Many travelers never truly get to know the places that they visit. They see the tourist sites, shop at the downtown stores, eat at restaurants near their hotels. This does not provide an accurate picture of the region — and it’s a sure way to pay inflated out-of-towner prices.
Bottom Line/Personal asked Pauline Frommer — creator of the Pauline Frommer series of guidebooks — how to really get to know an area without spending a lot…
Read the regional newspaper before your trip. Local newspapers list upcoming area events, review restaurants and offer a glimpse of what’s going on in the area. Most newspapers now are available online. You can find links at www.onlinenewspapers.com and www.newspapers.com.
Take a walking tour, not a bus tour. Walking tours usually cover smaller areas than bus tours. They also tend to be less expensive than bus tours and move at a slower pace, making it easier to ask the guide questions. Most walking tours take in the traditional tourist sights, but unlike bus tours, some will simply cover an interesting area of a city, taking in many sights that tourists don’t know to seek out. And unlike bus tours, they are more likely to have a unique focus. For example, one walking tour might take you to famous movie locations in a city or on the trail of a notorious killer (such as the Jack the Ripper tours in London). Other walking tours might be food-oriented, with the guides taking you to local food stores and restaurants, where you tour kitchens and get to sample as you go. Walking tours often can be found through museums and clubs. Or Google the city you plan to visit and the phrase “walking tours.” Good guidebooks often include walking tours.
Stay in a bed-and-breakfast, not a hotel. B&B owners often can provide valuable local insight for guests — unlike hotel concierges, who sometimes receive kickbacks for steering patrons to expensive tourist destinations. B&Bs also tend to have a social atmosphere where guests swap valuable travel recommendations.
Alternative: Rent an apartment or home for your vacation. These properties typically are in residential areas, which provide a truer sense of the region than the hotel district. Web sites such as VRBO.com… HomeAway.com… and Zonder.com connect travelers with property owners. Negotiate your rate — in this economy, many property owners are willing to take less than their asking price or throw in perks, such as free use of the phone.
Get lost. Spend a few hours getting lost. Walk wherever your feet take you (or drive wherever your car takes you). Wandering is not wasted time — it’s the best way to discover the parts of town that most tourists miss.
Helpful: Carry a street map so that you can find your way back. Do your wandering during daylight hours to minimize risk.
Eat at restaurants in residential districts. A region’s cuisine can be a big part of its culture — but restaurants located near hotels and tourist destinations are almost never the best way to sample it. Such restaurants make money by overcharging out-of-towners who they know will soon leave and perhaps never come back. It is better to patronize restaurants in residential areas, which make money by serving food so good that local customers turn into regulars.
Caution: Don’t ask a concierge or cab driver to recommend a restaurant. Low-quality, overpriced restaurants sometimes pay these people to steer business their way.
Visit the local farmers’ market… and, when abroad, the local supermarket. Markets provide an accurate picture of how locals eat and live. They also are an inexpensive place to grab a distinctive meal or snack. Local candies or jarred goods make memorable and inexpensive gifts, too.
CONNECT WITH A LOCAL
One of the best ways to get to know a region is to get to know someone who lives there. To meet a local resident…
Contact a regional greeters organization. There are organizations in some areas that match local volunteer “greeters” with travelers. Google the name of the city or country that you’re visiting and the word “Greeters” to find out if there is such a group where you’re headed. These greeters might provide guidance over the phone throughout your visit or spend a few hours showing you around in person.
This service usually is free, but it is appropriate to pay your guide’s fee or fare if you visit a museum or take public transit together. You should pick up the check if you share a meal or drinks.
Greeters programs typically can provide a volunteer who speaks English… or even someone with whom you share an interest. When I told the Jamaican greeters program that my passion was cooking, they supplied a greeter who took me to her home and taught me to cook the local cuisine.
Examples of greeters programs…
New York City’s “Big Apple Greeters,” 212-669-8159, www.bigapplegreeter.org.
Chicago Greeter program, 312-744-8000, www.chicagogreeter.com.
Toronto Greeter Program, www.toronto.ca/tapto.
Jamaica’s “Meet the People,” www.visitjamaica.com, select the “About Jamaica” tab, then “Meet the People.”
Japan’s Goodwill Guides, www.jnto.go.jp/eng, select “Essential Info” from under the “Arrange Your Travel” heading, then select “Guide Services,” and scan down to the section labeled “Guide Service/Volunteer Guides.”
South Korea’s Goodwill Guides, http://english.visitkorea.or.kr, then select “Volunteer Tour Guides” under “Essential Information” on the left.
Join a hospitality exchange club. Members provide local insight for other members who visit their area. In some cases, members even can arrange to stay in the guest rooms of local members’ homes for free or for a minimal fee.
Example: The Evergreen Club is a hospitality exchange club for those over age 50. The club has hosts across the US, Europe, Canada and Australia. It also has a few members in India, Mexico and the Caribbean. Annual dues are $60 ($75 for a couple). Guest-room stays typically are $18 per night ($24 for a couple) — less if you agree to host guests in your home (815-456-3111, www.evergreenclub.com).
Network with a local in your field. A shared profession is a good excuse to contact someone in a region. Doctors might ask to visit local hospitals so that they can study triage systems or new techniques not yet being practiced in their hometowns. Teachers might visit schools, again to see how the education system works in other parts of the world. Professional networking even could make a portion of your travel expenses tax deductible as a business expense. Ask your accountant for details.
Approach a local who’s like you for guidance. Want to know what people in the region who share your interests do for fun? Then ask someone who’s likely to share your interests. If you like to read, visit a bookstore and ask a fellow patron for advice… if you love the outdoors, visit a store that sells kayaks or camping gear. To improve the odds of aligned interests, pick someone whose age is similar to your own.