How to Avoid Tourist Prices

Why Tourists Pay More Than Locals and How to Avoid It

In some parts of the world money truly isn’t everything and being a member of society involves more than just dollars and Euros.  In these places, you will always pay more than a “local”.  This is fate’s unintentional way of making up for what you as a foreigner can’t contribute to the communities of these adventurous destinations during your short visit.  Welcome to the “tourist tax”. 

Dollars, Euros, Pounds, or Lek.  If you’re a foreigner, you’ll likely spend more than a local…unless…

For most travelers, the reaction is the same: outrage, disgust, and frustration at the idea of being charged more than someone else.  Why should you pay more? We’re all the same! Right? 

 No.  We’re not.

The “Bottom Line Upfront” on avoiding Tourist Prices

  1. Show interest in the local language, customs, and culture, and use them proactively as much as you can
  2. Be open to eating and drinking the local food and drink (and expect the Tourist Tax on anything foreign or above the local standard of living)
  3. Be curious about the locals, their history, and their perspectives
  4. Use body language to communicate and be empathetic when words fail you – it’s the only language that everyone really knows
A handshake in Vietnam – an international sign of respect not to be underestimated

Take the experience in stride, embrace the culture and community you’re visiting, accept the practical education, and keep reading for tips on avoiding that dreaded “tourist tax” as much as possible.  Buried beneath the extra pennies you pay is a scheme more fair than you might initially think, and a cultural education well worth the up charge.


Why Tourists Pay More Than Locals and How to Avoid It

Tourist prices, or the unofficial “Tourist Tax” is an extra charge that gets tacked onto traveler’s purchases, to make up for ways that westerners and foreigners don’t contribute to the communities they pass through

In much of the developed world, society is so structured that we rely on strangers to survive, and the only currency we exchange for these services is cash…

Life is straightforward in the west.  You go to work. You go home.  You pay bills and purchase essentials some time during that routine.  Along the way, you may notice a series of well-structured interactions with strangers that happen in a very predictable, reliable way that provide you nearly everything you need in life to survive.  Welcome to the west (or at least America).

You buy groceries from strangers.  You buy the fuel for your car from strangers.  You buy your coffee at a café without knowing a single thing about the barista.  You’re referred to a doctor that you don’t know (by a stranger on the phone) to solve life and death issues. The person on the phone that you call in roadside emergencies sends a stranger to fix your car.

Where are these people from that enable your life?  What are their backgrounds?  Are they anything like you? As interesting as these questions are, none of them matter, because the network of services they create are so reliable that you never actually need to ask that question.  You know that there will always be a stranger waiting to help…in exchange for your dollars.  All you need is that cold, hard, cash.

In the developing world, where life is much less standardized and people rely on each other for more of the unexpected…

More than cash is required from each community’s members to keep the community healthy.

In the villages of Laos, everyone knows everyone, creating a patchwork of families that form a well functioning tribe of interdependent people.  Every member of that community is on standby for any emergency, to help with a harvest, and to lend their own brand of creativity when a problem arises.

In Wadi Rum, Jordan, half of the Jordanian Bedouin “locals” you see in that village are cousins, all from the same tribe, all there working to facilitate the financial success and health of their tribe.  The remaining locals in the village, mostly Egyptians, are seen as brothers and sisters that contribute equally to the same goal.

In the badlands of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where Bedouins have existed for generations, every member must contribute and cooperate for the tribe to survive

Call it emotional labor.  Call it just lending a hand.  Call it whatever you wish, but being a member of a community in the developing world, in the adventurous travel destinations, requires much more than cash.  So, if the only thing we as foreigners contribute is cash we can naturally expect a higher price to enjoy the same quality of life that their community works towards everyday.

Communities in the developing world have a notion that every available hand will help with the community’s work 

If you don’t plan on contributing to the community, beyond cash, plan on paying for it.  Literally. 

As Sebastien Junger points out in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (which I highly recommend reading), the more developed and affluent a country becomes, the more disconnected and individualistic it’s members become.  The gift and curse of money is the more you have of it, the less you depend on others.  In turn, the more disconnected you become from your community and the people in it, the less you can rely on them for anything beyond the “list of services provided” outside their store.

Read more on Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe”

There is an expectation in the developed world that you shouldn’tdepend on anyone outside of your tiny social circle, and even within yoursocial circle, don’t ask for too much. Need to talk? Go see a shrink. Flat tire? Call a tow truck. Feeling sick? Unless you’re dying, drive yourself to the doctor.  Feeling sick and think you aredying?  Call an ambulance.

