Month: November 2012

5 Tips on the Local Experience in Foreign Travel

By: Christine Lai

“Just because you’re a frequent flier doesn’t mean you have a global mindset.” – Gregory Unruh

Plane LandingYou have sufficiently planned your trip. You are sitting on the plane on your flight over to your dream destination. You are looking forward to a fun, relaxing, and refreshing time in another city or country. It is an exciting opportunity to explore a people, culture, and history that is drastically different from who you are and where you are from. How are you going to make the most of your travel experience? How do you want to capture the story a country has to tell in your short stay there? Most importantly, how do you experience the place as a local would? Based on my traveling experiences to 15 countries and over 50 cities, here are 5 tips that have served me well in seeing, learning, and experiencing a foreign country through the eyes of a local.

  1. Learn a couple of local phrases. If you aren’t familiar with the language of the country you’re visiting, invest in a quick guidebook. Even if you feel lazy, are short on time, or consider yourself “bad at languages”, just crack open your guidebook on the plane ride there and memorize a couple of key phrases. Where is the bathroom? How do I get to …? How much is …? Learning even a couple of words will get you far because (1) most people appreciate that you’ve taken the time to learn their language, and (2) you can manage to get where you need to go if no one ends up speaking English.
    When my Brazilian friend visited me in Beijing for two weeks, she managed to pick up some basic, but very important phrases (and gestures) for numbers and bargaining. After going on a shopping spree at the popular local Pearl Market, she came back and told me – “The local Chinese ladies didn’t know what to do with me. I talked down the price to 1/3 of what they offered me. There was nothing they could do about it. I love shopping like a local!” Learning just the number system can take you far and save you time and money.
  2. Meet and talk to random locals. Not everyone is outgoing and comfortable talking to strangers. Especially in a foreign country with a foreign language, talking and meeting locals can be daunting. But your decision to be in a foreign country means you owe it to yourself to put yourself out there. Try your best – no one is judging.
    Cambodian Locals on a TruckSo how should you pick your target local? Look for people not in a hurry. Look for people who seem friendly. Start off asking for directions (and oftentimes you legitimately need to). If that goes well, directions can turn into a conversation about themselves, their culture, and perhaps good local spots to visit! When my friend Sarah* and I were traveling through Italy, she struck up a conversation with construction worker when asking for directions. We ended up talking for 30 minutes in the streets of Naples about how he grew up there, the state of Italian politics, and the best local food spots. On the same trip, she struck up a conversation with a local flea market vendor in Florence and ended up getting a 40% discount on her leather bag. There is no harm to being friendly and just striking up a conversation, and much to gain.
    Read more about tips to make new friends in this blog article here.
  3. Eat the local food. As weird as local food can be, give it a shot. It’s tempting to stick with what  you know and love, and order a burger with fries. But then – what’s the point of you being there? It’s understandable if you’ve been eating local food for the past 2 weeks and are craving some burger and fries. But don’t eat it unless you deserve it.
    Spicy Beijing Fish DishIn terms of finding a place with solid local food, refer to tip #2 and ask around. Another way I find a good local joint is to take note of all the restaurants I walk past when sightseeing and jot down the one that has the most locals in it. Stay away from tourist traps – the ones that only tourists go to, pay exorbitant prices, and eat mediocre food. If it’s not good enough for the locals, it’s not good enough for you.Locals diving in Lencois Brazil
  4. Party like a local. Learning about local pastimes. If you’re not up for them, then find the local version of pastimes that you’re familiar with. Take clubbing, for instance. On a typical Saturday night in Dupont Circle in Washington DC, girls dress up to the nines and head to the club around 11:30pm to midnight. In Barcelona, girls throw on jeans, t-shirt, and a pair of flats and head to the club at after 2am.
  5. Stay with some locals. Living with locals gives you a better perspective on how to travel and what to avoid. I stayed with an Argentine family in Buenos Aires for 5 weeks. Not only did it help my Spanish, but I got some tips that I wouldn’t normally get elsewhere. Have enough change to take the bus. Otherwise, you’ll be stranded at the bus stop.
    While I haven’t tried Staydu, I’ve heard positive reviews. You can stay with a local family in exchange for help, money, or for free because they’d just love to have you. Staying with locals is not for everyone, but it’s something to consider if you tight on budget or enjoying pushing your boundaries a bit

The basis of all 5 tips is curiosity. Curiosity is a mindset. It means different things to different people, but if you’re curious you’ll find that you are learning and traveling like you’ve never done before. Keep in mind that if you have decided to travel to a foreign country, you have committed to be a temporary transplant there. Be open to exploring the local way of life, to learning more about the culture, to doing things the “local” way. Don’t shut out what is uncomfortable to you and just go with it. Being curious is not the same is being reckless. You should always be aware and alert, but make sure you’re also having some fun in the process. Happy traveling!

Do you have some local travel stories to share? Do you have any other tips to getting the most out of your travel experience? Please comment below.


