Are you interested in solo traveling and living among the locals in a foreign destination? A world traveler and tour guide has joined us to offer some great tips on how to go at it safely. Enjoy the show!
My guest today is Shila Desai. Shila is a writer and a world traveler. She is the founder and owner of a company called Eat Your Heart Out Tours through which she takes people all around the world on travel adventures.
She likes to take people deep into the culture of different places and people groups they visit. I am so happy to have you here, Shila. Welcome.
I’m excited to be here, Margaret. Good to see you again.
Thank you. I know you do some amazing tours through your company, Eat Your Heart Out Tours.
I know it’s a mouthful, but here’s how it started. I was giving a culinary tour to India, and I didn’t have the company back then. Every time we took group photographs, we’d say “Eat your heart out!” and the name stuck.
It’s a fabulous, unique name that certainly piques the interest.
You’ve mentioned several times in our previous conversations that you do solo travels which have to do with staying in a location with the purpose of immersing yourself in the local culture. We are all used to fast travel, but this a little different as it takes a longer period of time.
I know you’ve done solo travel yourself, so what are some thoughts and tips you can suggest for traveling like a local in a new city as a solo female traveler?
When traveling solo, you want to get to a level where you are living as close to a local as possible, while staying safe and comfortable. Of course, these can be a little opposing at times, because you are at a foreign place and not in the comfort of your home. Still, it’s great to maximize the experience by mingling with the locals.
My first suggestion is that you avoid the big hotel chains. They are very impersonal and the staff is trained to interact with the guests in a particular way. If you’re going for a local experience, small B&Bs and homestays that have been reviewed well are a much better option.
Make sure the place has had some traction so you don’t end up in somebody’s home, not knowing how to proceed from there. You should feel comfortable where you’re staying, and this is important because the location usually opens up these avenues that you wouldn’t otherwise discover.
Yes, exactly. The host knows where all the markets and eating places are, and how to best experience a certain location in day to day life. There are quaint little parks and secret places that you wouldn’t otherwise notice.
I agree with you because I’ve stayed at B&B’s and the experience is so different. I always stay with a super host – someone that has got a number of really positive reviews on Airbnb. So I think finding a great place is number one.
Absolutely. The younger generation have also started the trend of house surfing. There’s an online platform where the ‘guest’ meets with the ‘host,’ with the basic idea that the hosts don’t have the ability to travel much, so the guests bring the experience and stories they’ve gathered with them.
The guests don’t pay rent, they just show up and the hosts are very happy to accommodate them. Then both parties get a review on the platform, for being a good guest/host. I think this is quite a powerful idea.
But, I don’t think the older generation is quite there yet. Still, we have Airbnb and homestays, and they are pretty close to that experience.
I think there is a UK service called Free Birds. It’s a new service that’s like Airbnb but specifically for people over 50.
There’s also Thelma and Louis, which is a women’s travel site that also provides a matching roommate service. It’s verified, and you have to put in your passport and driver’s license when you create your account so that you are confirmed. My point is, there are lots of services like this now.
That’s true. Another thing you should consider when going to a new place is learning the language, at least a little bit. There are all kinds of online resources you can use before you go. I strongly advise you do so as learning the local language breaks down the barriers.
It brings up a smile and people become more generous when they see you trying to speak their language, even if the pronunciation isn’t right. They really appreciate that you are making the effort.
Yes, that’s good advice.
I would also say that if you really wanted to live like a local and you are travelling solo, it’s a good idea to find out where you can volunteer. Of course, there might be an issue with the language, but there is always a school or a hospital where you can go and offer help.
Everybody needs compassion. They may need you to go and visit a child and bring a little gift in a hospital. Or they may need help in a bookstore. A bit on the extreme side, you could go to a cafe and say you would wait on tables for coffee for a week. You would be surprised at the reaction.
That’s a great idea.
When they order a cup of tea and go, “Hey, where are you from?” it will open up a conversation, and you would really live like a local.
There are also Meetup groups all over the world. If you have a specific interest, and have gone to a place that has a lot to offer on the topic, you could just check and see if there is a Meetup group nearby that is focused on your interest. Even if you go once or twice, it’s a wonderful option to consider.
Definitely. Meetup groups are really great. They’re usually led by somebody who has an invested interest to make sure all attendees feel comfortable and included. They are really a great resource.
When going to a foreign place, it’s always a good idea to wear the locals’ clothing. If you don’t stick out too much, it sends the message, “I want to be part of you.” That’s important when trying to live like a local.
That is super important. In my travels I have discovered that the Internet provides us with a great opportunity to explore new services. For instance, I used vayable.com when I was in Copenhagen.
Viable is an online platform where people offer their services for a price. In my case, I wanted to visit Christiania, a local district which is kind of scary if you don’t know your way around. So, I looked on Viable and found a guy who offered to give me an hour-long tour of the place for $25.
You can find all kinds of services, like city tours, cooking tours, photography for half an hour, and they’re reputable. Each service provider has ratings and is safe to use. The world is getting very complicated and beautiful at the same time, with all the possibilities that are opening up.
There are so many avenues open to people who want to live like locals. I wouldn’t expect to go to a place like India for a couple of weeks and think, “I’m going to live like a local.” This is a process that takes time.
If you’ve got a month on your hands, and you base yourself in one destination, living like a local can be accomplished. But if you want to jump from place to place, you wouldn’t be able to get the same experience.
It’s good if you can spend at least four or five days in one spot. You should definitely keep that in mind when you are planning your itinerary.
We are talking about this in a very fun way, and people might be thinking, “I would never do that.” So let’s talk about safety now. Given your experience, what are some tips you can share that people should consider when solo traveling.
With safety, I think the number one is, again, the place where you are staying. This circles back to the idea of a homestay or Airbnb because there are only going to be no more than ten or twelve people staying there at a time.
In such a setting, the host actually gets to know you and your daily itinerary. They’d ask where you are going for the day, what you’re thinking of doing, how and when you are going to get back. You will get none of that if you are staying at a hotel.
If you can establish that kind of connection with the host and let them know, “I am going here today, and I expect to be back at this time,” that would be great.
Another safety tip is setting up a time table of communication with your loved ones back home. They should always know there is somebody expecting you at the next travel location. That’s always wise to set up so when they do not hear from you, they would know what to do and whom to contact.
Something I do when I travel and I have to get into a cab, especially if I’m not sure of the neighborhood where I’m going, is to take a photo of the cabbie’s plate registration number. I do it with Uber too, which has spread widely.
I think the most important thing you can do is to project confidence, which takes care of your safety almost to 99%. If you appear like you don’t know what you’re doing and that you’re afraid, that’s what invites problems. You really have to think of ways to project confidence.
In relation to that, I think it’s very important that you know your destination and your route before you head out. There is nothing more obvious than standing on a street corner with a map or with your phone looking at a map trying to figure out where to go.
If you feel unsure of the direction you should take, it’s better to find a coffee shop with Wi-Fi and map out your route while you’re there.
That is an excellent idea, Margaret. In a place like India, standing on a street corner and looking lost isn’t safe from a purely physical perspective as well. There are always cows and scooters going every which way, so you should keep that in mind.
Yes, there is that, too. I think we have given everybody really good tips for living like a local when solo traveling. I encourage people to visit your website and check out the articles you have written about travel and to just catch your spirit of adventure.
Thank you for having me on, Margaret.
Thank you so much, Shila.
Have you traveled solo before? What was the experience like for you? What are some tips you have for women who want to try living like locals in a foreign destination? Please join the conversation below.