Seek out the locals. Image by Delia Harrington.

For someone who prefers bucket showers to claw-foot bathtubs, I’ve managed to spend a surprising amount of time in posh restaurants and all-inclusive resorts. Sometimes they happen to be the cheapest, the closest to the airport, or the places that will cater to specific dietary needs. Usually, I’m working in a developing country where my currency goes far, and someone else is in charge of the itinerary. Occasionally, somebody treats me (Hi Mom and Dad!) to a trip that doesn’t involve research of any kind.

Regardless of the reason, there’s always something unnerving about enjoying extravagance (or even mild indulgence) in a world characterized by wealth disparity. As friends settle into jobs making real money and age into a desire for the finer things, I am increasingly asked by people more accustomed to capacity building than caviar how to occasionally enjoy the good life, guilt-free.

Whatever the circumstances, you’re headed somewhere lovely, and you are going to be pampered. And yet, sometimes it’s hard to let go and enjoy yourself in the lap of luxury, and it can be uncomfortable to let folks take care of things you’re perfectly capable of doing yourself, even if it’s their job. Is considering this an actual problem the biggest sign of privilege ever? Perhaps. But I like to think we can make conscientious decisions, even while sipping umbrella drinks.

Stalking animals and taking photos kept me from getting restless while in the U.S. Virgin Islands for my first vacation in years. Image by Delia Harrington.

1. Flip the script.

Don’t think of yourself as indulgent or spoiled, or your trip as frivolous or extravagant. Instead, think of your vacation as self-care. Everyone needs time to relax and recuperate. If you are lucky enough to be able to do so for a few days in a beautiful place, remember you are lucky, but quit the guilt. Mental self-flagellation isn’t helping anyone, so you might as well make the most of the opportunity.

2. Do your homework.

One of the only ways to learn about your surroundings while relaxing is to pick up a novel written by a local or get some historical fiction that takes place during a pivotal moment. This will help make sure you develop a broader perspective and can prevent you from making generalizations based on what you see in a resort.

Then there’s the other type of homework: As consumers become increasingly aware, more companies are catering to ecological and labor concerns. It’s pretty easy to find eco-friendly spas or tour companies that hire locals to help mitigate the potential negative effects of tourism.

3. Be a good guest.

Remember that the service industry folks you encounter work very hard, and in resort areas it’s common for them to make significantly less than the customers. Remember to tip well,  and research the norms and customs for gratuities ahead of time if you’re in a foreign country. Always treat staff with the same kindness and consideration you would extend to anyone else. If you feel guilty having your room cleaned daily or letting someone clear your dishes, consider asking a concierge if it’s okay to reduce cleanings or inquiring if it would be helpful for you to bus your own plates. In some situations this may be appreciated, but in others it can be seen as job elimination, so take your cues from a local or someone who works at the establishment.

luxury-travelThe relative strength of the U.S. dollar allowed my classmates and me to enjoy this beautiful hotel along the Nile in Luxor, Egypt. Image by Delia Harrington.

4. Give back.

The most tangible way to offset your impact is to make a contribution, whether of your time, your skills, or your money. You can purchase a carbon credit to assuage part of your green guilt, or find worthy local causes looking for contributions. It’s sometimes easier to find transparent data in your native tongue if you go with a local branch of an international organization. There are also many companies now catering to those who want to contribute to local communities during their travels, so it’s become very easy to include some altruistic aspects in your trip. Just be sure to do your research, as always, to be sure the opportunity will actually help the local population, instead of burdening them or taking away local jobs.

5. Get off campus.

A country is more than its capital city and far more than its resorts. In some resort towns, locals are bused in and out on a daily basis to keep them away from tourists and maximize the profit per square foot. A resort is a great place to relax but a terrible place to learn anything about where you are. You could be at literally any other beautiful beach or top-of-the-line restaurant in the world, which can get a little maddening. Take some time to broaden your horizons by breaking free of the plastic bracelet. And, no, packaged tours offered by your resort do not count.

luxury-travelI came upon this little girl, dancing her heart out, after a few friends and I escaped from an all-inclusive to explore the town of Trinidad, Cuba in the late afternoon light. Planned tours only run during the heat of the day, when most Cubans are tucked away somewhere cool. Image by Delia Harrington.

6. Buy local.

While you’re venturing, or perhaps even from the comfort of a beach chair, invest in the local economy. All too often, tourism businesses are foreign-owned, meaning only their taxes (which are often lowered to lure in top-of-the-line brands) will actually benefit the country you’re in. Find opportunities to spread the wealth around, even if only a small amount, by purchasing local souvenirs, eating out at local small businesses, and hiring local guides.

Whatever you decide, the important thing is that you’re asking questions and continuing to think outside of your own bubble, however lovely it may be at the moment. You may even find that the world outside the bubble is more interesting, memorable, and fun than an endless series of sunburns and planned activities. We make many decisions when traveling, and we can use our money and our feet to vote for responsible companies.

Have you ever indulged in luxury travel? How does it make you feel? How do you make sure your money contributes to the local economy in a meaningful way? Let us know in the comments!