7 Steps on Planning Your Travel

By: Christine Lai

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


Credits: Fowler & Company

What makes a great trip? Despite what many of your spontaneous friends tell you – it is planning. Planning sounds boring and tedious. It’s something your parents keep telling you to do with your life. But planning means not paying double for your hotel, missing out on an amazing hiking trail, and your credit card failing to work. Planning does NOT mean you write out an itinerary and follow it step by step. You can plan and be spontaneous at the same time. Here are 7 steps to planning your trip, so you can go ahead, enjoy your travels, and be spontaneous!

  1. Decide on your budget, length of stay, and timing. Your budget, amount of vacation time, and when you can legitimately travel will determine the type of vacation you want and even the trip destination.  If you’re low on budget and enjoy history and adventurous travel, Cambodia may be a good destination. If you only have three days of vacation, Cambodia might not be a good choice since it’d take a full day to get there from the U.S. If you want to travel during the winter, you’d probably want to avoid the snow and freezing temperatures in Russia and opt for a warmer destination like Costa Rica. These requirements set the stage the rest of your trip planning.Person in Mountain Range near Shangri-La
  2. Find trip destination(s). If you’re unsure of where to travel to, Trip Tuner is a great site that provides destination ideas based on your preferences and interests. You can adjust sliders to choose a vacation that is relaxing, adults only, parka, mountainous, remote, and thrifty. If you already know where you would like to go – proceed to Step 3.
  3. Find a travel buddy. If you decide not to travel alone, I suggest finding a good travel buddy. Finding a good travel buddy is like finding a good roommate and partner in crime. Do you have similar interests? Do you have a similar pace of sightseeing and exploring? Are you on the same page with how much you want to spend?
    Before you go on the trip, make sure you’re all on the same page on activities, budget, and preferences. Don’t be in for a surprise if you prefer exploring a low-cost hole-in-the-wall restaurant while your travel mate books a table at a fancy restaurant at the Ritz. You’d want to reconsider traveling with someone who prefers sleeping in late and seeing the city for a couple hours, if you want to wake up early, see all the museums, try out different restaurants, and then going clubbing at night.
    Horror Travel Story. My friend Mike had a terrible month in Spain, mainly because he didn’t set expectations with his travel buddy. They’re good friends and enjoy watching football together, but the two had different ideas of what the trip would be like. Mike wanted to get up early, see the sights, try the foods, and get to know the city as much as possible. His friend, Neil, has been exhausted from working long hours and wanted it to be a truly relaxing vacation. He wanted to wake up at noon, enjoy a lazy lunch, and see a museum or two. Neither was happy throughout the trip. Halfway through, they decided to split up and do their own thing. You have been warned.
  4. Find flights. My favorite go-to travel site is Kayak because it sources the cheapest flights in one location. I’ve heard that Bing is great as well. New York Times recently featured a new type of crowdsourced flight search site called Flight Fox. It’s great for complicated flights that involve multiple destination or group travel. The way it works is: (1) Post the requirements for your flight, (2) you pay a small fee, (3) people find the cheapest flights based on your requirements, (4) you choose and book the flight you want.Sleeping in Yunnan, China
  5. Find affordable accommodations. While sites like and Expedia are helpful places to check when getting started, my best deals have been often found surprisingly through guidebooks. For example, Rick Steve has traveled extensively through Europe and has stayed in multiple establishments. He gives great and detailed reviews on the type of experience you’ll have there, as well as suggestions for places based on location and budget. There are even tips on how to get lower rates, such as paying in cash and booking through their website. If you prefer staying with locals, Staydu, is also a popular website to check out.
  6. Find ground transportation. While it’s not essential to book public transportation before you arrive, be aware of the process. Is it cheaper to buy the tickets in advance? Do they get booked up quickly? Are there other options of getting around? This helps you figure out how to get the best deal and travel around the country or city most efficiently.
  7. Build an itinerary of “must-see” sights and activities. Start off with making a random list of things you want to do. Then start building an itinerary, based on the general location of the activities. This way, you can visit the sights you want to see without running across the city.
    Also, make sure that the things you want to do are available when you want to go. For example, many museums in Europe are closed on Mondays. If you want to see the Galleria degli Uffizi and you are in Florence Saturday through Monday – make sure you catch it on Saturday and Sunday.
    If you are at a loss of where to start, you can pick up a travel guide like Lonely Planet or Fodor’s; or visit, a crowdsource travel website that lists the top activities of different destinations.

While all the due diligence won’t guarantee you an amazing travel experience, it’d knock off most of the major reasons people do not enjoy their trip. Especially for the last step of building an itinerary, remember that the itinerary is just a guide of what you’d like to do there. Feel free to swap out things you want to do when you heard there is a cool concert going on or feel like just taking it easy on a Sunday. An itinerary just gives you a general list of activities that you would kick yourself if you missed or gives you ideas to keep you occupied when bored. Now that you’ve checked off the 7 steps to planning your travel, it’s time to go enjoy yourself! Please look out for the next blog on traveling like a local.

Do you have other tips on travel planning? Any horror stories due to a lack of sufficient planning? Please comment below.