Breaking through the tourist barrier used to take weeks of exploration. But a new wave of travel apps is helping travelers connect with locals in more meaningful ways—and get outside with less hassle. These days, you're just a few taps away from learning how to cook a family recipe inside someone's kitchen, or even pitching a tent in his backyard.
Find a Bunk
Swap and Surf
In partnership with the Surfrider Foundation in Europe, Japan, and Argentina, this website (and soon-to-be phone app) powers a 60-country network of home swaps, apartment rentals, and couch surfing for the surf community. "We believe the best guides are locals," says Sylvain Garms, cofounder of Swap and Surf. Together with his cousin Philippe, Garms has crafted the website to give boarders more than just places to crash near prime surf. Each of the 700+ host profiles list locals' surf style, frequency, and wave preference so travelers can stay with kindred spirits.
Family friendly and inexpensive travel don't often go together. Enter Knok—a cross between HomeExchange and AirBnB designed specifically for families. By paying subscriptions, which run from $15 to $29 per month depending on your length of commitment, families can swap homes for free or just rent baby-ready or toddler-proofed digs in over 10,000 destinations. Knok's community is helpful beyond the home, too—the site (no app yet) offers an extensive peer-sourced travel guide of family-friendly restaurants, activities, transportation, stores, and tourist attractions, each rated on a five-point system based on how kids have reacted to them in the past.
Camp in My Garden
If you like the idea of home swapping but don't want strangers in your bedroom, consider renting out your flowerbed. Camp in My Garden, which bills itself as the world's first (and only) garden camping community, offers a unique way to get off the tourist trail and into a local neighborhood—with the added benefit of staying outside. As you might imagine, facilities vary immensely. You can rent a backyard RV on the Canary Islands, sleep in a farm in the French countryside, or pitch your own tent in the garden of a London flat. Some community members will even pick you up from the airport. Sites are concentrated in Europe, but the network spans North America, some parts of Africa, South America, and even the Pacific.
Find Some Grub
No kitchen in the hotel room? Farmstand will find you a farm-to-table restaurant. Itching to cook? It helps you order directly from local growers, even showing the names, locations, and hours of the nearest farmer's markets. You can pre-search markets and restaurants by destination, flagging the ones that sound best.
If you like to go "off the eaten path," especially in Asia, Traveling Spoon will pair you with locals who can host home-cooked meals, give personal cooking classes, and even guide you through markets. Signing up means filling out a detailed reservation form with travel details, dietary restrictions, whether you want to drink, and even spice preferences. Armed with your info, Traveling Spoon then pairs you with a cook and sends you a personalized itinerary. If you enjoyed your meal, you'll receive an invoice and your host's contact info so the two of you can finalize day-of details. Traveling Spoon operates in 35 cities between Turkey and Japan, and prices range from $20 up to $170 per experience.
Cities can be cold places, but all it takes to warm them up is the right meal—ideally served in the home of a local with sides of cooking and travel tips. That's the premise of EatWith, an app and website that pairs aspiring and amateur chefs with travelers. EatWith has at least one host on every continent except Antarctica (demand was low) and works a lot like AirBnB, which is coincidently testing its own version of this idea: pick your town, then look for a meal you'd like to eat and a host you'd like to meet.
Find the Right Gear
It's still pretty new, but the idea of peer-to-peer renting of bikes, snowboards, skis, and surfboards has promise. No more bike fees and cracked frames when you fly or high rental fees at the bike shop. SpinLister pairs you with locals who are willing to rent their bikes (or surfboards, or skis) and filters by gear subcategory and your height. From there, feel free to ask about local topography and trail treasures that professional rental companies might not reveal. Rentals are made per hour, day, and week, and yes—the gear is insured.
Want to go camping but don't have the right gear? GearCommons is for you. While it's still in start-up phase, the company aims connect outdoor-loving city dwellers with gear-owning counterparts who live closer to the trail. The site is also being used as a way to test gear before you buy it, especially on equipment that can be impossible or expensive to rent from professional sporting goods stores. Conversely, you can rent out your own gear while globetrotting with someone else's.
Anyone heading to or living in Denver should take note of local startup Outdoors.io, a Mile High city-centric hybrid of Gearcommons and Spinlister. The website serves only Denver's metro area, but other peer-to-peer sites could stand to learn from it: where other sites ask you to input your destination and hope for offerings, Outdoors.io's search engine lets you pick from a list of sure-thing locations and also lets you filter by gear category at the outset. Members can rent intuitive gear kits instead of single products, like the "2-person Backpacking Kit" that includes a tent, backpack, and sleeping bag for $14 a day.
Find Someone to Share the Experience
While there are other language-exchange websites out there like italki and babelvillage, this one puts the most emphasis on face-to-face conversations. Start by selecting the country you're living in and the language you want to practice. Then, scan profiles for native speakers who share your interests
When it's not distracting you, Facebook can be a valuable travel resource—especially for figuring out which of your friends live in far-flung places. Rather than posting a "Who do I know in…" message across your social networks for hiking suggestions or a place to stay, check out Friendography, a website that places your friends' locations on a world map. The site is simple but highly useful, and has more services in the works. We're excited about Friendography's plans to help you find activities based on Facebook 'likes.'