How to Get to Know a Place Without Knowing the Language: Local Travel Advice from Travel Writers

It’s kind of embarrassing. Actually, it’s really embarrassing for this former high school German club president and world traveler. I don’t speak another language nor do I have the aptitude to learn. Sure I can pick up phrases on the road, but for long-term learning, no go. It’s like my brain says “NO!” and shuts the door when new pronunciations, sentence structure and grammar rules line up for admission.

My attempt at Spanish yields the pronunciation of both “Ls” like Grandma in Napoleon Dynamite.  No Indian can ever understand my pronunciation of the Mohabbatein, one of my favorite Bollywood movies. My Turkish led my friend B and I to find that “tuvalet” does not, in fact, mean “tunnel,” but actually “toilet.”

So how does one get to know a place without knowing the language? That was a question one traveler posed at the recent Travel Salon to a panel of four travel writers. And who better to ask than travel writers? Alex Leviton, Stuart Schuffman, Mike McColl, and Erin Caslavka have jobs where it’s essential to show up at a place, get a sense of it and actually talk to locals to find the story. It takes talent to enmesh deeply and truly with locals and a culture. Plus, this knowledge is a pass to have those one-of-a-kind experiences that make for great reads and even better adventures.  Here is their advice on how to travel local and get to know a place without knowing the language.

Travel Salon Panelists

Follow Your Passions

Follow Your Passions

Photo by samantha celera on Flickr

Panelist Alex Leviton loves Scrabble. She was heading to St. Barts and just had the inkling that other people, perhaps in St. Barts, would like Scrabble too. With a Google search and inquisitive mind she found the Scrabble Club of St. Barts. This led to a) scrabble playing and b) massive amounts of local introductions including to the director of St. Barts tourism. If you have passions like Ukulele playing, calligraphy, or dancing, chances are there’s a local who may just like the same things as you do…and they are just a Google search away.

Hire Help

Hire a Guide

Fabulous guide Mourad on my trip to Morocco

Hire a great driver to get to know the best places to eat local food. These are the men who go to cheap, quick food joints that serve filling and delicious local fare. Want more than a tasty bite, more history?  Hire a guide either for the day, the area or an event. Writer Erin Caslavka pointed travelers to two places: find local universities and colleges and the tourist office. “They are amazing.” BUT, according to Erin, if you’re really on a budget, “Talk to cops, they know everything.”

Another tip: lists local guides and trips by destination. What used to happen via concierge, driver, or tout  – and frankly a little shady when there’s a lot of commissions in the mix – now shows up in a rated and reviewed list.

Try an Online Community

CEO and founder of Travis Katz started the online travel community because he and his wife could not get a good answer on what to do in the south of France. Sure, guidebooks provide a list, but they provided a big list and had the tendency to be a bit outdated.  Better to take advice of friends, but not many friends had been there. The solution? Ask for advice from friends and locals who are just like you. And so Gogobot was formed (with slick Facebook integration). Travis and his wife received excellent recommendations on where to go in Southern France.

Online communities like (with gorgeous photos), Matador Network (with excellent writing) and tried and true message boards BootsNAll and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree provide advice from travelers and locals who’ve been there, done that, and know a little more than the guidebooks recommend.

Another tip: E-mail everyone you know or Facebook post and ask if they know someone who lives where you want to go.

Tap into the Local Travel Groups

Local Travel Groups

Photo by zoetnet on Flickr

Panelist Mike McColl is all over the local travel movement. I know because on the first Tuesday of every month I see him at the monthly Travel Massive event in the Bay Area. We hang out, geek out about travel and meet other travelers and locals. Around the world, travel groups are full of social ambassadors looking to share their culture over a few drinks at a bar usually several steps off the tourist path. Tripping, Travel Massive, and Couchsurfing all host events around the world and get travelers in with locals. Per Mike, you’re meeting “locals who want to give you a local experience.” Personally, I love meals with locals. However, it’s a little awkward to invite myself (and I may have in the past), so I’m very excited when I find sites like, which finds food and wine events in cities around the world.

Sleep with Locals

Sleep with Locals

My accoms in Kauai

Sleep on someone’s couch for free or pay for your own room right in the thick of the most interesting neighborhood. Both Couchsurfing and get you into the local mix quickly and easily by actually staying with people who live there. Personally, I have stayed in Amelie’s neighborhood on a recent visit to Paris, in a downtown condo in Vancouver a third the price of hotels on the same street, and at a goddess temple in Kauai. Staying in a person’s house got me into the know quickly on the best places to eat and discover. Not to mention all the kind and interesting kind people I met – including an actual real life Kahuna over Thanksgiving dinner in Kauai.

No matter the method, there are always opportunities to go a little deeper despite not knowing (or being particularly challenged at learning) the language. The best advice is from Erin Caslavka: “Always say yes” or Ja or Si or Oui for a great adventure and deeper experience without knowing the language.

How do you travel local? Share comments below.

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8 Responses to “How to Get to Know a Place Without Knowing the Language: Local Travel Advice from Travel Writers”

  1. April 26, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    Great advice Kristin! One way I “travel local” is to literally travel WITH the locals. When possible, I love to take local buses, trains, whatever means of transport the local people use to get around. A great way to meet local people going to the same place you are!

  2. April 26, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    Great advice Kristin! One way I “travel local” is to literally travel WITH the locals. When possible, I love to take local buses, trains, whatever means of transport the local people use to get around. A great way to meet local people going to the same place you are! And most likely someone will be eager to help you an full of suggestions of how to travel through their community.

    • Kristin
      April 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

      This is also an excellent way to connect locally without knowing the language!

  3. June 19, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    Have you used couch surfing with a friend or partner?

    My girlfriend and I are traveling SE Asia right now, and we haven’t had a lot of luck using couch surfing….it could be that we don’t have many reviews…or could it be that there’s two of us?

    Thanks again for a great post Kristin :^)

    • Kristin
      June 20, 2012 at 8:47 am #

      Hi Jesse,

      Thanks much! I posted the question to the Twittersphere, let’s see what we get!



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