In the Suitcase: Avoiding tourist traps

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It’s easy to take advice from others while on vacation: Eat here! Go there! That place has the best mojitos! Don’t miss the incredible tour of this!

Depending from whom this advice is doled, we forget that opinions and tastes still vary greatly and then suddenly we fall into – the tourist trap. It happens often. Who do you blame? For starters, there’s some guidebooks, although those often will warn against tourist traps and some try to steer you away to “off-the-beaten-path” – sometimes a little more than you’d like. Then there’s friends who don’t know any better, concierge people who just recommend the same places to everyone, other travelers who are just plain excited to be on vacation that anything seems great, and then the dreaded Internet.

My in-laws just came back from a week in Puerto Vallarta where they’d experienced quite a bit of this. Now, my in-laws have very good taste when it comes to restaurants. They know what’s a good meal and what’s just for show. They’re not easily fooled by the  waiter making guacamole right before their eyes, even though they did take the suggestions of several people who raved about this particular restaurant and then it turned out to be a tourist trap with so-so food. They’d even tried a restaurant where only locals went, but even that turned out to be a disappointment. But they lucked out with a couple places suggested by some other travelers, and were happy with those.

I’ve learned never to ask the concierge for recommendations anymore. Each time I have, I’ve been directed to something that might as well be the Olive Garden.

So how do you know when to avoid a tourist trap or not? Well, some attractions are designed to trap a tourist (i.e. Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Hard Rock Cafe). Here is my breakdown of what’s touristy and what’s not.

  • Any guided tour on a tram or boat
  • Any observation deck of a tall structure or building that charges you for the elevator ride
  • Any store doing a “demonstration” of how something is made (lady weaving a blanket in the front, man carving a statuette)
  • Any street with chain shops and restaurants – because people tend towards what’s familiar (Times Square, Michigan Avenue)
  • Any piers with more than just boats attached to them (Navy Pier, Santa Monica Pier, South Street Seaport)
  • Anywhere with local people dressed up in period costume with whom you can take pictures for a small price.

Of course, sometimes the reason these places are so touristy is because they’re why the world comes to visit – like the Statue of Liberty, or the beaches of Mexico, or the top of the Eiffel Tower. And sometimes they’re really fun, like walking the entire Freedom Trail in Boston or part of the Great Wall of China.

Restaurants are harder, because sometimes the best restaurants are that good because they’ve been highly recommended by magazines, friends, guidebooks, etc. But realize that writers often get their news from other writers, so sometimes the reason that restaurant has been so acclaimed is because someone else acclaimed it, and hence a domino effect begins. However, guidebooks have become slightly more reliable in recent years, partly because of the competition, and none of them want to be known as the book that leads travelers to tourist traps. That being said, it is also the guidebooks who create the tourist traps, so really – chicken/ egg situation.

If you don’t want a touristy dining experience, then avoid:

  • Any restaurant where the majority of patrons are carrying backpacks or fanny packs, or are not of local origin.
  • Any restaurant where someone is standing outside with menu in hand trying to get you to eat there
  • Any restaurant with menus in several languages
  • Sometimes it’s best to ask a local who doesn’t seem sketchy (i.e. the kind who will try to send you off on a ride around town so he can earn a commission for referring you. This is practiced in India and Thailand frequently). He or she will usually give a “pshaw!” to a recommended touristy place and then direct you to one that is reputable in that city but probably little-known to tourists. Locals rarely go where tourists dine.

    Happy non-touristy travels!

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