How to Define Travel: Which Type of Traveler Are You?

What is travel? This is the eternal question. The differentiation between “tourist” and “traveler” has been made, and “travelers” frequently stick up their noses at “tourists”, while “tourists” don’t really understand what “travelers” are trying to accomplish.

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The Great ‘Tourist versus Traveler’ debate aside, the world of long-term traveling isn’t as clear-cut as it may appear at first blush.

Kaikora Sunset, New Zealand
Kaikora Sunset, New Zealand © Go Climb A Rock

Who “Travels”?

There seem to be a number of people who plant themselves in the traveler category: those who work abroad, those who take sabbaticals or longer vacations, and those who live a nomadic lifestyle. Often travelers will manage a combination of these options too.

Sabbaticals/Long Vacationers

Those who fall into this category make traveling a priority in their lives. They work like dogs at home, sometimes living like monks and saving as much money as possible. Then — off on an adventure! Six months in South America, three months in Australia and New Zealand, or a year in southeast Asia.

During that time, these travelers pack a lot into their trips. Staying in hostels most of the time and cooking meals instead of eating out, expenses are often minimized to extend the travel dollar.

Trips are generally well-planned, with enough flexibility to take advantage of unexpected side trips, changing plans to travel with new friends, and incorporating necessary down time to relax or enjoy a particular place with a good vibe.

Those Who Work Abroad

In these times of globalization, it is rare to encounter a household without the internet. Email is an accepted (and often preferred) method of communication, blogs are prolific, and many people get all their information from the web. Not to mention the ability to shop for anything, pay bills, and operate small to large businesses in cyberspace. (Heck — you’re reading this article online; I’m preaching to the choir)!

So those who have the ability to make a living without having to go into a physical office can hang their hat wherever they wish.

There are also many people who travel and work abroad by teaching (English being the most common subject, but outdoor education and a variety of other topics are gaining popularity), or by being professional tour guides, scuba dive masters, or working in the tourism industry in general.

Working abroad can get sticky in terms of taxation issues and work visas, so opportunities to get jobs in foreign countries can be limited or difficult to land. Even cyber-jobs can open up a can of worms at tax time, so before you jump on a plane to work abroad, it is prudent to consult a tax professional.

Backpacker Near Torres del Paine, Chile
Backpacker Near Torres del Paine, Chile © Phillie Casablanca


People living nomadic lifestyles take travel to new levels, and often are a combination of the two above types of travelers. There are a variety of people with different backgrounds and stories, having led them to their nomadic approach to life. Some nomads don’t even leave their own country; they simply manage to drift from job to job and city to city, and enjoy the diversity and variety of not staying in any one place for more than a short while. (These people may or may not even identify themselves as travelers).

Other nomads yet are known as “Trustafarians”; trust-children who have inherited wealth, don’t have to worry about finances, and can wander the world experiencing their own adventures.

Nomads come in many ages, shapes, and sizes, and tend to be a breed all their own. Some would say that to be a nomad is more of a state of mind than a way of life, and I agree.

So … Who is the Real Traveler?

Within these wide definitions of travelers, there can be some dissension among the ranks.

Many people who take long vacations/sabbaticals (vacationers) consider themselves to be a true breed of traveler, because they dedicate their time and energy solely to traveling when they’re on the road. They aren’t distracted by the need to earn a living, sidetracked for example by teaching English so many hours each week that they can barely lift their heads on the weekends much less see what their location has to offer. They also feel they can appreciate their trips to a larger extent than their nomadic friends, since they’re working with limited time and will dedicate all available funds to squeeze everything they can out of the trip.

Those who work abroad in turn plead their own case for being true travelers, saying you don’t know a place until you live with the locals; drinking their water, eating their food, working shoulder to shoulder, and sharing in their celebrations and tragedies. You can’t do this on a vacationer’s timeline, and nomads may not appreciate where they are if they don’t have direction to begin with.

