When our car finally stopped after almost four hours of intense curvy roads from Marrakech, and we got out to breathe the fresh air near an almost invisible stream behind the terracotta Atlas mountains protecting a vulnerable dry valley with no human soul around, we thought we would just have a break and then continue on.
The only sign that the area was inhabited was a tiny bar only accessible by climbing a few dusty steps.
We arrived with four other local photographers in the tiny Ait Mechkour village hidden in the mountains so we could experience true rural Morocco.
It was Gianni‘s and my very first trip abroad together, and we knew barely anything about tourism, our impact as travellers, on local communities, and were unaware how we could help or even worse, harm them. With time, we could see a lot of different ways a traveller could interact or disrespect a local.
While we’re still currently learning how to be responsible on the road, we’d love to share some thoughts on helping locals while travelling, and some tips on how to do it. The impact of visiting a foreign country is tremendous and it’s far beyond simply financial support or boasting about our altruistic “self.”
(If you travel to Marrakesh you might find this guide useful.)
Why to Help Locals?
1. The money you spend ends up in the right pocket
It’s not always a rule, but in most cases, if you stay in a local guest house, smaller boutique hotel, or an Airbnb apartment run by a native, the chances your money will arrive in the hands of a local owner are considerably higher than if your accommodation is booked via travel agent in your home country, or if you stay in a big famous chain hotel run by a foreigner with imported staff.
The money you pay for your lunch cooked by an experienced street vendor or for your breakfast in an artisan bakery will not get lost in a corporate chain store; where employees work for less cents per hour (in some cases per day) than you might pay for one soft drink.
Now, the downside to this supportive act, is the fact that more locals misuse the constant growth of tourists in their area. That’s why rice fields in Ubud are being replaced by bungalows with outdoor swimming pools, Prague’s historical center is transforming into a “luxury hotel jungle,” and the small islands near Kota Kinabalu are slowly turning into resort “paradise.” The money keeps calling.
2. You’ll make locals feel unique, not exotic
In developing countries particularly, we travellers tend to feel we can “occupy” the territory we visit simply because we come from a country where we use a flush toilette; More digits on our bank accounts make us feel more superior.
Also, in countries where locals see cameras as a “powerful weapon,” it’s easy to treat people as if they were just some phenomenal object needed for documenting our social media lives.
There is nothing wrong with taking a photo of a local, if he/she is fine with that. The problem is how to do it and why we’re doing it in the first place. Asking permission is a basic rule, and even if you don’t speak the same language, pointing your finger to your camera with a question mark in your eyes can be easily understood.
We travellers, often behave too nice (tipping too much) or becoming irritated (“I can’t believe you don’t speak English?!”) which only widen the communication barrier we might have anyway. At the end of the day natives might have more reasons to get annoyed because we speak only English or that we give them more money for the service (e.g. in some countries in South-east Asia to giving tips is offensive and very inappropriate.)
Approaching locals with an honest intention of curiosity is what breaks the social ice.
3. You’ll get to places that guidebooks don’t tell you about
Secret gems are secret for a reason: hiking via less walked paths, finding places where only locals eat, walking empty streets in an otherwise overwhelmingly crowded city is much easier with a person who has grown up in the area or has lived there long enough to know about less known local “jewels.“
Guidebooks can give you some helpful tips, but they can rarely guarantee you’ll end up in a meadow with a rough tanned shepherd in the Carpathian mountains; in a packed bar in Sevilla where they still write your bill with white chalk on a wooden desk while you devour your portion of tapas; in a tiny village in Morocco facing the peaks of the Atlas, where local kids rave about touching a white skinned man; Or at a fado concert where only locals come to listen to music and sip their wine on the stairs of Lisbon… for free.
4. You’ll learn about new culture (if you are lucky, also about politics) first hand
It’s possible to get lots of information from online articles, videos or podcasts, but experiencing a sacred Hindu ritual in Indonesia; watching the way people dine in the Mediterranean; or understanding why Finns like drinking a beer while litres of sweat pour down their bodies in a sauna… these things you can do only with a native who is willing to show you the process, explain the details and encourage you to try it yourself.
