Luxury vs backpacker, cruise vs trekking, resort vs homestay… Which type of travel gives travelers the most meaningful, authentic experience?
The answer is: it doesn’t matter. Whether you prefer staying at a boutique hotel or in a hostel dorm, your travel experience is what you make of it.
What is “Authentic Travel” Anyways?
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionaries (which I use as the authority, as it’s the dictionary we always had in the house when I was growing up), “authentic” means “real or genuine: not copied or fake”.
That’s a pretty simple definition, but the question “What is authentic travel?” doesn’t have a simple answer. Heck, you’ll even get a different answer for every person you ask.
Tour companies flaunting the “authenticity” of their tours, and backpackers chatting over beers about their “authentic” experiences have very different ideas about what makes travel authentic. (Backpackers everywhere insist that authenticity lies in living like a local – ie living on the cheap, like they are.)
But when it comes down to it – whether you ask a luxury cruise guest or an over-burdened backpacker – they’ll both agree authentic travel is a good thing.
Hey, wait a sec. What if you don’t want to backpack? Is it still possible to get an authentic luxury travel experience? Or does authenticity depend on how much money you spend?
Real or Genuine
The first part of the Merriam-Webster definition of authentic is “real or genuine”. For travel to be “real” you need to physically get out of your house and go somewhere.
When you step on a plane, walk into a hotel, get on a bus, or even bike down the street, you’re having a genuine experience. You’re living it, therefore it’s reality (just go with me on this one).
When you’ve stopped living vicariously and you’re doing something for real it’s, well, real. (Watching people tour foreign locales on the Outdoor Life Network from the comfort of your couch is great, but it’s not real travel, it’s entertainment. It’s not real!)
So whether you stay in a dorm room with eight other people or in a private hotel room with 1,000 thread-count sheets, it’s a real place that you really experience.
Yes, I see that you’ve noticed they’re very different travel experiences, but that doesn’t make one any less genuine than the other.
Not Copied or Fake
The second part of the Merriam-Webster definition of authentic, is “not copied or fake”. If authentic travel means not copying someone else’s experience, a luxury tour with a set itinerary doesn’t offer an authentic travel experience.
But that also means a backpacker following a Lonely Planet recommendation isn’t getting an authentic travel experience either.
If authentic is “good”, does copying a travel experience make it “bad”? Well, it can be anywhere from desirable to detestable, depending who you ask.
- Desirable: a well-established tourist trail makes things like communication, finding accommodation, and taking transportation easier.
- Detestable: it has no uniqueness or originality, and there’s no opportunity to make a discovery of your own.
Luxury or budget, you’ll need to deal with the fact that unless you’re exploring uncharted territory like Antarctica (which is actually fairly well traveled) or the Australian outback (aw, but Aborigines got there first), you’ll always be walking in someone’s footsteps.
As long as you enjoy travel, does it matter whether someone’s been there before you?
“Real” vs Touristy
Touristy or not, every experience is a “real” experience, but that hasn’t stopped travelers from separating “real, authentic travel” from “tourist travel”.
According to Elizabeth Hansen, a travel-writer-turned-luxury travel-planner at Authentic Luxury Travel “Authentic travel means traveling in a way that makes it easy to connect with the local culture.”
“Connecting with the local culture” can mean eating local food, making friends with local residents, taking in traditional performances, or even just taking public transportation. It’s about learning and adapting, not about seeking familiarity.
I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly rather have “real, authentic travel” than “tourist travel”.
Does Luxury Travel have to be Touristy?
It can be more difficult for luxury travelers to get away from touristy things than budget travelers. Compared to backpackers, luxury travelers have more to spend, making them targets for people who make a living in the tourist trade.
That being said, disposable income isn’t necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to finding authentic travel experiences. Luxury travelers have something within their reach that budget travelers don’t: choice. An authentic luxury travel experience can be had if you know where to look for it, and especially if you can afford it.
A week-long safari could give you a much more “real” experience than a day-trip to the jungle, and deep pockets can make traveling to a remote locale (like Antarctica) not just possible, but probable.
The Authentic Luxury Travel Attitude
In an article for the Atlantic1, Gary Arndt recalls an instance in Samoa, when he met a traveler who was disappointed in the modern lifestyle of local Samoans. Apparently, she thought they should be living more primitively, without TV sets or imported food. She was upset that Samoa wasn’t what she wanted it to be, rather than excited to discover what it was really like.
Having the attitude of an authentic traveler is more about discovering a new place, keeping an open mind, and pushing your comfort zone, than about trying to recreate a photo on Pinterest or a documentary on TV.
Sacrificing Comfort Doesn’t Make Travel “Authentic”
Counting pennies instead of drinking expensive wine every night doesn’t make a travel experience more genuine.
Newsflash: basic amenities and communal lodging are not prerequisites for authentic travel.
Whether you sleep on a dirt floor in a hut, or on a pillowtop mattress, you can still experience authentic travel. (Despite what some passionate budget travelers might tell you, their travel style is not “better” than any other.)
In fact, luxury travel may provide a better way to travel authentically than backpacking. Says John Vlahides in an article for Lonely Planet2, “Sometimes the cushy choice reveals more, not less, about a destination. Consider the private riad in Morocco, château in Burgundy, or villa in Tuscany. These provide an up-close (if rarefied) view into local culture and history.”
In the End
Luxury travel doesn’t just mean spending your vacation time at a resort or on a cruise ship, it can include trying local food, exploring new cities, and learning about culture and traditions.
Authentic luxury travel isn’t just possible, it’s becoming more accessible. G2G Collection, Hands Up Holidays, Pravassa, and other companies are working to help travelers balance comfort and authenticity.
As Nailah Hayword says on Travel Noire3, everyone can have “…authentic travel regardless of whether they end the day with a glass of champagne or a can of beer.”
I say: why not both?
Ready to make your travel mean something? Check out Why You Want Travel to Be Meaningful