Travel Like A Local: 10 Easy Ways to Have More Local Travel Experiences
Have you ever found yourself watching a travel show where the hosts are living this truly magical and local travel experience that you never seem to have on your vacation? They're sitting down to a fabulous meal with a local family and you're thinking that would be so great but this sort of thing only happens on TV. And they're exploring a city with a local guide who shows them all of these hidden gems that you'd never find in your guidebook. They're sharing these authentic experiences without waiting in long lines and you're left wondering why your trips never look like that.
That used to be me.
When Wes and I first started travelling, we'd watch all sorts of travel shows together on long bus rides or before bed and I would feel more and more inspired after each episode. Seeing others have these memorable local travel experiences convinced me that quitting my job to travel the world wasn't a huge mistake because I felt I was truly fueling my passion. But despite all of the amazing places we visited during our first backpacking trip, I somehow felt like I wasn't doing it right. I was so focused on seeing the top 10 sites of every city and getting that fairy tale castle photo that I missed out on the type of experiences that truly inspired me. I wanted to travel like the people in my favourite shows instead of spending half the day standing in line. But I didn't know how.
Well, after two years of travel and dozens of lessons learned, I can say I've had those truly memorable local travel experiences that I was missing the first time around. From spontaneous road trips in Croatia to watching Rick and Morty in Polish, I've shared moments with locals that mean more to me than any photo could. Now I want to share everything I've learned about travelling like a local in the hopes that you can have more remarkable travel experiences as well.
1 • Avoid Hotels
I used to work at a hotel and I'm still going to put this at the top of the list. There are definitely some perks to staying at a hotel but we usually only book them when we need a place close to the airport for a long layover or early flight. If you're looking to travel like a local and experience more of what a city has to offer, consider booking your accommodations through sites like VRBO, Airbnb or HomeAway where you can stay in someone's home instead of a hotel room. In most cases, you'll find yourself experiencing life as a local would in a neighbourhood with the parks, markets and shops you might have otherwise missed. Most listings on these sites have a full kitchen so you'll be able to cook your own meals instead of having to eat out all the time. Some offer shared accommodations where you have a private bedroom but share common spaces with the homeowner or other travellers. And if you're really committed to travelling like a local, you can reach out to locals who host travellers for free on sites like Couchsurfing.
How we did it: During our month in Bangkok, we opted to stay at an Airbnb in the Chatuchak area instead of where the backpackers usually stay. We were the only tourists in our building and truly felt like we were experiencing a different side of Bangkok. There was a corner restaurant that we would go to every day and, even though we could barely communicate with the staff, they would always wave to us and would have our usual meals prepared without us even having to order! We've stayed in a number of Airbnbs with locals and found that most are incredibly helpful, especially when it comes to restaurants nearby that serve good local food. I can't even count how many great meals we've had at small family restaurants or hole-in-the-wall diners all because of recommendations from our hosts.
2 • Learn the Language
If I could choose a super power, it would be to speak and understand every language in the world. I think language enhances one's travel experiences in a way few other things can. Before arriving to a new country, it certainly helps to try and learn a few words in the local language. One phrase that would definitely come in handy is at least being able to say, "Excuse me, I don't speak _____. Do you speak English?"
How we did it: The first words we learn in any language are thank you. Beer is a close second (lol) but knowing how to say some greetings and polite phrases in a new country will really go a long way. Wes likes to prepare a little cheat sheet that we can both resort to quickly when ordering food or visiting a market which is more fun for us than always relying on our phones.
3 • Opt for Local Transportation
If you really want to travel like a local then it helps to literally start travelling like a local. Try using the local modes of transport instead of hailing a cab or Uber right away. It may not always be as quick (or as comfortable) but to miss out on experiences like the metro in Tokyo or the iconic trams in Lisbon would be a pity. My dad likes to joke that local bus rides in Puerto Vallarta are an adventure in themselves which is especially true when there's someone serenading passengers in Spanish, accordion and all.
How we did it: Instead of taking a double decker tour bus in Mexico City, we just hopped on a public bus on Paseo de la Reforma which also happens to have two storeys. If you manage to get a front seat on the top deck, you can get a great view of the sites along this route at a fraction of the price.
4 • Creep the Comments Section
This is probably the most valuable piece of advice I have and it happens to be absolutely free. Sometimes an online audience loves nothing more than to share their favourite places with travellers visiting their home country and that's when it pays to read what people are suggesting. Let me tell you, there is GOLD hidden in the comments sections of YouTube videos and Instagram posts. If you like to research a destination by watching videos or looking up cities on Instagram, dig through the comments section for advice from locals. Chances are they know what's trending and they genuinely want you to see the best of their city. But take every suggestion with a grain of salt. We've had trolls suggesting certain things that no tourist should ever do so definitely do your homework before booking based on someone's comment.
How we did it: It was through the comments section that we met Marta in Lodz, hung out with Marie & Alan in Ireland, discovered Mexico City with Daniel and had dozens of other experiences with locals. And even though these interactions were a result of our own YouTube audience, some of our viewers have connected with each other through the comments section, met abroad and shared their stories with us.
5 • Attend the Festivals
Another great and easy way to have a more local travel experience while abroad is to be in town for the unique festivals and celebrations. If you have a travel destination in mind, do a quick search to see if the country or city is known for a specific festival and decided if it’s something you can work your itinerary around. This is an easy step to add when planning your perfect trip and one that can be incredibly rewarding!
There are of course some downsides to being in town during a festival as the city will be busy and this can make it harder to find accommodations. For popular festival like La Tomatina and Oktoberfest, it’s best to plan well in advance or consider staying outside of the city centre to avoid some of the mayhem. We were fortunate to experience the water festival of Songkran in Bangkok one year and this is still one of our most fun travel memories to date.
