Over the years, I have received many kindnesses from travelers. I've also had the opportunity to offer the same in a “pay it forward” way. Below I'll share my best “pay it forward” travel story.
More importantly, I hope I have paid forward my life-long good fortune to be able to travel, in the communities I've visited.
As I'm planning my travels for next year, I thought it a good time to review what we, as travelers, can do to pay it forward. For, after all, travel is a luxury. All travel. Whether it's on a tight or boundless budget, it is a luxury.
Travelers are enormously fortunate. Let's spread some of that good fortune around as we go.
How You Can Pay it Forward as You Travel
To pay forward your good fortune, it's important to ensure that as many of your travel dollars as possible stay in the local community. Whether you're traveling in London or Lima, New York or New Delhi, there are locals who need your money circulating in their community. It is important that the travel companies you hire keep their profits in the country and reinvest it there. Whether you're traveling with a tour company or independently, there are things you can do to pay forward your good fortune.
- Hire a local tour guide. Make sure that the tour company you use hires local tour guides. If you're going to a resort or taking a cruise, do a bit of research and find a local guide. The experience will likely be better, plus your money will stay in the community.
- Choose your accommodation carefully. First, avoid the large chain hotels which typically take profits out of the country. Find a local, boutique hotel or a B&B. It will have more personality and ensure that your money stays local. Be careful about booking an Airbnb or similar offering. In some situations this will be creating a valuable new income stream for a family. In others, it will drive up the cost of housing making it more difficult for locals. Your decision makes a difference.
- Buy locally. Travel just about anywhere and you can find souvenirs that are made in China. That does locals and the local economy no good. Go to a craft fair or market and find locally sourced and made products for souvenirs with significance.
- Eat local. Avoid the chain restaurants you know from home. Eat at local street vendors, diners, and restaurants. A little nervous? Go to the busiest spot you find. It's almost a guarantee of fresh, tasty food.
- Tip generously, but according to local customs. Tipping practices vary from country to country, and won't necessarily be the same as you are accustomed to at home. In some countries, servers are paid well below minimum wage, so tips actually form the basis of their pay. In other countries, servers may be paid a salary for their work, and tips may be either less important, or not expected. In still others, tipping can be seen as offensive. To get an idea of what to expect, check out a resource like Tipping Around the World: A Global Gratuity Guide, or just ask about local customs when you check into your hotel or hostel.
- Join a local fundraiser. Are you a walker or a runner? Do you like a good pancake breakfast or church supper? Check out the local papers for fundraising events. You'll be leaving some money behind and enjoying the added benefit of connecting with locals.
- Give responsibly. There are many reasons why it isn't a good idea to give to people begging on the street. This is especially true for children who are begging. If you are going to a destination where you are likely to encounter this and not sure you can cope, give a little before you go through a respectable micro-lending organization. You might want to check out the Grameen Foundation.
- Be a mindful volunteer. There's a line between lending a hand and taking jobs away from locals. To give back significantly by volunteering requires a multi-week commitment. Read The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook to learn how to volunteer in the most productive ways possible.
- Pack and deliver. Pack for a Purpose is a website that will connect you with organizations around the world that coordinate the collection of supplies, typically school supplies, for communities in need. Not Just Tourists uses the extra baggage allowance that tourists have to deliver medical supplies to under-served communities. Since its inception 25 years ago, it has grown, with chapters across Canada and over 10,000 suitcases delivered to 82 countries. Also, in the wake of natural disasters, there are organizations focused on saving homeless pets, who could use your help: you just book a pet on your ticket as excess baggage, and they meet you at the airport and take care of all fees and arrangements.
- Help out at a local event. Whether it's a fun run or fundraising event, volunteers are often needed. You can check on Eventbrite.com. Search “volunteer events” to learn how you can help out on a very short-term basis.
This article is specifically about giving back and leaving money locally. But there is more to traveling responsibly. Read How to Be a Good Traveler: Solo or Otherwise
Now here's the story about how I was able to finally pay forward a travel kindness I received.
My “Pay it Forward” Travel Story
Generosity Received Way Back When
Some kindnesses stand out amongst the many received. And when you can't pay them back, well, best to pay them forward. But it can take a long time to do so properly. On my road trip through the US Southwest in 2013, I finally delivered a kindness very similar to one I received in 1977. The symmetry of the two circumstances thrilled me.
As a gift for graduating high school, my parents sent me on a three-week cycling tour to Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Nova Scotia. One of our first days was spent crossing PEI from Summerside to Souris where we would pick up the ferry to Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, which are actually part of Quebec. After crossing the hilly interior of the island I was looking forward to the flat road along the ocean. Unfortunately, there was a head wind. A big head wind.
I remember struggling against that wind. Grinding along slowly in first gear on my white, 10-speed Peugeot with the sound of the ocean crashing and obliterating all other sounds.
Our small group of ten cyclists became separated. I was at the end, of course. With the wind blowing the sound away, I was late to notice a pickup truck come up beside me. On that deserted road, it unnerved me, but only for a minute. The driver, a farmer, quickly explained that he had come to get me and four more. And there was another farmer picking up the other five in the group.
Each farmer took five of us to their respective farms. With exceptional hospitality, they fed us food they had grown and fresh milk from their cows. Then they drove us to our destination. Yes, their kindness is a vivid memory that has stayed with me all these years.
Generosity Paid Forward Over the Great Divide
On the last leg of my RV tour of the American southwest I drove from Durango to just outside of Denver, Colorado. (Thanks to Cruise America for providing the RV for this trip.) Many people told me how treacherous the first stretch of this trip would be so I set out, somewhat anxiously, very early in the morning.
A while after this stretch, just past Gunnison and before the Monarch Pass which is located on the Continental Divide, I passed two cyclists just starting to climb the Divide. Then I passed a sign saying that they had another five miles to go to the summit which has an elevation of 11,312 feet (3,448 m).
I immediately thought about those kind farmers who helped us in 1977. But then I thought that maybe this couple wanted to summit the mountain themselves. Finally, I decided that the choice should be theirs. Whether to ride or cycle to the summit was up to them. So I found a safe place and turned the RV around, drove past them and turned back again to come up beside them. After rolling down the window I asked if they'd like a lift. The answer was a definite yes.
I want to be clear: there were two reasons that I felt it was safe to pick them up. First, they were not hitchhikers. Second, they were cyclists. In my experience, cyclists are good people.
Funny How Such Things Coincide
Two days prior to my meeting of Gabby and Christian, at Mesa Verde, I met a woman who was desperate for AA batteries. And I mean desperate. She was really upset that her camera batteries were dead. She wanted to take pictures of the amazing ruins in this beautiful National Park. I was pretty sure that I still had a couple of batteries rattling around my carry-on so we set off to find out. I did and I left her very grateful and with a functioning camera.
The next day, the day before leaving Durango and meeting Christan and Gabby, I met her again by chance in a coffee shop. She wanted to pay for the batteries, buy me a coffee, anything.
I said simply, “Pay it forward.”