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In January I spent a few days in Lisbon, Portugal filming a Quartz News story about how the trend of ‘live like a local’ travel has affected the lives of actual locals. After the video came out, I got a text from a friend who’d recently booked a trip to Lisbon.
“Now I feel bad,” she said.
“That wasn’t the point!” I protested. “You’ll have a great time.” (I certainly did).
As a travel writer, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the impacts of my various getaways. And while I still believe that travel can be a force for good—both by making travelers more open-minded to other ways of life, and as a potent force for economic development in many destinations—the story, these days, is no longer simple. With growing awareness of overtourism and the rise of “conscious” tourism, I sense that even once-a-year vacation planners are doing the same soul-searching, and sometimes, feeling pretty bad as a result.
You may be fretting about the environmental cost of your long-haul flight, your Airbnb rental’s potential effect on the local housing market, or whether your mere presence in a vacation destination might make it the next Venice or Tulum: a place where thriving tourism threatens to completely destroy what made it popular to begin with.
“There is no getting around the fact that there is a carrying capacity,” Overbooked author Elizabeth Becker told me recently for a story about new tourist taxes. That’s why destinations are increasingly keen to keen to attract “that lower impact, higher value traveler.”
So how can you be that traveler—and enjoy your well-deserved vacation without someone (like me) making you feel bad?
The first thing to realize is that in many ways, it’s not your fault. Overtourism is often oversimplified, Becker says, and some of its key drivers—the rise of low-cost airlines, competitive online booking sites, the cruise industry, and governments slow to regulate—are too often ignored in favor of blaming selfie-stick-wielding tourists and disruptors like Airbnb.
So why not take the pressure off a bit? Everyone travels differently and the “live like a local” travel goal is a bit strange anyway. As the co-founder of travel startup GetYourGuide pointed pointed out recently, the life of a local isn’t necessarily what you want when on vacation: “Working out in the cold at 7am. Same bar every Friday. Maybe once in a while there’s a house party—that’s the local experience.”
Instead of trying to be a paragon of ethical, off-the-beaten path adventuring, just double down on doing your thing. If a hotel sounds more appealing to you than an Airbnb (as it increasingly does to me these days), find one that suits your taste, be it one with excellent design credentials or a sexy bar that even the locals love.
If you’re the type who likes scheduled activities and visiting every museum, then do that, perhaps using Airbnb Experiences (as I did in Lisbon, to make the transcendent pastel de nata custard tarts pictured above) or GetYourGuide’s “Originals” tours, which offer in-demand attractions in a unique and high-quality way. Just try to really engage with the place you’re visiting—that’s where your value as a traveler comes from.
As I’ve written before, I’m a pretty lazy traveler when it comes to my own vacations, often forgoing a second or third stop in favor of a longer stay in one spot. Once I’ve found what I like, I want to revel in it, rather than just get that perfect Instagram shot and move on.
My mom’s method for this involves sketching scenes, rather than snapping photos, as she did in the east London pub below on her last visit.
Part of this approach means you have to be willing to miss out a bit—on other countries, cities, or attractions—but in my experience, missing out is when you find the good stuff.
A lot of people ask me for lists of travel recommendations, but I have a confession to make: I can’t stand giving them. This is not only because I find it laborious. More importantly, I don’t think it leads to great trips.
This alternative is better for both parties: Instead of asking your friends for a rundown of everywhere they ate, slept, and trekked on their trip, ask them for the one thing they recommend you do in a given location. Even better, if you know someone who lives there, ask them for their favorite thing to do when they have a day off. I find this enjoyable—both as a giver and receiver of advice—because it often elicits a great memory or story from the person you asked, rather than a rote list of things you could just as easily find on TripAdvisor.
So here’s mine: If you go to Naples, you absolutely must have your morning coffee at Gran Caffe’ Cimmino, a slightly grand and very shouty espresso bar, where an espresso and mini pastry will cost you less than €2—and come with a small cup of sparkling water on tap. Heaven.
Where would you suggest a visitor to your city or town go for a singular experience? I live in London, and find myself guilty of staying in my own borough’s bubble and ignoring the rest of the city. Whenever the English weather will permit, I owe myself the jaunt I always recommend to visitors: Transport for London’s river bus. It costs less than a tenner for a top-rate tour of the Thames from Putney to Woolwich (and it even has a bar on board). What would you do?