Solo Traveler: Tourist vs. Traveler

Solo Traveler: Tourist vs. Traveler

“The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.”  – Gilbert K. Chesterton

I ran across this quote some time ago. It reminded me of a discussion I had with an old (we dated back in high school) boyfriend. He said he loved to travel, and he traveled only with Grand Circle and National Geographic tours, both of which are excellent companies. He described how many places he’d been and how much information he had acquired in very short periods of time.

His description sounded like he spent a lot of money for the opportunity to drink from a fire hose. He enjoys those tours that generally last for two weeks, during which he sees parts of several countries, spends every night in a different hotel, eats an amazing variety of well-prepared gourmet foods, and comes home with a bucket load of photos.

There’s a distinction about what he does; he’s not a traveler so much as a tourist. Touring means everything is planned. Even the down time when you might wander around in a city is scheduled.

Touring means you have a guide who tells you what to look at and then gives you details about what you see. It means you don’t have to get your hands dirty, handle your luggage, buy your own food, change bedding, or interact with locals. You don’t even have to handle money, everything you need is provided by the tour company. It is safe and secure. There are no surprises, and if there are, you might be able to get your money back.

I just read an online article that had several dozen quotes from people who were unhappy about their tours and wanted compensation. One couple complained the tour company brochure had failed to mention the mosquitoes that bit them on the beaches in Jamaica. A family of four was angry about the way the fine sand at a beach resort stuck to their feet and legs; sand that then came off in the bed and made for a miserable night.

My personal favorite came from a woman who complained that she and her fiancé had asked for two single beds. Due to the ineptitude of the tour company, they had been assigned a room with a queen bed. She got pregnant on that tour. It was the company’s fault!

The hospitality industry does its best to provide a seamless vacation, especially in resorts and cities that depend heavily on tourism. But for those travelers who are more flexible, adventurous, and self reliant, there’s a whole messy wonderful world to explore. It’s a world of spontaneous decisions, the occasional excruciating experience of being lost, riding public transportation and chatting with locals who sometimes extend invitations.

I have traveled alone, with friends, and on tours. Each kind of travel has its advantages. When I guide a trip, I try to design plenty of room in the schedule for spontaneous exploration or just people watching.

While there is the necessary organized time for getting to places of interest, I also want people to have their own adventures, eat in restaurants of their choice, including street food, and return home feeling well traveled.

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer, and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website: Follow the continuing adventures at Sherry’s blog: Hardage welcomes comments via email:

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