Travelling to a new destination is always exciting: the sense of the unknown, imaginations running wild, the anticipation of novel things to come and all the possibilities and experiences awaiting. We never really know what to expect. Sure, we have some preconceived ideas drawn from whatever we’ve gathered through various media outlets and talk with fellow travellers, but those are really just abstract concepts in our minds. It isn’t until we actually land that we are able to make some tangible connections to all the names of places and attractions thrown out as we do our research. Most of the time too, what we find are the same things repeated, those same things we “must-see” or “must-do”. Now don’t get us wrong, we love experiencing those attractions that are quintessential to a destination but we also strive to peel back the layers and tap into the deeper culture and witness, not only off-the-beaten path attractions, but everyday life as well. We love to make our way through a country or culture at deeper levels and in doing so we’ve found a few tricks for unique travel experiences that we use, or have heard of, in order to find exactly where and what a place has to offer outside of the typical, popular sights.
If you’re looking for something different while travelling then the below suggestions will definitely help you find just that… and if the main attractions are what bring you to a particular destination, these can help you to experience them in a unique way!
Some of Our Best Tricks for Unique Travel Experiences
Perhaps one of our all-time favourite things to do while we travel, not just for finding different activities in a particular destination, is meeting locals. Interacting with locals allows you an insight into a country and culture unlike anything else and through the sharing of each others’ stories, friendships are often formed. We have genuine friends all over the world simply because of our interest in getting to know the people we meet as we travel.
It’s an interesting universal that people love to share information about their home country. No matter who we meet a sort of pride in one’s nation, national history and culture inevitably shines through and it is an amazing experience to share in that. Along with that pride is the desire to share all kinds of information about the great things to see and do – things one wouldn’t be able to find on TripAdvisor’s top restaurants or top attractions list. But how do you go about meeting locals and forging these relationships? While randomly interacting with people as you go can probably find you some good information, it’s not always a guarantee and we’ve found several sites/apps that can help you connect with like-minded individuals who are looking for people just like you!
Airbnb and Couchsurfing are two sites we regularly use while travelling. While it’s true that they are great for finding accommodations they are unique in that they are hosted by locals. They are also our favourite tools when looking to meet people as we travel. Other sites are also popping up to give tourists and locals ways to connect. Sites like EatWith, WithLocals, and even Uber (yes, we’ve had some suggestions come from conversations with an Uber driver!) will have you connecting with locals in different ways. Meetup also offers a great way to find gatherings and events, put together and attended by, those living nearby. If you’re not looking to meet locals in person but would still love some advice, sites like Trippy allow you to post travel questions about specific destinations that can be answered by locals and travellers alike.
With Airbnb, the hosts are a great source of information and are often extremely helpful in suggesting, and even showing you, amazing things around the area. Though the host may not always live in the same place you are booking, that doesn’t mean they aren’t able to communicate some great suggestions to you. If they won’t be around and available during your stay, message them and ask them if they can provide any tips – most are eager to help!
We’ve had some amazing experiences through Airbnb. In Korea, we had a host that gave us a tour of the area, taking us to some different restaurants and showing us some great local sights, like Gentle Monster, one of the most interesting stores we’ve ever been to! We even spent an evening exploring and were taken to a 7-11 along the river which served fried chicken and beer to be eaten at an outdoor, riverside table – a popular local activity we were told!
In Japan, we met Taro, who had cycled for 4 years from Japan to England and back again! We were able to learn so much about the area from him and chatted frequently about our common passion for travel. Our first experience with Airbnb was in Chiang Mai, our host quickly became a friend and while we did very little of the typical sightseeing in the city, we were exposed to some of the best meals in Thailand and he helped us find one incredibly unique site of ancient Thai ruins. In fact, there isn’t a country where we haven’t found an amazing host though Airbnb!
Accommodation purposes is actually not our main reason for using Couchsurfing. In fact, most of the time we use the site to connect to locals who aren’t able to host but want to meet travellers, or we use it to learn about local meet-ups and gatherings rather than to actually request a stay. Whether we’ve stayed as a guest or met at a gathering, we’ve made some incredible friends through the site. In fact, two of our closest “international friends” were made while staying at their apartment in Taipei. With a spare bedroom, and a desire to meet other people who also loved to travel, the couple opened their home to Couchsurfers and we were fortunate enough to have found them on the site. After a few days, we realized we had a lot in common and asked if they were interested in renting their spare room to us for the month we were planning to stay in the city.