Those little villages and developing countries you visit that charge you more, they don’t work that way.  They function in a completely different fashion, each person filling many, changing roles in the community to keep it at its best.  Your hostel owner’s neighbor is also the person that he knows will help him fix his car just enough to get it to the mechanic.  The person up the block will keep an eye on the children while the parents are out handling …and that  can be trusted to do so.   If there’s extra food, even passersby could get an invite to share (its happened to me many times). 

On the side of a normal road in northern Vietnam, one drive stops to help another load wood onto a motor scooter.  Could this woman count on you to stop and help?

The community works this way because there’s an expectation that every member will contribute and support.  The community members may not have a ton of money, but they do have loyalty, work ethic, and willingness to help to no end.

 Are you willing to help to no end?  Or do you just have cash to offer?  I’m betting the answer is both…but is that the norm?  Can the locals can reasonably expect anyone “like you” to help in the same way?  If not, then count on getting that extra charge for the things that can’t rely on you for, until you prove that you can be relied on.

The Zabali tribe: The locals of Wadi Rum, Jordan and a perfect example of a tight nit, interdependent community

I was recently in the village of Wadi Rum, home to impressive rock formations where tourists come to sleep under the stars in Bedouin camps surrounded by the never-ending Jordanian desert.  In transit to their respective camps, travelers stop off in the village of Wadi Rum.  Via email, guests are directed to wait at the Wadi Rum Rest House where their hosts will find them on arrival and take them to the appropriate camps.  But having never seen their guests, and many guests being without cell or data service, how do the hosts find their guests upon arrival?

A few of the guest houses have representatives waiting in front of the Wadi Rum rest house asking travelers upon arrival, ”do you have a reservation?” If the answer is “no”, they try to book you at their guesthouse or Bedouin camp.  If the answer is “yes”, they immediately ask where you will be staying.  When your back is turned they call your host – the host of a different guesthouse or camp from their own – to let them know you’ve arrived.

Bedouins and Jordanian locals travel in the back of a pick up while tourists traveled in air conditioned buses.  One more “luxury” that tourists enjoy…and pay for

I thought that was interesting.  In a city that runs completely on tourism and having as many guests as possible come to your camp equates to success, the guest house staff members help their competition ensure their competition’s customers have a good experience, and they don’t ask for any money in return.  To me, that seems counterintuitive – helping your competition in a very competitive environment. 

In the 10 minutes I waited for my host I had a chance to chat with a local and asked, “why exactly are you helping your competition? Aren’t you losing money that way?”

The answer: he wasn’t helping his “competition”, he was helping his cousin who owns the other guest house.  Practically every Jordanian in the village of Wadi Rum is part of the Zabali tribe.  If one person (or guesthouse) is in need, they all help as much as necessary.  If someone has a flat tire in the desert during a tour, they are all willing to help.  If someone is starting a new camp, they all help.  Without limits.  They discuss everything and share in successes and failures.  They talk out issues and problems in the village, be they business issues or personal issues. 

There I was, during all of this work to be done, enjoying a “genuine Bedouin experience” while I sat on my ass and let them handle everything.  That is why I would be charged so much more than a local throughout my experience, enjoying the experience of their home without the work.

How to Avoid Tourist Prices in 4 Easy Steps

Be aware the Tourist Tax can go up if “your people” disrespect the place the cultural, or the people

Now, if it seems bad enough that you’re justly being charged for the effort that you don’t contribute, keep in mind, if you disrespect the place you’re visiting, the community that is sharing it with you, or the culture they cherish, you can plan on paying even more in the future.  That will also apply for every traveler that follows in your footsteps.  Just as well, if people “like you” have gone through and done the same before you’ve arrived, count on that “foreigner upcharge” sticking for you until the locals know you personally.  Your friends pretty much dug a hole for everyone that you have to climb out of if you want a truly local experience.

Does this sound far-fetched?  Thailand, which was once a cheap, off the beaten track, backpacker haven now has two clear separate pricing systems targeting foreigners and locals.  It wasn’t always this way, but over time, young westerners fueled up on buckets of alcohol and light on cultural awareness pushed the atmosphere of Thailand into a situation where you have to work to prove you’re one of the “good ones” before you can avoid that notorious “Farang pricing”. 

