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Escaping the tourist traps: Ways to save by paving your own adventure

At TIAA, we often warn of the pitfalls of wasteful, spur of the moment purchases. When you’re traveling abroad, those purchases often come in the form of the dreaded tourist trap. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all fallen for at least one. The giant billboard beckoning you to the world’s largest land crack. The heavily advertised, but never truly authentic “must eat” restaurants in Italy. The social media superstar rice paddies in Bali. Problem is, when you get there, you pay steep prices just to battle long lines and huge crowds—often left with only disappointment and frustration to look back upon.

Tourist traps exist for a very specific reason. Many of the countries that probably appear on your “Top Vacation Spots” list rely on tourism to fund their livelihoods. As word-of-mouth spreads, crowds pile in, prices go up and, oftentimes, authenticity drops.

Here are some ways you (and your wallet) can avoid tourist traps on your next trip—and find unique travel experiences that can be more genuine, and may even save you money along the way.

1. Break in your hiking shoes

Most tourist traps only trap you because they’re roadside and easy to reach. But, if you’re willing to get more physical and hike, bike, kayak or explore a bit, you’ll be able to reach some unknown places or hidden beaches many other travelers can’t.

We met a 28-year-old who recently spent more than two weeks in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. One day, he rented a bike and intentionally got himself lost in the village. As he cycled around, he came across a whole street covered in harvested rice that was laying out to dry in the sun. Further down the road, he stumbled upon some local men in a dragon costume practicing for an upcoming festival. He ended up befriending one of the men and gave him a ride home on his rented bike. He described all of this as a completely free and life-changing experience, and one that never would have happened on a guided tour.

2. Live like the locals

Before you commit to dinner at that highly recommended restaurant, take note of the people who are already eating there. If it’s mostly a tourist crowd, keep walking. You’ll eventually come across a spot packed with local families dining together, creating a very different—and much more authentic—experience.

When it comes to food (or just about anything else on your trip) don’t be afraid to shake out of your comfort zone and join the local scene. You’re almost sure to find these folks love to welcome foreigners in, and they may even order their favorite dish for you. These local restaurants and markets may seem intimidating, but if you give them a chance, they can make for the most rewarding, authentic and delicious memories of your trip. And, as an extra bonus, you’ll probably find them to be much friendlier to your budget than the tourist hot spot is.

3. Catch the sunrise

Best way to beat the crowds? Wake up before them. Some of the top vacation spots, like famous temples, volcanic peaks, blue hot springs, giant waterfalls, sprawling mountain ranges and surfing hot spots… are all best seen with the rising sun. You’ll have a private, front row seat for little-to-no entrance fee, and no one standing in the way as you try to snap the perfect picture. So, if you’re visiting a country that offers unique travel opportunities or untouched natural beauty, take full advantage of the sites at a time of day where you can be truly present in the moment.

4. Select off-season destinations

If you think about it, the weather can also be a tourist trap. Everyone wants to schedule their trip when the days will be dry, sunny and warm. But Goa…Cartagena…Grenada…Belize…these are just a few of the top vacation spots that are considered “off-season” during the summer months. And if you, like many other TIAA participants, work in education and have extended summer breaks, you can use that to your advantage when choosing your travel destinations. Sure, you may catch a few rainy days, but, if you look on the bright side, that can offer a nice break from the heat. You’re also almost guaranteed a significantly cheaper visit, because crowds are smaller during the low-season, so accommodations and attractions tend to be more affordable in order to draw in more business. You’ll also have a better chance of capturing a truly authentic experience if you’re not constantly surrounded by mobs of peak-season visitors!

When you’re vacationing, choosing the road less traveled (or the months less traveled) can land you somewhere far more rewarding than you’d have ever imagined. So, for your next adventure, save yourself some money and headaches by following your gut instead of the crowd. You’ll be happy you did!

Looking for additional tips about how to avoid spending pitfalls back at home? You’ll find plenty of helpful advice at TIAA.org.