We’ re currently away in Costa Rica for the month of January 2018 (you can read a bit about our adventure here). We love to travel and we make very conscious decisions about when and how we want to vacation. For us, this means we rarely choose to go on packaged or pre-planned vacations. We’ve done it twice before and it just wasn’t our way to see the world either time.
We prefer to avoid crowded, touristy areas and plan a vacation that hits the sights without being told when and for how long. It’s also a political decision (remember, everything personal is political). I recognize the priviledge in holding a passport and being able to spend money on travel. If I’m going somewhere, I want to be a mindful, respectful tourist who contributes to the country I‘m visiting in the most meaningful, and accessible-to-me way. Here are some reasons I don’t sign up for package vacations; maybe they’ll inspire you to get off the beaten path as well:
- You get to chart your own course and choose your own adventure: By staying away from package vacations, you get to plan a getaway that lines up with your current mood. Maybe you feel like lazing around on a beach for a week or maybe you feel like being active every day, or maybe you want a mix of both. You can design your own vacation to the proportions that you like. It’s also nice not to be bound to anyone else’s schedules, pick up or drop off times…we’re rebellious like that. Planning your own adventures also has other added bonuses:
- You can get local tips while you’re there
- You get to choose which sites you want to see and change the plan at a moment’s notice according to your preference
- You don’t have to do too much work. Don’t mistake having to plan your own vacation as extra work-the planning you do before need only include flight and accommodations. Everything else you can read about on the plane/in the airport and decide on day to day.
- Homemade is Better: Renting a house or apartment can actually save money because you can cook your own food. What we often do is have a big breakfast at home and then skip lunch. You can pack your own snacks for the afternoon and then have a nice dinner out. If you’re like me and love food and cooking, it is so rewarding to check out local markets/shops and cook with local ingredients. And this is the best way to support small scale producers in the place you’re visiting. The food I make on vacation is super simple because I don’t want to do a lot of clean up. Other reasons cooking your own food is great:
- You can satisfy your own cravings whenever you want at a good price. You can have heaps of cold watermelon instead of settling for a cold soft drink; you can eat sweet bananas anytime and you don’t have to settle for the sugary snacks being provided to you; you can have your own stash and change the options daily.
- You can try out local foods and in-season foods. Mass tourist operations tend to give you food you will like and that you’re familiar with so you might be eating the same dishes as at home. This means you are often eating out of season, imported produce because that’s what they know you’ll like. When you do get offered local cuisine, it’s often watered down, mass-produced versions of local dishes. You can get a much more authentic, sustainably produced and delicious experience if you eat at a local restaurant.
- Get off the Well Trodden Path: Avoiding package vacations means you can avoid the crowds that come with being on the same tourist path. This means that you will have to put up with less line-ups and less crowded beaches and attractions. Best of all, unique experiences await if you stay away from the pre-designed excursion package. Other major reasons it’s nice to avoid the same ol’ tourist path:
- Lower your impact. Think about all the impacts on the environment and the service industry when large groups of tourists all move around and do the same thing at the same time. That puts a lot of strain on the supply and demand chain and also concentrates economic benefits to one company or area of the country you’re visiting. Often times mass tour operators are multinational companies and this means profits are actually leaving the country. Tour around and spread around both your impact and your money.
- You get to meet locals. The thing with meeting other tourists is that they probably have very similar backgrounds and stories to you. I’m open to meeting Canadians when I’m in Canada but I don’t need to meet up with them all over the world. You can never truly experience what it’s like to live in the country you are visiting but the more you interact with residents, the more you learn about the customs, delights and difficulties of the place you’re traveling to.
- Stimulate Your Mind: This is the biggest reason we like to plan our own vacation. Staying in your own place, arranging your own transportation and planning your own excursions means that you have to think, be creative and just generally use your brain. You might think that’s tiring on vacation because you use your brain all day long at work but it’s actually not. Here’s why:
- On vacation, you’re using your brain in new ways. New surroundings, new problems, new adventures. All of this gives a sense of purpose to your days and makes things more satisfying. It also boosts your problem solving skills and creative juices.
- This opportunity to set daily goals (even if those goals are easy like: find a new beach; seek out a traditional food; find a hidden market), helps to relieve the restlessness that might come from not being able to relax fully on vacation. Of course we have trouble relaxing on vacation—we go from dealing with a million commitments at home to just sitting on a beach, mindlessly ordering drinks. You might find it hard to slow down your mind. That’s because you have too much pent up stress and energy. This is especially true when traveling with children–they often need goals and activities to keep their minds engaged. Walking around or creating some work for yourself helps blow off some of that energy and then allows you to really relax and unwind. Now you have the quietness of mind to reflect on your day and maybe on your routines back home and make changes as you need. That’s what vacation is all about.
- Creating daily goals is also what opens up the opportunity to meet locals (see point 3). You need their help to solve your problems and answer your questions: “Where’s the nearest grocery store?” can be the opening line to a nice exchange with a local that results in you having a drink together or them inviting you into their home—how cool is that?
Traveling with the purpose of bettering myself, opening my mind and having as little negative impact as I can is something I am very passionate about. Because we’ve planned non package vacations we’ve gotten to visit a local Costa Rican jail, we’ve had clandestine conversations with Cubans about the Castro regime while climbing up Cuba’s highest peak, we’ve met a lovely Dutch couple who we got to visit in Amsterdam, we had handmade tortillas in family homes in rural Mexico, we learned how to pick and eat a jackfruit off a local tree. The opportunities available to you off the tourist path are more than you can dream. There you will find connection, novelty, creativity and rewarding experiences. Hope to see you on that path someday.