Nomad ≠ Tourist

20 May 2012. Filed under category Nomad.
Two movie posters cut together.

Two movie posters cut together.

Nomads and tourists share a love for travel, but the way they travel and what they get out of it is very different. Trying to understand the nomadic life from a tourist point of view is a mistake, but an easy one to make. After all, most people have been tourists but few have been nomads, and we judge from what we know.

This post is an overview of the main differences between nomads and tourists, and later I will explore some of these topics in more depth.


With limited time, the tourist often hurries.

With limited time, the tourist often hurries.

The most obvious and important difference between a nomad and a tourist is how much time they have. A tourist normally travels for a week or two while the nomad travels indefinitely.

Every nomad has his own preferences for how long to stay in a place, but it is usually measured in months, not weeks. With that much time, the nomad can explore at leisure. There is no need to get up at dawn to cram as much sightseeing into each and every day. We can enjoy long breaks at a café without missing the chance to see some great monument or bazaar. They will still be there the next day, week or month.

(I must admit, however, that I sometimes miss the elated feeling of crashing into a hotel bed, drained to the brink of exhaustion by a long day of hard-core sightseeing, feet throbbing from the many miles walked along foreign streets.)

Everyday Life

My current grocer. It will change.

My current grocer. It will change.

Travel for a tourist is a break from normal life. Travel for a nomad, however, is an ever-changing backdrop to everyday life. The nomad still does normal things like work, buy groceries, chill out in the park and watch TV.

But the nomadic life changes these seemingly mundane acts from being repetitive and predictable to exciting and new. Grocery shopping in the US is very different from grocery shopping in Mexico. New countries offer new parks with new floras. And of course, watching local TV is always fun, especially the commercials! (Nothing says more about a country than their commercials!)

It is easy to stay mindful and appreciative of everyday life when it keeps changing.


Finding friendship through travel.

Finding friendship through travel.

Tourists seldom make friends in the places they visit. Acquaintances perhaps, but not friends. There is simply not enough time, and too many things to do in that time, to make friends.

For a nomad, however, making friends is imperative! Not only is it lonely without friends, but they are also key to knowing a place. You can visit every museum in a country, but to understand its people, you must be invited into their homes.

Skills and Hobbies

Tango is the skill I'm learning in Buenos Aires.

Tango is the skill I'm learning in Buenos Aires.

Certain places are great places to learn new skills. Buenos Aires is the home of tango while Switzerland has amazing skiing. Tourists can of course try these things, but apart from the simplest of skills, there isn’t enough time for the tourist to learn much. A nomad, however, can dedicate months towards honing a new skill or hobby.

Doing this is also a great way to meet new friends.


Cost and Acclimatization

Cost and Acclimatization

It is hard to appreciate the serene landscape of some foreign land when the body is busy ejecting every last scrap of food and nourishment through any available orifice. There is also jet lag, heat stroke and altitude sickness to enjoy when arriving in a new country.

A nomad has time to acclimatize. These problems also become milder and less frequent the more you travel. (Your belly will eventually play host to the United Nations of Bacteria, able to take on any dodgy street food with no problems!)


Travelling as a nomad is a lot cheaper than travelling as a tourist. You are more flexible and can therefore find cheaper flights (see Airline Patron). Short-term rents are a lot cheaper than staying in hotels. Cooking at home saves a lot of money on restaurant bills. And of course, a nomad won’t be paying rent or mortgage for an empty flat or house back home.

Then again, it is generally easier to earn money holding down a geo-static job than through a location-independent career.

Travel Update

The topic of this post came from the realization that I was judging my own ‘success’ as a nomad through the perspective of a tourist. (see ‘Mental Monsters’) I am still not exploring Buenos Aires, but since I realigned my expectations with what I want to get out from the city, that no longer bothers me.

My days are still occupied with work, learning tango (Where I am meeting wonderful new friends!) and working out.