Note: Finns didn’t persuade us to drink alcohol in sauna, but we did learn a lot about their sauna culture anyway.
5. You’ll get home from your trip with not just souvenirs, but memories
What would you remember more…? Singing & drumming with Moroccan Bedouins in the middle of a desert, watching an Ukrainian lumberjack in action, seeing the working tools of a Romanian blacksmith hidden in the steam while they change a horseshoe, Cambodian young artists performing one of the best shows of your life… or three similar t-shirts you’ll never wear, ceramic magnets that will break in your luggage, and several bracelets your friends will be ashamed to wear anyway?
Make your trip valuable through things you learn and experience within local communities, not only by objects you purchase in touristy alleys built to make your wallet thinner.
6. Language exchange
Locals are always pleased when they hear you speak some basic phrases in their language. There are many of them however, who would love to practice English (or any other language you’re good at) when visiting them.
We experienced this when a bus driver in Coimbra, Portugal, was so happy to see foreigners and dust off his English, that he almost missed his departure while speaking to us about his change of career from a university teacher to a driver just because there was a bus that nobody used in his father’s company.
We also met a Buddhist monk in Luang Prabang, Laos, who studied English with a goal to become a top manager and earn a lot of money in America.
Having a friendly chat with locals eager to practice the language you speak fluently is the minimum we can give back for learning about their native country.
Besides, many times a patient foreigner who knows how to listen and correct in a friendly way, can make a big difference and support a local in speaking the language he/she is afraid of to use.
7. You spend less
This is a bit tricky. We experienced many times that going local was more budget friendly than booking an overpriced full package tour (you really don’t want to pay $300-400 USD instead of $70 for a combination hiking tour, boat trip and one night accommodation in the Bornean jungle.)
Eating street food and doing your shopping from local farmers in Southeast Asia can be cheaper than dining in restaurants, but it might be the opposite in Europe, where small local groceries have higher prices compared to big supermarkets.
On the other hand, products from a local bakery, a veggie shop or a small bistro where they prepare only a few dishes, are very often tastier and contain fresher and higher quality ingredients.
We do consider our daily budget while travelling, but we prefer to spend a bit more in a cozy shop rather than queuing in an anonymous supermarket whenever possible.
8. Kids studying instead of working/begging
The ability to learn to read and write is still more a privilege than a right in many countries. It is estimated that 168 million children are involved in child labour, even if the global number may vary, considering that not all countries provide statistics.
There’s a great article written by Audrey Scott from Uncornered Market explaining why we shouldn’t support begging kids and what are other effective options if you still want to help them.
Paying locals for their services (accommodation, transport, food), doesn‘t only support adults, but also their children, who often don’t attend school because the parents simply cannot afford it. Please, be mindful when giving cash to adults.
9. Help other travellers
By giving back to locals when on the road, you’ll encourage other fellow travellers to do the same. Many independent travellers like to explore the world in their own way but, there are a lot of people who don’t know where to start when visiting a new country.
We were a bit confused ourselves when we hit the road, and it helped us a lot when we started reading more travel blogs, talking to other travellers, asking them about their favourite smoothie bar, a yoga studio, or a good guest house.
It’s not about hunting for a cheap place to sleep and eat for almost nothing; it’s more about looking for unique places where locals run their own business, and you can support them by paying for their services and spreading the word to fellow to others who might be interested.
How to Help Locals?
1. Do research
Use Google to find local food, responsible tour operators in your holiday destination, the best way to use local transport, and discover national festivals happening in town. Read the about section of the hotels/guest houses/travel agencies/restaurants to learn the stories of the owners, as well as the history of your potential accommodation.
There’s plenty of travel bloggers who LOVE to go local and you’ll find some cool travel tips on their website.
