Alternative Tourism: 16 hot tips on how to travel like a local

23/07/12

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You’re on summer vacation. It’s stinkin’ hot and the queue in front of the museum seems to be standing still. You have been standing there for almost an hour before you are allowed – at last – to pay (a good slump of) your hard-earned cash to see the city’s greatest art. However, when you finally gain access you realize: so did approximately a hundred thousand other people. To get into the room with the most famous painting is another queue. And when you finally enter – the crowd in front of the painting, the flashing cameras and tour groups – in addition to the security glass and the little fence to keep the crows at bay – makes the painting almost impossible to see. And on top of it all it is much smaller in real life than you anticipated…

Does this sound familiar?

The description above is an accurate encounter of my first time in the Louvre in Paris. Although I doubt it will be my last, this experience marked the end of my time as a tourist. Never again! I’m still travelling, but on a whole different level. Let me explain…

I now only travel as a local. I don’t do tourist attractions. I don’t do hop-on-hop-off. I usually don’t do museums (unless there’s some sort of off-season event going on) and I most certainly don’t do organized tours.

And yet, I dare say I have the most amazing travels ever.

I travel like a local. Which means I stay with the local and play with the local.

And it’ so much more rewarding!

So, do you dream of traveling (and I know you do!) – here’s how to do it cheaper, faster, longer and so much more awesome.

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16 Hot Tips on How to Travel Like a Local

Rent an apartment

This way of travelling has changed everything for me. Although hotels are nice, living in a rented apartment will not only give you more travelling for your money – you also get to experience the culture on a whole different level. To illustrate; right now I’m sitting in the kitchen in my rented New York apartment. In front of me is a gas oven. To you, that might not be so strange but for me – let’s say it this way: I finally understand why all American baking recipes state the temperature with two alternatives depending on the type of oven. (Note to my American readers – this is my very first time seeing a real gas oven. We have electrical stoves in Norway!)

Eat local food

Did you know that the restaurants in Thailand and Malaysia (not to speak of Indonesia and Vietnam!) almost always have a section on the menu called “Western Food”? Isn’t it horrible? And to make it worse, the prices are almost double the prices for local food. Therefore, eating local – and especially local street food – will both save you money and horrible burger experiences. In addition, if you do some research and seek out where the locals actually eat (and guess what? It’s not that nice place in Rome straight accross the street from the Pantheon…) you will get better quality food, pay less and get a more authentic experience. A good way to seek out the best food is to ask around. In addition – local people queueing outside is a very good sign.

Go on a workcation

If you don’t have a day job, consider to pack up your business and do a working holiday – or a workcation as we call it. This is a great idea for students too, pack up your books and experience studying in a new and more exiting coffeeshop. The benefits are huge, you’ll experience your destination as if you were actually living there. There’s a certain charm to daily life and I promise you’ll be more excited to get up and do a few hours of work when you wake up somewhere exciting and new.

Use public transport

No more hop-on-hop off or overpriced taxi’s from the airport. Learn how to use the public transportation system. If you think it is confusing, remember that thousands, if not millions, of people use it every day. It’s not that hard! Just read the instructions and ask the staff if you have questions. The benefits of using public transport is that is saves you a ton of money, but you also get to do some very interesting and inspiring people-watching.

Focus on local events

Try to steer away from events that are obviously marketed towards tourists. A good example here is the shadow puppet shows in Bali. Not only are they overpriced, but very often you won’t even get the real deal. “Local” shows in this cathegory are thriving businesses that make more money if they put on a show that tourists enjoy, meaning the performance is often crafted to suit our western tastes. Try to search for real performances, shows and events instead. These are often not heavily marketed, so your best bet is often to wander around, get lost and walk straight up to a wedding, family party or local gathering. Don’t worry, if you stand by the side and watch you will very often get invited to take part in the celebration.

Wander and explore

Wandering the streets of a big city or the back alleys of a small rural town often outweigh museums and tourist attractions – by far. Make sure you not just walk – the key word is wander. Go slow, look around you and take in all the smells, sounds and beautiful details. Relax, put down your camera (unless you use your camera as a tool to really notice the details) and just be.

