Whether you’re boarding a coaster mini-bus to visit a local market in Jamaica, a bangka ferry to island hop in the Philippines, or a high-speed train to zip between Barcelona and Madrid, traveling as the locals do while you’re on vacation will bring a deeper cultural understanding to your experience. Riding public transportation can also alleviate the stress of having to rent a car and learning how to drive in another country—or paying for an expensive taxi to go out for the night.
As you plan your next trip, consider the ways residents in your destination get from A to B so you can weave some of those options into your itinerary. It may mean a little more planning in the beginning, but you’ll come home learning a lot more about the place you’ve just visited. Here are a few of the rewards of traveling like a local.
1. Cultural Enrichment
Taking a cab to that fabulous café your friend recommended in Paris might be the easy, door-to-door solution, but why not make getting there part of the experience? Hopping on a public transit system gives you the opportunity to see how regular people—and not just the people who work in the tourism industry—go about their daily lives.
There’s also no better perch for people watching than a seat on a crowded train. By rubbing elbows with a large cross-section of a city’s population, you’ll see how people interact and get a feel for the city’s rhythm. Walking through a station filled with advertisements and storefronts or strolling from one bus stop to another reveals cultural nuances that aren’t as obvious on the well-worn tourist trail.
2. Personal Fulfillment
Taking public transportation in an unfamiliar place is the perfect opportunity to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Throw in a foreign language, and it’s all part of the fun. Give your brain a little workout by navigating unfamiliar maps, deciphering complicated train schedules, and figuring out how many coins you need for the bus fare.
Before heading out, study up on your destination’s public transportation options by visiting their website for route maps, schedules, and fares. Check to see how fares are paid and if there are multi-day passes or tickets bundled with popular tourist sites. For longer train journeys, find out if there’s dining car service. Most major transit systems also have smartphone apps, with features to plan trips, purchase tickets, explore destinations, and more.
Going onto travel forums for your destination can also be insightful, especially if you have concerns about the safety of a particular travel option. Chances are there are already relevant conversation threads, but if not, you can post your own questions.
Even with thorough planning, you may find yourself needing to communicate with transit staff or local residents for guidance. These interactions, whether they force you to tap into your high school Spanish or resort to some primitive form of sign language, are challenges that build character and mental fortitude.
3. Money in Your Wallet
Whether you’re going across town or across the country, using local public transit will almost always cost less. In Venice, for example, you’ll pay top dollar to meander the Grand Canal in a gondola, when you can enjoy the same views from a vaporetto, or water bus, for a fraction of the cost. While you may be forgoing the privacy and romance of the gondola, the money you save could be used on other memorable experiences, such as dinner at the city’s top restaurant or an evening at the opera. If your budget is tight, saving cash on transportation might be a worthwhile compromise.
4. Off-the-Beaten-Path Views
Traveling like a local gets you views that would be harder to see from a private car or impossible to see from a plane. Take the iconic journey between Istanbul, Turkey and Bucharest, Romania, for example. The almost 24-hour train ride is nothing short of spectacular as it winds through the Romanian countryside, over the Danube River, and across the scenic valleys of Bulgaria. With the train’s panoramic windows, it’s a scenic adventure worth adding to your itinerary.
Taking public buses in sprawling cities is also a great way to observe the urban landscape from a higher vantage point. If you’re worried that this kind of travel lacks information and guidance, there are all kinds of city guide apps available to use on a smartphone—just plug in your headphones and create your own private tour for a fraction of what a guide would charge.
5. Fitness on the Road
Going on a trip doesn’t mean you have to put exercise on hold. Not only does taking public transportation generally involve a fair amount of walking, but in many places—from Scandinavia to Southeast Asia—the locals sometimes skip cars, trains, and buses altogether in favor of foot and pedal power. Skip a station every once in awhile and walk or bike to keep you fit and allow you to explore the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods often missed as you’re motoring by.
Let’s face it, public transportation can be slow, and it’s not always reliable. Despite all the wonderful benefits of traveling like a local, you’ll need to pack some patience to get the most out your experience. Be prepared for anything, from hot and sweaty train cars to service delays and even strikes. For those scenarios, as well as longer trips, it helps to carry water and snacks and wear comfortable shoes and clothing. The better your research before the trip, the more prepared you’ll be during the trip.
At the end of the day, a successful vacation needs to strike a balance between time and budget, and to a certain extent safety. While you may not have room in your itinerary for a long train journey, or the stomach for a rickety local bus on steep mountain roads, any opportunity you take to get around like a local will lead to greater learning and a more authentic travel experience.
Written by Karen Bakar for RootsRated in partnership with Craghoppers.
Featured image provided by Henrique Ferreira