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For Life-Changing Trips, Hunt for “The Real Deal”

Travel can be one of life’s most enriching and eye-opening experiences. But sadly, some people travel halfway across the world just to stay at big American hotels. They’ll just visit international cities like Florence, Paris or Barcelona and say they’ve seen Italy, France or Spain. They go home and tell their friends about what they did on the city tour.

The truth is, there is tourism, and then there’s tourism. And, there is room for both – but I’d like to see more people getting a real experience when they travel. Part of the reason people stick to the tried and true is that they don’t have enough information, so they rely on the tour company and rarely venture out of the cities.

Yes, unfamiliar roads and language barriers can seem scary. However, I’ve found that the more you get out of your comfort zone and immerse yourselves with the locals – often, outside of the cities – the more likely you are to have a life-changing experience. Try it once, and you’ll never go back.

The travel market has evolved dramatically over the past 10 years, and we’ve seen a growing trend for “authentic experiences.” Travelers are asking for it, yet only a few travel companies are really delivering. And with all these promises of “authenticity” it can be incredibly hard to find genuinely great guides. The industry today is fragmented, and you’ll learn about these companies mainly through word of mouth, or turning to Facebook and TripAdvisor.

Experiencing a country’s culture doesn’t mean roughing it or backpacking – it can encompass mid- to high-end luxury – as long as you find something special, meaningful and memorable.

(At the Haro Festival in Rioja. No grapes are harvested until the festival day.)

Instead of cheesy souvenirs, you’ll want to take home lessons about the food, culture, history and, of course, the people you meet along the way.

A few tips to get you on your way to a life-changing trip:

•Look for companies that are based in the country you want to travel to and are focused on embracing local artisans and preserving local traditions. Cooking schools are often a great place to find these. I’ve always been a big fan of Academia Barilla in Italy. This week’s trip is an example of something that has been highly curated and designed to give you a really great experience: Six-Day Ski and Gourmet Getaway in Alto Adige.

•Find local festivals in the city or nearby towns. There are festivals for everything, especially in Europe – spring festivals, harvest festivals, truffle festivals, religious festivals, Christmas and Easter. Plan your dates around them to immerse yourself in a local celebration.

•Farmers’ markets are a great way to meet local artisans. Often you’ll find great local crafts you can pick up as souvenirs that are unique and a lot cheaper than what you’ll find in tourist stores. It’s also a chance to taste some of the local food.

•Venture into smaller towns. Rent a car, get a detailed map and drive. I always try to take local roads as opposed to freeways. You’ll discover so many great local villages, and there will be no other tourists.

•Do not dine at hotels. This is a huge no-no. You want to eat at local restaurants to get a real sense of authentic local food. Ask the locals and restaurant staff (not tourists) where they like to eat. Look for restaurants that are busy with locals, and don’t go to empty ones.

•Learn a few words if you can, but don’t be intimidated by the language. Locals are normally very helpful, and there is a lot you can communicate just by pointing and nodding.