What Is Experiential Travel & How To Make It Happen

There’s a movement of people looking for more when they travel. They want to learn more about the place they’re visiting, more about the culture and the history, more about the people. Something more meaningful than experiences packaged for the masses, where you’re loaded onto and off of buses or cruise ships, spending very little time in each destination and rarely ever even meeting a local. They want a travel experience that feels more authentic. A journey that actually optimizes the experience for both the traveler and the destination. Something termed experiential travel.

This post covers what experiential travel is and how you can incorporate it, and a more authentic, more meaningful experience into your next trip.

What Is Experiential Travel?

So what is experiential travel? Technically, at its most basic level, any travel is experiential. After all, when you travel, you’re going to a new place where you meet new people and have experiences. It really can be that simple. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I think any travel is an opportunity for learning and growth. But when people use the term experiential travel, they’re generally taking about more than that.

According to Wikipedia, “Experiential travel, also known as immersion traveling, is a form of tourism in which people focus on experiencing a country, city or particular place by actively and meaningfully engaging with its history, people, culture, food and environment.” It’s about really connecting with a place, rather than just visiting. It’s about immersing yourself in some way that leads to insights, inspiration, learning, growth, new ways of looking at the world, or simply something more meaningful to you.

It doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated and preferably it’s not something ‘marketed’, although more tour companies are adding experiential elements to their trips. You can also take it to whatever degree you want. You can add a little, or a lot, depending on how much more meaningful you want your experience to be.

There are many ways to make your trip more experiential. Just a few examples include having meaningful exchanges with locals, visiting off-the-beaten-path locations, taking tours guided by locals, staying in home stays, and eating at authentic, local establishments. Of course there are more, but I think these are some of the easiest.

Other Related Travel Buzzwords

Before I dive into how you can make your trip more experiential, I want to share some other related travel buzzwords.

First, there’s Sustainable Travel, a subset of experiential travel, which aims to reduce the negative impacts of tourism, like reducing economic leakage (when your travel dollars go to overseas companies rather than your destination), reducing damage to the environment, and reducing overcrowding. It also aims to improve the positives of tourism, like the creation of jobs, the preservation of cultural heritage, and the preservation of the land, wildlife, and biodiversity.

Responsible Travel is when travelers choose to take trips using sustainable travel practices, helping to preserve local culture, wildlife and the environment, and contributing to local economies.

Regenerative Travel is the next step in all this. It’s about leaving a place better than you found it, not just not messing it up.

Adventure Travel is pretty much what it sounds like, traveling for adventures and adrenaline. It could be easy, like hiking, camping, or kayaking, or serious adrenaline activities like mountaineering, bungee jumping, or skydiving. It’s where immersion travel meets adrenaline. Any of the above can also be a part of adventure travel.

Transformational Travel is about tapping into travel as a source of self-discovery, self-growth, and change. Any of the above can also be a part of transformational travel.

What Is Experiential Travel And How To Incorporate It Into Your Next Trip

If you’re inspired to add more experiential travel practices into your trips, here are some easy ways to do so.

Connect With Locals

One of the simplest ways to incorporate experiential travel into your journey is to connect more with locals. There are many ways to do this, and while it’s easiest if you’re traveling independently, you can also do this with quality tour companies.

From its simplest aspect, look for, and visit, events that locals attend, rather than just touristy ones. Like local markets, popular local coffee shops or bars, parks, or other places locals congregate. Go there with an intent to meet new people and get to know them.

Strike up a conversation, trying to make a meaningful connection. If they’re open, tell them you’re interested to learn more about their culture and see if they’ll open up. Ask where you can find more authentic local experiences. Maybe you’ll learn about a better place to meet more locals who may be interested in engaging with you, or maybe you’ll learn the best place to take a cooking class (from a local of course), how to prepare a local delicacy, the best place to watch a sunset, most secluded beaches to visit, the best local music establishment…a variety of possibilities.

On a deeper level, you may also make a genuine friend that can help to show you some amazing cultural insights.

Hoàn Kiếm Park Hanoi, Vietnam

One place where this happens naturally is Hoàn Kiếm Park in Hanoi, Vietnam. I visited twice when I was there, as it’s a popular spot for locals and tourists. Both times I was there, I was approached by teens trying to practice their English. At first I was a little suspicious, thinking they wanted something from me, but quickly realized that they really just want to talk. The girls I spoke to were very curious about me, asking me personal questions about my life and culture. It was a fascinating cultural exchange!