The cheap and exciting lifestyle of Thailand gave rise to fire shows and pub crawls like these entertain impressively, but have left a bad impression on locals in the last decade

Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is still a great place that you should visit (and even enjoy a couple buckets) but know that there is a strong, deeply seeded perception of the average westerner that you’ll have to overcome if you want a “local” experience and anything close to “local prices”.

The same thing happens in Vietnam whenever someone decides to order that bowl of Pho or Bun Cha while completely wasted and without respecting the Vietnamese customs and courtesies of interaction.  After about 10 rounds of arguing with a western drunkard with the munchies at 2AM to please be quiet and take his feet off your chair, you might get a little stone faced and start charging “all of them” more as well.

Obama’s Restaurant – Hanoi, Vietnam, instigating throngs of rowdy, drunken foreigners and expats on the regular.  Thanks Obama. (Full Disclosure: I just really wanted to use this pic.  Thanks Obama)

In other parts of the world, if you show up to any shop close to siesta time without showing the requisite politeness, expect to be treated rudely.  Now, about that rudeness.  What do you think it is?  You guessed it…that’s another form of the tourist tax kicking in, because you (or I , in this case) didn’t respect the cultural norm of “don’t come just before I’m closing, or at least be charming if you’re going to annoy me.”

Personally, I didn’t realize the holiness of the siesta until spending an entire month in Greece. 

When I was teaching English to refugees on the island of Lesvos, somehow I always needed my teaching aids printed just before siesta time hit, when the shops were closing.  Every time I went to print, just before siesta time, I was faced with a perpetually grumpy owner.  His face was always scrunched up like a prune to passive aggressively express his annoyance. 

After the third time experiencing the owner’s cold demeanor I realized an apology, a couple “para-ka-lo’s” (excuse me in Greek…I think), a couple “iftar-ish-ko’s” (thanks in Greek…I think), and explaining why I was always inconveniencing him might be in order.  After that, his demeanor changed remarkably.  Much warmer.  Much friendlier.  Later, the times that I forgot my change in my car, he smiled and gave me the printouts I needed free.  I definitely hadn’t hit local status, but the tourist tax on Lesvos was starting to fade for me, in large part because I embraced and started being slightly considerate of the local customs.

Now we know that foreigner pricing exists, so how can we avoid it?

How can you avoid paying more than locals when traveling? 

  1. Show interest in the local language, customs, and culture, and use them proactively as much as you can
  2. Be open to eating and drinking the local food and drink (and expect the Tourist Tax on anything foreign or above the local standard of living)
  3. Be curious about the locals, their history, and their perspectives
  4. Use body language to communicate and be empathetic when words fail you – it’s the only language that everyone really knows

1. Show interest in the local language,customs, and culture, and use them proactively as much as you can

You don’t need to speak every word of their language, but learning the essentials for a polite interaction will pay dividends. 

Please, thank you, excuse me, hello, goodbye.  These words will get you much further than you might think.  In the end, what matters is showing that you are attempting to communicate in their language and fit into their world, instead of expecting them to adapt to you…the foreigner.  Just try.  You won’t be perfect, but the attempt will be appreciated.

Mark, my partner in crime during the Vietnam moto-bike trip, making the most of Google Translate to connect with the locals

2. Be open to the local foods and drink 

If you eat local, and drink local, you’re more likely to pay what a local pays.

On the other hand, if everything you eat is foreign (e.g., hamburgers, pasta), plan on always paying more.  If this fits your budget and the experience you desire, rock on.  If you’re trying to keep costs low in adventurous destinations, make the adjustment.  Eat and drink like a local to avoid the tourist tax, preserve that hard earned cash, and extend how long you can stay on the road.

If you see locals flock to a street food stand, follow and you’ll likely be rewarded with a cheap, tasty, and “tourist price” free treat – this one off of Khao San Rd in Bangkok was a jackpot!

3. Be curious about the locals, their history, and their perspectives

Few people enjoy dealing with the kind of person who shows up to a party for the free drinks and free food, but smugly talks to absolutely no one and avoids the hosts.  That’s the social equivalent of travelers who come halfway across the world to cheap locales (e.g., Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam) and show no interest in the local history, people, and their points of view.  You’re making yourself a target to be taken advantage of, the same way you’re taking advantage of their economic situation.

If you want to be part of the community (and avoid the foreigner pricing and treatment) engage with the locals in a genuine way.  Talk to them. Get to know them. Learn about them. Be open to what they have to share with you.  Be respectful of their culture and their home.  This approach will make the interactions richer on both sides.