Among many of them, we highly recommend Anglo-Italian, Follow Us! We really like their well-researched articles. Uncornered Market and their mindful and comprehensive blogs. The Breathing Forest who love to engage with local NGOs, or follow NOMADasaurus and learn all about their crazy adventures.
2. Buy local food
This means looking for local food markets where locals do shopping. Don’t forget to choose local products instead of imported ones. That way, you support both the shop, and the producer.
3. Use local transport
Renting a car when travelling might be comfortable and getting on hop-on hop-off buses might be popular too, but experiencing local means of transportation or renting a bike can also be more fun. Amusing moments learning a new system of buying and validating tickets are guaranteed.
In Ukraine, for example, you hop on a marshrutka (a kind of a minibus) sit at the back and pay the bus driver by giving cash to the other passengers who pass the money to the driver, and eventually pass back the change via the other commuters.
4. Look for a local guide
There’s nothing bad about having a walk alone in the quiet forest, wondering around busy streets of a metropolis and just observing and perceiving everything with your eyes, but what if you had someone next to you explaining why the forest is so quiet and what there used to be before, or maybe that the woods you’re walking through now will be destroyed because someone decided to build a parking lot there?
What if someone local would take you to a cosy teahouse & bakery where only local people come to listen to jazz music and sip their afternoon tea and chat with friends? Maybe you would appreciate a person who knows the area and takes you to a local healer or shows you where some old crafts of the villagers you’d never see in the town are still are preserved?
What would you say about going for an alternative tour with a former homeless person who could show you some of the unknown parts of Barcelona?
Most locals know their cities better than any guide book.
5. Stay with locals
Couchsurfing, Airbnb, GoCambio, TrustedHousesitters, Homestay, HomeAway, BeWelcome, you name it. If you travel short-term and you’d love to spend more time with local people, learn to cook a traditional meal, go with your host for a salsa lesson, or spend a weekend teaching a martial arts course in exchange for a couch… there’s plenty of options for you to do so.
In case you travel for a longer period and you need just “to crash” somewhere, have a rest, cook for yourself and tick off all landmarks alone, you can do that with a help of locals who rent their rooms/apartments while away from home.
Again, supporting locals by paying them for accommodation is a win-win situation. You’ll get a chance to have a glimpse of family life in another country, and if you pay for it, your host will also financially benefit from your stay.
Even if you aren’t supposed to pay, please bear in mind nothing is for free; even if you’re welcomed in someone’s house with no technical obligation to leave money. A great explanation is given by Dale Davies in his article “Why ‘Couchsurfing is free’ Is a Myth?”
6. Ask locals what they need
You’ll never know if you never ask. Not all people you meet on the road would be willing to accept your help and not everybody who will ask you for something will be satisfied with your response.
But, if you feel the need to help a local community you made a bond with, ask them what they need, and how you can help them.
Maybe you can support them with a bit of money, or maybe they just need someone strong or tall like you to fix their roof or window, or maybe they need to help bringing some supplies from a nearby town or taking care of a kid while they run to visit their old grandparents.
7. Volunteer and help local NGOs
If you’ve decided to be helpful on the road and you consider volunteering an option, do it mindfully and do your research properly. Voluntourism has become too popular recently and similarly to any job, ask yourself why do you want to go to Kenya to support abused women, help orphans in Cambodia or teach English in the far-flung mountains of Tibet? Read this brilliant piece of Audrey Scott about volunteering & voluntourism and all what you need to know before taking the first step to apply for your volunteer programme.
Do you want to help others because you feel deeply inside that you have something you can share/teach/train others to do, or is it just the other ‘you’ that wants to be praised for a “good job” and have a “cool” experience in your life?
Read, read and read more about the organisations you want to work with. Ask them all possible questions to make sure you support the right community without taking jobs from locals.
Here’s a helpful article from Michael Huxley where he explains negative aspects voluntourism.
8. Speak English (or other foreign languages)
When you talk to a host who wants to practice English then you’re in the right place at the right time.