Another option is to take one of the free tours given in locations (which is always a great things to do on the first day of your trip). But make sure to choose ones led by locals. When these tours are offered by locals, you feel a deeper connection to the location. You can usually read bios before selecting the tour guide you want.

I took a tour in Sarajevo to learn more about its history. The young woman leading it lived through the brutal war here, mostly hidden in her basement as a child when the city was under siege for 1,425 days. Ugh! I walked away with a much more profound understanding of the historic events here. Much more than I would have learned from an historian who probably would have rattled off more detailed, but textbook-like details.

Visiting off-the-beaten-path places in touristy locations can provide similar experiences. In Cairo, everyone makes time to visit the pyramids. Few, however, take the time to visit the ancient heart of Old Cairo, or Islamic Cairo, to learn about it’s more recent history (about 1,000 years ago).

What is experiential travel? One way is to visit off the beaten path locations.
Islamic Cairo

I did this and found mostly locals and very few tourists. I got tours by locals at some of the sites, met locals and talked with them, and got to see their life from a closer perspective. The perspective I got here provided me with a wonderful understanding of Cairo and its people. Especially when several locals went out of their way to help me after getting lost (as I visited solo)!

These are just a few examples, but I hope they give you ideas on different ways to connect with locals and how it can enrich your travel experience. There are really infinite ways you can explore this method of engagement. Remember to always be respectful of others’ privacy however. Don’t press it if there is no reciprocal interest.

Visit Off-The-Beaten-Path Destinations

An easy way to experience more meaningful connections with locals is to visit off-the-beaten-path destinations. Often in these destinations, tourism is not yet developed, so you need to rely on locals to do things and get around. Plus, as there are simply fewer tourists, you’re more likely to interact with locals.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are some examples of off-the-beaten-path destinations that I traveled to. I learned so much in each of these countries, and being remote, the trips, and my experiences here, felt so much more authentic. I will remember them forever.

There are so many, but one example stands out. I took a tour to Kolsay Lakes National Park. Since there is not much external tourism here, the bus was actually filled with locals and run by a local guide. The alpine lakes were 5 or so hours away from the main city, so it was a weekend trip. We left late Friday night, sleeping on the bus and arriving at our home stays at 3 AM, getting to know each other pretty quickly.

Over the next few days, we stayed with locals in the remote city by the lakes, places so remote there was no running water! Living the life most lived here historically. We were fed local, home-cooked food and were driven in jeeps into the mountains to trek around gorgeous alpine lakes.

What is experiential tracel? Trekking with locals to see their own country.
Kolsay Lakes National Park

Doing this with locals was such a great experience! On one of the hikes, a local shared their local dried cheese with me, food historically used by Kazakh nomads on long journeys. It looked a little like a small, white, chubby, hockey puck. It’s easy to store, provides a great source of protein, and lots of flavor. It’s one thing to learn about a historic food, but another to actually try it while trekking with a local!

There were many other fabulous moments on these trips, like when I had to resort to hitchhiking back from a site over 4 hours from my accommodation in Kyrgyzstan due to unregulated transportation. I stuck out my thumb and found a ride for the entire journey instantly, getting a better understand of how locals help each other out by acting as taxi drivers. Or the taxi driver I had when visiting Konorchek Canyon. He couldn’t speak English, but was so exited to explain the beauty of his country to me, that he pulled off the side of the freeway and tried to express himself for about 15-20 minutes. I have no idea what he said, but I certainly got the message!

Stay In Home Stays, Or Accommodation Owned By Locals

I always try to choose accommodation owned by locals, although it’s not always easy as some locals don’t announce that they are local. This means not staying at the international Marriott or Hilton hotel where your dollars go into the pockets of giant corporations owned by foreigners (economic leakage).

Look for smaller establishments, Airbnb’s or hostels. If you’re not sure who owns them, ask. Home stays are even better. The perfect way to immerse yourself into the local culture.

When I was in Bali, I stayed in a homestay and got to know the family that lived there. I talked to several members of the extended family and learn a lot about their culture. They even invited me to a Balinese cremation ceremony for a neighbor, where I spent almost the entire day watching the preparation, the procession, the event, and the final celebration of life. A fascinating event that I will never forget!

