Is There Really a Difference Between "Travelers" and "Tourists"?

by Julia Zaremba

We’ve all seen him: the man with the sunglasses and cap, rocking socks and sandals, fanny pack on the side, with a map open in hand. He looks around, confused, and checks his guide book again. Then, salvation: a woman in a bright t-shirt can be seen down the street, waving a flag. Relief floods the man’s face as he trots off in the correct direction. He stops to snap a quick photo of a sidewalk café, then continues his scuttle.

hiking boots on a cliffside looking out on a waterfall and pool below

Travelers take their time and wander off the beaten path.

I can’t be the only one that rolls my eyes and gives an involuntary sigh. Tourists.

But, wait. What is a “tourist”? What makes “tourists” tourists? What makes them different from you or me, a proud traveler? Is it really the geeky footwear and restaurant reservations?

The divide between tourists and travelers seems to grow every day, as the technological and monetary gap increases between generations and cultures. However, it’s inaccurate to say that all older generations are tourists, and all disoriented millennials are righteous travelers. So, what accounts for the main difference between the two?

First, let’s inspect some of the major components of travel, and the differences between the two groups of voyagers.


Tourists make a plan of their trip, every minute of it outlined. They know where they’re headed, and there’s a list of sights to be checked-off. They go directly from point A to B, then end with E and F (sorry, D and X). Organized travel gets kudos points for being simple.

Travelers realize that the journey is worth more than the destination. They deviate, take wrong turns (sometimes on purpose!), change their minds, go with the flow, jump over fences, drive against traffic, and have no idea where they’ll end up. Spontaneity is embraced, and organized tours are the devil.


Tourists are usually found in masses, seen with tour groups, on reserved buses, following rubber duckies on top of radio antennas.

Travelers walk solo, with a worn-out walking stick to lean on and a diary to talk to. While they love the flexibility and spontaneously of solo travel, they’re ready to exchange tips with fellow travelers and mingle with locals.

charter coach in a parking lot

Tourists opt for the convenience and comfort of air conditioned, private tour buses.


Tourists prioritize cramming in as much as possible into a short amount of time, and every minute is planned. The more sights, the better.

Travelers move at a slow pace, preferring to experience and learn, rather than merely see. The more time in one place, the better. How else to understand local traditions and pick up a few phrases in the native tongue?


Tourists get homesick thinking about their own beds. They try to seek the familiar and surround themselves with similar minds, common languages, and the comforts of home. They go home to relax after stressful trips.

Travelers realize that “home” is not a physical place, but, rather, a state of being. Home can change every day, as it is built upon perspective, a sense of belonging, and potential (brief and adopted) families. However, staying anywhere long enough usually inspires restlessness and renewed desire to see more.


Tourists are on an ambitious mission to get as many selfies in front of as many famous sights as possible. Every meal must be documented, every location must be “checked-in” to, and it seems that most of the trip was spent behind the iPhone’s screen.

Travelers take photos of other places, not their faces. They hike to the edge of the world for the experience, not to prove it to anyone else. They have no problem setting up a tripod and waiting for the perfect sunrise; one good photograph is worth a thousand point-and-shoot clicks.


Tourists are proud of flaunting t-shirts that advertise the cities they visited. Souvenirs are bought in gift shops, and the only trace tourists leave of themselves is the occasional plastic water bottle.

Travelers stick with carrying culturally-significant items and stories when leaving countries, most of these provided by new-found friends, local organizations, and interaction with the environment. They leave only their footsteps in new places and their thumbprint on a stranger’s heart.

the eiffel tower with lots of tourists in front

Tourists center itineraries around “must-see” and major attractions


Tourists are always checking out the “Top Ten Things To Do and Places To See.” They listen to restaurant recommendations, are drawn to monuments, visit museums, follow trails drawn on maps, and read their guide book.

Travelers are also usually aware of the top sights and activities. The difference is that they stay away from them.  Travelers are more interested in going down unmarked alleyways, trying new café’s, and writing their own personal guidebook.


Tourist tend to opt for air-conditioned taxis, when not being shuffled around in big tour buses. They prioritize comfort and speed.

Travelers treat the transportation as part of the journey; they are patient and prefer to move slowly. They get into unknown cars, opt for the longest train journeys, and cram into collectivos. What better way to make a friend than by having someone’s goat sitting in their lap? 


Tourists view travel as an escape from life; a getaway of fun and relaxation. There’s a general fear of the unknown that stems from a belief that their own lifestyles and beliefs are superior to others’. They stay in comfort zones and look for traces of home abroad.

Travelers understand that travel is a lifestyle, not something to be put on a calendar for ten days. It’s a mindset to seek the unknown, learn from the world, and mingle with local cultures.

man with a backpack hitchhiking

Travelers prefer the journey, and opt for the long way home.


Tourists check in luggage, pack a shirt for every day, and invest in the latest fashions. They can easily be spotted wearing brightly-colored North Face sweaters and tennis shoes, and fanny packs are potential accessories.

Travelers focus on the essentials and neutral colors. They carry their home in their backpack (and still manage to keep it under 10 kg.), ready to sleep anywhere and to tackle any sort of adventure.


Tourists stick to hotel chains that have been carefully-reviewed, offer air conditioning, and have hot water. They get excited over cable TV and write a detailed complaint if there’s a hair in the sink or fly in the window.

Travelers are grateful for a roof over their head, but don’t mind sleeping under the stars when the weather permits. Wi-Fi and hot showers are five star luxuries, and free breakfast always gets a second glance. They surf on couches, cram together in hostels, and are experts at setting up tents.

In short, both “travelers” and “tourists” are people that go to foreign lands. However, the purpose and mentalities of the traveling are drastically different, one relying on convenience and the other embracing new experiences. Tourists travel fast and tend to base their travels around money, while travelers move slowly and invest time.

Is one better than the other? Is coexistence possible between these two groups? Is one right and one wrong?

And so we ask...does it really matter?

In the end, we are all people that are sharing the world together, marveling at its spells and seeking new sights. As long as we treat others with respect (which is a good rule to follow, regardless of if we’re speaking to our neighbor or to a shopkeeper halfway across the world) and are aware of our place in the world, our actions, and their consequences, there’s no crime in opting for skyscraper suites instead of mosquito-infested hammocks. Just make sure service workers are treated ethically and hang your towels on the towel rack to save water.

The beauty of travel is that it’s a personal experience; it’s not a tournament, and there are no winners.

woman in black hat snapping a photo with a film camera

Tourist or traveler, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re seeing the world!

Sure, I think that cultural immersion and language acquisition are more important than getting the perfect selfie, but who am I to judge? There’s probably no sense in spending eight days dusty, on the side of the road, getting from one insignificant town to the other, before giving up and jumping on the next bus that’ll take me to Belgrade (and a shower). Yet, for some reason, it made sense at the time, and I don’t regret a single step. It’s all a learning experience.

It is seen that tourists explore places, while travelers throw spiritual and mental explorations into the mix. It’s personal preference, and circumstances can’t always be defined (and shouldn’t be judged). The woman that is sitting at a beachside pool probably deserves a week off after raising three kids, just as much as that backpacker earned enough karma to be picked up from the side of the road.

At the end of the day, we’re all going to be watching the same sunset. The important thing is to enjoy it, whether we’re wearing socks and sandals or weather-worn hiking boots.