Take a class, course or create your own learning experiment

A really good way to travel is to spend a portion of your time learning something new. How about a language class, cooking class or creating your own learning experience? Travelling with a huge tour group will not leave you inspired – learning and growing as a human being will. There are lots of options and you can take classes in anything nowadays. Cupcake decorating anyone?

Get a local sim card

If you have an unlocked smartphone, this is essential. Do some research online and figure out who does a good pre-paid plan that will work with your phone. The greatest benefit for me so far: Google maps on my phone. I would be totally lost without it! In addition, it will make it so much easier (and cheaper) to make restaurant reservations, event bookings plus it will allow you to keep in touch with your new friends!

Travel off season

The best time to travel is either off-season or shoulder season. Try to avoid high season if you want to avoid the crowd of families and tour groups. In addition, shoulder and off-season often have great weather, more available accommodation and the prices are often much cheaper. To find out when it’s best to travel use Wikitravel or the forum at Lonely Planet.

Hang out with friends of friends, online friends or use coachsurfing

The best way to spend a vacation is to get to know some real human beings. Start with the people you already know; friends, friends of friends and people you have already interacted with online. I have been blessed to meet many of you wonderful readers and I have to stay: every single meet-up has been truly inspiring and a lot of fun! I have only had good experiences and I totally recommend meeting people you’ve only interacted with online. Just make sure you are careful and use common sense. Another great way of meeting people is through Coachsurfing. Even though you don’t surfe, you can go to meet-ups and events to meet locals and travelers alike.

Seek out the best coffee-shops

A good way to see the city and to find the best neigborhoods is to seek out the best coffee-shops. My barista boyfriend has a really good way of doing this: do a google search for The World Barista Championship and see who are on the national team of the country you are traveling to. Then find out where they work and go there. Voila! Great coffée guaranteed. As a bonus, these places have a tendency to be the best in town and they are often placed in a really cool suburb. Just be warned, a great coffée-place does not automatically equal a great work-place, which is a major bummer for me as the blogger/writer and not the coffee-connoisseur in our relationship.

Seek out the best (indepentent) bookstores

My favouite way of exploring a city is to do a bookstore marathon. I usually go from one bookstore to another, with frequent blogging and writing stops in their on-location cafés. Great indepentent bookstores are often placed in interesting neighbourhoods and they often carry books and stationery from local artists.

Watch and learn

Traveling as a local has everything to do with being able to watch and learn. Wondering how to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City? Do it as the locals – one slow step at a time. Can’t understand the Metro system in Paris? Spend five minutes looking over the shoulder of a (elegantly dressed) parisian while he works the ticket machine. What do people say when you enter and leave a store? This custom differs a lot in various places of the world. The best way to fit in and to show respect is to make an effort to do as the locals. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, a smile and an excuse goes a really long way!

Ditch the guidebook

Although you might be feeling totally lost, I really recommend that you drop the guidebook and huge map the next time you travel. I’ve always been lugging my guidebooks around the world, but to be frank – in these internet times you don’t really need one. And chances are it’s outdated anyways… In addition, most guidebooks only send you to overcrowded and mainstream places. Keep an eye out for tips online and copy the adresses down into your notebook instead.

Opt for alternative experiences

Say yes to alternative experiences, opportunities and ideas. If someone invites you to a party, their wedding (yes, it happens!) or you just get the opportunity to try something wild (like swimming with Manta Rays late at night during a storm!) – Say YES. As with everything else, you are the creator of your own travel experience and I strongly encourage you to opt out of the safe tourist attractions and do something different. If you can choose something well-known and comfortable (like a flight) or something a little scary (like the local 14 hour night-train) – choose the latter. You can thank me later.

Be yourself

The best travel tips of them all – just be yourself. Don’t try too hard to fit in if that is not your thing. In other words, don’t try to maneuvre your chic heels in Paris if you’re usually a sneaker kind of gal. And if you don’t really like contemporary and modern art, don’t feel like you should visit the Tate Modern. Follow your heart and do what you want. The only rule is that there are no rules!

What is your best travel memory? 