We returned after a quick trip around the coast and spent a week with them and their family to celebrate Chinese New Year. It was one of our favourite memories and a time we will always cherish. Warmly welcomed into the fold and made a part of all the festivities, we felt we had been given a special gift to have been able to experience such an important part of Taiwanese culture with them. Renting their spare room for the next month had us developing a deeper bond and we left with a tearful goodbye but many great moments to remember! We’ve been fortunate in that all of our Couchsurfing connections have led to incredibly unique travel experiences and insight into each destination.
For some reason, there seemed to be a recent resistance to using guidebooks coming from those in the travel community. Citing reasons such as outdated information (due to the publication process), the extra weight taken on by travelling with books and, of course, the fact that books have been made seemingly irrelevant with the information available online. These are not completely false, but they are also not valid enough to ignore the huge benefits guidebooks can have to those seeking information and direction while travelling.
When we started our full-time travels, it was through reading a guidebook that set us on our course and had us visiting China first. If not for that, we would never had one of our most memorable experiences yet, climbing the great wall, dodging scams all day and meeting someone who we now consider one of our very good friends. The fact is, guidebooks can be an incredible resource with a concise yet comprehensive compilation of information about a particular destination. Some guidebooks have become even more inclusive, offering more local secrets and tips, and providing information on significant places that are usually overlooked.
We found an abundance of this in Marco Polo Guidebooks. Though we were skeptical at first, probably because of the onslaught of people telling us to avoid guidebooks, we quickly found ourselves excited to heed the advice of the books. On top of that, we managed to carry our guidebooks for almost 6 months with no damage and with no hardships when it came to added weight – and we travel with only two carry-on sized backpacks and one for our tech equipment!
We found ourselves exploring Phuket by motorbike, finding things away from the popular and controversial Patong area, and made our way to some attractions even the locals were surprised we knew about! We were able to combine their “Perfect Route” in Phuket, detailing stops and suggestions along the way, with various other bits of information in the guidebook – such as insider tips for restaurant recommendations and the like. We chose one of their suggested restaurants while driving around the island and enjoyed some amazing sushi, a very difficult thing to find throughout Thailand!
Our spiral guide for Thailand helped us decide which islands we would visit in the short time we had in Thailand before we made our way to Bangkok, giving us tips and suggestions throughout and even including itineraries for varying lengths of days. Though we had been to Thailand before, we gained more information and facts about the country and the places we were visiting and when we got to Bangkok we knew we’d be using our Marco Polo Guides to maximize our short time available to explore.
In fact, while we intended to find our way through their suggested “Perfect Day” we found ourselves stumbling on their “Walking Tours” section and knew we had found the perfect way to spend our time in Bangkok. We ended up spending one day in Bangkok using the map provided and the guidebook to see the old farang quarter, a section of Bangkok we had neither heard of, nor visited before. We conversed with locals, stopped at a street vendor that had been cooking up food on the same corner for decades, and saw another piece of Thai history and culture through the old buildings and remains of a European colonial period. It’s something we never would have known about otherwise.
We really were pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity of information packed into the guides. The uniqueness of the information was also extremely valuable to us – insider tips, walking routes, motorbike/driving routes, itineraries for 1 day to 1 week and facts about the places listed and their significance. The maps were also helpful as, despite our immediate desire to rely on technology, GPS is not always perfect, especially in Thailand, and we were frequently pulling out the map to find our way.
Sure, guidebooks will always have outdated information as restaurants and hotels close or move and prices and hours for them, as well as attractions, also change. But so too does information on the internet. Restaurants we suggest because we absolutely love them are no less in danger of these changes because they are recommended online. Sites like TripAdvisor and Facebook Business Pages too must keep up with the ever changing landscape of the tourism industry, and there is often a delay in updated information.
But sometimes, having to act spontaneously, seek out an alternative because what you expected to be, wasn’t, leads to some of the best memories. Couple some great insight from a guidebook like Marco Polo produces with some instances of self-directed travel and you’ll find some truly unique travel experiences.
You can also check out the guides we used in Thailand on Amazon!