There are some other language exchange options, like joining chats where locals come to practice a language willingly and enthusiastically like at Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang in Laos, where you can spend a few hours every day chatting with local monks and young boys in English.
If you’re a member of the Couchsurfing community, make sure to check weekly meetings in any town you visit. There are chances you’ll find locals who would love to practise “your” language.
9. Attend local workshops or learn from your host
Are you in Slovenia where you admired comfortable woollen shoes in a souvenir shop? Or maybe you are in Indonesia and you love their nasi goreng so much you want to be able to prepare it yourself? Or maybe you liked those paper lanterns hanging in the streets in Vietnam and you want to create one too?
Nowadays, locals know there are more and more travellers who are keen to spend a half or a full day learning a craft. By participating in this you can support the disabled, the unprivileged and return home with a fantastic souvenir: a new skill.
For more tips about foundations that offer such workshops, check out our dear friends‘ blog The Breathing Forest, who’ve been travelling with a simple mission: to learn, to help, and to share their tips on places where you can be productive and supportive.
10. Be curious
Ask. Listen. Filter your prejudices and avoid judging people. Very often, what they teach us about some nations at school and how they present some countries in TV, look like just bad fiction.
When in town or in a jungle, put your camera down, stop, observe, and absorb the atmosphere. Be curious and ask people you meet on the road about the place where you are, customs that are new to you, and inquire about the dishes they serve you or morning rituals they perform.
Carry some postcards from your home country and give them to locals who ask about your land. Mutual curiosity can lead to memorable discussions and life bonds.
11. Spread the word
Talk about your experience with locals, spread the word about a guest house in Inle Lake where they welcomed you warmly, share about a street vendor with the best vanilla ice-cream in a small beach in the Philippines or the best smoothie in Chiang Mai.
Talk to other travellers you meet, share your experience in Facebook travel/expats groups, describe vividly your experience to your friends.
To travel the world and not interact with locals is possible. To come back home from a trip abroad and remember only the low/high prices and your receptionist is common. To rely on familiar flavours we taste daily back home is comfortable, safe, yet after a while… boring.
In most cases, we pick freely the way we want to travel. We can arrange our itinerary as we wish. Everybody can decide if he/she wants to go back to a place or not. It’s easy to say why you like or dislike a country and its people. Let’s just remember that without the local people that we meet once we cross a border, we could barely create our itineraries, or even cross those borders.
Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, which at no extra cost to you, will earn us a small commission and reduce the costs of running this site.
Did we miss anything? What else would you add to help locals and improve communication with them when travelling? Please, leave a comment below.
27 thoughts on “Why and How to Help Locals When Travelling”
Loved reading this post. It’s a much more engaging and deeper experience when able to interact with locals and be a part of their community. Liked your point on if you’re lucky that you’ll be able to hear local view points on politics. It’s always interesting hearing from the “people” as opposed to what I hear in the mainstream media. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Thank you so much, Wayne! Interesting thing is that both of us don’t like talking about politics of our home countries when at home, but we’re curious to hear other people’s opinions in their owns lands. You can really understand better not only their life conditions and moods, but also the reasons of the actions we’d judge disrespectfully otherwise.
Such a lovely post! I didn’t have as many experiences with the local as you guys had, but i totally agree, meeting the locals and helping them is the most rewarding and sensible thing you can do during your travels! PS: Ivana milking a cow??? so cool! I wanna try that! 🙂
Thanks a lot for reading and sharing, Clelia! True, although we appreciate some quiet and independent moments on the road, interacting with locals and being part of their daily lives makes a difference in the way we travel and it’s a huge reward, too.
PS: It’s a hard job, I can tell you 🙂
I love this article. This is the way I’ve been traveling for over 16 years, but let me disagree with a few points.
Airb&b started as a great idea, but turned out to become a serious problem. In Barcelona, this is responsible for mass evictions, where locals are thrown out and are replaced for tourists who can pay more. Lisbon is now going through the same problem. Airb&b is bringing a terrible wave of gentrification to the city.