4. Use body language to communicate where words fail

Body language is the one language that everyone on the planet speaks fluently, so use it and beware of what you’re communicating.  Body language can communicate respect, friendliness, a polite need or desire, or a number of negative ideas, so beware of what your body language is communicating and use it to your advantage.

Handshakes and smiles are the kind of body language that everyone speaks fluently

Do these tips for avoiding foreigner pricing actually work in the real world? 

Damn right they do.

Even in such tight communities as the Bedouin tribes I mentioned, there’s a chance to assimilate. 

Now, back to my story of the Zabali tribe in the deserts of Wadi Rum

Over my 24 hours in Wadi Rum I paid out the nose for everything from food, to water, to tours, to a place to sleep…just like every tourist does.  I sat around comfortably and let them handle everything, just like I planned, but it cost a quite a bit (by budget traveler standards).

When the time came to get out of town and head for my flight to Beirut I had an overpriced 25 JD ($35 USD) cab ride to Aqaba.  I scheduled the taxi right the night before, taking a leisurely 4×4 drive through the Mad Max style landscape and cool desert air to meet my ride.  The “taxi driver” showed up a little more polished than your average Middle Eastern cabbie – a crisp, button down shirt and loafers, driving a new Hilux.  He was clearly someone’s boss in town on free time just making a few extra Dinar on his way to business in Aqaba.  I hopped in for the 45 minute ride and the chat commenced like normal for this part of the world.

Where are you from? The US.  Where did you learn Arabic? College.  But are Muslim? Nope, raised Christian…but I have respect for Islam and other people’s beliefs. 

At this point he decided to test my knowledge, and teach where there were gaps.  I gladly listened and conversed.  Half in broken Arabic, half in English.  I got a few extra points for slang and jokes in Arabic.

Then, the driver’s phone buzzes.  It’s another booking for the “cab driver’s” guesthouse in Wadi Rum through Booking.com and the pricing is all screwed up.  My driver was losing his mind for a minute before remembering that I’m a marketer, traveler, writer, blah, blah, blah, and so he asks me if I’ve done any work on Booking.com.

“Of course I have.”

“How much do you charge?”

 “Don’t worry about it…let’s get this fixed before the next guest books,” I say as I take the phone.

 The next 30 minutes of my ride were spent updating the pricing for his guesthouse in Wadi Rum, cleaning up the English on his accommodation listing, improving how his 4×4 and camel tours were marketed, and making some notes of what he needed to do to better appeal to English speakers and westerners in the future, on Booking.com and otherwise.  Another booking came through and I sent them a welcome email, in crisp English.

 (For the record, many non-native English speakers will take the tech help and copywriting help in exchange for hosting you, just in case you’re looking for ways to travel for close to free.  Think I’m lying?  Check workaway.com)

 Just as we pulled up to the JETT bus station in Aqaba I finished cleaning up his guesthouse listing, messaged the changes to Booking.com, and handed his phone back to him.

 “So when will you be back,” the driver asked.

 “I’ll be back in Eastern Europe next spring, but I may pass through here again to do some diving.  Who knows,” I said.

 “Well take my number and message me when you come back to Jordan.  Don’t worry about booking, we’ll find a place for you.  And let me know if you have any friends that want to come.  We’ll let them stay free with us if we have the space.”

With that, I successfully ditched the “tourist tax”.

Some might read this and think, “The only reason that happened was because you know Arabic.”

Actually, the only reason I speak enough Arabic to have these interactions is that I interact with locals in this way everywhere I go.  It is not about language.  It is about empathy, connecting, and closing that cultural gap.

Once you successfully accomplish that, you won’t be as much of a “tourist” to them, stacked with cash and ignorance and ready to be milked for all you’re worth.  You’ll be a little closer to being that Brother (or sister) from another mother.  An honorary member of their “Tribe”.  If you attempt to look out for them, their home, and their culture, they’ll look out for you.  That’s how tribes work.

A Travel Hack and exception to the “Foreigner Pricing” Rule: Get there first

Whenever you’re the first foreigner to an area, the novelty of your presence and their desire to impress will override this “Tourist Tax”

I know there are some people reading this thinking, “but that time I was in Papa New Guinea, the locals were all very helpful and didn’t overcharge me.”  There are more than a few examples of travelers being in “that one village”  away from everything, in France, in Morocco, in Malaysia, and despite knowing none of the language or culture, they got along with locals very well.  Everything was cheap and nearly free.  That’s where an important factor and opportunity comes in for you as a traveler. 

