Break Free! How to escape the tourist traps and travel like a local

Three day boat tour from Lombok to Komodo Island in Indonesia

By: Mike Black

Do you strive to see the world from different perspectives? Do you try to find the most authentic local hangouts and forego the cheesy tourist traps? If so, you're a lot like me. 

When traveling, I get exhausted sifting through the mass marketing aimed at tourists throughout the world. At every turn there’s another mediocre dinner joint, another row of stores peddling junk, another travel agent boasting “great deals”, and so on. A trained eye can usually pick up on what is garbage and what isn’t, but after a while even the most seasoned travelers get exhausted from the constant analysis.

An intrigued monk I came across while hiking up Mandalay Hill in Myanmar

Recently I returned from an 8 month journey around Asia where I visited 9 countries. Prior to my arrival in Indonesia, I had no idea how prevalent the tourist market really was in that part of the world. My intention was to see Asia for what it was, not what it was for resort goers or those looking to party on the cheap. When traveling, I always seek to authentically experience that area’s culture. So how did I do it? Here’s my method, which is applicable in any travel scenario:

Do your research and stay in the areas that have what you’re looking for

Choosing your base is one of the most important decisions you make while traveling. My biggest determining factor is food, so proximity to great restaurants is essential for me. If there’s a part of the city known for great street food, you can bet that’s where I’ll be staying.

Interesting graffiti in the streets of Kuala Lumpur

If you're budget conscious, or just want to jump right into the life of a local, consider Couchsurfing. This resource allows you to reach out to locals who are willing to put you up for free. Don't worry, you can read reviews about the host and make sure they aren't creepy or anything! I did this in Thailand and it was awesome!

If you prefer a little more privacy or polish, but still want to immerse yourself in the life of a local, I recommend using sites like Airbnb or VRBO, where you can pick from countless local listings. 

Set aside a fair amount for transportation within the city

Taking a boat to the surf break at Gerupuk in Indonesia

No matter how well you choose your location, you can’t see a city if you’re not out and about. Whether you rent a vehicle, use cabs, or ride public transport, it’s going to cost you. If you’re budget conscious, I recommend sacrificing some luxury in your accommodations to increase your transportation budget.

Wander

Stroll the pedestrian friendly parts of town and wander into the shops, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. You’ll be surprised at how many friendly people you run into. Some of my favorite travel experiences have come as a result of completely unplanned adventures.

Ask questions

Enjoying Sopi with the local distiller near Bajawa, Indonesia

You know what you like. Ask around for activities related to your interests. What are the must do’s of the city? Get input from your friends with a quick Facebook post or a few phone calls. Once you’re there, your hotel’s receptionists a great resource, as are the locals. Over and over, I have been pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals I’ve approached on the street, in coffee shops or at the bar.

Check the internet for websites that might help

Hanging out with the locals in Dali, China

Sites like TripAdvisor are great, but more and more there are new resources popping up that can help. Here in Orlando, Get Local helps people engage in the more unique activities that they may not otherwise find. There are also countless travel blogs with first-hand accounts of experiences around the world.

Hang out with the locals

If you get a chance to share dinner or a drink with a local, hop on it! Interacting with people with different cultural backgrounds and world perspectives is what traveling is all about.

Share your experiences

Travelers love to hear about first-hand experiences. Let people know what you find through travel forums, social media posts and review websites. If you feel like putting in the work, start up your own personal travel blog. It will encourage you to get the most out of every day.

Just Go!

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is to take the leap. Buy your plane ticket, pack your bags, and take off for that mysterious destination you’ve been contemplating. You’ll find your way.