It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, which means it’s time for people to pack up their backpacks and go to an “exotic” destination of their choice. Americans head to Europe, Europeans head to Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asians… generally stay in Southeast Asia. It’s also that time when the classic debate comes up when it comes to stay in, either browse this site or in hostels around the world: Are you a traveler or a tourist? Much has been said about what typifies a tourist, and what distinguishes a traveler from them. There always seems to be a sense of pride from those who identify themselves as travelers that they’re not like every other backpacker holding a Eurail pass or following the Banana Pancake Trail.

In some ways, I agree with their point-of-view, and if at all possible, I try not to be so “tourist-y.” But there are some things that “typical tourists” do which I do as well. Sometimes, it’s a bit unavoidable, but generally, I made a choice to do them. And even if it marks me as a “tourist” instead of a “traveler,” I’m not ashamed to admit that I do these five things.

(Before you proceed, note that this is not an indictment of any style of travel, whether it’s as a “tourist” or as a “traveler.” I believe that each person traveling has his or her own personal travel style, and that there’s no one “right” or “proper” way to travel. That said, feel free to poke fun at me for these things I do!)

1. I use a guidebook.

Lonely Planet Bangkok Encounter

Travelers typically scoff at people who carry around their trusty Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Frommer’s, or whatever guidebook of choice wherever they go. It’s not an uncommon sight to see hordes of backpackers thumbing through these thick books while wandering lost around an unfamiliar city. Some even treat their guidebook as their bible, sticking closely to whatever sights, hostels, and restaurants it recommends.

When I went on my three-week trip around Southeast Asia last year, I used Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring as my main point of reference. But instead of bringing the whole book (it’s HUGE!), I photocopied important maps and references, and wrote down a few recommendations for food and accommodations. When I went to Bangkok, I brought along a smaller guidebook, Lonely Planet’s Bangkok Encounter. For my trip to Laos, I carried around the Frommer’s Cambodia and Laos guidebook. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using guidebooks; they’re useful resources, particularly when traveling to a strange new destination, and can be a good starting point when planning your trip. However, I do think there’s something wrong with treating your guidebook as the be-all and end-all of information. A guidebook simply can’t cover every single hostel and restaurant in your destination, and given the turnaround time between research and publication, the latest edition is almost instantly out-of-date. There is a wealth of additional (and more up-to-date) information available online, and you can use online forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree or communities like CouchSurfing to ask locals and other travelers for suggestions.

2. I go to where the backpackers are.

backpackers in Vang Vieng

Khaosan Road in Bangkok. Pham Ngu Lao in Ho Chi Minh City. Tubing in Vang Vieng. Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan. Kuta Beach in Bali. These are all common stops on the Banana Pancake Trail, and hordes of backpackers can definitely be found crowding these areas. Travelers generally try to avoid these areas, and many deride these areas as “backpacker ghettos,” unworthy of even a quick stop on their journey.

Maybe it’s because I’m relatively new to travel, but I don’t really mind mixing it up in those areas. When I went to Ho Chi Minh City, I stayed at Pham Ngu Lao (albeit further away from the main backpacker drag), and when I went to Laos, I tried tubing in Vang Vieng. It’s a great way to meet new people and fellow travelers, and perhaps find a new travel buddy or two. I do agree, though, that it can get a bit tiresome, and sometimes you just want to get away from it all. The good news is that, as easy it is to find where the backpackers are, it’s just as easy to avoid them.

3. I check out the typical tourist sights.

tourists at Angkor Thom

Each city and country has its own set of destinations that most guidebooks, websites, podcasts, and travel shows and publications declare as “must-sees.” It is then unsurprising to go to these places and find that nearly everyone visiting that city – from solo backpackers all the way to huge organized tour groups – has gathered in that area, snapping photos of that important monument or ancient temple. Many travelers avoid these places like the plague, and instead seek out the “hidden” treasures before everyone else discovers them.

It does get quite frustrating to go to major tourist hotspots and find hordes of people there. It was difficult for me to take in the splendors of Angkor Thom or Angkor Wat in Cambodia while I was surrounded by large tour groups waving colored flags. There’s also something special about finding a place that hardly anyone else goes to, like when I went with one of my friends to explore Casaroro Falls in Dumaguete, Philippines. Still, there’s a reason why some places are considered “must-sees,” and if you’re able to somehow shut out the crowds, you can still get a lot out of the experience of being there.

4. I wear quick-drying cargo pants that zip-off to shorts.

the infamous cargo pant-shorts

They’re probably one of the most mocked “signs that you’re a tourist.” Almost anyone who has been backpacking has seen them. They’re cargo pants made of quick-drying material which has pant legs that you can zip off to convert them quickly into shorts. They’ve been ridiculed by many as being silly, impractical, funny-looking, and just plain ugly.

Okay, so maybe they ARE ugly, and they do set you apart as a tourist rather than as a local. But I like them, and I’ve been wearing them since I went on my trip last year. They’re quite convenient especially when packing light, especially since you need to pack fewer clothes when one item serves multiple purposes. Some travelers will tell you to wear clothes that you would normally wear in your home country (or at least stuff that locals wouldn’t mind wearing); I do wear those zip-off trousers even while I’m not traveling. And if you’re worried that wearing those pants will mark you as a tourist, note that there can be other, more obvious things that will mark you as a non-local; a Caucasian in Southeast Asia probably won’t be mistaken for a local from the get-go.

5. I eat at McDonald’s.

McDonald’s in Vigan

This is perhaps the most controversial, and most sacrilegious of all. Travel halfway around the world, surrounded by the most exotic, most foreign local foods that can be found nowhere else in the world, least of all in your home country… then eat at McDonald’s, or any Western fast food chain available (like KFC in Vietnam and Cambodia, where I did not see a single McDonald’s).

I am definitely guilty of this. When I was in Macau, starving and desperate for cheap food, I dashed into the McDonald’s at Senado Square and got myself a cheeseburger, french fries, and Coke. However, I don’t go into a foreign country and eat ONLY Western food. I love food too much to limit myself, and I definitely want to try as much local food as possible. One of my best experiences while traveling is still having some authentic Thai food in Bangkok. But sometimes, after lengthy periods of travel trying unfamiliar foods, you get cravings for something more familiar; my Macau moment was after two weeks of travel. Besides, you can make it a mission to see what the differences are in different branches around the world; the sauces for the McNuggets are different in Singapore and the Philippines, for example. In any case, there’s one remaining international McDonald’s experience I have yet to try: Seeing Thai Ronald McDonald.

Thai Ronald McDonald

(Photo by permanently scatterbrained, licensed through Creative Commons.)

Is there anything that you do when you travel that marks you as a “tourist”? Let me know your experiences in the comments!