Passport, hotel reservation, with a local? The case for talking to strangers while travelling

Experts and apps are pushing local guides as the best way to get more out of your time abroad.

Experts and apps are pushing local guides as the best way to get more out of your time abroad

(Credit: Getty Images)

This article was originally published April 24, 2018.

When I was in Nice, I asked a complete stranger to show me around town. Gaeton, a retired anthropology professor, took me under his wing for an afternoon, showing me the place where he takes his grandchildren for gelato and introducing me to the proprietors of his favourite family-owned bistro, now in its third generation. He shared his insights on everything from France's new security situation to which restaurants have the most handsome proprietors. After exploring the winding cobblestone lanes for several hours, we stood in the middle of Nice's famed street market and shared a socca, a crispy and savoury chickpea flour crepe.

I connected with Gaeton through an organization called the Global Greeters, a network that pairs up visitors around the world with free local guides, based on interests like food or contemporary art. And the Global Greeters are far from the only way to connect with a local while on vacation. Toronto-based Lokafy is a startup that brings travellers and locals together for informal tours based on mutual interests as well. AirBnB recently launched "Experiences," which are excursions designed and led by local hosts—things like "Capture life with a photojournalist" in Havana or "Handmade family pasta & tiramisu" in Milan. Icelandair has introduced a new "stopover buddy" program that matches travelers with Icelanders who have "the local scoop."

In other words, the travel industry increasingly encourages talking to strangers—part of a distinct move away from rehashing the same old landmarks and towards more "authentic" options in the world of both independent and organized tours. In places around the world, you can now rent a temporary friend on your next vacation.

Kiran Samra runs Lokafy, and she's built a platform where visitors can plug in their interests and available dates and be matched with a pre-approved "Lokafyer." "Wherever you go in the world, you can meet someone who will show you around like a friend," says Samra. She says that most Lokafy guides are driven by passion for their city and they're keen to show off a local perspective, including hidden gems, great things to eat, their own neighbourhood and even their friends. "It's a much more intimate and personal experience," she says. Samra is presently working to add an on-demand service through a mobile app, where visitors can tap into the network and see who's available to meet up in an hour—perfect for travelers on a layover, among others.

Samra was inspired to start Lokafy—which now operates around the world and in several Canadian cities, including Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Quebec City, Vancouver and Victoria—by some of her own travel experiences. "For me, the cities where I connected with someone local are most memorable," says Samra. "They're the trips that are still really alive for me even 10 years later."

Kio Stark, author of the 2016 book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don't Know Can Transform You, says that engaging with locals on your travels can be particularly beneficial: "You're highly likely to encounter people who are different in interesting ways, whether it's locals or other travelers," says Stark. "[But] more than that... you find out all kinds of interesting things about the places you're visiting if you talk to people who live there."

When I think back to Gaeton, I recall my uneasy first impression of Nice, the overcrowded and not terribly appealing Promenade des Anglais. But meeting with a local stranger, having him peel away the layers of his city to expose fascinating nuances, almost immediately changed my orientation and understanding of the city. Sometimes, as it turns out, it can take a stranger to show you exactly what you're looking for.

Sarah Treleaven is a writer who (mostly) lives in Toronto.