As I’ve gained more experience in travel and lived in foreign places for long periods of time, I’ve found some simple, inexpensive ways to discover and enjoy what I consider “diamonds in the rough” that one might have otherwise overlooked when traveling.
1. Eat Local Food—while it’s important to pay attention to food safety and sanitation when traveling; don’t let it scare you away from trying local foods. This is one of the best ways to shake hands with a culture. Try to avoid expensive restaurants designed to entice tourists, and instead, opt for a restaurant that a local recommends, or where you see local people dining. And if you are really brave, try something from a food stand! When I was in Honduras, I stopped and asked a few locals on the street where I should go to get the best fish in town. They pointed me toward a small shack that I otherwise would have passed up as a run-down shop. As I walked toward the back of the building, it opened up to a beach where they were literally offloading the “daily catch” from a small fishing boat. To this day, it is the best fish I’ve ever eaten!
2. Shop where the locals shop—This is a great way to find unique souvenirs or even a new, fun, outfit, that is reflective of the local culture and also less of an insult on your pocket book than the typical “tourist trap” shops often lining the beach, cruise ship terminals, or airports. In Krakow for example, if you went just three tram stops away from the main train station, you were in shopping Mecca! The prices of souvenirs were half the price of those near the train stations and there were other local shops where you could actually purchase hand-made sweaters and shoes, beautiful hand-crafted pottery, and jewelry. It was definitely worth jumping on the tram for!
3. Hire a local tour guide—who better, than a local, to give you a tour of their city, island, country, etc?!? Tour guides that work with agencies are often expensive and also, often not native to the area. For example, on a cruise ship, you can set up expensive tours through the cruise line, OR, when you arrive to a port, you can venture outside the cruise ship terminal and find a local for half the cost to take you on your day trip. The best sailing experience I’ve had was with a local sea captain that I found by word of mouth on an island in a remote fishing village. He grew up sailing and fishing, was genuine, honest, knew the best snorkeling/fishing/scuba spots, and he also was able to help us cook the fish we caught—like the locals cooked it.
4. Sit in a local bar—this is one of my favorite ways to meet local people and find out the “ins, outs, and going-ons” of— a new place—and do this early on in your trip. Not only, will you get to try the local brew or drink of choice, but you’ll be able to engage in conversations to give you a “local’s” take on their country. You might even make a new friend! This is a great way to find out information on places to visit, eat, explore, shop, etc. The best beer I’ve ever had was in a bar in Ireland, and the best Rum Punch I’ve had to this day came from a dive bar on an island called Myreau.
5. Grab a map and rent a car, scooter, or bike—driving is a great way to familiarize oneself with a new place. When hiring drivers or a tour companies, you don’t always get to stop and go as you please, take the pictures you want, pull over at roadside stands, or take the less traveled roads. Renting your own transportation gives you freedom!!! Always make sure to check out driver’s license policies and rent something that looks reliable. I’d say in all of my travel experience, having my own mode of transportation has led me to some of the most beautiful hiking trails, beaches, mountain-tops, and unique landscapes, that I would have otherwise missed if I hired a cab or tour bus. On the island where I live, I’ve discovered salt ponds, waterfalls, and volcanic trails that even few local people have gone to before.
Now it's your turn. What's your favorite tips for getting the most out of every trip? What kinds of experiences make you feel like you have really "squeezed the nectar" out of a new culture? Talk to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the coversation by following us on twitter!