 Novelty.

 If you are the first, or nearly the first, of your kind that this group has seen, and you don’t inspire any fear response, your experience will likely be very positive as the locals welcome you – partly out of curiosity, and partly as ambassadors for their community and culture.

When Mark and I were on the motorbike tour in northern Vietnam in the city of Bac Ha, we were clearly novelties.  We were something different and brand new to these farmers and rural Vietnamese types.  They hadn’t seen westerners in quite some time, if ever.  The experience of connecting with them ended up being amazing and wonderful, in large part due to the novelty of westerners moto-packing through their village.

After a hard day’s ride to the city of Bac Ha, Vietnam, which is rarely on the routes of anyone who even bothers to motorcycle through Vietnam, Mark and I just wanted a beer and a good meal.  We wandered through a market, munching on some street cuisine and fire roasted duck  on a stick (which was indescribably delicious) then went to a very local pub.  Tiny plastic chairs.  Tiny tables.  Plastic pitchers and pony kegs filled with low alcohol beer made from rice somewhere in the village.  It was the perfect travel experience.  (I’m getting nostalgia just from typing this) 

A group of local teachers, who spoke as much English as we did Vietnamese, adopted us and pulled us into their group at that little bar, connecting our tables.  They taught us some Vietnamese.  They explained (as best they could) their drinking and social customs.  After the meal, they insisted on toting us to their homes, on the backs of their motor scooters, for an authentic northern Vietnamese meal.

Mark making local friends during happy hour in Bac Ha, Vietnam

At their home, they explained (via Google translate) how we should eat the meal, what the dishes were, and why we were eating them. During the entire time in that village we either paid the same rate as the locals (like with the duck and the few beers we paid for) or nothing at all.  No tourist tax.

How did the rules of embracing language and culture come into play? We ordered everything, from the beers, to the duck, in butchered Vietnamese.  We were polite and greeted them in Vietnamese as best we could.  We had no expectation that they would be willing or able to speak English.  We abused Google translate, making our best attempts to connect across the language barrier.  We did our best to embrace the Vietnamese culture, and got lucky being the first foreigners in a while to pass through that city…and our reward was that authentic experience. 

 That brings me to the one thing you must do if you’re an ambassador for your culture, traveling to a place where it is a first (or one of the firsts) for them and you: go with the flow and be respectful.

 As Mad Dog Mattis put it, “Be kind, be cordial…and have a plan to eat everything you see.”  Ok, that wasn’t Mad Dog’s quote (exactly) but it gets the point across.

If you’re lucky enough to be the first in an area, a novelty that gives that community an interactive glimpse of the outside world, then do your best to respect and embrace their culture, and go with the flow.  You’ll be paving a rich, tourist tax free experience for the travelers that follow in your footsteps

The takeaway: To avoid the “Tourist Tax” get adventurous and act like a local.  Simple as that.

Venture to the places where most people like you (even travelers) never go.  The experience won’t be easy, but it will be rich and irreplaceable. 

When you can’t adventure far, embrace the people and community you’re in and the culture they share with you.  If you can be in the place you love, love the place you’re in.  Or try to, anyways…

The shift from “farang” or “gringo” to brother or sister won’t happen instantly, but you’ll know when it does.  They’ll finally crack a vulnerable smile and relax just a little bit.  They’ll invite you in, maybe offering you a little more tea. Finally, they’ll tell you what’s really on their minds.  Then, you’re in.  It’s a damn good feeling.  I promise. 

Along the way, don’t worry about that “Tourist Tax”, its fates way of charging you for a priceless experience.  A fair trade in the world of travel


P.S. If you’ve found this blog post helpful, please consider booking your next trip through the links on the Resources Page. This keeps the content free, and (most importantly) keeps the advertising elsewhere.


How to Avoid Tourist Prices in 4 Easy Steps

The ideas in these Thoughts of Travel were inspired by Saebastien Junger’s excellent book “Tribe”, about thoughts on community, connecting, and how both lead to better lives.

Be sure to put “Sebastien Junger’s book Tribe: On Coming Home and Belonging” on your reading list.

For more about the stories of Motorbiking through Vietnam and the Motorcycle diaries, check out The Motorcycle Diaries

For more about the stories of Jordan and Wadi Rum, check out The Jordan Experience (Coming Soon)

Did this article inspire some kind of travel bug in you?  Then share the love to your favorite social media spot to invite other travelers join in the convo.

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