How to become a responsible traveler: 5 tips from a local travel expert

Today’s guest post is written by Ethan Gelber, a blogger, communications specialist and advocate for local travel.

I remember the first time I saw ‘local travel’ mentioned in writing. I don’t recall the actual article, but I must have been thinking about food; I read ‘local’ as ‘lo-cal’ travel (i.e. travel on a low-calorie diet). My confusion didn’t last long, but it made for some welcome chuckles while I pondered the possibilities.

These days, I continue to be entertained by discussions about local travel. As a vocal advocate for this growing travel niche, I wonder about the slow but steady drip of travel bloggers who remain unconvinced of its value. Some lament how difficult it is to meet locals, while others snipe about whether the advice given by locals is reliable.

They are missing the point. “Local travel” is a descriptive term, not prescriptive. It’s a set of overarching values that help guide one’s journey and result in a far more personal, meaningful and respectful experience.

Keep reading for my top tips to help you happily, successfully and responsibly go local the next time you hit the road.

Five Tips for Going Local

Laos elephant trek with local guide

Traveling with a local guide in Laos. (photo: Leslie Koch)

#5. Connect with local people

A dream trip is often described as being picked up on arrival by an intimate (family, lover, close friend) and pulled way off the tourist trail to places known only to locals, where you hear and learn the local lingo, eat unembellished but incredible local food and really live the local culture. Local, local, local!

But what if you’re going to a place where you don’t already know someone? Well, these days, with just a little effort, it’s easy to make connections before you leave home. There are a growing number of free Web-based organizations that facilitate these connections, like Triptrotting.

If you don’t trust the Internet to meet friends, there are locals for hire (in many cases, they’re professional guides) who can ease you into the local groove. One of the many reputable sites for this is ToursByLocals.

Of course, if you’d rather just ford your own streams, there are top-notch services like Spotted by Locals that share the advice of locals and, in some cases, actually link you with locals who can help you build unique itineraries tailored to your whims and interests.

Whatever path you choose, by meeting a local person you get beyond the tourist ‘must-sees’. You still have to maneuver on your own, just like you would do at home every day; just keep your eyes and ears open, seek advice, welcome intrigue and accept invitations. Even if sparks don’t fly on your first trip in a new place, stay in touch with the people you meet. The second visit could be a whole different story.

#4. Be sensitive to the local environment

How do you like it when you visit your favorite park near home and find it full of garbage? It’s disgusting. Keep in mind that when you’re traveling; your priorities might not always mesh with those of others – especially when it comes to how much they value and honor nature.

To avoid any mishaps, it’s best to be a model traveler and make the smallest imprint possible. You’ll do right by the local people, but also the local plants and animals. As always, look for specific advice from communities of mindful travelers, like those involved in Mynatour, for example.

If you’re particularly conscientious, try offsetting the carbon emissions of your flights, stick to local buses and trains, and walk or rent a bike to get a feel for the local scene.

If a motorized vehicle is absolutely required, choose one guaranteed to make minimal impact like those available through Green Path Transfers, a global network of responsible ground transportation operators.

#3. Respect local heritage and culture

Hand in hand with respecting local nature is abiding by local norms and practices. It’s important to know a little about the place you’re visiting.

On a first visit, you can rarely immerse yourself deeply enough in a culture not to commit a faux-pas, but you can visit websites and blogs with tips for gaining cultural literacy and avoiding culture shock.

For a bit more hand-holding, try tour operators with the stated goal of helping you to ‘experience a place like a local.’ Not only do they bring you to less-visited sites, they put you in a different and well-informed mindset.

Tours can be as short as a few hours – like those available through Context – or as long as several days, such as those organized by SnoworSand.

Of course, another approach is through ‘voluntourism’, an overused word that encompasses all forms of volunteer vacations. It’s an admirable approach to travel.

#2. Spend money locally

Analysts have estimated that, on average, 70-90 cents of every dollar spent on travel never makes it to the travel destination. One way around this is to work directly with locals and the organizations that champion them. You get more bang for your buck and, more importantly, the people whose land you are visiting truly benefit (economically, as well as in other ways) from your time there.

At the simplest level, this means spending your money conscientiously: shopping in neighborhood stores, eating in the restaurants locals love, sleeping in native-owned hotels and hiring resident drivers and guides.

Gaining access to local, on-the-ground resources can present a challenge to travelers who like to book ahead of time. But sites like Much Better Adventure and Tourdust connect consumers with locally-owned business, as do new specialized search engines like Pocketvillage.

#1. Don’t overthink it

Many travelers worry too much about the details: the definition of “local” or the moral overtones. Don’t! Just hit the road, engage with the people you meet along the way and trust your gut.

If you are mindful of the local people, environment, culture and economy, you are making the most of your time and money and are maximizing the beneficial qualities of tourism.

And that, in the end, is the power of Local Travel.


For more information

To learn more about traveling like a local and to find local organizations, visit the Local Travel Movement, a website co-founded by this writer.

If you’ve traveled with a locally-owned company that provides high-quality service, please share your recommendation in the comments field.

About the writer

When he’s not traveling or exploring his native New York City by bicycle, Ethan Gelber is the Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world.

Ethan also founded and edits The Travel Word blog. He can be found on Twitter at @thetravelword and on Google+.

About Guest Writer

This guest post was written by a Downtown Traveler contributor. If you are interested in writing for us, visit the "contacts" page.