6 • Work for Room and Board
The concept of working in exchange for a place to stay isn't for everyone but that's what sites like Workaway and WOOF are all about. These are both great ways to immerse yourself into a culture while travelling, meeting like-minded people and volunteering a few hours each day to cover your food and accommodation. There are thousands of opportunities all over the world with jobs ranging from taking care of animals on an organic farm in France to helping out at a surf school in Costa Rica. If you're interested in experiencing local life but working less, pet sitting is an alternative that we used in the UK between travels. We had a great week living in the countryside while caring for 5 pets in a cozy home. For free :)
How we did it: A couple of years ago, Wes found a pretty sweet Workaway listing in Poland. A family was looking for help around the house as well as native English speakers to practice conversational speaking with clients of their family-run language school. For three weeks we lived in the countryside, fed (and rode!) horses, ate fruits straight from the trees and were well taken care of by our host family. Most of the work didn't feel like work at all and the experience of living with a local family was pretty priceless.
7 • Don't Miss the Local Markets
When you only have a couple of days to spend in a city, chances are you'll be dining out most of the time but if you enjoy cooking and want a real local travel experience, head straight to the market and see what's in season. It may be tempting to avoid the familiarity and convenience of a Walmart but I love that feeling accomplishment when you walk out of a local market in a country where you don't speak the language and manage to get what you were looking for. It can be challenging (like having to mimic a chicken if you're trying to buy chicken) but markets are a great way to interact with vendors and try news foods and local dishes.
8 • Join the Online Groups
You'd be surprised at how helpful locals can be in Facebook groups and Reddit threads. I'm a part of several travel-related groups online and some are great for asking questions like "What's a good bar to go to on Wednesdays in Toronto?" or "Where can I find good vegan food in Budapest?"
How we did it: When deciding whether or not it would be a good idea to hibernate in Croatia, I joined a couple of local groups on Facebook to see what the country was like in the winter. The online community was so incredibly helpful offering tips on everything from long-term rentals to festivals and events. I made a great friend through one of these groups and we instantly clicked after our first coffee. One year later, Wes and I were playing charades with her 3 beautiful kids at their family home overlooking the Adriatic sea.
9 • Atlas Obscura & Like a Local
It's safe to say that locals avoid tourist attractions at all costs so how do you travel like a local if those popular sites are all you know? Like a Local Guide is a site where locals share their favourite spots in a city which often include things that are free or sites that won't be crowded. When you really want to head off the beaten path, take a look on Atlas Obscura. The site is known for revealing unusual attractions and hidden gems all over the world which will likely result in some interesting travel stories you can share once you return home.
How we did it: We first came across Atlas Obscura during our month in Lviv, Ukraine and have since used it so many times featuring unique sites in many of our YouTube videos over the years. Some of the places we've learned about and visited include Ireland Park (Toronto), Liban Quarry (Krakow), the Mummy Museum (Guanajuato) and even an island full of rabbits in Japan (Okunoshima).
10 • Deconstruct the Tours
While guided tours and group excursions are a great way to explore a region, nothing screams tourist more than being herded around with dozens of others while following the guide holding an umbrella high in the air. One big downside of these packaged trips is that the schedule is often set in stone with little free time and even less flexibility. If you'd like to explore more of a city or country, have a look at what tours are offering and then DIY your own day trip or itinerary. This will give you inspiration on where to go and what to see but allows you to tweak your travels based on your interests (more hiking, less beach time, etc). You can book local transportation between sites and cities and will often end up saving hundreds of dollars in the process. This might not be for you if you don't like travel research and planning but it's a tip that we use in every country to have more local travel experiences.
How we did it: When planning for our Japan trip, I honestly felt so overwhelmed and didn't know where to start. I knew about Tokyo and Kyoto but wanted to include other stops on our itinerary that were less touristy. That's when I started looking at group travel itineraries in Japan to research where the expensive tours were stopping. I couldn't find an affordable option that included both Okinawa and Hiroshima so I decided to plan it myself. Once I had an idea of the main hubs listed in the packaged tours, I planned for day trips from those hubs and booked local transportation between each city.
11 • Ditch the Plans
The best of local travel experiences are often a result of completely spontaneous events. When you're too caught up on a bucket list, you might miss out on moments that no itinerary could possibly prepare you for. Don't hold on too tightly to plans and schedules, even the ones recommended above! If a chatty fisherman happens to start babbling about life in Croatia and his experience hosting travellers, listen to his tales - even if it means having to wait for the next bus.
How we did it: Years ago, in Guanajuato, Wes and I were having coffee at a cafe and browsing rental listings online. The clock was ticking and if we didn't find a lead soon, we'd have to check out of our hostel and move onto the next city. Just as we were getting frustrated, an older lady starting chatting with us and we found out she was renting an apartment nearby. Had we kept our conversation short and focused only on our online research, we would have missed out on a cute little apartment and several chats with her on the roof of our rental for the month.
A couple of years ago, I sat down with a talented Japanese photographer in Croatia. I had been following him on Instagram and he agreed to meet with me when I found out we'd both be in Split at the same time. We went for coffee (as locals do in Croatia) and talked about our passions and our travels. I was so grateful for all of the tips and insights he was sharing with me and expressed something along the lines of "I wish there was a way to repay you." His reply has always stuck with me: information is meant to be shared. And I truly believe the world is made better when we share what we know with others. Whenever I need a reminder of this blog's purpose, I circle back to sharing information that will help others, like ways to have more local travel experiences ;)