Although I love the original concept, I would never recommend it.
For the first time in my life I’m also deciding not to buy anything from small stores or family businesses here in the Philippines. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that the rip offs here are over the top and I’m fed up with the fact locals constantly try to take advantage of me. For this I’m now only buying from big supermarkets where products have a price tag. It’s a lose-lose situation, but locals gave to understand that when they scam and rip people off on a daily basis, they end up losing more than gaining.
Thanks for commenting, Yara. I remember how much you love interacting with locals! I can hear you with your points. Airb&b might really have taken the wrong direction in some cities like Barcelona. The good news are that their new mayor banned all new licenses for tourist accommodation for the next year. This sounds like a good beginning of taking control of the whole situation.
99% of our Airb&b stays were great and I’d still recommend it to other travellers. We stayed with locals who gave us some very good tips on where to eat, what to see and shared with us some really interesting views on the political & social situation in their countries (Greece, Portugal.) Also, lots of hosts can survive financially thanks to renting out their apartment/room (as we could see on the examples of our hosts), which is one of the reasons we are happy to use this website.
Regarding double prices in the Philippines, I know, it’s not fair. It happened to us in the Philippines (only once, though), but also in Borneo, Indonesia and Thailand. I saw the same practice in Prague already 12 ys ago, when they charged me for a bottle of water 0,60 euros, and tourists behind me had to pay 3 euros. I guess it depends on the place where you are. We heard from other travellers that Bohol is turning into a touristy overpriced place where they start using similar tricks on tourists. On the flip side, hat’s off to the Philippines and their carrying capacity on some islands!
Not all Filipinos cheat, as well not each Czech steals from foreign tourists. I wouldn’t give up on visiting local markets and trying to find a street vendor with fair prices. From our experience, going to a market with a local or speaking just some basic phrases like “how much?” and saying numbers might change the situation.
Unfortunately, we travellers take part in this “game” as well, when we tip locals much more than expected or when we don’t bargain in the countries when it’s common. Then, of course, when local vendors see “a silly tourist” easily paying 5x more, they will charge 5x more the next customer in the blink of an eye.
Philippines are huge, so maybe when you get to another place, the behaviour of locals will change too.
Wishing you more positive experiences there, enjoy Philippines 🙂
You have a good perspective, way with words, and lovely photographs! will be following your blog from here on.
btw, I super love that photo with the tour guide in Carpathian mountains and the monk in Burma!
Happy safe travels! <3
Thank you very much for the kind words, Shayne!
Great article. Our most memorable experiences are those that involve interactions with the people who live where we are only visitors. These are great tips for anyone seeking out more local experiences while traveling.
Thank you, Sarah! Glad you’ve found the tips helpful 🙂 Happy local travels!
Interacting with locals is such an important thing to us when travelling – it gives us the opportunity to gain a true understanding of the places we are visiting and local cultures and traditions. Our time with local people has enriched our travels in so many ways.
Thank you for mentioning our articles. There are so many great places where you can meet locals, learn new skills and give something back to the communities you are visiting in a responsible way. We have had so much fun learning to do things like carving wooden elephants and making key rings out of coconut shells – while at the same time meeting local people and hearing some really inspirational and heartwarming stories!
Thank you for reading, Karianne! You know how much we like what you guys do on the road and how curious and active with local communities you are when visiting a destination!
Agreed, experiencing a country while meeting with its natives and learning about their crafts, family lives or history of their neighbourhood is precious!
Looking forward to reading your other social guides from your travels 🙂
I love that you wrote an article about this ! It is so important to do these types of things! Right on!
Thank you Shannon, hopefully we can inspire other travellers to interact and help locals when needed by this article. Happy travels and see you soon 😉
It was an iteresting reading. I agree with majority of the points mentioned in your blog post.
