not at least pick up a few essential phrases.
To learn Italian, I used Duolingo, a free app that’s great for learning vocabulary especially on the go, and CoffeeBreak Languages, a podcast that helps with practicing pronunciation and picking up conversational skills. Before I left, I also made sure to download a translation app to my phone, so that I could look up a word or phrase when I got stuck.
Talk to the locals
Now that you know the language, use it! Even though many people I encountered in Italy knew English, they appreciated that I was making an effort to speak to them in Italian. Plus it allowed me to navigate beyond the major cities into regions where people don’t speak English, like my husband’s ancestral town of Santo Stefano del Sole, a small village high up in the mountains above Sorrento where tourists rarely (if ever) venture.
Don’t be afraid to practice the language whenever you can. Use it when ordering food, asking for directions, or simply striking up a conversation with another couple at a bar. Bars are a great place to meet people who are open to having a conversation (and being patient with someone who is a beginner speaker). We met another young couple at a beach bar in Sicily and were able to pick their brains about the etymology of my Sicilian family name, certain colloquial phrases and pronunciations, and the best-kept-secret, local things to do.
Go off the beaten path
Now that you’ve got the locals’ recommendations, try skipping some of the major tourist spots in lieu of these more off-the-beaten path alternatives. Sometimes the hole in the wall mom and pop diner is better than the most coveted Michelin star restaurant. Or the smaller eateries offer a more personal and memorable experience. Think about your hometown city – have you been to the most touristy spots? I lived in NYC for five years and never visited the Statue of Liberty, simply because it was so crowded and there were so many other fun things to do!
Of course, there are certain tourist destinations you can’t miss, but consider visiting during an off peak time or as part of a slightly different experience. When in Rome, we toured the Colosseum at night and practically had the place to ourselves, plus were able to see some of the areas that are off limits during the daytime rush, like underground where the gladiators bunked and the animals were kept. Just outside of Rome, we skipped popular Pompeii and instead spent a day exploring Herculaneum, which offered a similar but far less touristy experience. We were able to take our time wandering through ruins that are even more well-preserved and accessible than its sister city.
Be aware of your carbon footprint
Go off the beaten path, but leave the path as untouched as you found it. From lavender fields in France to tulip fields in the Netherlands, sunflower farms in Tuscany to cherry blossoms in Japan, recent influxes of Instagrammers stomping through fields in search of the perfect shot are threatening to destroy the natural beauty they aim to capture in the process.
Respect posted signs and stay on marked paths. Be respectful of eco areas that are off limits. Clean up after yourself when you go for a hike. Don’t trample on coral reefs, go hiking on bluffs, or feed the wildlife. Treat the places you go with respect, so that they can be enjoyed by others for generations to come.
Walk or take public transit
You know that saying, it’s all about the journey not the destination? Taking a scenic train ride across the countryside, hopping on a bustling subway filled with local commuters, setting sail on a ferry that offers unique views from the water, exploring a new city by foot – some of the most affordable modes of transportation also make for the most authentic experiences. Plus it’s also one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint while traveling.
Taking the high-speed train from Rome to Naples was not only easy and efficient, but also great for people watching. An overnight ferry from Salerno to Catania, Sicily, a commuter route primarily used by Italian truckers, was one of our favorite experiences of the trip. We loved being a part of their camaraderie as they played cards and sipped Limoncello through the night. Once in Sicily, getting lost among cliffside streets was the best way to get to know its nooks and crannies. We even found one street in Taormina that was only a foot wide!
Take time to unplug
Technology has opened up many opportunities to make traveling internationally easier than ever. But it’s also made it increasingly harder to disconnect. Travel in the age of social media has become so much about showing off the perfect Instagram shot. I’ve been so glued to the viewfinder of my camera that I’ve missed actually seeing something with my own eyes. Or I’ve traveled halfway across the world just to become tied up with a work crisis back home via email.
Preserving vacation memories is important and staying connected is oftentimes necessary. I’m not saying to leave your technology behind completely, but do take time to unplug and live in the moment. Get that epic “look what I accomplished” shot at the top of the summit you just hiked. Then put your camera away and simply take in your surroundings. Try only checking in back home once a day, and let your family and coworkers to expect that.
Immerse yourself in the experience. You’ll not only get more out of it, but will also leave feeling so much more refreshed and fulfilled.
These are just some of the ways that I aim to be a more conscious traveler. What does traveling consciously mean to you? Leave a comment with your thoughts below!