Traveling like a local sounds simple enough but can be difficult to execute; certainly most independent travelers have had trips on which, no matter how far afield they ventured, they ended up surrounded by other folks from their own country. Or perhaps they found themselves unable to discover where the “real” locals go, and ended up somewhat neither here nor there — an eternal outsider.
How does one find the secret entrances to a truly local, indigenous experience? It turns out that there are great opportunities to travel like a local via both tour operators and self-booked avenues, and sometimes through a mix of the two.
A Locals-Only Approach to Guided Tours
In response to the growing demand for authentic “insider” tours that are not forced marches amidst swarms of folks from the same country, a number of tour guide services offering a more intimate and unique “guided experience” have cropped up. A couple of well-reviewed services worth checking out are ToursByLocals.com and Vayable.com. Both will take you on hikes up to volcanoes and down to waterfalls in Hawaii, on bike tours in London and much more.
Poring over the ToursByLocals site, I discovered that your guide is emphasized nearly as much as the excursion he or she will be leading. In bigger cities where numerous guides are available, you can pre-determine the spirit and emphasis of your tour by the guides’ own descriptions of their background and tour type. Prefer a taxi driver with an encyclopedic knowledge of London? Try Lee C. Prefer a “Blue Badge Tourist Guide” with an interest in history? Try Dawn B.
Vayable approaches tour selection a bit differently, emphasizing the topic or sights of the tour a little more — although when you click down to a specific offering, there is a lot of information about the person who will be giving the tour and how they tend to conduct things, whether with seriousness, humor, energy, etc. Vayable’s more upscale presentation doesn’t mean they are no fun — for example, one London tour focuses on how art meets function in the form of notable loos.
Lodging site Airbnb also recently jumped into the tour space with its new Experiences product. The offerings are a bit limited so far, but they sound fascinating — think learning the art of ancient pottery in Tokyo or exploring Havana’s music scene with a local singer.
ShowAround.com is a portal where you can choose a local guide in a particular city for a certain hourly rate. Eliana, a 21-year-old hotel receptionist, will show you around Lisbon for $6/hour, while a local guy named Tom offers free tours of Sydney’s Bondi Beach area. Many of the guides on the site don’t have any reviews yet, so you might need to trust your gut a bit. We recommend sending a message to guides you’re interested in to establish whether they seem like a good fit.
DIY, DIY, DIY
VRBO, Airbnb, HomeAway and other vacation rental sites offer interesting opportunities to travel like a local, as by nature you end up staying in neighborhoods where other people actually live instead of cloistered away in hotels in commercial/tourist districts. Then again, many vacation rentals are clustered among other vacation rental houses, so you can end up in a bit of a “tourist ghetto” even when living in an ordinary rancher that no one would ever think was a tourist hangout.
An admittedly riskier approach in terms of quality (and at times safety), joining the couchsurfing revolution is an extremely promising way to approach total immersion in a culture, as you not only hang out with locals, but you also sleep in their spare beds, on their couches, on their floors, all while they are still living there. Couchsurfing.com is the leading site for this practice, which, if the sheer abundance of options is any indication, is a huge and growing travel tactic.
A search on the site for a place to stay in Seattle, for example, brings back more than 23,000 hosts — wow.
The site also hosts local events, such as meetups in bars or restaurants. As you might expect just based on the site name, the users tend to skew young and a bit adventurous, though not weird or spooky in any way — that is, it doesn’t seem to have turned into a website for drifters. When you are talking about 23,000 options in a single town alone, stereotypes tend to falter pretty quickly.
To learn more, check out this interview with a couchsurfing host.
Another option is Airbnb, which we have written about in the past (see Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals and 7 Airbnb Problems and How to Solve Them). You could consider Airbnb a hybrid of a vacation rental and couchsurfing site, as the site lists both very upscale vacation homes and “sleep in someone’s spare bedroom” options.
Finally, Homestay.com lets you book a night or two in local spare bedrooms; check out our interview with the Homestay.com CEO.
Have a Project of Your Own, and Share It
Often the best way to gain access into the local culture is to invite people into your own personal cultural experience, based on your own interests and passions. This has been my go-to approach over time. Below are some examples of how I got this to work for me; all you have to do is plug in your own interests, figure out where and how to make a first contact, and you are on your way. A few have to do with my own long association with rowing, which has led me to many unique experiences.
– While trying to visit a (now defunct) rowing club in Hawaii, standing around the locked boathouse looking at outrigger canoes led to a day’s wave-riding session in outrigger canoes with a local semi-pro wave rider.
– While visiting a friend at a boathouse in Spain, I asked about local surfing, and he shouted out to some amigos that I liked to surf; within hours we were all enjoying the famous break at Mundaka.
– A small guitar stuffed into the back of a rental car in Punta Arenas, Venezuela, led to a local asking to play it, and subsequently to an invite to a massive locals-only gymnasium party.
– A fairly serious interest in photography can open heaps of doors; taking decent photos of local folks and kids and then showing them the photos has led to countless fruitful introductions for me.
– Even something as simple as taking your children to playgrounds instead of expensive theme parks can offer tremendous opportunities to meet local folks.
With all of these, the rule is that when you’re willing to show and share a little bit of yourself, of how you like to live your own life, many people become much more interested in sharing with you how they live their lives. You can’t walk around with your metaphorical arms folded and expect to be welcomed with open arms. Give a little, get a little — or sometimes a lot.
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