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The Difference Between Visiting a Country as a Program Participant and a Tourist

Child in Nigeria

Planning international travel can often seem like an overwhelming task, especially if you’re just starting out or haven’t had much opportunity to travel abroad before. Fortunately for you, there are zillions of study, volunteer, work and internship programs across the globe that are more than willing to help you move to wherever your heart desires. However, participating in a program abroad, whether it’s volunteering at a sea turtle conservation center in Costa Rica, WWOOFing in Portugal, or even teaching second-graders in Mongolia, is quite different from squeezing every cent’s worth out of your Eurorail train pass while gallivanting through the historic squares and cathedrals of western Europe.

Before you start buying any plane tickets or signing up for a TEFL course, you may want to consider whether you’ll be happier visiting your chosen country as a tourist or through a structured program.

Though participating in a program abroad can often seem like the perfect way to make a transition to living in another country (and, speaking from personal experience, it can be), it is also not equivalent to traveling to that country as a carefree tourist. Before you start buying any plane tickets or signing up for a TEFL course, you may want to consider whether you’ll be happier visiting your chosen country as a tourist or through a structured program.

But Tourists Are Bad! Why Would I Want to Be a Tourist?

Lost tourist in Japan

“Tourist” may be one step up from a curse word in some circles, but let’s be honest for a moment here -- if you're not from somewhere, and you are traveling there with the goal of seeing the attractions and learning a bit more about the country and culture, you are a tourist. And there’s nothing wrong with this.

Ugly tourist” is a whole different kind of monster, but just being an enthusiastic traveler doesn’t make you a terrible person. Besides, we’ve probably all met enough of those “I’m-not-a-tourist-I’m-a-real-traveler/nomad/wanderer/explorer/etc” types to know that tourists aren’t the only ones who can have ugly attitudes.

Now that we’re over being insulted by the term “tourist,” let’s get down to business. There are quite a few fundamental differences between experiencing a country or region as a tourist, or traveler, or whatever your preferred nomenclature is, and being there through a study abroad, volunteer or internship program. These differences go far beyond the type of visa in your passport and can have a serious impact on your daily life, budget, travel timetable and emotional state.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both, depending on your goals and personal travel style, but the type of travel you choose will affect what you do and how much you enjoy your experience, and it’s worth thinking about these criteria before signing up for a semester in Florence or planning your gap year backpacking through Southeast Asia. Here are some of the major differences to consider:

1. Schedule and Responsibilities

If you are part of a program, whether studying or volunteering, you will have some kind of schedule and timetable for your time in-country. As an intern, teacher, volunteer or student, you will be expected to be in certain places at certain times -- maybe not all the time, but definitely during the week at least. You will also likely have particular expectations and responsibilities placed on you -- writing a term paper, creating weekly lesson plans or just showing up for meetings on time.

As a program participant, the general pace of your days may be more relaxed, but you don't have the same total freedom to plan those days that you do as a tourist.

One of the main attractions of traveling independently is the ability to escape from these kinds of daily schedules and obligations -- you have the freedom to go wherever your whims and budget take you, on the timetable that works for you. However, there’s also a tendency among some travelers to try to pack as much as humanly possible into each day, to make the most of the little time available, while a long-term program allows you to take things at a little more of a relaxed pace. It’s okay to spend a weekend relaxing in a park and watching movies, because you have next weekend (and the one after that, and the three after that) for trips outside of the city.

As a program participant, the general pace of your days may be more relaxed, but you don’t have the same total freedom to plan those days that you do as a tourist. Therefore, it's important to know your goals before deciding how you want to travel abroad, and be realistic about your ability to dedicate yourself to those responsibilities while participating in a program.

2. Your Living Situation

Volunteers in Rwanda

If you’re a tourist, you’re most likely staying in a hotel/hostel or maybe even couchsurfing -- either way, your sleeping arrangement is likely (though not necessarily) a temporary one, in a place full of other travelers.

Most program participants, on the other hand, will have some sort of housing arrangement provided through their host organization, especially if it’s a semester- or year-long program. These housing situations could take many different forms, from living in university housing with other students to a homestay with a local host family.

There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to homestays or apartment shares, just like all living situations, but they can be a great way to improve your language skills and cultural immersion (and they often include meals!) Also, as a program participant living with a family or in your own apartment, you'll be able to build more long-lasting connections with your homestay family and your neighbors. You'll integrate. Your neighborhood will become a familiar space and the smaller details about your host country will become more apparent. Generally speaking, you build a different, and often more genuine relationship with your surroundings -- even if it's something as small as the barista at the coffee shop on the corner finally recognizing you.