I did get to go to Teatro Colón for a classical concert/opera, which might be the highlight of my time in Buenos Aires so far! There, I fell in love with this song. Go on, enjoy it while you read the comments and maybe leave one yourself?


What is the longest trip (to one place) that you’ve made?

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  1. Longest trip, hmm. Must be Riga – for 2 months.
    This is great though. If I’m in a place for a short time (ie. my cruise ship life) I tend to act the tourist and see the sights. But when I travel on my own, I have a different perspective.

    Last summer, I was in Paris for 2 weeks and only saw the Eiffel Tower after 5 days (I accidentally bumped into it when I was lost one day). Fellow travelers were mortified I had waited so long to see it. Why? Were they expecting it to go somewhere??

  2. kimera azriel says:

    I suppose since I am still on a visitors visa, this two and a half year long “trip” to England has been my longest.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Ha ha, yes indeed. Now, let’s check the checklist:

      • Time: Plenty, and I sure hope you’ve explored at a pleasant pace. Have you seen the Big Ben yet?
      • Everyday life: Well, knowing you, your version of ‘everyday life’ is pretty spectacular.
      • Friendships: Technically, you met me before you came to England, but the rest of our circle of friends sure count!
      • Hobbies: Role-Playing Games!!!!
      • Acclimatization: No one ever quite gets used to London weather…
      • Cost: Ha ha ha ha! Yeah right.
  3. Craig Brown says:

    Ironically, since I’ve now taken nearly 1000 overseas trips (flight attendant), my longest trip was my first: five months in Spain studying abroad and living with a conservative family. Time: check, Everyday life: I had homework, so check, Friendships: hmm, no, the only lasting one’s were with other Americans (wow, have I changed in this department!), Hobbies: I bullfight, dance flamenco, and make an awesome paella (I lie too), Acclimatization: well, does being able to communicate in Spanish count? I never did understand my “Spanish” family’s dynamics, Cost: I was living way below the poverty line. I came home weighing 118 lbs., yikes.
    I was so homesick at times. I’d stare at a globe and see Spain, and then I’d look at Michigan where I was from. I was amazed that Michigan was even on their globe – surely I must be on another planet. One of the two loneliest times of my life was during this time; an engulfing black hole loneliness that I just stared at like I was looking at myself in the third person. Strangely, it was not due to the culture which I found fascinating. It had more to do with not having money. Backpacking around Europe at the end I had to parcel out my money extremely carefully so I could have a bed to sleep in each night before my unchangeable return flight date of March 18.

  4. Renata says:

    Hey, if you ever intend to come to brazil, e-mail me and I can give you some tips on where to go and what to avoid (even making a couch available to you). I live in the capital of paraná (a city called Curitiba), not very far from Argentina.

    Good luck with your journey!

  5. Jon says:

    Great comparison and so spot on.

  6. I have been out almost a year and haven’t looked back. It took me a while to realize that life isn’t about possessions and comfort but living your dreams and having adventures.

    Well, I guess if comfort and having possessions is you dream then it could be BUT, I choose not to live that way!

  7. Brother Henrik says:

    The song is probably good but i prefer hardrock,blues and mettal.
    The longest trip i have done is to new zeland for tow month.

  8. John Oliver says:

    Managed to clock up 16 months in Laos – 3 months first trip – back for another month to see if I had just been dreaming – returned for a full year after giving up old life in NZ to have a go at living in Asia – spent that next 12 months volunteering in exchange for room & food acting as a live in English speaking manager at an Eco-resort in Laos. Then traveled thought Laos and also ventured into Thailand and Cambodia with a short journeys into Vietnam and Malaysia.
    Currently in Bali Indonesia (here for first time) – returning to Perth Western Australia in a few days for a weeks work and the back to somewhere in Asia…? Depending on what flights & accommodation are on special that day!

    1. Awesome! I have an Asia specialist among my subscribers! I’m planning to check out Asia a bit in 2013. Perhaps I can pick your brain!

What is the longest trip (to one place) that you’ve made?

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