One of the surefire ways of interacting with locals, finding hidden gems and getting a front-row seat into the heart of the culture and community is to simply get lost. By car, motorbike, or foot; by bus, train or other method of transportation, it really doesn’t matter. Just get out and start moving in one direction, turn yourself around a few times, make spontaneous turns because you see something that catches your eye and then, when you’re sure you have no clue where you are, take a moment to take it all in. Listen to the sounds and look at the comings and goings around you. Stop into a nearby restaurant and make conversation with the owners or waiters, stumble into a unique neighbourhood, listen to those you meet and find out if there’s anything going on nearby.
Alright, there is one caveat: you do have to be aware of where you are planning to get lost and make sure you consider safety first. Unfortunately, people are usually too frightened of the unknown, even in places that are generally safe, to just wander. Someone had something to say about the safety of EVERY country we went to. Korea isn’t safe. Taiwan isn’t safe. Japan isn’t safe. Spain isn’t safe. Don’t even get people started on Southeast Asia!
In reality, we’ve walked our way through Asia, frequently without knowing exactly where we were going, and we’ve taken European road trips and driven around Spain and Germany pulling off the road at random to investigate a town that sounds or looks interesting or making turns because something catches our eye. We’ve been aware of our surroundings and cautious of any dangers but have never felt unsafe in any of the countries we’ve visited. We usually bring a map or GPS as well, not only for guiding us safely back but also so we can find random points of interest on either and head in that direction.
Maybe it isn’t quite necessary to ‘get lost’ maybe it’s simple enough to suggest being open and spontaneous. Open to the opportunities you may come across and spontaneous enough to change your direction to include those new experiences.
And even if you have a set destination in mind, perhaps someplace the locals have suggested to visit or a suggested walking tour found in a guidebook, once you’ve made your way to the area keep your mind open and just… get lost!
Take a Private Tour
We haven’t been on too many tours ourselves. We prefer a bit more flexibility, though the excursions and tours we went on during our Viking River Cruise were actually extremely enjoyable and pretty flexible when it came to itinerary and choices. So our opinion of guided tours has changed quite considerably.
However, if you’re looking for unique travel experiences but are wanting more guidance and structure than simply setting out on your own, a private tour may be perfect.
We took a private, or freestyle as they like to call it, tour of Seoul and it really was like a choose your own adventure! After a consultation where we discussed what we were interested in seeing and the types of activities and exploration we were hoping for, we were set up with a tour guide and a date. Our guide picked us up in the morning and had a pre-planned itinerary based on the feedback we gave. It really was more like touring with a friend as we all chatted away about ourselves in between our guide’s discussion of the sights we were passing as we drove. Throughout the day, we were able to change the itinerary as we pleased and inquire about visiting different parts of Seoul as we went. Though we had spent three months in Korea, the private tour was one of our favourite days and we learned a lot about Seoul in just a short amount of time.
The kind of flexibility and customization of a private tour allows you to find a local expert and have a guide while still providing you some freedom and choice. It also exposes you to unique aspects of a destination, particularly those that you are most interested in learning about and seeing. It’s definitely a great way to have unique travel experiences tailored to your travel style and preferences and you’ll usually get to meet and chat with the locals and/or expats who lead the tours as you do!
Scour Social Media
While most people use social media channels to share photos and stories of their travels, very few realize it is also an amazing resource for information… for exactly that reason. People are constantly sharing their travels and experiences, whether at home or abroad, and much of that is not only accessible but also great for research purposes.
We’ve found restaurants and hidden gems, hotels and attractions, as well as connected with fellow travellers all though social media channels like Instagram and Twitter. So how exactly do you go about making unique travel experiences out of all that info constantly thrown out on social media channels? Let’s break it down for our three favourite channels we use for just this purpose.
Instagram For Travel Planning
As Instagram is a platform for photos, you’ll be finding the unique aspects of a destination through images. Though there are an overwhelming number of photos to go through, Instagram provides some tools to help you narrow it down to exactly where and what you are looking for.
For instance, say you are already at your destination and are looking to find something different nearby. Simply click the search tab, click the search bar and you’ll be provided with options of what to look for including ‘Places’. Once you’ve clicked on this tab, you’re able to search for posts related to nearby places (make sure to turn your location on on your device) or by another location of your choosing. This will give you photos posted from people who are in the area chosen. We happened to find a photo of the Toilet Cafe while in Taiwan (a unique restaurant with, yes, a toilet theme) and decided to hunt it down. We’ve also learned about local festivals and events, hiking trails and nature parks and so much more. You can plan ahead with the search or wait until you get there.