Those who live nomadic lifestyles might preach a similar mantra as those who work abroad. Without ties to anything, they have the ultimate freedom to go where the wind takes them, allowing them to experience the full spectrum of culture — the underground, as well as what the tourist sees. Nomads who don’t have to work abroad would say that having to work saps your ability to enjoy where you are, and the vacationer misses so much for all the touristy stuff they’re packing into their trip.

Khao San Road
Khao San Road © SqueakyMarmot

What About Hybrids?

Personally I am a traveler who plants roots. I am a Professional Hobo, and my trip is one of no fixed duration and many fixed addresses. As far as the categories of traveler above, I am a combination of the “work abroad” and “nomad” traveler. I have money stashed away from my years in business so I can roam free to a point, but I also make a modest living on the internet and tend to sequester myself to work in my room no matter where I am.

To stretch my travel dollar even further, I like to trade part-time work for accommodation, in order to travel in a sustainable manner, and to allow me to take the time to live, drink, eat, and work shoulder to shoulder with locals.

Drawbacks to my choice of lifestyle have been numerous. I try to live frugally and so I don’t always do some of the touristy things a vacationer might do, which occasionally leaves me out of the loop as to some of the reasons a place is attractive to visit. I also have been known to bury my head in working away on my laptop and wonder where the week went. Between working for accommodation and working modestly for a living, some would argue that I traded one “rat race” for another.

But there are benefits to my lifestyle too. I now have friends (in some cases very good friends) from all over the world. Not only does this give me a place to stay in many desirable locations when I visit, but it is enriching to relate with people from a variety of different countries and cultures. I can also draw on the benefits of both the working traveler and the nomadic traveler, and because of the extra cash from working I can even take advantage of the odd vacationer’s extravagance.

No matter what type of traveler you are, cultural immersion, adventure, and lots of amazing stories are definite perks of having the right attitude on the road. If you are open to seeing new places, meeting new people, eating new foods, and experiencing new adventures, then no matter what your style is, you’re a Traveler in my books.

  1. People travel differently at different times – they may take a year’s sabatical then go back to a 9-5 job, in frustration go wandering for a years, take a job overseas and become an expat, then, exhausted from all the travelling, join an organized tour for two weeks and become a ‘tourist’. We all travel differently all the time. And what does it matter? While I acknowledge there are many types of travellers and ways of travelling, I’m not so sure one is more worthy than the other, why one is more ‘real’. Shouldn’t we just rejoice that people are travelling, whether they do it once and never again, or they spend a life on the move, what does it matter?

  2. People do travel differently, of course. Not one person is the same. We are all unique in our ways of how we are raised and groomed. I don’t think there is neccessairly the one right term for what a “traveller” is. A traveller is simply one who explores a country, writes, and shares by means of it and still go back to their daily 9-5 jobs to require the extra payments. Especially if they want to continue going to new countries and explore their nature and culture. Definately do not agree when is more worthy, for all travellers are equal; however, one more work harder than the typical, but that still doesn’t they are more worthy. A tourist, on the other hand, is just one who simply likes to take time off from their career and just relax and enjoy the adventure rather than write about it. This is what makes a traveller and a tourist into two seperate category: Traveller writes, a tourist vists.
    I hope this makes sense, if not, don’t mind me.
    Anyway, there will always be someone wanting to make themselves more honorable in effect to gain more credit, which is fine. If they wish to do that, then let them. It shouldn’t be a bothersome. Each action happens for the best and perhaps lead the person into a better opportunity. ;)


  3. Really interesting post Nora and completely agree with Lara and ‘T’ that one type is not necessarily more ‘worthy’ than another. I like to mix it up too – work hard, save money and go off on an epic adventure (or two), but I have also lived as an expat and worked abroad, which gives you a different perspective to a place. No body should be made to feel like a cop out when it comes to travel – instead, everybody who makes an effort to explore and experience a part of the world that is different for their own should be commended and encouraged no matter which way they do it. There is no room for snobbery or elitism in the world of travel – everybody has their boundaries and should be able to embrace the world in the way in which they feel capable. They may even find that taking one step towards the nomadic lifestyle is enough to encourage them to become more adventurous in the future. I say, forget the titles and terminology and just get out there and enjoy our amazing planet! :-)

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