It occurred to me on a recent trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico that there is a free, easy, and universal secret to having the best trip of your life no matter the destination. How could I have failed to pinpoint this tried and true method before? It is literally the only thread between all of my trips that has without a doubt given me the best stories, the most local experiences, and lasting friends.
Simple: Be kind to absolutely every person who works in tourism you encounter, and ask them for recommendations.
Okay, this seems obvious, right? Wrong.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen travellers take their stress out on airport workers, taxi drivers, waiters/waitresses, hotel staff, etc. and this is a huge mistake. These are the people who live in the places you visit, they have chosen a career serving people like you; and should be treated like experts because, in effect, they are.
It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read, posts you’ve pinned, or even friends you have in an area you visit – you do not live there and those who do hold the secrets to the land. Be kind, ask questions, engage in conversation and see what comes up. The cool thing is, it is their job to talk to you – so you don’t have to walk up to a stranger randomly, it’s much easier to ask questions because they have to approach you first.
How do I know this to be true?
Well, it all “clicked” in Santa Fe when I was journaling about how stoked I was on my free upgrade to a convertible Mustang. I got it after I watched three different groups of people berate the woman at the counter for whatever mishap occurred with their reservation.
I, however, waited my turn patiently and asked her kindly how her day was. She softened from the previous negative interaction and asked me why I was on my own. I expressed my excitement for my solo adventure that would become a bestie one, and casually mentioned, “You know, if you have any extra convertibles back there collecting dust I’d gladly help you out!” She laughed, and hooked me up. Just like that. It didn’t cost me anything, it got my trip off to a great start, and I’d like to think brightened her day a bit to help me out.
Then I started thinking more about other trips.
In Austin a few years back we took our Airbnb host up on a few beers upon arrival and our conversation led us to a free scooter rental, great restaurant recommendations and some free alcohol for the remainder of the trip (not to mention a great night getting to know him!).
In Cuba the entire tourist economy functions on recommendations. Hotels are outrageously expensive and there is a government sanctioned system to stay in people’s homes called “Casa Particulares” for $10/night. It was through our conversations with our hosts in each Casa that we were linked up with drivers who took us to secret swimming holes, waterfalls, and pointed us in the direction of the best nightlife. It was through a conversation with a police officer that we were directed to the best restaurant in Havana, whose Chef used to work for Fidel Castro himself. This recommendation was gold to us, as the restaurants in Cuba were very limited in their food supply – this was the only one we encountered the entire trip that was delicious and full of regional delicacies.
In Brazil, our manicurist took us to a male strip club (we didn’t realize that’s where were going, and is still the only one I’ve ever visited) where we were treated like VIP and had one of the most memorable nights of my life. Details are a little NSFW.
In Fort Collins, Colorado I mentioned to a bartender I had just returned from a trip to Cuba and he invited me on his radio show to talk about it a few hours later. My first and only time on the radio.
On a road trip to Alaska last summer we chatted about our journey and asked questions about the area for a good 20 minutes to a kind woman named Button at a Visitor Center. We mentioned we had a hole in our air mattress and she immediately contacted her friends with a (closed) tire shop next door to open up for us and patch it up. We met a fascinating group from that tiny town in the Yukon, got some free help, and left with a funny story.
In Bocas del Toro, Panama my buddy was speaking with the folks at a sushi restaurant about how he’s a DJ back home, and before he knew it had a nightly gig for the remainder of his stay.
In Costa Rica we wanted to ride dirt bikes around but everything needed a guided tour which wasn’t quite what we were looking for. We went into motorcycle shops and asked around, followed a couple leads to people who might be able to help and before we knew it were on a private property with a track all to ourselves at the foot of a volcano.
I could keep going on and on.
If this feels intimidating or you’re not sure how to make this happen, don’t worry it’s actually really easy, just follow these steps below:
- When you are about to encounter people who work in tourism in any context, take a second to assess the energy of it all. Who is laughing, smiling, and enjoying their work? Who are the customers engaging with the most? Is there a friendly vibe? You can’t always tell, but often times you can. That is the person you want to engage with if you can. And, if you don’t have a choice, always be kind and follow step 2 – even if they don’t really like it.
- Ask “How is your day/night going?” and mean it. Listen to their answer, ask questions, and gauge whether this person is interested in speaking more with you. If they are, move onto Step 3. If not, leave them alone and don’t take it personally. You never know what kind of encounter that person had before you – and know that these people encounter rude behavior more than anyone else on the planet. It isn’t about you, ever.
- Once you’ve had a little conversation about how their day is, asked a few questions and they’ve asked some back – ask them what they love about their city. Ask them where they take out of town friends when they visit or where they like to hang out when they are off work.
- Be aware of power dynamics. If you are a male and the person is female, be extra careful not to come across as hitting on her. Even if you are interested, this is not the way to express that. If you are at a very expensive restaurant or hotel, it may be harder to break this barrier down but will be less difficult the more respectful you are. Always treat this person like the expert of their city, and approach them with professionalism as you are in their place of employment. You are a guest and should behave as such.
This method is full proof, but does not mean that every local you encounter will be your magic ticket to these kinds of stories. All you have to do is be exceedingly kind to everyone along the way, and eventually it will lead to something unexpected, local finds, and even some good friends. And, not to mention, being exceedingly kind is a great way to leave your mark on the world when you travel, and creates lovely energy around you usually leading to wonderful people. Good luck out there, can’t wait to hear stories!
To check out Morgan’s gorgeous travel and nature photography, head to www.morganshidler.com.