I remember standing in the airport as a child next to my father as he frantically wondered whether he'd forgotten anything; he had our passports, our boarding passes were getting crumpled in his hands -- and there was our travel insurance! Hidden behind the traveller's cheques.

While we waited to be told when to get on the plane, he read through our vacation itinerary; a tour representative was to meet us at the airport, a coach would take us to our villa where we'd be entertained with the best local culture and cuisine that money can buy. All without leaving the hotel - which our guidebook told us was the best on offer.

And though I was only twelve years old, the thought occurred to me: might there not be more to travel than this?

What if you could just spin the globe, put your finger down at random and declare, "I'm going there?" What if you could just pack a small rucksack and head off into the middle of nowhere without a guidebook or a tour company to tell you where to go? What would happen if you chose to travel somewhere on your own terms and on your own steam?

A few years later, leaving school, I began to think of travelling independently and all anyone could tell me was what might go wrong if I did. I might catch some terrible disease, be robbed by bandits or wind up on the wrong side of some endless civil war, I was warned. On the other hand, I reasoned, I might find myself learning to communicate in another language, meeting people who live different ways of life and learning what it's really like in the rest of the world.

Travel as Product

The modern traveller faces the challenge that much of our vision of the world is shaped by the media and the travel industry itself. The former sells fear on the evening news about all the bad things happening around the world; the second exists only to market the most profitable destinations.

If it's a truism that the best things are life are free, it's more to the point to say that the best things in life can't be sold. The travel industry makes its money out of us booking its hotels, its tours and insurance. It makes no money at all when we learn to eat with our hands in India instead of with a fork, nor when we're invited into the home of an Arab in Morocco, delighted to have met his first-ever Westerner.

But that couldn't happen to us, could it? We maybe haven't learnt any other languages, we get lost easily and we probably wouldn't like the food. Or would we?

Among the greatest joys of independent travel are the discoveries we make about ourselves. As much as we travel to learn about other peoples and cultures, once we step out of familiar territory we begin to learn more about who we are. In a new context, we find a freedom to step out of our usual patterns and routines and spread our wings a little.

So how does one start?

The best way to leave the conventional travel industry behind is to do something that will automatically bring you into contact with the local people. Something as simple as taking a good bilingual dictionary with you can open up many doors. I've had countless conversations with locals all over the world in parks and cafes, drinking coffee or spirits, chatting away one word at a time.

Granted, there are times that the conversation by dictionary went a little too far. Whilst hitchhiking in Turkey my driver was so engrossed in his search for a word that he didn't see the edge of the cliff approaching. As we headed toward certain death I desperately ransacked my short-term memory and finally yelled "Bak!' (Look!) in time for him to slam on the brakes.

Be a Guest, Not a Tourist

Another approach is to get behind the closed doors of a culture by staying with the locals. On the road you'll often be invited to visit other travellers you meet and in the Middle East invitations fly free and fast.

In Iran I was invited to stay with eight different families in the space of three weeks. After all the propaganda I'd heard about the country over the years it was a welcome surprise to find that this wasn't a nation of crazed terrorists. They fed me to the point of bursting four times a day and it was all I could do to stop them finding me a job and a wife.

If you're in a less forthcoming part of the world you can always join a hospitality club and arrange a home stay with someone. Then you'll get to the nitty gritty of local culture and your host can show you around town. For free. Then maybe one day you can repay the favour when a traveller comes passing through where you live.

But the most important thing is to forget all you've ever heard about a place, pack a good sense of humour and head off somewhere with no fixed plans. When you carry a good supply of smiles and conversation it's amazing how many doors open to you. Some of the most memorable exchanges I've had in my travels have been with old folks sitting on benches in the park, desperate for someone to tell their stories too. Or conversations I've struck up with passengers on 24 hour train journeys. It's amazing how much you can end up sharing with a complete stranger.

And just because you choose to travel independently doesn't mean you have to be alone. If you stay in a hostel for backpackers rather than a hotel you'll meet other travellers, all looking to trade information and stories. Friends are made easily on the road and it can feel like you've known someone for years after just a few days.

It's one of the most engaging things about travelling independently that your plans are completely open. On countless occasions I've found myself spontaneously teaming up with someone to catch a crowded local bus to visit a nearby temple. Or, hours after arriving somewhere, joining other travellers to go explore the city by foot with little more than a map and our intuition to guide the way.

Of course if the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what will happen to you each day is too much you can always go back to the villa where each room has the same old cable TV channels, a swimming pool with no threatening sea life and food that tastes just like it does back home, served by a waiter who says "gracias" when you tip

But you could do that any time. There are more things in this world than can fit into any of our philosophies and it's all out there waiting for the independent traveller to find. It doesn't take a lot of money, just a little courage and a sense of adventure.

So where should you go?

Well, what you do is, spin a globe, put your finger down somewhere and declare "I'm going there"


Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.