The “authentic” travel myth

Kite surfer off the Western Australian coastToday, I’m going to tackle the idea of “authentic” travel. The forms that this take vary, from attempting to see things that no-one else has, to getting some kind of cultural insight, to braving hardships in the name of a more “real” experience. And I’m going to explain why I don’t think it exists.

This is because I believe, for something to have an authentic version, there must be a “fake” version, and travel, from what I can tell, is all real. Unless you are reading this post in the future and virtual travel has been invented. Do let me know how that is.

I could end the post there of course, but it would make for a short, if unusually to the point, entry.

Instead, I will muse on why the term “authentic” is bandied around so much. Why is there this strange notion that travel, to be “successful”, must meet up to this label, which carries with it all sorts of baggage and no real definition? What defines travel success anyway? From what I can tell, it all comes down to expectation.

Low lying cloud over the Tasman Sea - Wilsons Prom

Our expectation for the experience we are going to get from travelling is often high. Even before we set off, we will do all sorts of research as we try to build a picture of where we are going, and what we are going to see. Plans are made, itineraries are drawn up. And at this point, the pressure begins.

We want to make sure we are making the right choices. We only have a certain window of time to experience a place, and we want to make sure we are seeing all the things we are “supposed” to be seeing. After all, who would think of going to China without visiting the Great Wall. Or going to San Francisco and not seeing the Golden Gate bridge. Or visiting Thailand and not.. well.. you get the idea.

These pressures are put upon us largely by ourselves, but are also externally applied. The check-list mentality of travel is an easy trap to fall into, exacerbated by other travellers and even guide books. Pick up any guide book, and it will list all the must-see’s of an area. Talk to other travellers, and the conversations will be littered with phrases such as “oh, did you see so-and-so when you were in whenever?”. If you respond in the negative, you may feel that you have somehow missed out on a key experience. That you have failed as a traveller.

Bay of Fires - Tasmania - Australia

Once you have started down the road towards trying to “succeed” as a traveller, you may find yourself trying to achieve even more. Going to places merely to say that you have been there. Or attempting to see the “real” version of the place you are visiting. You know, the one that the locals experience? Away from the touristy bits?  And if we don’t try to achieve these lofty, usually unattainable goals (how likely is it that we are genuinely going to experience life as a local?), have we again failed in our mission of that “authentic” experience?

Feeling that you have failed should not be something you experience when travelling. Take some deep breaths if you get this sensation. Try to understand the reason you are travelling. Because travel, despite what anyone or anything may try and tell you, is whatever you want it to be and for whatever reason you want it to be for.

Don’t want to visit the key sights? Can’t be bothered with museums? Would rather chill out on the beach sipping a frosty beer? Or maybe your idea of travel is rebuilding strife stricken parts of the world? Whatever it is, do it, and be happy with your choice. In fact, you should ignore this post, and all the other advice about how to make travel perfect for you, and just get out there and do it on your own terms.


I firmly believe that travel is awesome. For me, it’s a chance to do so many things. To rejoice in the unfamiliar, to exult in the new. To eat different food and try out different drinks. To get a glimpse of how others live. There’s goggling at spectacular scenery, and admiring people as they go about their lives. Wandering around supermarkets trying to make sense of the labels. Coming to the realisation that the world is not a static zoo on display for cultural enrichment - it’s a living, breathing, evolving place, and it’s all authentic, just waiting for you to join in and take part.

Don’t belittle others for failing to have seen what you believe to be “the essentials”. Love their stories, share your own. Don’t be upset if things don’t go to quite to plan, or you discover that you aren’t the only one who read the guidebook advice about the little village off the beaten track with no tourists. Celebrate the unique moments, and ignore the folks who validate their experiences by casting yours in a negative light.

Most of all, don’t worry about whether or not you are having an “authentic” experience. Just enjoy it all, for what it is, and you’ll have a trip you’ll never forget.

Fire twirlers - Australian outback festival

Well, that’s what I feel anyway. Do you feel at all pressured when travelling? Or that you should be getting more from your experiences? Let me know your thoughts on the whole authentic travel thing in the comments below!

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  1. I was just talking about this with my husband. Do you need to stay in budget hostels to gain an authentic experience? Does the backpacker who spends three days in each place get a more authentic trip than the elder hostel that spends a week in highly scheduled cultural activities? What about those of us traveling with kids, does skipping the killing fields in Cambodia because we have young children make our experience any less real?

    The more I travel the more I think it is all good, getting to see the world in any form is better than suffering from cultural myopia. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks Kristy! For me the most important thing is working out what I want to get from the travelling experience, regardless of external factors. Of course, sometimes everything gets taken in a whole other direction, but that is usually a worthwhile result too :) I don't think there is a right or wrong way to travel, just the way that works for you. Thanks for the comment :)

  3. My head hurts after reading that, but you do raise an excellent point.... it's one of the things we enjoy about owning a property abroad you have plenty of time to see what you want and don't have to cram it all in during your first visit.

    I'm curious what you insist on seeing in Thailand though :D

  4. Apologies for causing a headache ;) Looking forward to us meeting up
    over in Portugal sometime!


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