There will never be an app that replaces the serendipity of walking into a foreign port and mingling with the locals.
That said, it would be nice to connect with like-minded people on your trip instead of leaving everything to random chance. And any frequent cruiser knows that the vendors you meet just off a ship are generally not the folks you'd prefer to kick back with at a local cafe.
So what are your options if you're a traveler or cruiser sailing abroad?
Back in 2013 at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, social travel apps were all the rage, but here's the scorecard since then:
- Triptease: out of business
- OutTrippin: out of business
- Locish: out of business
- Tripsidea: out of business
- Spotsetter: out of business
Also gone: the social dining apps Grubwithus, HomeDine and Grouper. SideTour, a platform to share experiences with local hosts, has gone kaput. And Tagwhat — a mobile startup trying to present users with content that’s relevant to their location — also bit the dust.
What a wipeout! So what are our options in 2017?
Strategies for meeting locals
Cruiseable's destinations editor, Janet Fullwood, and I are heading to the Caribbean in late March on a Windstar Wind Surf cruise. For sure, we'll be spending most of our time meeting new people on the ship and hanging with them. We'll be chatting up strangers in shops and cafes, the old-fashioned way. Still, shore excursions aside (where the tour guides are paid to be nice to you), we'd love to plan meeting up with some locals over coffee or lunch (on us!).
Since we don't have rafts of Facebook friends or Twitter followers in the places we're going, we did a little homework and came up with the following approaches. Whatcha think?
Social dining & social travel apps
Entrepreneurs are still giving the social travel apps idea a go, with more of an emphasis on dining with strangers. The challenge is that none of these have taken off in a big way, scaling is difficult, and adoption rates in places like the Caribbean are very, very low — you may have a better chance with your travels to Europe, Canada or elsewhere.
Some of these sites and free apps include:
Israel-based EatWith is a global community that invites you to dine in the homes of local food lovers around the world. Connect with cool hosts and enjoy native cuisine. Today it's in 31 countries, but none in the Caribbean, alas.
I used New York-based Feastly to organize two angel fundraising lunches for Cruiseable in San Francisco recently. It's a platform that lets you arrange homemade meals prepared and served in a cook's home for a fee. You can search by date, price, cuisine, venue type, even by dietary restrictions — but not by location, alas — and the vast majority of the Caribbean meals are being served in California or New York. Similar startup: PlateCulture.
Singapore-based BonAppetour, dubbed "Airbnb for home dining," promises: "Dine at homes around the world. Enjoy authentic experiences with locals." In other words, the same mission as the out-of-business startups mentioned at top. But they've just raised $500,000 in funding so hope springs eternal. They're an online platform (no mobile app yet) that offers a fun, easy way to socialize with local residents over an informal meal in more than 80 countries. Any in the Caribbean? Nope. But you may have better luck.
BeerOrCoffee is a Brazil-based startup (tagline: “Meet people. Expand your network”) with the simple premise that it’s hard to meet interesting new people. The mobile app lets you instantly connect nearby people over beer or coffee who want to socialize and network. It's rolling out in the U.S. right now (I wrote about it here) and this would be the perfect app for our needs — but it's way too early for the Caribbean.
VizEat, a European startup that enables travelers to dine in a local's home, just raised $4 million in funding, so the social dining startup dream is not yet dead! Experience a homemade meal with a local host and discover the city like someone who lives there, for lunch, dinner, tea or a drink.
Tripr is a relatively new mobile app that lets you "plan who you’ll cross paths with on your next trip." Share your trip details and you may see a stream of both locals and travelers who'll be in the same place as you. Sort of like a dating site for travelers, with bios, interests and mutual friends listed. Once you've found a like-minded local or traveler, you can arrange to meet up. This sounds spot on, and I'll give it a shot.
Party Like a Local
Amsterdam-based Party With a Local is a mobile app with 100,000 users in 150 countries who post suggestions of what to do at night in their cities. Then, through the free app, visitors can arrange to meet up with them at a local hot spot. Connect with like-minded locals and fellow travelers who share your passion for nights out, whether you're into techno, jazz or just drinks.
The new startup Jetzy calls itself "the first geo-location based, user-to-user social app" (hmm, certainly not the first), letting you chat with fellow travelers and locals about what to do and see in town, to share images and to make new friends. When doing so, you rack up points that can be redeemed for rewards, from spa vouchers to free trips to Tahiti. Nice idea.
Colunching is "the social network for great meals," offering online (but not mobile) tools that let you arrange communal dining to share experiences around a great meal. Think of it as Meetup for informal meals. Alas, it hasn't scaled much beyond its native France.
playplanet connects travelers who are looking for authentic local experiences and locals who can provide it while encouraging sustainable travel experiences. Currently they're limited to Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal and nearby countries.
Travel planning apps
And you're no doubt familiar with the raft of travel planning sites and apps that rely on the wisdom of the crowd: everything from Foursquare, Facebook, AFAR, LonelyPlanet, Yelp and Australia-based BagsUp to the new Airbnb Trips.
Here are a few travel planning apps that make it a little easier to identify local experts and influencers.
Spotted by Locals
Spotted by Locals offers digital city guides on your mobile device (iPhone and Android) with locals offering insider tips about their favorite spots in 67 cities. The site and app feature content created by handpicked "Spotters" who live in the city they write about. They speak the local language, write only about their favorite spots, and update their articles as needed — though I haven't yet tried to reach out to a Spotter.
Like A Local Guide
Started by founders in Estonia, Like A Local Guide is a website and mobile app that helps travelers avoid tourist traps and discover cool, authentic places off the beaten path based on locals' recommendations. For its business model, it combines local travel tips with a marketplace for local tours and services such as neighborhood walks or dining out. You'll find travel tips, activities, places to go and things to do in dozens of different cities in North America, Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East and Australia, though, alas, none in the Caribbean.
WithLocals, which has a presence in 20 countries in Asia and Europe, calls itself an online marketplace for connecting locals with travelers. Enter your trip dates and location into the search engine and you'll see a number of experiences offered by locals: food tours in Singapore, picking tea in Sri Lanka and so on. The tours are just for you, not for a group, and the fee goes directly to the local guides. You can also ask locals for recommendations about their regions. They also offer a hard-to-find mobile app (Apple | Android).
Launched in London in 2009 and purchased by TripAdvisor in 2014, Tripbod is "a global community of local experts, helping TripAdvisor travelers plan their perfect trip." The site (no app) connects travelers with locals (paid by TripAdvisor) who lend their expertise about a topic. There's no social component, though.
What did I miss?