Cremation in Bali
Balinese Cremation Ceremomy

Eat At Local Establishments

Trying the local food is one of the best parts of traveling and culinary tourism is a huge part of experiential travel. Steer away from the KFC’s and McDonalds for truly authentic local food. Street food is even better. Taking a local cooking class, run by locals is even better yet! Especially when they explain the history behind it. I’ve done this in Vietnam, Rome, Morocco, and Bali. All experiences I will never forget! The combination of food and culture is something we all love.

Taking a food tour guided by locals to try local food is also fantastic. I did this in Bangkok and we had a blast walking from place to place, trying a variety of delicious local foods. They know how to put together the perfect mix of establishments. One that you would be hard pressed to create on your own.

Simply eating at authentic local restaurants can also be experiential. In Genoa, Italy, I stumbled upon a pasta place that was a World Champion Pesto Championship winner. It was a long wait to get in, but well worth it! I didn’t even like pesto before trying the real deal! And just today, I ate at a cafe in Ubud, Bali. The owner sat and talked to me about the spiritually of the Balinese and their philosophy on life.

Another example is trying the hummus in Tel Aviv. It’s out of this world! Hummus here in the USA doesn’t even come close! Hummus Abu Hassan, renowned to have the best hummus in Jaffa, and maybe all of Israel, is so good, it’s an experience in itself. Of course visiting local markets and experimenting with a variety of local delicacies is also experiential.

Hummus at Hummus Abu Hassan

Use Local Transportation

Using local transportation can also be experiential. In Cambodia and Thailand, you must take a tuk tuk as an experience. There’s something very exciting about sitting in the back of one of these contraptions. Plus, you’re out in the open, feeling the breeze and seeing everything without car doors and windows.

Tuk tuk drivers used to be notorious for overcharging customers, but now you can actually book them on ride hailing apps. This just makes it more fun…

In Bali, you must take a motorbike ride. They’re everywhere. You can rent one yourself of book them like a taxi on the Gojek app.

In Kyrgyzstan, tourism is not yet developed, so you need to use local transportation which are called Marshrutka. These are old mini buses left over from when this was a Soviet country. These mini buses are like large vans with many seats. They’re very inexpensive and a little frustrating as they only leave when full rather than according to a schedule, but it’s definitely an experience! If you go, make sure to download the name of your destination in Russian in advance, as there are no English signs on them.

Choose Tours Run By Locals

Although I don’t generally take tours, sometimes, especially in remote places, it’s the best option. And some tours are great at providing experiential travel.

In Mongolia, I signed up for a tour to stay with Kazakh nomads for a few days. After this, we went with them to their annual Eagle Hunting competition. This tour was extra beautiful as there were only 2 other tourists beside myself. It was also run by a local. One whose parents were both born into the semi-nomadic life here. Plus, his mother came along with us on the trip, cooking us local food.

What is experiential travel? Learning about Kazakh Nomads in Mongolia.
Kazakh Nomad Winter Home

We literally slept on the living room floor in their small winter home (with no electricity and no running water) in sleeping bags. They heated the home by burning animal dung in the kitchen oven (which vented to the outside so did not smell bad at all). This and the actual Eagle Festival were so amazing, my heart starts pumping just thinking about this trip. I learned so much about nomadic life and this remote area of Mongolia.

In Africa, I took a six week camping trip through 8 countries there, from Cape Town to Nairobi. The tour was run by a large corporation, Intrepid, but the guides were locals. We learned sooooo much about Africa it was unbelievable. Plus, Intrepic added in local experiences like school and hospital visits, village visits, and more. Another amazing trip that I will never forget.

Why Is Experiential Travel Important?

Why is Experiential travel important? Beyond making the trip more meaningful to you, it also is usually sustainable, making it also more meaningful to the location you’re visiting.

If you’re connecting with locals, and learning about them and their culture, you’re helping to preserve their cultural heritage. If you’re staying in accommodation owned by locals, you’re helping to to create jobs and reduce economic leakage to large corporations. You’re also learning about their culture. These are also generally true when you use public transportation too. And if you’re visiting off-the-beaten-path areas or destinations, you’re reducing overcrowding.

The list of benefits could go on and on, but you probably get the idea now. Experiential travel and sustainable travel really go hand in hand. A win-win for all parties.

If you’ve experienced anything similar, or have questions or comments on experimental travel, please add your comment below.

Safe Travels!

Julie

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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