Traveller vs Tourist: Things that make you go, hmmm

I have long subscribed to being a traveller over being a tourist.

When I ran tours in Europe in the 90s, I’d start each one with the First Day Spiel. It took a couple of hours and ate up the time it took the coach to get from London to Dover. Much of it was around logistics – these were the days before (most people had) mobile phones and the Internet and the Euro. Travel in Europe was tricky at best and tetchy at worst. We changed money, we crossed actual borders, we used fax machines and phone cards. It was HARD.

But, I’d still finish my FDS with a little pontification about the value of being a traveller over being a tourist.

Travellers embrace differences – cultural, culinary, climate, cash. They are patient, observant, engaged and interested. They’ll understand when the Greek ferry is late and when the only thing to eat is day-old bread and iffy cheese. They will try to learn some of the local language, and will be equally thrilled to see locals zipping about Rome on Vespas as the Colosseum.

Tourists, on the other hand, should just stay home and watch Netflix – or perhaps the Travel Channel. They complain, whine, whinge and generally make life miserable for everyone around them.

For the most part, I had travellers on my tours – I am still friends with some of my former clients – but there were the odd tourists.

So, what category do I fit into this year? I have lived like a local, I have travelled, and I have visited family and friends. I’ve been a digital nomad and for most of the year have had my traveller hat pulled firmly over my brow. BUT, there have been a few tourist moments, when I have devolved into an ugly version of my travelling self – when it has all gotten a bit too much and I’ve indulged in a bit of a whinge.


Campuhan Trail, Bali

Beach and pool clubs in Bali will try to rip you off when it comes to Happy Hour. It’s 2 for 1 drinks, right? Well, that means you get 4 drinks every time you order 2. So, when Ben and I would each order a cocktail, thinking that they were half-price, WRONG! 4 cocktails would show up and we’d be expected to pay for two (not one). It happened so many times, we started clarifying with staff what we were ordering and how much we’d be expected to pay – and even then, they’d still try to dupe us. We’d just send the drinks back – all 4 of them.


Cliffs of Kerry

I got sticker shock when I got to Ireland – and that was coming from England. Everything – and I mean everything – cost a lot more than what we’d typically pay in the US, the UK and Australia, especially public transport, food, drinks, coffee, groceries, accommodation and care hire – you know, basically everything.

I kept doing the conversions in my head – which travellers definitely don’t do – sending myself into the financial equivalent of a diabetic coma. A day-pass on public transit within the Dublin area capped out at 9 euros-something cents. The equivalent in London is 6 pounds-something pence – for London. By the way, that’s about 2 pounds cheaper to travel around London, one of the world’s largest and (I would argue) best cities.


IMG_20180915_134734 (1)
Prime Meridian, Greenwich

Ahhh, the land of inconvenience. That’s what my dad calls it and he’s English, so he’s allowed. As a half-English, half-American Aussie, I am also (technically) allowed to disparage the sometimes ridiculous inconveniences of England.

Going to the supermarket, for example, is an exercise in futility. Filling the basket or the cart is fine – there are a lot of choices – LOTS – but checking out is AWFUL. At ALDI – yes, the same discount box chain found all over the world – they won’t start scanning the items until you are fully unloaded, because there is literally nowhere to put them once they’re scanned. You must unload, then dash past the cashier with your bags at the ready, so you can catch your groceries as they fly off the conveyor belt. It’s like something out of a Japanese game show.

If this doesn’t appeal to you, try Tesco or Sainsbury’s or Waitrose, where you could gestate a brand new human being while you wait for the seated cashiers to slothenly (I’ve made up this word especially for them) pick up each item, examine it carefully to determine the whereabouts of the bar code, wave it over the scanner and then place it down with far more care than could possibly be required for a box of dishwasher tablets. They should have free WiFi so you can do your taxes while you wait.

The US


This probably won’t come as much of a surprise and I will risk getting slightly political, but entering trump’s America (note the on-purpose lack of proper noun capitalisation), is super NOT FUN for a non-American, especially one who is on sabbatical for a year, writes books, and doesn’t have a current employer.

I saw three immigration agents on the way into the US at LA. Three!

How long am I going to be here? 89 days (the visa waiver program allows 90 days and I am giving myself a day’s buffer). How did I get my employer to agree to let me travel for that long? I don’t have one. That’s when I was redirected to a supervisor.

So, how are you able to afford being here that long? I work for myself. Uh-oh. Back up the truck. Warning, Will Robinson. You’re working here???

That’s when I got to see the secure room where they take your phone off you.

Fortunately, the supervisor’s supervisor was a reasonable human being and he understood that a digital nomad is essentially self-funded, but may work for clients they have back home from time to time. I was released back into the wild that is LAX. 

New Zealand

Ben and Sandy 4

Nothing – it’s perfect. Duh.

Traveller or Tourist?

Years ago in another lifetime, I was a tour manager in Europe. I was responsible for running coach tours – 21 to 35 days for a well-known touring company popular with 18-35 year olds. My responsibilities ranged from accompanying a client to the hospital in Venice, to nursing broken hearts and hang-overs, and everything imaginable in between. One of my favourite parts of the trip took place on day one of the tour. We would leave London early morning, and drive to Paris by late afternoon. On the drive from London to Dover, where we would catch the ferry to Calais, I would give my ‘First Day Talk’.

The First Day Talk was a marathon of public speaking. It could take up to two hours, which may seem long, but when you are about to spend 24/7 with 50 strangers for the better part of a month, there are a few ground rules to lay. I covered toilets (not as available in Europe as in other parts of the world), and sleeping arrangements (I was not employed to hook people up), and departure times (I would – and had – left people behind). I also covered money, language, weather, clothing, behaviour, drinking, and food, but the grand finale of the talk was the ‘traveller versus tourist challenge’.

