What does it mean to travel like a local? Blogger Stephanie Mowat sums it up:
But why do many tourists find it necessary to travel like a local? What's the point? For some, it may be a way to save money. Locals have to live there (obviously), so they know how to stretch a paycheque to cover all the basics: food, shelter, transportation, and amusement. "Doing as the locals do" means that you, too, can meet all your needs without spending your last dollar/euro/rand.
For others, travelling like a local means achieving that "authentic" (genuine, real) experience. It's not about comfort or getting an experience that was tailored to meet your needs, but about experiencing someone else's life for a short time.
So how can you experience everyday life "for the first time"? Here are my ten tips for travelling like a local, no matter where you are:
1. Make a local friend
You might have to ditch your cell phone for this one. Summon your first-day-of-school courage and approach people around you. Talk to the people around you at the bus stop, your server at the restaurant you've dropped into for some lunch, or the person behind you in line for a coffee. Easy conversation starters: asking for directions, asking for restaurant recommendations, asking for the name of the song that's playing on the radio. Sure you can find this information online or on your phone, but going old-school can be a lot of fun. Making a friend abroad requires the same skills you need at home: bravery and a smile.
Oh, and you know how we're told to avoid political or religious discussions with people we've just met? Disregard that advice. Some of my most interesting conversations are with strangers on those particular topics. The most important thing is to have them be just that—conversations, not debates; I'm not there to change anyone's mind or judge their choices, but simply to listen and understand their point of view.
2. pretend it's the weekend
What chores do you usually need to get done on a weekend at home? Do them wherever you are. Need to do some laundry? Find a laundromat or, if you're lucky and in a less developed country, you can hire someone to wash your clothes for you. I made a great friend that way. (I don't advise doing laundry at your hotel or hostel, as this is likely the least sociable way to do it. Always choose the way that puts you into the path of new people/friends.) Even though you're away from home, get done what you need to get done. Go for a run, get your watch or jewellery repaired, pick up some fruit or snacks from the grocery store.
Another common thing to do on a weekend? Go to a religious service. No matter what your personal beliefs are, if your goal is to travel like a local, check out a local church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or meeting hall. Just make sure you dress respectfully and try to follow along.
3. use local transit
For many cities, local transit is not known to be particularly fast or comfortable. But in terms of local experiences, using public transit is one of the best values per dollar/pound/yuan. Buses, trains, and trotros offer some of the best opportunities to not only meet people, but also take in local sights. Buses and trains don't often take the most efficient routes, so you get to see the neighbourhoods that other tourists won't get to see.
4. Find a cafe away from the crowds
After taking in a great museum or other tourist attraction (sorry—some things are just too great to skip!), walk a few blocks before stopping to take a break at a restaurant, pub, or cafe. The ones closer to the attraction are likely to be filled with other tourists; walk a bit farther and you'll find the locals-only spots. Bonus: you can ask the servers there for their favourite hangouts for more local adventures.
5. Stay with a local
Organizations like Couchsurfing and Airbnb offer ways to sleep local. I've used Couchsurfing for years, both as a host and a guest. I love it. Because the host is there at home with you, you have someone to talk to, and someone who might even go exploring or out for dinner with. It's safe—you get to see reviews from others who've stayed over, and you email with them before you go, so you know what you're getting into—and it's free! Couchsurfing feels more like a sleepover at a friend's house than a hotel stay. And many travellers love Airbnb, so it's worth checking out.
6. travel slowly
As a traveller, particularly one with limited vacation time, sometimes the desire is to visit as many places as possible. But to experience the sights fully, we should try to fight that urge. Go to fewer places. Take in fewer sights. Listen to the sounds around you—spend some time on a park bench eavesdropping on conversations, and memorize lyrics of songs floating onto the sidewalk out of stores and restaurants. Return to the same streets at different times of day—who is there? How is the space used differently than it was earlier? Extend your meals to taste a variety of dishes. Pay attention to the details you would miss if you were only breezing in and out of town.
7. eat local
"Eat where the locals eat" is probably the most repeated travel tip. For good reason. Locals know where the best sushi places are, where to find the best happy hour deals, and which restaurants lines are worth the wait. Guidebooks can highlight a few great options, but restaurants come and go so quickly it's hard to keep up. But all you need to do is head downtown and follow the signs: long lines, bright lights, and crowded streets. Ask people you meet during the day for their favourite places. And be prepared to spend a little time waiting for a table.
8. ditch the guidebooks...
Before you leave, go ahead and read advice from the travel experts in your favourite Lonely Planet, Framer's, Bradt Travel Guide, Fodor's, or Rough Guides. But when you're on the road, leave the books behind. Not only will a guidebook or map be a key giveaway that you are a visitor, but it's a lot more fun to get the latest advice from someone on the street.
9. ...and use apps instead
Sometimes it's a good idea to ignore your phone (see #1), but there are other times where apps might give you the local advantage—just make sure you know your data plan so you don't get surprised by super-sized charges when you get home. If public transit is not your thing, the BlaBlaCar rideshare app will help you hitch a ride with a local. The Field Trip app takes note of your location and scans online reviews to notifies you of interesting places nearby; it's basically a guidebook at your fingertips. The Withlocals app connects you with a local to dine, tour, or do an activity with. HERE maps is an offline mapping app that offers turn-by-turn directions, so you'll always look like you know where you're going.
10. Don't worry too much about it!
Don't worry too much about having a locals-only experience. Indulge in some tourist attractions—because locals do it too! When I was living in southern Ontario, I went to the CN Tower in Toronto almost yearly, and loved it every time. I'm pretty sure all Vancouverites have been to the Capitano Suspension Bridge. What Parisian hasn't been up the Eiffel Tower?
There is not one way to travel. There is certainly no "best" way. Just remember the reason you are travelling—to experience another life—and let that be your guide.