It's an interesting observation, and while it doesn't represent everyone, it got us thinking about what it takes for an "independent traveler" to create an affordable but experience-rich foray into truly local culture.
It 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 both from 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. To differentiate between the two, ToursByLocals presents itself as a more quirky, distinctive tour experience, with an "About Us" page featuring pictures of staff with surfboards and backpacks, while Vayable gives off a bit more upscale vibe, inviting you to "book an experience" from among a large selection of "boutique tours." That said, both will take you on hikes up to volcanoes and down to waterfalls in Hawaii, on bike tours in London and more.
Poring over the ToursByLocals site, I discovered that you don't so much book a tour as you do a specific tour guide, for whom there are extensive bios. 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 a cockney background who can give a tour of East London? Try Peter B. Prefer a "Blue Badge Tourist Guide" with expertise in medieval history? Try Debbie. Want a heavily traveled, multilingual guide with an acting background who is the type to wear a top hat in his profile pic? Try Simon C.
Simon also offers a "running tour" for folks who would like to see London on foot, but at higher speeds than a walking tour. I have often written that going running is one of the best ways to see a new destination; in this case, you can do so with the additional benefit of a knowledgeable guide.
20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals
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 art tour focuses on how art meets function in the form of notable loos.
Tripzaar.com is another recent entrant into this space, and tends to focus on adventurous, offbeat and even "extreme" tours, such as cliff trail runs, samba dancing, surfing, and zip-lining. Tripzaar's offerings are fairly limited at the moment, but it's a site worth keeping an eye on.
As I mentioned above, this is a new "space" in travel services. Here are some more sites to check out, each one with a slightly different focus and functionality:
- CanaryHop.com has stuff like circus training lessons and a home-cooked meal in a family home in Delhi.
- Gidsy.com is similar to CanaryHop but with a payment twist, in that they withhold renumeration for the tour guide until the customer reports back that the event happened. The site offers things like an Amsterdam Red Light District tour with a former police officer, tango lessons, and photography workshops and walkabouts, etc.
- SideTour.com distinguishes itself with what seem to be truly unique outings; some upcoming New York City events include cooking a three-course meal with a Michelin chef, foraging for wild edible food in Central Park, a hip-hop tour of Harlem, and producing and getting on camera for a local evening news program.
DIY, DIY, DIY
VRBO, Flipkey, HomeAway and other vacation rental sites offer interesting opportunities for local encounters, 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.
Booking a Vacation Rental: What You Need to Know
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 13,206 hosts -- wow.
The site also hosts local "discussions," which folks use to meet new people, find hiking partners on Mt. Rainier, arrange rideshares and more, serving a secondary function of acting a bit like a Meetup.com for people who are the type to use Couchsurfing.com. 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 Web site for drifters. When you are talking about 13,000 options in a single town alone, stereotypes tend to falter pretty quickly.
For a useful and clear-eyed series of articles on couchsurfing, check out The Art of Couchsurfing Awesomely. The nine-part series includes a cheat sheet on getting started with couchsurfing, safety information, how to find places to stay and issues of etiquette.
Another option is Airbnb, which we have written about in the past (see Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals). 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.
10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad
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. (Wow.)
- 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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