“A traveller,” I would begin, “is someone who tries new food and new experiences, who embraces differences from home, who is flexible and willing to ‘give it a go’. A traveller is interested in getting to know a place, and is keen to attempt the language. A traveller will appreciate that things in Europe are far more expensive than in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. A traveller will want to get out there and do and see and participate in as much as possible, because a traveller knows they may never get the chance again. In short, a traveller will be an asset to this tour.

“A tourist, on the other hand, is someone who will notice all of these differences, and rather than embracing them, the tourist will complain and whine about them. Be a traveller, not a tourist.”

To this there would be heads nodding in response. I would even hear clients, when in unpleasant, awkward, or expensive moments on tour, say to another, ‘Remember, we’re travellers not tourists.’ Mostly it worked. Most of my clients were good fun and good people. There were a few tourists on the trips – but the others would usually bring them around – by cajoling, ribbing, or even with a few sharp words. Once I established that we were all in this together, the clients tended to develop a camaraderie much like a workplace. You all get on with it, even if you don’t like everybody else. When someone steps out of line, or needs support, the others rally.

A decade later, I still consider myself a traveller, not a tourist. I can think of two really obvious exceptions.

In Peru in 2006, I contracted Salmonella. It is in the tap water – even in a 3-star hotel – and through force of habit I rinsed my only tooth brush under the tap. I was then faced with the dilemma of rinsing it again under the hot water tap, or rinsing it in bottled water. I opted for bottled water, when what I should have done was throw it away. Within 12 hours I was sitting on the toilet, throwing up into the bathtub. I had to crawl on hands and knees between the bathroom and the bed. I could not keep down any food, and was on FULL STRENGTH, serious, do-not-mess-with-me-anti-biotics.

When I sobbed to the tour’s guide that I just wanted to go home, I was not in traveller mode. I was not embracing the differences between home and Peru. I was bloody pissed off. I was pissed at the water, and the hotel, who could not figure out how to get through to my mother in Australia. I was pissed off that I would miss trekking the Inca Trail. I was pissed off that for three months I had been getting up in the dark mornings, and running hills and steps in training for trekking the Inca Trail. And on top of all this ‘pissiness’, I was feeling sooooo sorry for myself. When I finally got my mum on the phone, I sobbed down the line in broken English, ‘I just want to come h-h-home. I h-h-hate Peru.”

I stayed. I got better. I finished the trip, and despite feeling like a cheat when I got to Machu Picchu – because I had arrived on a bus, not on foot – I was glad that I had not flown back to Sydney. When I was well, I got to feed llamas, and ride through the mountains on a motor cycle. I stood amongst ancient ruins, soaked in natural hot springs, and watched the sunrise over the Amazon Rainforest. I got to be a traveller again.
Barely Upright

My other recent experience being a tourist was in Maui and it was, I cringe to say, voluntary.

Ben and I were staying at the Renaissance Wailea Resort, and it was beautiful, particularly the sunsets viewed from the balcony. We had been there nearly a week, and had spent most of our time experiencing as much of the island as possible. We had trekked across lava, and snorkled with the turtles ( I LOVE the turtles). We had driven the Road to Hana, which is only 60 miles, but took us 10 hours each way; we stopped frequently so we could hike, and swim in waterfalls, and get amongst it. Our best meal on that two-day trip was a smoked fish taco from a road-side stall. We were in Hawaii and we were squeezing every joy out of it, including the luxurious touches afforded us at the resort.

On our final full day there, we decided that we would take it easy. We would indulge in something a little ‘touristy’: we would lay by the pool and drink cocktails. We gathered books, hats, and sunscreen, and strolled down to the pool. We grabbed towels and set up our little part of paradise. The sun was hot, the skies were blue and the breeze was gentle. I went for a swim. Ben went for a swim. We dried off, lying on our sun loungers, and then went back and had a swim together. We sipped on ice water and perused the cocktail menu. Ben read, and I took photographs.

Resort Relaxing

We had been there about 45 minutes when Ben turned to me and said, “This is boring. We should at least go to the beach.” ‘Thank god,’ I said, agreeing; it was boring, and definitely not something I could spend a week doing. We packed up our little part of paradise and opted for the beach – about 100 metres away – but even that got old after an hour. “Shall we make a move, Honey?” We spent the rest of the day driving to and from Haleakala Crater, which was incredible and other worldly – a grand mini adventure.

Telegraphs in Heaven

We tried. We tried to do the touristy resort thing, but it just doesn’t suit us. This is not to say that we can’t be still, that we can’t enjoy being in one spot and doing nothing. We can, but it depends on the spot, and it depends on the ‘nothing’.

Reading on a bench overlooking an incredible lakeside sunset in Wanaka, New Zealand – yep, we can do that.
Ben reading as the sun goes down

Sharing a hammock for two – yep, that’s us too.

Sitting by a generic resort pool, amongst row after row of sun loungers, and avoiding ‘kid soup’ (the resort pool), not so much.

When I returned from Hawaii, I met up with a friend’s mother who I see on occasion. She, too, had just been to Maui. “Oh, did you see the lava fields?” “No.” “Did you go out on a boat, go snorkling? Swimming?” “No.” “Did you see the volcano? Watch a sunset? Swim in the ocean?” “No, no, no.” She had not left the resort, but she claimed to LOVE Maui. Tourist. Definitely.

p.s. I am not just a snob about coffee.