It happens to the best of us. We finally get a chance to explore the world, find a deal, book a trip—and end up in the same places as every other traveler.
It’s what happens when you stay where TripAdvisor tells you, eat where UrbanSpoon recommends, and Yelp your way through a vacation—just like everyone else.
Sure, you could go to Paris and never climb the Eiffel Tower, but with so little time off to play with, it’s a chance many of us aren’t willing to take. And suddenly you’re visiting a checklist instead of a place.
Make no mistake: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the wonders of the world or the UNESCO designated sites, but they aren’t the only reason to travel.
For every city you’ve heard about, there’s another waiting for you to discover it; but in a sea full of travel deals and Must-See lists, it can be difficult to discover the smaller destination fish.
So how do you find those spots that will wow you without risking a vacation where you come back disappointed? You prepare yourself to get lost.
Here are five tips to help you on your way:
1. Ask the neighbors.
I’ll never forget the afternoon I spent chatting with a couple in the lobby of a hotel in Jordan. They were explaining to me that as wonderful as Jordan was, we should really see Beirut, on the Mediterranean coast. “It’s just next door!” they urged.
The Lebanese capital had never been on my list—and is far from a guidebook staple—but suddenly I realized how easy it would’ve been to add it.
For every Rome, there’s a Mantua. Instead of creating a checklist based on the places that have received the most attention, seek out the destinations that seem to have been missed.
Look for the other side of the story that has already been told; it’s always there.
2. Ditch the GPS.
Your phone’s mapping apps are precise locating tools. Their job is to show you the quickest way to get from point A to point B.
Travel should never just be about “getting there.” Look at a paper map, read up on the neighborhoods—and how they relate to one another—in the destination you’re visiting, or simply chat up your hotel concierge for recommendations.
Is there a route that takes you through a bustling market, or along a quiet shore?
Give yourself permission to wander intentionally off-course.
3. Talk to strangers.
In this age where information is only a tweet away, there’s no reason to cross any destination off your list prematurely.
Find a hashtag that pinpoints your area of interest and ask away. Your fellow travelers will tell you where to go outside of Toronto. They’ll be happy to recommend a home stay in Croatia, or a guide they know well in Beijing.
Ask where the locals go for vacation, and the answers may surprise you. You’ll score insider information and the chance to create memories that aren’t formulaic or rote.
4. Hop on.
A train, subway, or city bus will work, too.
You can head straight to London’s theater district, or you can opt to get off the Tube a few stops early and explore a high street that holds its own set of memorable experiences and characters.
There is no better way to get to know some of the local vernacular then to blend in on a city commute.
5. Be open to the journey.
Not everything about getting lost will make you comfortable. That’s part of the reason you should do it.
This isn’t about being reckless or unsafe, it’s about choosing a path that isn’t so popular that it has lost its allure. This is about embracing the true idea of travel: To explore.
It can be spontaneous or it can be well planned. The key is to open yourself up to the possibility—and intention—of doing things differently.
It will only take one experience of traveling in this way to transform you. The stories and photos you’ll go home with will spur you forward to take the road less traveled again and again.
Heather Greenwood Davis is Nat Geo Travel’s resident family travel advocate, guru, and soothsayer. Follow her on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis and on Instagram @heathergd.