Travel Planning. Expert Advice.


June 25, 2014

Is Getting “Off-The-Beaten-Path” Overrated?

Tourists Crowd the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

If you read nearly any travel blog out there, they will tell you about all their experiences “getting off-the-beaten-path”. They will regale you with stories of cities where they were the first foreigner to visit in 20 years, and how their experiences were “more authentic” than those who only saw a country’s major sites.

However, the dirty truth that no one tells you is that “off-the-beaten-path” often isn’t all that far off the beaten path. More times than not, one person’s exotic locale is someone else’s beaten path. Let me give you an example:

Last year, I spent a brief period of time as a travel agent. During my training, I sat in a room amongst more than a dozen Americans that enjoy travel and were starting careers as travel agents, recommending destinations around the world for their clients to visit.

The instructor was talking about how not all requests are for the same destinations and asked the room if anyone knew where Bali was. To the shock of both my fellow agents and the instructor, my hand shot up with the correct answer. How a room of mostly females, some of whom must have read “Eat, Pray, Love” seemed to have never heard of Bali, I don’t know. I mean, with three million visitors a year to this tiny Indonesian island, Bali can hardly be considered off-the-beaten-path. However, if I had written a post about Bali that was read by these travel agents, it would have seemed like an exotic, off-the-beaten-path destination to many.

There are very few travel writers out there who are legitimently getting off-the-beaten-path. There are even fewer destinations that are worth visiting by short term travelers that are unknown to all but the most intrepid, long-term travelers.

A boat on the shore of Don Khon in the 4000 Islands on Laos.

Laos is great, but is it really off the beaten path?

I’ve written in the past about my love of Laos. Laos is certainly a country that is off the radar of many travelers. However, the boats, planes, and buses that make their way to Luang Prabang in northern Laos each day are crammed full of foreigners seeking that authentic Laotian experience. Do they get it? Maybe, maybe not. However, they certainly aren’t getting it alone.

What most travel writers won’t tell you is that actually getting well off the beaten path requires a significant amount of courage, patience, and luck. It’s certainly not for everyone, doubly so for those who don’t travel for a significant portion of the year.

Would I recommend that adventurous travelers with weeks or months of time to travel visit Wat Phou is southern Laos? Absolutely! It’s wonderful and, with very few tourists, quite off the typical path that most tourists take.

Would I recommend that you skip Angkor Wat and visit Wat Phou because the former is too touristy and the later is more authentic? Absolutely not! After all, there is a reason that Angkor Wat receives millions of foreign visitors a year and Wat Phou receives hundreds.

Wat Phou is one of the ancient cities of the Khmer. Located in Laos, Wat Phou is the older, less touristed cousin of Angkor Wat.

Wat Phou is great, but don’t skip Angkor Wat to visit it.

Would I recommend my parents visit Wat Phou? Absolutely not! It takes a certain kind of traveler to deal with the unsafe transportation and crappy hotels of the region to visit this great temple.

Getting back to the point of this rant, I have two requests.

If you are a travel writer reading this, what’s so wrong with visiting the popular sites and encouraging your readers to do the same? I loved the Colosseum in Rome, and I think that everyone should see it at one point in their lives. I can’t imagine that many would disagree, despite it being one of the world’s most well-known buildings. Share those experiences with your readers.

For travelers who are reading this, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can’t have an authentic travel experience unless you are 100 miles from the nearest foreigner. The dirty secret that any experienced traveler knows is that you can have an authentic and off-the-beaten-path adventure in almost any city.

Visiting a major city? Take a left when the guidebook tells you to turn right. Walk the backroads around the large cities. Even in heavily touristed places like New York City, Prague, Tokyo, etc, you’d be amazed how few tourists there are two blocks away from the main road.

Even better, instead of taking a taxi, bus, or subway between destinations, walk. You’ll be amazed how few travelers walk between destinations that are only a short distance apart, and you’ll likely get a great cultural experience without having to leave the busy city streets.

Ultimately, don’t fall for the cliche that you can only have authentic travel experiences if you get off-the-beaten-path. You can have them anywhere and at any time.


  1. As one of those few travel bloggers that is, in fact, getting off the beaten path on a regular (e.g. weekly) basis, I can definitely say getting offbeat is actually UNDERrated in some regards. True, some destinations deserve their untouristed reputation – my wife and I have come across plenty of places that had no English language signs and few facilities.

    Going offbeat is not for everyone – as Jim correctly points out, there are issues with finding hotels and transportation. Our trip last weekend involved finding the one shop in a small Thai town that would rent us a bike so we could travel ~70km to a SMALLER Thai town. If you have a short time in a city or country, taking a half-day to see one out-of-the-way place isn’t what I’d call the best use of your time.

    That being said, getting offbeat is amazingly – AMAZINGLY – easy in some cases. The example I give most often is in Bangkok – across the street from the extremely touristy Grand Palace is a wonderful Amulet Market. It takes up a block or so worth of sidewalk – again, just across the street from the Grand Palace – yet goes tragically undervisited by foreign tourists. That’s a real shame, since amulets go for 5-10 baht (15-30 US cents) and some awesome rings for a couple of US dollars.

    One metric I use on my posts is ‘ease of arrival’ – one ‘weird globe’ means it’s tough to find or tough to get to; five ‘weird globes’ means it’s easy to find / reach. Between that, the other metrics, and the directons I take great pains to get right, it’ll help you decide whether a place is worth the effort.

    In any case, authentic travel also requires being open to it. Insisting on a caramel macchiato instead of the local caffeine-laced drink will put you in a more touristy part of town. Allow yourself to take a different direction, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    • Traveling while retired means having all the time to travel off the beaten path. Sometimes I actually do so. On the first night in a Kyoto guesthouse, for example, discussing where I’d been the previous week, there were 3 types of reactions. First was ‘Where?’ but they didn’t want to know, second was ‘Tell me more’ and they really wanted to know, and the third was ‘You went to [town] and didn’t see [site]?’ To each his own.

      Oh, that Amulet Market by the Grand Palace was in whatever edition of Lonely Planet I read before my first trip to Thailand in 94. Which, if one is reading Frommer’s or the like, is off the beaten path.

  2. Great points, Jim. I also came to the conclusion long ago that “off-the-beaten-path” is relative. To people that don’t travel often, even well-touristed cities like Bangkok can seem out of the ordinary. The big problem, I think, is the snobbery and pretentiousness that goes along with those travellers that frown upon “normal” destinations, like somehow the difficulty of travel determines how “authentic” of a traveller you are (or whether you’re no more than just a “tourist”, another distinction I’m starting to realize is completely ludicrous). The best way I can sum this up: travel, if you love to travel. Who cares where you go. Who cares what you see or do. Do what makes you happy. Do what helps you learn what you want to learn. Most off all, don’t listen to travel bloggers if they scoff at your “normal” travel plans. It’s your life; live it the way you want! [Rant over.] 🙂

  3. A quick follow-up – I just published a more complete version of my thoughts on going offbeat. I had been meaning to write a piece along these lines, but over the weekend (a bumpy bus ride, no less!) I had the chance to sit down and write it out =)

    • I really enjoyed the post, Chris, and you have some great points there. I can definitely say without a doubt, that you are one of the few travel writers I know of that consistently finds interesting places to visit that are off the beaten path. Your book about Korea made me feel like I’d seen almost nothing when I visited the country. Keep up the good work!

  4. Totally agree! I think it’s important to see what interests you most–wether it’s touristy or not! People can miss out on a great experience if they think it’s “too touristy”, but at the same time, it’s great to look beyond all the hyped up destinations and attractions to find lesser known activities as well!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *