Simplicity and the art of authentic travel

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If Goldie Hawn taught us anything in her 1987 hit Overboard, it’s that the simple things in life bring the most happiness. Twenty-two years later, in Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts travels to Rome to learn that something as simple as food can profoundly impact your life. Truthfully, I never saw the film, but I’m fairly certain sure something of that nature takes place.

Ask anyone who has traveled abroad what they liked best about the experience and they’ll probably mention something simple—maybe an incredible view, the act of a kind stranger or a perfectly flaky pastry from a tiny bakery.

So why, then, do we plan our own travel experiences in the most complex ways? We race from city to city with overbooked itineraries, eating at overpriced (and underwhelming) tourist traps, interacting only with other tourists. We return home having missed out entirely on those simple and authentic experiences we idealize.

But simple, authentic travel isn’t as hard as we make it out to be. With even a small sense of adventure, your next trip can give you both an authentic taste of the local culture and the enjoyment that a vacation is supposed to bring.

Step 1: Avoid the hotels

Hotels and tourists go hand-in-hand—after all, we all have to sleep somewhere. But if you’re truly seeking something authentic, why not stay with a local? Chances are you’ll have a professional opinion on the best places to go and, if you’re lucky, maybe someone will take you around themselves. Even better, you’ll probably end up saving some money. Sites like Couch Surfing and Airbnb connect you to locals who will rent out their extra space for free or a fee that’s generally lower than your typical overpriced and underwhelming hotel.

Step 2: Experience something different

Instead of running franticly between every “must-see” tourist site in your guidebook, schedule some time at some less-visited spots. Check out Wanderfly to get suggestions from other travelers. Also consider just wandering the area by foot—some of my favorite travel experiences have been solo excursions with no destination in mind.

Step 3: Make new friends

Interacting with local people can make for some of the most memorable experiences abroad—getting directions or ordering dinner don’t count! There’s no doubt that a bar or club can provide the perfect combination of wine and confidence to spark an interaction. But you can also meet locals before you arrive using websites like Conversation Exchange or Couch Surfing. These sites will help you find locals looking to practice their English so, unlike that guy reading in the café, they’re definitely interested in exchanging their language and culture with you.

So get out there. Experience something authentic and, most importantly, delightfully simple. I promise it’ll be ten times more memorable than that trip to Cancun. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a flight to catch.

Lindsay McGaan is an information architect for Siegel+Gale’s New York office.

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