By: Christine Lai
“Just because you’re a frequent flier doesn’t mean you have a global mindset.” – Gregory Unruh
You 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.
- 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.
- 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.
So 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.
- 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.
In 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.
- 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.
- 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.