 

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Mandy July 23, 2012 at 11:09 pm

I totally agree with all the points you brought up, but I do think that there is something to be said for seeing touristy sights, as long as it’s something you’re really interested in. For example, if you’re in London, don’t go to the National Portrait Gallery if it sounds boring, but if you’re super into Shakespeare, then go to the Globe! Tourist attractions are famous and popular for a reason (usually), and it’s not fair to deny yourself just because it’s touristy. I actually make a point to go out and do somewhat touristy things in my own city every once in a while, just to see what all the fuss is about. I’m actually usually pleasantly surprised with the experience.

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Marthe July 23, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Mandy, you have some great points here. Maybe I did let my fear of crowds get into my head a little bit! ;)

I don’t mean to be an advocate of ditching tourist attractions altogether, I just think that for example an evening event at the museum is a way better way of experiencing it than a crowded Saturday in July!

Also, I think it’s a great idea to do the opposite – living like a tourist in your local city. I’m all for shaking things up! :D

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Ellie Di July 23, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Love this! I’m planning a long trip to Scotland next September, and it’s the first time I’ve done that kind of thing on my own. I’m definitely looking into renting an apartment!

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Marthe July 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Thank you!

I’ve actually never been to Scotland but maybe I’ll come over when you’re there? ;)

Definitely check out Airbnb.com in addition to Gumtree (Craigslist is not that popular in Europe). Also, September is when all the students hit the town (especially if you’re considering Edinbourgh) so I think you should book something early! :)

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Ellie Di July 23, 2012 at 11:39 pm

September is absolute – we’re going for my BFF’s 30th birthday (it’s her dream country), but yeah, I know it might be difficult for the time period.

And I know someone who works for AirBnB, so I’ll definitely check them out!

Also – I WOULD LOVE IT IF YOU CAME OVER WHILE I’M THERE! *ahem* <3

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Luana July 23, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Yes! The best way to get the most out of a place, or at least a different view from the local touristy bubble tours provide is to hang out with locals and live a few days as they would. I do agree with Mandy that there are some must-see touristy bits everywhere, but I usually get those out of the way first and then wander off. Getting lost once or twice can even be a good idea!

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Marthe July 24, 2012 at 4:06 am

Getting lost is a really good idea! It’s the best way for control freaks like me to practice letting go.

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Heather Thorkelson July 24, 2012 at 12:01 am

Hey Marthe – great post! I’ve been traveling like this for about a decade and a half and I can definitely vouch for all the points you make. I just spent 5 days in Peru’s Sacred Valley on a workcation and it was AWESOME! I feel totally inspired and refreshed. And I got a TON of stuff done. Thanks for a great post!

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Marthe July 24, 2012 at 4:15 am

Thank you! I’m not surprised to hear this is the way you travel too, Heather. We’re soul mates, I can feel it!

Your workcation sounds and looks awesome. I’m so inspired by you!

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Lu July 24, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Really useful tips, a couple of times I even gasped and said out loud “That totally makes sense!”. And now the wanderlust is back *sigh*

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Marthe July 25, 2012 at 10:05 pm

YES, that was what I wanted! ;)

Where do you want to go?

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Lígia July 24, 2012 at 11:46 pm

I love reading your posts…I saw myself in every scene you’ve created! And I agree with you about everything. It’s really nice how we can connect more with people when we are are experiencing the city/country/neighborhood like a local.

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Marthe July 25, 2012 at 10:07 pm

Thank you, Lígia! :) Connecting with people is what makes traveling life-changing. <3

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Chrissa ~ a tad bit creative August 15, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Excellent advice, Marthe! I totally agree that travelling like the locals is by far a richer and more valuable experience. Thanks for the great ideas!

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Celine January 5, 2013 at 10:13 am

Hi Marthe,

I love this idea of alternative tourism. Few days ago during Xmas break, I saw in a newspaper a picture of thousands of people at the beach in Mombassa, here in Kenya. Thousands, all doing the same thing at the same moment and at the same place. It was horrible. It was not possible to even walk because the beach was so crowded, full of people. I would not like to be one of these people. And I was asking myself: how is this possible? Why is everyone doing the same thing at the same time and at the same place? There must be a way to do otherwise and still enjoy what we want to do. So the concept you are sharing here is very good. It is a new way of doing tourism and it is very rewarding. Thanks for sharing this.

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