Then again, staying in traveler-friendly places like hostels gives you the freedom to follow your own schedule, without having to obey any curfews or house rules, which can sometimes feel suffocating if you’re already used to living on your own.

3. Length of Time Spent in One Place

This is another of the major contrasts, as there’s a huge difference between spending two weeks in a country and spending six months there. Unless you’re a master budgeter (please, tell me your secrets) or have a compelling reason to hang out in one spot for a while, it’s likely that your travels won’t keep you in the same place for more than a week or two -- there’s a great big world out there to explore, after all!

If you’re studying for a semester, or working for three months in an internship you won’t have the same flexibility and mobility that tourists do, but you will have more time to truly get to know the place where you live.

As a program participant, you’ve probably signed up for a least a few months in the same place -- there are definitely some shorter one- or two-week programs out there, but mostly aimed at the alternative spring break crowd, and there’s currently quite a bit of debate as to how much value anyone gets out of such short-term programs.

Let’s say you’re studying for a semester, or working for three months in an internship -- you won’t have the same flexibility and mobility that tourists do (see #1), but you will have more time to truly get to know the place where you live. Besides, there’s plenty of time for weekend trips!

4. Importance of Language Skills

If you’re just passing through for a week or two, you can probably get by with a lot of gesturing and some awkward conversations. However, if you’re taking language classes, interning at a company or volunteering in a school, you’re going to need to know more than “where is the bathroom?”

Some organizations anticipate this necessity and include local language classes as part of the programming, while others may suggest that participants find their own local language schools. No matter how long you’re spending somewhere, it’s never a bad idea to brush up on your vocabulary, but participating in a longer-term program will give you a greater opportunity to really deepen your knowledge of the language and learn through immersion, which is one of the most effective ways to acquire new language skills -- much better than trying to read through a phrasebook on an overnight bus to your next destination!

5. Making Local Friends

Traveler and local in Thailand

Chances are if you’re traveling, you probably already have a buddy or three joining you on your journey. Even if you’re traveling alone, it’s not hard to make friends in hostels, and, after a while, you start to run into the same people so many times it would be awkward not to be friendly.

However, if you’re only spending a few days in one place, you won’t have much time to develop friendships with local folks, even if you really hit it off that one night at the club. If you’re living in a city for a few months, though, it’s much more likely that you’ll find people you like spending time with, either through work, your program or other activities you discover while there.

If seeing the sights (and tasting the food) of a certain country is your main goal, you may be happiest as a mobile tourist, but if you’re interested in making connections with the people who live there, participating in a longer-term program will give you far more opportunity to do so.

6. Types of Expectations and Accomplishments

Building on that idea of goals, it’s important to think about what you want to get out of your experience abroad. Many travelers want to see and experience as many new things as possible, which is why we sometimes run into those people that seem to be hopping to a new country every few days and apparently function perfectly well with an average of four hours of sleep. If you just want to see everything, the free schedule of tourist traveling is definitely more your style.

While absorbing your new surroundings should be a major part of your time as a program participant, it’s not the entirety of the experience, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This doesn’t mean you won’t have time to see the main attractions in your new city, but you’ll also be spending your time on other projects -- helping your students master past verb tenses, for example, or creating health education materials.

These activities may not be quite as photogenic as visiting the Taj Mahal (although they make for great Facebook profile pics), but they’re a different kind of accomplishment entirely. You could spend six months teaching in Peru and never make it to Machu Picchu, but having a complete conversation in English with one of your students might feel like even more of an important landmark moment.

7. Experiencing the New vs. the Familiar

Part of the fun of being a tourist is that feeling of constantly discovering new places, while the flip side of that is the perpetual feeling of being slightly lost (or sometimes really lost). You don’t get that new-car smell every day when you’re in the middle of a six-month program, but the flip side of that is the opportunity to really get to know a place.

If you stay somewhere for long enough, you may start to feel less like an outsider and more like you actually belong in that space, which can be a wonderful feeling.

You find a favorite coffee shop, the best pizza place in your neighborhood, a secret dive bar where you can befriend the bartender and watch local soccer. If you stay somewhere for long enough, you may start to feel less like an outsider and more like you actually belong in that space, which can be a wonderful feeling. You can’t take a photo of feeling like a local, but it’s a sensation that will stay with you for a long time, even after you eventually leave.

8. Institutional Support

Volunteers in Greece

Has your apartment been without water for a whole week? Do you have the flu? Are you going crazy trying to figure out how to find the office that’s holding your care package hostage? It sure is nice to be able to call someone to help you deal with these problems!

One of the major advantages of going abroad through a program is the built-in support structure you gain. Some organizations are far more hands-on than others, but many programs can help you with pre-departure logistical details like finding flights, arranging housing and submitting visa paperwork, as well as in-country support for any issues you might have. This can be particularly helpful if you are still learning the local language or have any serious health issues arise.

