Enough with hectoring about how important meeting locals is. Now, it’s time to get down to it! I’ve put together a list of meet-your-local tools that, in its majority, I’ve already used myself. The Internet and social media score quite a few points here, so make sure to save these websites before you start your 2016 digital detox (wink!)
Share a space
We’ll start with the obvious and immersive interaction: staying at someone’s place. While this may get somewhat intense, it truly gives you the best insight into the society and enables you to observe it behind the scenes. Whether you decide to contact long-time-no-see friends, use some networking or sign up for hospitality sites, the goal is same: to look through a peephole into the local everyday life and exchange experiences.
Home stays might of course become tricky, if you don’t really get along with your host, or even worse, if it’s getting awkward. I’ve been through it myself, when years ago my over-70-year-old host fell in love with my 19-year-old fellow traveler. Not that I think oldies can’t fall in love, but I guess you’ll get my point. Where did we go wrong? From a time-perspective, we were just too desperate. We were looking for a last minute accommodation, posted a note on a forum and out of all responses (exclusively from men) decided to go for one that looked harmless and with lots of positive reviews (ignoring a couple of neutral ones). We went against our intuition. Fortunately, it didn’t get any further than painfully awkward and after consulting with the site ambassador, we responded with a detailed negative review. But it didn’t prevent me from further using hospitality pages both for traveling and hosting and it shouldn’t prevent you either.
I guess what I’m saying is: be considerate and take your time browsing profiles. Same as you’d check your hostel rating at TripAdvisor, have a look if your potential host or hostess matches your interests and expectations. If just from reading a profile you feel it might not work out, you’ll be far better off spending a few bucks and staying else.
Hospitality sites, although many of them are totally free, aren’t all about saving on your accommodation. The spirit of the service is to promote intercultural exchange, build and strengthen human understanding and break down prejudices. It’s by no means a hostel, where you can just pop in and out. Offer your skills, a thoughtful conversation, cook your favorite meal or bring a little gift to connect with your host and appreciate their generosity.
With over seven million users and after becoming commercialized, Couchsurfing project is the biggest hospitality site worldwide. Nowadays it’s much criticized for losing its original spirit, but it still remains a great tool, if one uses it wisely. Hospitality Club, one of the oldest sites of this type, is the second largest when it comes to the amount of members, though these days it’s a bit forgotten. BeWelcome is a newer alternative that gathered much of Couchsurfing and Hospitality Club core users dissatisfied with the services of these two. It’s a non-profit, run exclusively by its members in a transparent and democratic way (or at least it’s what they say).
If you’d appreciate a bit more privacy, getting Airbnb or renting out a private room is a good compromise. Usually significantly cheaper than a hostel, enables you to see how the locals live and you can get a few recommendations first-hand. I truly recommend you to take it easy and possibly combine various accommodation options while away. It’ll enable you to do things your way and remain independent, while sharing some personable moments and thus getting the best out of the hospitality projects.
Share a hobby
New to a place and looking for fun activities? Looking for exhilarating hobbies while at home? I’ve got you covered. Whether it’s bartering or a simple get-together, there’s plenty online platforms that help to find someone to share your interests with.
Firstly, all of the free hospitality websites named previously have forums, groups and activities sections. Usually you have to be a site member to join in (filling in your profile takes only a couple of minutes), but you don’t have to host or surf a couch to mingle with locals. Strangers meet up to play sports, go out, hike, organize language tandems or simply chat. Usually, you can check out all the upcoming events in a calendar or look up per categories, locations or conversation threads.
Meetup works similar to this, though it’s an independent site dedicated purely to get-together activities. Pay attention that some of the events listed at the page might be paid and since everyone can create a meet-up, there’s also some businesses promoting their services.
Share a skill
Fancy trading your skills? GoCambio is another hospitality site that specifically promotes bartering your language knowledge for a home stay and meals. As a host, you profit from having a language expert (often a native) at home to teach you at least a couple of hours per day. As a traveler, you get a warm welcome and a free stay with locals. Sounds promising!
You don’t necessarily need to stay at someone’s place to profit from language learning. There’s lots of pages dedicated to a tandem-partner search. Scrabbin is one of these. Otherwise you can search for local tandem groups on facebook, there’s plenty!
Trade schools, bartering for knowledge, are also spreading around the world. The idea is simple, a skilled person offers a course and puts together a list of items that they would gladly receive from participants in exchange for a lesson or a course. You can just check out their webpage and if you’re lucky, there’s something going on wherever you’re heading. You can also contribute to the concept by offering your own class, or even starting the school in your town. I’ve once attended a workshop on repairing bikes and paid with a self-knitted scarf. How cool is that?!
Skilltrade is social medium particularly focused on (surprise, surprise!) trading skills and favors. You just set up your profile stating what abilities you have to offer and what would you gladly learn and off you go! Search for users that offer what you’re interested in at your location or destination and offer them a business.
Last but not least, woofing brings together hosting and trading skills by connecting organic farmers with volunteers willing to help out in exchange for accommodation and food. It’s associated with a yearly fee, which upon registration gives you an access to a national trusted farm database (of a chosen country), where you can browse and apply with different hosts. Generally, there’s no minimum or maximum length of stay. Depending on your personal agreement, you may stay for as few as a couple of days, or a few months.
Share a meal
You might not know it, but there’s also an Airbnb for food. And it’s booming: withlocals.com, bonappetour.com, cookening.com, vizeat.com… you name it! Want to taste authentic regional cuisine and meet the cook? That’s the way to go. Local food enthusiasts host dinners, often at their places, and invite for the feast at a set price. Far more personable than a restaurant, this way offers you an insight into local cuisine and a chance to mingle with hosts and other guests over a kitchen table. Same as while browsing any site of this kind, be aware that some use it as a promotion for their businesses, which may prove to be a little less special than being invited at home.
Share a ride
Sharing a ride is another great way of interacting with locals (or travelers!), plus it often proves to be cheaper than taking a bus or train. Again, there’s a number of sites that match drivers with travelers seeking transportation, but blablacar is one of the best known that I use personally (and it’s been absorbing some local sites, too).
While in a city, look for a public bike sharing service (to name a couple: in Barcelona it’s called Bicing, in Paris Vélib’), which is often free up to first 30 minutes of a ride. Then you either drop it at another station or you get charged a bit off your credit card. In some cities you can even go a step further and get your hands on a bike long-term for free, check out bikesurf.org for an innovational and green way to cycle Berlin. Though maybe it isn’t the most sociable way of transport ever, it’s how the locals do.
I believe these sites will help you to interact with locals while traveling, but what’s even better is that they enable you to travel without leaving your town. Opening your doors to strangers, sharing your skills and experiences over a cup of coffee and being curious at your own doorstep will enable you to discover the world within your hood.