How to make your trips more authentic

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By Christopher Elliott

Sean Cummings helped put New Orleans back on the map after Hurricane Katrina. As one of the thousands of small business owners in the city, he faced a difficult choice in the storm’s wake: rebuild his hotel, the iconic International House in the financial district, at a price that exceeded its value or leave.

He didn’t hesitate. Abandoning New Orleans would be “unimaginable,” he says.

There’s no place on Earth like it.

“People come to New Orleans for the authenticity,” he explained as he sipped iced tea at the Loa bar in the International House lobby. “They come for the rituals.”

New Orleans, of course, has its own rituals — Carnival, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and St. John’s Eve, to name a few. But Cummings, who is one of the best-traveled hoteliers in the world, says the appreciation of rituals can help you have a more meaningful, if not a better trip.

At International House, Cummings practices what he preaches. For Carnival, costumed servers offer tea-infused cocktails inspired by a 19th-century watercolor series depicting early Mardi Gras costumes. On All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, yellow chrysanthemums and red coxcombs line the lobby and halls, like the tombs of graveyards across the city. And for St. John’s Eve, the highest holy day of the Vodou religion, Cummings enlists a local Vodou priestess to perform an authentic, ceremonial head-washing ritual in the lobby.

“It gives guests a sense of place that allows them to experience the real New Orleans,” he says.

So how do you explore travel’s rituals — and make your next trip more authentic?

Start with the food. Cummings says no one knows a city like its servers, bartenders or chefs.

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On a prime piece of real estate at the corner of St. Charles Ave. and Napoleon Street, Superior Seafood is the ideal place to hop off the streetcar line for an oyster happy hour.

“Take your travel guide’s suggestion on your first night and then ask your server for recommendations for the rest of the trip,” he says. Eating like a local means you’re experiencing a place like a local.

Follow the artists, too. Before you leave, research the most prominent figures — celebrities, writers, artists, musicians — who once roamed the streets of your destination. “Read up on those most influential characters,” he says. “Figure out where they hung out and what they did. If you find out your favorite writer once frequented that city, follow those footsteps.”

Cummings found Cornell Winery, a favorite hangout in Malibu, Calif., after researching the haunts of local celebrities. Turns out Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were regulars.

To find a new city’s own rituals, like the ones to which Cummings pays tribute in his hotel, research the history of the city before you go. What were the customs and traditions that were celebrated years ago?

New Orleans, for instance, has the Historic New Orleans Collection in the French Quarter, a great place to embed yourself in local lore. Folk art museums are another great place to look — you can find rituals anywhere that archives traditions and customs that contribute to the historical fabric of that city.

He also recommends downsizing.

Reside like a local

“There’s no better way to experience a culture than residing like a local while you’re there,” Cummings says. He prefers home rentals or small hotels while he’s traveling. “My own personal favorite vacation was a trip to Ireland with my extended family. We rented a large estate on a picturesque sheep farm. The sheep farmer became our tour guide, the cook our close friend.”

“Just learn the keywords,” he says. “Nothing gains the respect of locals quite like a genuine effort to converse in their native language.” (Related: This is how to master the art of travel.)

So this summer, why not try a little authenticity? A few foreign words, a research trip to the library, or a food tour can turn an ordinary vacation into something special. Take it from someone who knows authentic. (Here’s what you need to know about travel health and safety.)

How to avoid a fake vacation

The flip side of authentic is the prepackaged tourist vacations that are utterly forgettable. Here are Sean Cummings’ tips for avoiding them:

• Avoid planning a trip around paid advertisements for hotels, resorts or experiences, even those found in the most reputable news outlets. “If an organization is big enough to pay for advertising space of that scale, they’re probably not going to provide you with an authentic experience,” Cummings says.

• Find a way to engage in service on your trip. Whether it’s working on a coffee farm or volunteering in a school, look for ways to connect with locals. “It doesn’t have to be the focal point of your trip, but through this service you’ll meet incredible people who will surely provide you with a purely local experience in return,” he says.

• Steer clear of organized group tours or activities. “Always try to make a connection with a local who can give you that more natural experience,” Cummings says. “Whether you reach out to a friend, or a friend of a friend, or you find a connection at a local bar, finding someone to give you that private tour or private activity will feel less like an arranged vacation and more like a natural experience.”

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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