When I was 25 and single, I spent a month living in Jamaica.
I learned that living like a local can be so much more enriching than traveling like a tourist. I boarded with a local family far from the tourist district in Montego Bay. I volunteered, drove, made friends, traveled, and even attended a wedding. I really got to know the people and the place and it’s an experience I will cherish the rest of my life.
Rent an Apartment
The easiest way to act like a local is to live like one! Lots of people use AirBnB.com to find unique places to stay in 190 countries. With an apartment, gone are the tourist trappings that you may never use anyway — expensive spas, pools, room service, and gyms. If you’re hitting the streets to see your country of choice, you won’t need those amenities. Plus, you’ll probably save money!
Try to Speak the Language
Obviously, you can’t become fluent in a foreign language overnight, but why not practice before you get there? Use a language app to learn greetings and simple phrases. You can always use Google Translate to help you the rest of the way. Locals appreciate tourists who at least try to speak their language and they’re known to be very forgiving if they see at least some effort.
Another great way to improve your language skills before traveling is to hire an online language tutor. Many platforms offer one-on-one language lessons with native speakers, where you can practice conversation, pronunciation, and grammar. Not only will this help you feel more confident when speaking with locals, but it will also give you a deeper understanding of the culture and customs of the country you’re visiting. Plus, with online tutoring, you can fit language learning into your busy schedule and practice from the comfort of your own home.
Lots of locals have pride in their hometown and will gladly share their favorite places to eat, see, and experience. They may also have time- and money-saving tips! If you’re looking for a place to meet young people, ask someone young. If you’re interested in the history of a place, ask someone who’s been there a long time. It’s that simple.
Don’t Wear Sneakers
I know there are some of you who can’t live without your sneakers. To you I say, wearing sneakers is the first and most obvious sign that you are a tourist. Ditch the sneakers in favor of rubber-souled ballet flats (worn above), comfy loafers, or boots. There are plenty of stylish and comfortable shoes that substitute for bulky sneakers. Check out fashion bloggers who live in your destination to see what they’re wearing and try to blend in as much as possible.
Don’t Carry a Backpack
I know, I know — it’s functional, but a backpack (and sneakers) is the most obvious sign of a tourist and you probably don’t need half the stuff you’re carrying anyway. For the sake of your back and your image, carry a smaller bag like a messenger bag. If you must carry a backpack, avoid the bulky black nylon variety and opt for a sleek leather backpack.
Grocery Shop & Cook
Eating out can get old and some places have such fantastic markets that it’s hard not to grocery shop! Try out local produce and ask the seller how to prepare it if you’re unsure. You may find a new favorite food and you will definitely not feel like a tourist whipping up your own dinner.
Eat Local Food
It’s hard for me to believe there are people who travel to exotic places and seek out McDonald’s. Isn’t trying new food one of the primary reasons to travel in the first place? Ban yourself from McDonald’s and instead at least sample local food. If you are afraid, try street food, which is cheaper and in smaller portions, or split something with your travel companion. Of course, there are certain foods I just won’t eat and I always listen to my gut. But how will you really experience a place if you don’t eat local? Some of the best food I’ve ever had was in Bali, Singapore, and Barcelona!
I spent a month as a community service volunteer in Jamaica and I absolutely loved it. Sure, it meant less time at the beach and required a little elbow grease, but I got to see the non-tourist neighborhoods of Montego Bay and how people really live. I worked side-by-side with Jamaicans whom I came to adore. It was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. Just do a Google search with your destination and “community service” or “volunteer” to find opportunities. Or, just volunteer at the local animal shelter for an afternoon. The great thing is you can volunteer for as little or as long as you like.
This can be both scary and fun. I’ve driven on the wrong side of the road, wrong side of the car, and wrong side of the roundabout, but I’m still here to talk about it! I’ve driven in Australia, Jamaica, New York, and New Zealand. Driving forces you to pay attention to your surroundings and gives you opportunity to get off the beaten track a bit more. It’s the ultimate local thing to do! I highly recommend renting a GPS or using Google Maps if you have data on your phone. Getting lost is a bummer, can waste time, and is sometimes dangerous.
Don’t be that tourist rushing from monument to monument and not really experiencing the place. Stay a few extra days (or weeks, if you can afford it!) to sit in a cafe and people watch or take a day trip to a small town. You will be more relaxed and probably enjoy the whole experience more.
This is where I recommend talking to strangers. Talk to your waiter, your bartender, your housekeeper, your concierge, and your tour guide. Ask questions (within reason) about them, their family, their livelihood. Making friends with other tourists can be great if you’re traveling solo. People are a big part of the travel experience. Don’t be a scared tourist! Make it a goal to strike up at least one conversation per day if you’re hesitant. Ladies, a word of caution: Be sure your interest in others doesn’t come across as an invitation to more, if you know what I mean. Avoid isolated places and trust your gut if someone seems shady.
Go to a Wedding
This isn’t always possible, but it sure is fun! After volunteering and making friends in Jamaica, I went to a local wedding. It was one of the best dance parties I’ve been to. Now, I’m not saying you should crash a wedding, but if you have the opportunity, go!
October 28, 2014 at 7:21 pm
We completely agree on all of this! Though we haven’t done the volunteering yet (it’s on the list), this is a great resource for those wanting to go a little deeper into a culture!
October 29, 2014 at 1:25 am
Love this. So helpful!
October 29, 2014 at 2:45 pm
Great tips, especially liked the backpack and sneakers ones 🙂 Also definitely gotta find a local wedding to attend next time!
October 31, 2014 at 2:53 am
I agree totally with the sneaker comment! 😉 xx
October 31, 2014 at 6:39 pm
Volunteering abroad is such a good idea, I’ve considered doing a few months but never really though you could just do a couple of days at an animal shelter which may be a better idea for my first time 🙂 you definitely know how to make the most out of your trips! I also love driving in new countries as it allows you to get off the traditional ‘tourist’ routes!
November 1, 2014 at 9:32 pm
I agree with all of the above, especially with the “don’t look like a tourist” bit. It has gotten me further then most, when traveling.
Mersad Donko Photography
November 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm
Hi Jess, gotta disagree with you on the no sneakers part. Especially when traveling to areas with rocks and potholes. Gotta have em!
I wish I stayed places long enough to volunteer. with that said, though I’d share with you a place sneakers would be needed, likely different than your travel and all but http://www.richtrek.com/2014/10/dangerous-trekking-around-lake-baikal.html (Lake Baikal trekking)
November 4, 2014 at 9:41 am
Hi Richard. I see your point about the sneakers and rough terrain. Truth be told, I did wear sneakers on one adventure (http://globalgirltravels.com/franz-josef-glacier-new-zealand), however they weren’t the bulky white ones.
November 4, 2014 at 8:12 am
I just up and moved over to Canada for a couple of month, just ’cause I’ve never lived somewhere other then Ireland my life and I have to agree completely! Living in a country rather then “touring” it is a totally different ball game and is truly amazing.
November 4, 2014 at 9:46 am
What an adventure!
November 18, 2014 at 7:52 pm
Love this post – great tips. Sounds like you’ve had some great travelling times!
April 3, 2015 at 2:42 pm
Don’t wear sneakers… unless you’re in East Asia haha! I’m not sure about China, but right now New Balance, Nike, etc. are very fashionable in Korea and Japan. But yes, I agree with everything! Going slow and doing what the locals do is a great way to not travel like a tourist.