turquoise sea in Comino island in Malta

Expat, Tourist, Traveller, Backpacker or Digital Nomad ?

What’s the best way to discover a new place?

How do you prefer travelling when discovering new places? Most of us have been a tourist before and some may have chosen to travel on a budget as a backpacker. But what distinguishes them from a traveller? And would you consider becoming an expat or digital nomad? They are certainly similar and overlap at times. Let me try to shed some light on what the differences are and how to benefit from all of them:

The Tourist – Travel Europe in two weeks

As a tourist you clearly are looking for a quick fix of seeing lots of things in a very short time and still relax or party. Tourists go sightseeing and visit the main attractions, often as part of a tour group. Many may have plans of what they’d like to see and pre-book to meet their expectations but remain rather passive and watch. You may experience a cultural overload even when you just scratch the surface of the local lifestyle. There’s probably no time or energy for wanting to go deep and you’ll be rather overwhelmed by too many new experiences at once. This is why you probably keep bumping into other people while looking around you at the sights, in awe.


Practice self-humour and remind yourself to be more in the moment, without taking pictures all the time!

Although being a tourist is my least favourite way to travel as it makes me feel exposed and uncomfortable at times, it’s OK to be a tourist once in a while! For example, after having lived in Spain for three years I finally went to see my first Flamenco dancing show in Barcelona. Flamenco is part of Spain’s cultural heritage and also a main tourist attraction. Although most spectators were tourists, I really liked that it was more like a jamming session of songs and dance. It was filled with emotions, Spanish pride and beautiful dresses. They also host touring dancers from Andalucía.

flamenco dancer and singers in the background


The Backpacker – Go with the flow

This is probably for a more adventurous and relaxed person who appreciates the freedom and flexibility of life on the road. Young people on a budget especially choose to travel as a backpacker using public transport, low cost accommodation and cheap food – a backpack is just so much easier to navigate with. This vagabond lifestyle is cheap and cheerful as you move on as you please. You go with the flow, take it as it comes…. or as job opportunities arise.

It’s nice to meet great people but it’s ok if you don’t – you’ll just move on until you do and then most likely travel together with them for a while. Plans are never final and never longer than the next two weeks. You are likely to find them in hostels, helpx or fruit picking farms. As a backpacker, you know not to expect too much and you’re OK to camp outside one day and share a hostel dormitory the next day; that’s just part of the adventure.

The fancier version of a backpacker is called a flashpacker, who prefers to spend more money on their luxuries. They tend to stay in more upmarket locations or single hostel rooms and carry fancy travel equipment.


Use second hand shops. That’s a cheap way to buy clothing on the way and donate it to charity after a few months for some outfit variation.

This is one of my favourite ways to travel, my longest being a one year trip all around Australia. It’s the easiest way to change lifestyle within a few days and without much commitment! Although I do admit that after one year of living out of a backpack, I did miss having my own space bigger than a tent and having more than 10 outfits. 😉

backpacker travelling the world


The Traveller – Not a tourist

As a traveller, you refuse to stay at the shiny tourist surface and aim to see the true local life. You walk off the beaten tourist track and avoid commercialised and touristy restaurants ­– because they never taste as good as the real local food. This is definitely the way to learn and really find out about a new place. You aim to live and eat like the locals do. You walk the side streets and learn the local language to get by. Slow and sustainable travel allows you to mix with the locals and adapt to the local customs.


To find beautiful hidden spots, the best cafes, roof top bars and restaurants, read small blogs by local individuals and travel bloggers (not the commercialized sites). Use airbnb, Withlocals, Meetup or even use helpx to get to know the local way of life.

Sure, this may require some time to research and read about your destination to find out what to do and where to stay (vs. choosing an all inclusive weeklong hotel package), but you’ll get so much more out of it!

independent traveller eats local food


The Expat – Get to know it inside out

When extended trips don’t seem long enough anymore, you may decide to live in a foreign country for a longer period of time. Most expats choose to stay for professional reasons or personal preference. This is the chance to immerse yourself into a new culture and mentality, and especially the first two years are filled with excitement of change and new things to learn.

The expat’s dilemma is that you’ll wave most travellers and expat friends goodbye unless you leave before them. Of course, this costs a lot of energy and emotions and you’ll probably rather look for like-minded people who don’t leave after two years.


Make the effort to mix with the locals and make good friends with at least a few individuals, rather than only sticking to expat groups. It’s easier said than done, but you’ll feel way more welcome and integrated with that connection.

It definitely takes some courage and a lot of energy to move country and leave everyone you knew behind to start from scratch. But there is a lot you gain and learn from such a character building experience: tolerance and flexibility, a new language, you broaden your horizon and develop strong problem solving skills.

expat destinations

The Digital Nomad – Follow the internet

Working remotely becomes more and more common and in the digital age, travel enthusiasts can work from all over the world. Many digital nomads work from coffee shops, hotels, public libraries or co-working spaces – wherever the internet in fast enough.


Use freelance networks like People her hour and learn when to stop working and truly relax to enjoy your location.

It’s nice to combine work with travel. Depending on your trade, it can be tricky finding clients who are OK with you not residing in the same country. Many companies may prefer you to be nearby to come over to their offices in emergencies (even if these never happen!).

digital nomad working as freelance

It’s fairly easy to switch between all of them when discovering new places. Who do you prefer to be?


I have been a traveller and expat for over 15 years. So far my nomad lifestyle has allowed me to live and work in seven countries including the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Australia. Moving country, studying abroad and a passion for travel has been part of most of my adult life.

Leave a comment