6 Smart Ways to Recognize and Avoid Tourist Traps

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What is a tourist trap exactly? It's a heavily advertised attraction that lures unsuspecting tourists away from their time and money without providing any insight or authenticity to the destination they're visiting. There are, of course, legendary landmarks and experiences that every traveler should see and have, but then there are obvious tourist traps that act as conveyor belts to separate the unsuspecting visitor from their hard-earned cash. We don't want you to waste a second or a cent on less-than-worthwhile travel experiences, so we came up with these smart ways to help you recognize and avoid tourist traps. 

1. Research before and after you arrive.

The easiest way to avoid a tourist trap is to get the inside scoop on your destination before you arrive. If every guidebook and website has an advertisement for a specific beach restaurant, it’s likely going to be filled with tourists and high prices. A good rule of thumb is that if you and everyone you know has heard of a specific place, it’s likely mostly for tourists. After you arrive in your destination, ask the hotel concierge or any local friends where they like to eat and what they like to do. You might get a touristy answer at first, but try phrasing your question differently. For example, you can ask: Where would you take a first date? Where do you shop for birthday presents?

2. Look for locals.

The number one sign that you’ve stumbled into a tourist trap is the complete lack of locals. The only New Yorkers in Times Square are the ones hurrying through as quickly as possible to get to work. You likely won’t see any actual Thai people haggling for knickknacks at the Damnoen Saduak floating market. And the few Jamaicans at Dunn’s River Falls are the guides who hustle for tips. Instead of choosing activities based on what you think you shoulddo on vacation, ask yourself what it is you like to do. Then, find a museum, bookstore, concert, surf lesson, or restaurant that isn’t advertised to the visiting masses or sold as a package deal.

3. Ignore hawkers and touts.

Think of your favorite restaurant at home. Does that restaurant employ people to roam the street, rounding up visitors and bringing them back to eat a three-course prix fixe? Probably not. That’s because your favorite restaurant isn’t a tourist trap. If an unsolicited stranger is insisting that you eat somewhere, this person gets a cut from the restaurant. And most restaurants that depend on tourists don’t truly care about providing a quality meal, since tourists don’t generally return for a future visit. Stick to reading restaurant reviews and asking locals where they eat before choosing a restaurant. Another good rule of thumb is to skip restaurants right near major landmarks. For example, the restaurants around the Acropolis in Greece are notoriously overpriced and serve low-quality food. (We got a cut up hot dog with pancakes at one restaurant.) The same common sense goes for booking tours. We were once convinced by a tout to visit an animal sanctuary in Thailand. After shelling out our cash, we stood in line with 50 other tourists who all got one minute to have their photo taken with a baby elephant.  

4. Don't sleep in tourist zones.

Most city and beach destinations that depend on tourism have a Hotel Zone or popular neighborhood filled with affordable chain hotels (think Midtown in Manhattan or the Hotel Zone in Cancun). So it makes sense that the restaurants and shops around the hotels cater heavily to tourists with chain stores, fast food restaurants, and hawkers selling tours. If you can, choose a hotel that’s located away from the beaten path. You may end up paying a bit more for transportation, but you’ll likely discover a much better food, shopping, and exploration scene where locals actually hang out. 

5. Watch for translations.

If something is advertised in English, French, Spanish, and Mandarin, you can almost guarantee that it’s a tourist trap. Activities and restaurants that try to appeal to everybody usually don’t do a very good job at appealing to anybody. Instead, look for places that are advertised solely in the country’s language. For example, Italian restaurants in Florence with Italian menus have a much better chance of being authentic than their multi-language counterparts. 

6. Avoid countries that rely solely on tourism.

Many Caribbean islands and Asian countries rely heavily on tourism. And while that’s not a terrible thing, it does mean that having an authentic experience or getting away from the crowds might be more difficult than you’d imagine. All-inclusive resorts are some of the worst offenders for providing a cattle call-like tourist trap experience. Hotels in the Dominican Republic line guests up for “free” 10-minute massages that are little more than an upsell for longer services. Dive boats in Belize are often packed to the brim with snorkelers, and guides illegally feed fish for photo ops. The best way to avoid these kinds of experiences is to stay at smaller boutique hotels with more personalized service, or choose a destination that doesn’t fully rely on tourism dollars. 

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