I've always loved to travel and have had the privilege to write about it as well. After a year spent studying abroad and traveling Europe, I became addicted to movement and experience; that specific blend of fear and bursts of adrenaline had me hooked. Before becoming a graduate student, I had an amazing job that required me to travel, something I was always very grateful for.
Last year, between January and June, I traveled to New York City twice, Arizona twice, Rome, Florence, Ireland, Mexico, Colorado, and up north to Manitoba. So it's safe to say I am familiar with what it's like to be on the road. Still, there's nothing quite like the feeling of getting off a plane in a new place, suitcase in hand, possibilities ahead.
The concept of travel itself is a fascinating one. Travel theory, or the history of why humans travel, is an emerging topic in many ways: Why do we go where we're going, and in what ways do we believe it defines us? If you're interested in reading more about this, I highly recommend The Tourist by Dean McCannell (a bit theory-heavy, but fascinating nonetheless).
We travel for exploration, categorization, pure curiosity, and simply because we want to move. In the age of Industrialization and post-Industrialization, we're starting to believe that travel defines us more than ever. As we become slightly less connected from our work (hopefully not the case for all, but common for many), we rely more heavily upon our leisure activities to give us a sense of self, a sense of purpose. Our identity as a "traveler," and our definition of what it means to be a "tourist," are important to us whether we're aware of it or not.
Think about it– "touristy" has an almost negative stigma, but if we're all trying to see the "real" city, and explore not as "tourists" but as "travelers," aren't we all doing the same thing anyway? Does visiting a more "authentic" restaurant rather than a "touristy" one make us better travelers, and in turn, better tourists? We can't reduce travel down to a vague sense of wanderlust, because the mere act of traveling is more complex than that.
In the end, it's not all that difficult to be a "good" traveler. The best way to be a good traveler is to be considerate of the place you're in and the people who live there.
Be respectful. Obey traffic laws. Adapt to local customs. Don't be shocked if someone doesn't know English. We're the guests.
Don't limit your visit to only what's in the guidebook, though. The hidden gems will be the ones you discover while stumbling down a side street with your map in your bag and your iPhone away, a little bit lost, but willing to wander. Those will be the memories you treasure. Push yourself to be a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit afraid, and to cancel your next sightseeing activity because you're so wrapped up in the one you're in. Book a trip to somewhere you've always wanted to go, and make this the year you actually do it.
You're part of a long, long tradition of people exploring the world, so complicate your understandings of culture a little bit. After all, you can always come home.