Some organizations host additional cultural activities for volunteers while in-country. If you’re traveling independently, however, you should be prepared to deal with any logistical, health or other issues on your own.

9. Following the Rules

The alternate side to the support and guidance you receive as a program participant is the reality that you are not only representing yourself, but an entire organization. If you are part of a study, volunteer or teach abroad program, especially if that program has sponsored your visa, you are then expected to be accountable to the rules and expectations of that program, and to represent them in a way that reflects positively on the organization.

You should be aware that your actions can often be seen to represent your whole organization or even your country, rather than just you as an individual.

This means no public all-night benders while wearing your program t-shirt, no showing up to school hungover, no getting arrested for smoking weed (seriously, nobody cares that it’s practically legal there) and no dating students. By being a foreigner, you are especially visible and will likely draw more attention than usual, especially if you’re the only foreign person in your town. People (not just the NSA) will be watching and listening to you, and you should be aware that your actions can often be seen to represent your whole organization or even your country, rather than just you as an individual.

Almost all study and volunteer abroad programs have a code of conduct or other similar document that participants are required to sign. These rules cover everything from staying out of political demonstrations and smoking (or not) in homestays to driving vehicles. Additionally, if you’re participating in a study abroad program while enrolled as a student in an American university, you are expected to abide by your home university’s regulations and code of conduct, as well as any additional rules of the study abroad program and host institution. The consequences for breaking these rules can range from an unofficial reprimand to being asked to leave the program and potentially even the country.

In contrast, when traveling on your own as a tourist, you aren’t beholden to any rules other than the laws of the country you’re visiting, which hopefully you should be capable of obeying without any mishap.

10. Money, Money, Money

Volunteer in Swaziland

Finances are always a major concern while traveling -- you're probably not making as much money as you do normally, and you’re almost certainly spending more. There are plenty of strategies to help you use money wisely while abroad, but your budgets will look somewhat different depending on whether you’re staying in one place with a program or moving around.

Most study and volunteer abroad programs charge a participation fee, which can range from a few hundred dollars for a week or two to several thousand dollars for a full semester or longer. This can lead to a bit of sticker shock (although it’s still certainly cheaper than a semester’s tuition at most US universities!) but such programs often include a number of services within the program fee, including housing, meals, insurance and keeping staff around to help you with all those emergencies you’re sure to have, meaning most of the money you bring will go toward your own travel, cultural activities, going out or shopping.

Long-term programs tend to be the most cost-effective and the best option for budget-conscious program participants -- for example, IVHQ volunteers in Argentina pay a $500 fee for a two-week program (about $38/day), while the cost to stay 10 weeks is $1675 ($24/day). Volunteer teachers spending the year in Ecuador with WorldTeach pay a $2,150 fee, which breaks down to just $6/day -- certainly less than most travelers spend in one day!

While you don’t have to pay a fee to travel on your own, you do need to account for all of those expenses (namely lodging, meals and domestic/international travel, which can add up), in addition to the fact that you're not earning anything to offset these costs. This is where strategies like couchsurfing and rideshares can help you seriously cut down on expenses without missing out on opportunities for cultural immersion and sightseeing.

11. Culture Shock

We’ve seen that fun little graph of the cultural adjustment curve, and many of us have experienced some version of it firsthand. For most of us, it takes a lot longer for culture shock to set in when we’re moving around and changing cultural contexts often -- if you stay busy enough as a traveler, it may take years for culture shock to catch up with you! If you’re staying in one spot for a few months or a year, though, you’re much more likely to go through all the phases of that fun process.

Experiencing culture shock can be an important and valuable learning process, but it’s not always enjoyable, so it’s helpful to be prepared and know that it’s significantly more likely to affect you while abroad with a longer-term program than if you’re hopping from one place to another.

No matter where you go or what you do, there will always be a little bit of FOMO associated with traveling. If you’re always moving on to the next city, you’re constantly wishing you had a few more days to explore where you are before packing up again. Yet if you’re studying for a semester in one city, you’re always itching for more time off to get out and see more of the country or region.

There are pros and cons to both kinds of experiences, but the most important strategy is to focus on the positive aspects of whatever you’re doing, wherever you are. Whether you’re a perpetual traveler or a volunteer on a year-long program, there is great value in your experience, and you’re sure to come out of it with new awareness, priceless stories and some wonderful photos to carry home with you.

Photo Credits: Elaina Giolando, Jyoti Dewan, Edmilson Oliveira, Kara Menini, Amy Zeigler, and Richelle Gamlam.

Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.