You might think that all travel—and travelers—were made equal, but you’d be wrong. You see, there’s this group of travelers, moreso modern explorers, who aim to do more than just see the sights, check things off their bucket list, or race to the poolside (for their cocktail, of course!). They’re called meaningful travelers, and while their mission is mighty, they are not some elite club or exclusive group of flashpackers. They are humble, curious wanderers, with their sights set on immersion, community, and action.
They are meaningful travelers. And to celebrate 20 years of defining the world of travel that is more than tourism, here are 20 ways to help you spot them.
Make sure you're not the stereotypes of American tourists and/or annoying
Meaningful travelers—not tourists—can always be found...
1. Reading, listening, and/or watching content about, from, and/or for their next trip.
Researching in-depth about the country’s culture, familiarizing themselves with their recent history, including their political system, leaders, and economic prowess. Yeah, that’s a meaningful traveler, alright.
“Who are some of the popular bands and artists, historically and contemporarily? I’m always able to find someone who can help me fill up a playlist.
‘Do you know Ana Tijoux?’ I asked a Chilean in Santiago.
‘Yes! I love her. You know Ana Tijoux?’
Suddenly I had someone exponentially more interested in talking to me.”
2. Practicing words in the local language.
You might not nail Mandarin’s r sound or the right nasal note when speaking Brazilian Portuguese, but meaningful travelers still give it the ol’ college try—because learning basic phrases in the local language is important.
3. Actively lessening their carbon footprint.
Travel, and especially flying, isn’t necessarily, er, green. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important, or that you can’t take steps in other areas of your life to offset the emissions from your flight. They air dry their laundry, avoid private transport (even Lyfts and Ubers), reuse their towels at the hostel. A little goes a long way.
4. Understanding their own country’s historical ties to the ones they’re traveling in.
You can’t go to Vietnam without a quick history lesson on the Vietnam War (like that it’s called the “Resistance War against America” in Vietnam), right? Right.
5. Stretching their comfort zones.
This can look a lot of ways, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s the traveler reviewing vocab cards on their phone during their commute—or better yet, striking up a conversation with their train seat mate. They’re saying “Yes” to that group cultural activity instead of spending another couple hours Netflix binging. They’re sitting quietly with their host mom, enjoying each other’s company, even if they’d rather be anywhere else in that moment.
6. Espousing travel as a learning opportunity.
Everything is interesting once you decide it is—and meaningful travelers simply can’t get enough of all there is to learn. Complaints of “not having enough time in the day for these podcasts” or “too much independent free time during the volunteer project” aren’t uncommon.
7. Wearing culturally appropriate clothing.
Meaningful travelers ditch the yoga pants, flashy jewelry, low hanging shorts, and tank tops for a more conservative fashion approach (where this is deemed necessary or respectful to the locals). They dress comfortably, and try to draw as little attention to themselves as possible.
8. Staying at that locally owned guest house.
“Scoff!” says the meaningful traveler to that international hotel conglomerate. In lieu of putting more money in big wigs’ pockets, meaningful travelers stay at Airbnb’s, small hostels, local guest houses, or other accommodations that more quickly (and more directly) benefit the local economy.
9. Putting others before themselves.
Meaningful travelers are humble, and let their actions speak for their ideals. Rather than only being concerned about their wants and needs, they factor in others’.
10. Making plans to visit that town that’s not even on the map.
Long gone are the days where checking off major cities and sights sufficed as travel. Meaningful travelers go deeper, go further. They don’t believe in “flyover countries.” They go there. Then stay awhile.
11. Keeping their social media use in check.
And their smart phone, too.
Did you miss that unexpected small, yet powerful, interaction with that local because you had your nose stuck in your phone? The meaningful traveler didn’t.
12. Asking questions.
No meaningful traveler will settle for half truths or easy answers. They’re curious and they prod. It sure beats asking Siri, right?! They want to love the world—all of it, not just the beautiful parts. Meaningful travelers run with their intellectual curiosities, and know that the people who live there are their best sources.
13. Bypassing frequent weekend trips abroad.
It’s pretty hard to get to know a country and all its faces if you’re jetsetting every weekend. Instead, a meaningful traveler will intentionally lock in time to stay in their destination, to visit a new region in their country, to lazily pass the time at the corner cafe or volunteer with an organization in town.
14. Exercising team work and taking initiative.
We’re all in this together, Wildcats. No one knows this more than a person who has left their country to visit another. Who has seen the tapestry of land from out a plane window. Who has breathed the air of a city that doesn’t have pollution regulations.
The resources of our planet are precious, and meaningful travelers feel motivated to work together to accomplish the (pretty important) task of maintaining it for future generations.
Rather than finishing the locals’ sentences, they’re eager to sit quietly and hear more. They don’t have preconceived notions or expectations about their life. They’re just there to listen and observe, and digest their findings moving forward.
16. Feeling grateful and excited for their opportunity.
Meaningful travelers know that travel is a privilege, and not everyone is afforded the chance to have such a costly exposure to the world at large. They recognize this opportunity as special and not to be wasted. That’s why they’re so motivated to make the most of it, grateful for the chance to have these incredible experiences, and overall optimistic about working through the inevitable challenges that life abroad entails.
17. Approaching tasks with a global perspective.
How do my consumer habits affect Nepal? Do I really need to eat this corn-fed beef? Should I buy this organic cotton or is that just a marketing ploy?
Meaningful travelers think critically about their behaviors, always factoring in the ways their decisions impact others (even those that are very, very far away).
18. Seizing opportunities to educate others about the realities of others’ lives abroad.
They don’t distill an entire country or experience down to a few generic stereotypes or a couple of lines. When you ask how their trip was—or what the people of Chile were like—they’re going to take the time to tell you.
19. Hanging out with all sorts of people.
No star-spangled gangs around here. Meaningful travelers don’t just hang out with other Americans. They see the value in having friends from all walks of life, from all corners of the globe. And they put in the effort to make that happen.
20. Inspiring you to have the same experience.
If you want to have conversations that matter and experiences no guide book could ever grant you, you must make like a meaningful traveler and adopt the mindset of community, stat. Meaningful travelers share in the everyday lives of others instead of looking at it as merely something to be documented. They squeeze every ounce of opportunity from their trip. And they inspire others to do the same.
The mark of a meaningful traveler is great
We tip our hats to all of our community out there who continue to make their travels meaningful every single day. Without you, a brighter future for all would not be possible.