Note: This post was updated in 2016 to reflect recent changes in the travel industry and new experience, advice, and insight!
My recent three-week visit to Sweden was my third time there, and I finally feel like I’m beginning to get a sense of the nation’s distinct culture. I had planned to travel the country, but I got stuck in Stockholm — not that that’s bad. I love the city, and being in one place afforded me the opportunity to spend extended time with my friends and get to know the city more.
I also watched a giant bonfire ceremony for Valborg, the Swedish celebration of spring. I received a lesson in red and green working days and got schooled in Swedish fashion (Converse, red pants, and New York Yankees hats are really popular). I spent Swedish Easter at my friend’s grandmother’s house, where I went on an egg hunt (Grandmother insisted) and played a game called “tipspromenad.” It’s a trivia contest combined with a scavenger hunt — incredibly fun (though I didn’t know any of the answers!). I also learned about local food. Best of all, my friends taught me Swedish.
Overall, the three weeks provided me a lot of insight into the Swedish culture. Why? Because I know locals who have welcomed me into their private lives with open arms.
Reflecting on my experience, I can’t help but think about the old travel advice about learning about a place — get off the beaten path, experience local life, do as the locals do — and how unrealistic and difficult that advice is in practice.
Having traveled full-time for nearly five years, I’ve made friends from around the world. I can go to countless countries and stay with friends (locals) who are happy to show me around, friends who will take me to Easter at Grandmother’s house, an impromptu town BBQ event, a birthday party, or Christmas at their in-laws’. It’s easy for me to get a taste of local life, because I have many people willing to show it to me. It’s the same for anyone who has traveled — you’re going to meet people from all around the world that you can visit.
But when you’re in a new destination and don’t know anyone, it’s not as easy!
Travel writing is often filled with stories of chance encounters in subways and at cafés, encounters that end up with the writer jetting off to some event or celebration that opens a window into local life that other travelers rarely get to see. While these are great stories, they create a romantic picture that makes people think that all travel is like that. I commonly hear people talk about how they are going to get the local experience or wax poetically about meeting locals in the next town, city, or country. If their trip lacks that experience, they run the danger of thinking they missed out.
It’s true that locals want to show the best their country has to offer, so they give advice, converse, and share a few pints at the bar. But that is different than being brought into their personal space. Bonding over beers with some guys you meet at the pub is different than being asked if you want to join the family for dinner on Sunday. One is in a public space, the other private.
In order to be invited into a local’s private space, you will probably have to meet the person a few times before an invitation is extended. People like to know the person they are inviting first. Yes, a first-time invite can happen, but it is the exception, not the norm.
My point here is that meeting locals is not as easy as it’s often made out to be, but it’s still not impossible. Thanks to the Internet, there are a few ways to overcome the difficulty of meeting a nice local who will invite you to Sunday dinner — besides asking your friends if they know anyone there (which you should).
For starters, Couchsurfing is a great site for this. While often considered a place to get free accommodation, there is much more to the site. It has meet-ups, group events, and members who might not give you their couch but will gladly meet you for coffee and show you around. For example, I had a brief Couchsurfing meet-up in Denmark that ended up with me at a family’s weekly dinner. In my opinion, this is the best workaround when unable to meet locals on the street. Folks on this site are already ready to invite you into their private space.
Meetup.com is another great site for meeting people. Though more “formal” than Couchsurfing, there are a wide variety of groups on this site where you can meet those with the same interests as you, but in a foreign country! Love wine? Why not go to a wine lovers’ meet-up in France? Want to do crafts in Australia? Go to a knitting meet-up. Interested in meeting business people in Hong Kong? Find a business-related event and go! Want to play volleyball in London? There’s probably a group for that too!
This way, you find people who are interested in the same subject as you are, which helps lower the awkward barrier. Plus, how cool is it meeting someone from across the world with the same interest? I love Prohibition-era bars, and if I met someone from Sydney who did too, I would want to chat about the scene in Sydney for hours!
Another variant on this is to find local events related to things you love. I swing dance. My instructor in New York has said, “Ohhh, if you go to X, I can introduce you to some people who live in that city.” While I haven’t done that yet, I’m excited to one day. You can also find local events relating to your interests just by Googling phrases like “trivia night in London,” “baseball games in Busan,” “food lovers in Buenos Aires,” or “yoga classes in Hoi An.”
Furthermore, try to attend language exchanges. There are many message boards, forums, and websites where locals want to learn various languages (mostly English). Go to these events, or find a language exchange partner. This could be someone who can also take you to local events, dinner, or out drinking with their friends. So if you go there as an English-speaking traveler, you’re bound to make some local friends! It’s your “in” to a built-in network of people. Some good websites for this are:
Every once in a while, take your chances at meeting people on the street. Who knows what will end up coming out of a jovial conversation? For example, take a small group tour from a local. While on the tour, ask all of the questions you want about local life and what it’s like to grow up in that region (without being annoying). By letting the guide know you’re friendly and extremely interested in the culture, you just might be invited to meet up after the tour. I’ve heard of a few tour guides that have hung out with tour participants that they got along well with.
Moreover, hitchhiking is a great way to meet locals. If you get into a car with someone, there is already a level of trust (from both sides). If you ride long enough and get along, who knows, they just might invite you to dinner. When I was hitching in Belize, the guy brought us to his restaurant and had drinks with us. The next day he showed us around and even gave us a ride to our next destination!
Finally, the rise of the sharing economy in the last few years has made it super easy to get to know locals. This has been a boon to budget travelers — not only do you save money but you get to hang out and meet locals in a wide variety of settings! There are tour websites like Vayable, meal-sharing websites like Meal Sharing, and ride-sharing sites like BlaBlaCar. All give you a way to connect with locals that can branch out into more in-depth, longer-lasting encounters. These are now my go-to websites whenever I travel.
When I left to travel the road, I had visions of interacting with locals everywhere, but that didn’t happen as much as I wanted. It’s not impossible to have that chance encounter on the street. But it’s also not that common. Luckily, the Internet lets you kick-start that process. It takes more work, but if you really love France and want to meet French people, don’t wait for it to happen.
Make it happen.