A lot of opinions are given in the travel world when discussing whether or not people are travelers or tourists. I’m not going to directly discuss this yet again (thank God) but I do want to chat about an aspect of it. Slow travel has long been lauded as the most “authentic” and “pure” way of seeing the world. Traveling slowly, spending months in a place and living as locals do. Not all of us can afford to travel for months on end of course, but we have been told that we can easily incorporate elements of traveling like a local into even a trip that is 1-2 weeks long. Indeed, I’ve practiced many of these travel behaviors and they have made my travels more meaningful in the process. One that I had skipped, transportation, has long been something I’ve dreaded. But I was recently faced with traveling like a local in all aspects of the travel experience and so I decided to make an experiment out of it. This is what I learned.
The Set Up
Normally when I travel if I’m not in a big city, then I arrange some other form of transportation. Sometimes it’s a tour or a guide but most times I just drive myself. Recently though I found myself in a situation where public transportation really was the best option; safer than renting a car and cheaper than hiring a guide for the week. While I get by pretty well, I don’t have a great track record with anything that involves maps, directions or finding my own way, so some natural hesitation crept in, but that was healthy.
My goal was to spend a day exploring the areas immediately around me and then to go a little further afield and see more of the country. Normally I would just rent a car, but instead I decided to use the public bus system and I was honestly excited about the experience.
Then reality hit and it hit hard. I wanted to visit a few different areas of interest and since I had a free pass for the local hop-on-hop-off bus, I decided to go that route. I normally don’t like the HoHo buses, but it was a better option than visiting the central bus station several times as I jumped on new routes to visit all of the sights. Instead, in theory, the HoHo bus would just take me to every spot I wanted to visit.
The one thing I didn’t realize, being a HoHo bus virgin, was that because it visits so many sights, it takes forever. After visiting only just a few places, I realized that I was on the last bus of the day. I couldn’t believe how much time I had wasted going around in a big loop. To replicate my adventures for the day with a rental car would have taken a couple of hours, instead of the better part of the day which is how long it took me.
On my second day I decided to skip the HoHo and go straight for the public bus, hoping for a better result. Overall, the bus experiences were fine but they’re certainly no time saver. I forgot just how many stops they make and a 45-minute car trip was an hour and a half bus ride. Plus you are at the mercy of the drivers and the schedule. I was waiting for the bus at the appointed hour, it passed and then continued driving away – never stopping. It must have been full, but that meant another hour waiting for the next one. (Thankfully a cab came by and had pity on me.)
These are just a couple of examples of public transportation gone awry during my trip, there were more episodes – but you get the idea.
Traveling like a local is an inherently flawed concept for a couple of reasons. First, the phrase itself doesn’t really mean anything. None of us, not even those super slow travelers, are locals – we are ALL tourists. And that’s fine, there are a billion of us out there every year so how bad can we be? That being said, while trying to better understand the local culture is smart and important, not all local experiences need to be attempted by tourists. Sure, go to the supermarket and marvel at the strange foods and even try cooking for yourself. If you’re in a large city, then public transportation is probably a good idea to certain levels. But when you’re traveling through a more rural area or one that frankly isn’t very large, I don’t see a reason to depend exclusively on public transportation.
Sure, it’s a lot cheaper than renting a car or hiring a driver. Well, sort of. It’s not cheaper if you factor in your time. When I travel I do so for a week or maybe two and my time is frankly very valuable. I need to go out exploring and make sure I do and see as much as I can. Wasting entire days trying to figure out a bus network is not a smart way to travel.
So there you go. It was an interesting experiment, but unless I’m in a city I think I can skip the transportation aspect to local travel.
What do you think?