I do share above-mentioned opinion that in local shops do tend to cheat tourists – it happened to us in Mauritius when a tiny local shop sold us water and soda for an increadibly highprice – but we we not aware of it as it was a first stop from the airport, we only learnt it having seen price tags in the local hotel shop…well, similar is with local guides, when they have tendency to take you to places from which they have some income after following mutual pre-agreement with the atraction / shop etc. I do not like to be cheated like that.
Hi Slavka, thanks for your comment. It’s true that some locals misuse tourism and rip off travellers on any occasion. However, this happens mostly in touristy areas. Or at least we didn’t experience it in common small groceries either in big cities or small villages. Regarding guides, it’s good to arrange all places you want to visit with a guide and emphasise you want to stick to that. We did this in Burma when hiring a guide for our sunset tour and had no problems with being taken to other places than agreed.
Wishing you more positive experiences on your travels 🙂
Great article 🙂 I would add: Book a visit.org tour, the first online platform for activities offered by nonprofits and community-based organizations around the world!!! Check us out: http://visit.org
Very nicely written. Thanks for highlighting some of the high points on connecting and helping locals. It makes travel more meaningful.
Hey this is a brilliant article. I try and follow most mentioned in the post during my travel! Thanks for this awesome compilation and all the useful tips 🙂
Thanks for reading, Shivya, it’s nice to hear about other locals-loving traveller 🙂
I love the article. I was thinking about buying a polaroid camera so I could give locals a photo of their kids or themself as a gift. I like doing something back, but just handing out money doesn’t seem like a good idea. Do think this idea is good?
Thanks a lot for reading! Travelling with a camera and give away the printed photos along the way is brilliant! I know two travellers from Slovakia who did it in Georgia, Europe and they have some best memories from the road by doing this:) Well, we never support begging kids with money as this is all a vicious circle… There is a link of interesting article from Audery from Uncornered Market travel blog inside the article where she explains why not to do it and how can we help kids when travelling. If you haven’t spot it, here it is: http://uncorneredmarket.com/should-travelers-give-to-kids-who-beg/ All the best!
I love this article! I studied Sustainable Tourism Development, and all of these are right on. Of course, there will always be some aspects of sustainable travel that aren’t perfect (i.e the issues with Airbnb and locals taking advantage of tourists), but it’s such a better alternative than mass tourism (for both locals and tourists) . I just wish more travelers were aware of their impact when travelling, so I will definitely be sharing this with family and friends. It’s so educational, but not in a way that makes trying any of the above seem intimidating or impossible. Great great article : )
Thanks so much for reading, sharing and your kind words. We believe the number of conscious travellers is growing and hopefully travel bloggers and other mindful vagabonds can spread the word about responsible tourism, too. May I ask, do you work in the field you’ve studied?
Thanks again and happy travels!
I have worked on various projects in the past through school and previously interned for Abercrombie & Kent’s Philanthropy department. Currently I still work in travel and tourism, but not for a company that is specifically focused on sustainability (sadly :() Eventually, this would be my dream, but I haven’t quite found something just yet. I do volunteer in my free time for some travel startups that are focused on sustainable travel though!
Wow, this sounds really great, Kelly! Always happy to meet (in real or virtually) a like-minded person 🙂 Hopefully we can catch up with you in person somewhere on the road 🙂 Best of luck in finding the right company to work with and happy travels!
I realize I’m a bit late to the game on this article, but I just came across it while doing some research on the subject. I have to say, it’s one of the best articles out there on connecting with locals while traveling. Thorough and thoughtful. Really well done.
One thing I would add to your list: One way to give back is to help locals see their own place with new eyes. We all acclimatize to our surroundings and a great gift to people is to help them see the beauty of their own neighborhood, village or country in a new way. It’s one of the greatest gifts we bring as outsiders. So sometimes, as travelers, it’s better to embrace our role as outsiders and what we can offer in that role, than to try to become something we’re not: a local. We don’t have to. We can be ourselves, let them be themselves and everyone can be blessed by the exchange. Thanks again for such a great piece.
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