The travel landscape is changing. You don’t need to rely on big hotels, travel agents and expensive guided tours to organize your trips anymore. You can stay in somebody’s spare room booked through an internet site, have locals at your destination show you what they love about their city, and be invited to dinner in a private home! You can also see what other visitors thought of their experiences through ratings and reviews.

This “social travel” movement started about 15 years ago with sites like VirtualTourist and TripAdvisor, but has been gaining momentum in recent years with several new players. Let’s take a look at what’s out there.

Accommodation

You are now spoiled for choice when it comes to finding alternative accommodation to hotels or other types of commercial properties. Websites like AirBnB, Roomorama, Flipkey, and Homestay let you browse through hundreds of available rooms in locals’ homes, or privately owned apartments. VRBO limits itself to apartments, and CouchSurfing (which is free) provides spare rooms, or as the name indicates, a simple couch or even an air mattress on the floor. I am a big fan of AirBnB, although I haven’t used any of their competitors… yet.

AirBnB room

AirBnB room

Renting a room or small apartment through these services costs much less than a hotel room in the same neighbourhood. In addition, renting a room in someone’s house gives you access to a local person who is usually happy to recommend things to see and do, and places to eat in the area. You may even gain a better understanding of the local culture through conversations with your host. In fact a lot of what makes these accommodation options popular (other than the price tag) is the cultural exchange that occurs between host and guest.

Renting a whole apartment, while offering limited contact with the host, still lets you observe local life away from the throngs of tourists, since you are often living in a residential neighbourhood. It also gives you the option to buy and cook your own food. This saves you money of course, but also lets you explore supermarkets and local produce markets in more depth. A lot of a country’s culture can be gleaned from what and how people eat.

Sightseeing and activities

There are several other ways of meeting locals in a new destination. One of the oldest, with which I’ve had good success, is VirtualTourist. Originally designed to let travellers share tips and information about places they travelled to, it has become a great tool to organize meetings in foreign lands. I once posted my desire to meet locals in Ljubljana (Slovenia) and a group of people immediately formed itself into a welcoming committee! In Sydney Australia I met three separate VTers over a 9-day stay, who each showed me a different part of the city.

Last spring in Brussels, I met Freddy through Brussels Greeters, and spent a pleasant afternoon in his company, walking around and learning about the architecture, history, and beer! Brussels Greeters is part of the Global Greeter Network that matches travellers with locals in 77 cities around the world (and counting). This service is completely free, as you are paired with a volunteer who loves his/her city and just wants to help visitors discover it. All you need to do is fill out a form several weeks before your visit.

...with Freddy (from Brussels Greeters)

Freddy (from Brussels Greeters)

Meetup.com is another way to find locals with common interests at your destination. Many people use it at home, but remember that it also exists in most large English-speaking cities. (I am making a mental note of this as I prepare for my upcoming trip to San Francisco).

CouchSurfing also lets you get in touch with locals without necessarily having to sleep in their home.

Finally, Gomio combines hostel booking (no booking fees) with a free social travel tool that allows you to contact other guests who will be staying at your hostel on your dates, as well as locals in the area who are willing to meet up with travellers and show them around. It also lists local attractions and events. Keep this one in mind next time you’re planning to stay in a hostel.

Food

How about visiting a local’s home for a multi-course home-cooked meal, instead of going to a restaurant? Home Food is a website that offers such meals (plus wine) on most days in one or more locations throughout Italy for 50 Euros. Each event sits between 4 and 12 people so you get to meet other travellers as well.

Cookening is a similar site that offers more modest meals for smaller prices. Born in France, it has now expanded to 13 more countries including the USA and Canada.

EatWith is yet another site that pairs travellers with home cooks. Starting with Israel and Spain, it has now expanded to additional countries. Besides eating the food, you can sometime learn to cook it as well. Prices vary widely. A quick look-over showed meals for $16 as well as $94. Every single host is vetted by the site owners.

In the United States, Feastly is similar to EatWith (the hosts are also vetted). And if this wasn’t enough, you can even get locals to cook you a free meal at Eat with a Local. Or as an alternative, have a local take you to their favourite restaurant. It’s like having friends to eat with around the world, and a great option for solo travellers who dislike dining alone.

Transportation

Yes, you can still search Craigslist and Kijiji for people offering rides to your destination, but there are now better organized (and safer) sites such as Kangaride where drivers set up their price, and are rated based on criteria such as security and courtesy. The system currently operates in Canada and the USA. I was a bit disappointed by the fact that most of my searches came back empty, but if you’re travelling between Toronto and Montreal, you’re in luck! This site has got the right idea, but needs to be found by more drivers.

For quick travel within cities, ride sharing companies such as Uber (and less upscale UberX), Lyft, and Sidecar were launched in San Francisco within the last few years, and provide mobile apps that let you find a ride at the touch of a button. Uber now operates in 42 countries, while Lyft and Sidecar are newer and still restricted to American cities. The drivers are most often peers who have been vetted by the company, but Uber also employs limo drivers in luxury cars.

Lyft car

Lyft cars are recognizable by their pink mustache (Photo credit: blog.lyft.com)

The prices are advertised as being comparable to, or cheaper than, taxis. Not surprisingly they are getting some heat from taxi companies who have united in protest. We might see more rules and licensing imposed on the drivers of those transportation network companies (as they are now known) in the future. The advantages include direct payment through the app, and often faster better service. Passengers also get to rate the drivers!

Revolution or Evolution?

This was a brief overview of some of the possibilities out there, and I hope it has whet your appetite. I intend to continue investigating these options as I travel, and I will report back.

So are we experiencing a travel revolution, a normal travel evolution, or just a trend? It’s a moot point really, and the important thing is that social travel is offering us budget travellers more cool options than ever!

Do you know of other social travel options? Please tell us in the comments.

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