Another way to find more specific interests is to search specific hashtags. Perhaps you are looking for a restaurant in, let’s say Miami, Florida. Searching ‘#MiamiRestaurants’ will actually provide you with over 9,000 images (at the time of this post) which you can scroll through. Find an image of a meal you think looks good and you can learn more about it and where it is served. It may not be on the top of TripAdvisor’s list, but it may be on the top of local residents’. Of course, just searching ‘Miami Restaurants’, without the hashtag, will get you all profiles and hashtags related to that phrase so you’ll be able to pull up Instagram accounts of Miami food critics, restaurants and other related hashtags that may offer more options.
Twitter For Travel Planning
Twitter is less reliant on images and so you’ll be sorting through much more text and content but this offers a whole different set of advantages. Like Instagram, you can search by hashtag, and pull up all tweets that contain it or search by a phrase (like ‘Miami Restaurants’) and pull up related hashtags and accounts. One thing to note is that when a search is conducted in Twitter, you’ll automatically be shown the ‘Top Tweets’ retrieved from the search. These would be those most popular, or those with the most interaction, but do not cover all the tweets related to your search. Oftentimes, individuals will not make their way to the top tweets list as they have a small following. To find these, which will often have some more intimate knowledge of a destination, click on the tab “All Tweets”.
You may have to do a bit of scrolling and reading depending on how vague your search term is but you’ll have a variety of information to help you – tweets, images, links to posts. etc. In fact, Twitter is frequently used for content promotion so it’s very likely you’ll be able to find blog posts, articles and websites that will offer more in-depth information about the topic and/or destination.
Twitter is also incredibly interactive. You can comment on a tweet and request more information or send a tweet requesting some suggestions from a particular account holder – e.g. a tourism board, restaurant, attraction, travel blogger – and get some added information and suggestions back fairly quickly and simply!
Pinterest For Travel Planning
Pinterest is another great place to search for unique travel experiences. Pinterest has become a great platform for article sharing and collection and has aggregated quite a vast number of pins for travel. Unlike Twitter and Instagram, the search ability in Pinterest is both simple and powerful. The search runs much like a Google search. You can search words or phrases or multiple concepts/terms you want included in the search. Simply typing ‘Unique things to do in ____’ can often find you an article or two about that very thing. Although, these posts tend to reduce the “uniqueness” by the fact that they are widely available and searchable, they are still a great place to start and can still offer some great ideas!
Find A Geocaching Adventure
This is the one trick for unique travel experiences that we’ve yet to try. Though our interest in it has been growing in leaps and bounds as we’ve learned more about the concept. We were first really introduced to geocaching during a roadtrip to New Brunswick. The entire trip very much followed our premise of “getting lost” as we drove from Toronto to Hopewell Rocks on the Eastern end of New Brunswick, taking various routes to get there as we pleased, stopping when we saw a sign for something that sounded interesting, and sometimes throwing GPS coordinates to the wind. When we did finally get to Hopewell Rocks, we were too late in the afternoon to see low tide and walk along the ocean floor but we wanted to see what it looked like at high tide so we would be able to compare it the following day.
As we walked through the forested path to get to the final lookout point, we saw a man following not too far behind us. A GPS device in his hand, he followed it to a tree, bent down near an area covered in bushes and vegetation and pulled out a box. As we were openly staring in confusion, and a bit of concern, he explained to us that he was geocaching and this was one of the sites. We talked to him for a while about the different places he’d been, all the things he’d seen while hunting for the locations and how he got started into it. As we researched it we learned it is much more involved than simply hunting hidden caches and we’re anxious to start participating while we travel to increase those unique travel experiences and find hidden gems as we go!
It is absolutely fascinating to us. Here is a way to see unique places, sometimes even places in your own neighbourhood you’ve never explored, and track your progress as you do. You meet people at geocaching meetups and while searching, become part of a global community and join one huge worldwide treasure hunt. With almost three million geocaches around the world, it’s really true what those in the geocaching world say – there’s an adventure happening all around you, all the time!
No matter your style of travel or your interests, using any, or a combination, of these suggested tricks will have you learning more about your destination, exploring deeper into the culture or country and discovering some truly unique travel experiences.