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How to actually eat like a local while travelling

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When looking for restaurant recommendations at home, we rely on friends, magazines and review sites. Yet when abroad, we fantasize about a mystical “local,” someone who will guide us to the best meal of our lives, preferably somewhere “authentic” and “off the beaten path.” Though we would never expect this of a stranger on the street at home, we expect it abroad from citizens just like us.

Chicago, where I live, has a fantastic food scene. That doesn’t make every Chicagoan an expert. If you asked 100 random people where to eat, you would receive dozens of different answers.

Keep in mind that TripAdvisor restaurant reviews are written by tourists, not locals, which means high or low ratings aren’t indicative of the best food in the region.
Keep in mind that TripAdvisor restaurant reviews are written by tourists, not locals, which means high or low ratings aren’t indicative of the best food in the region.  (LARS LEETARU / The New York Times)

If we don’t expect locals in our own city to be food experts, there’s no reason to assume locals everywhere else are.

But if the all-knowing local doesn’t exist, and we don’t want to resort to overpriced, chain restaurants, how can you actually find the best local food while travelling? Here are some tips.

Do your preliminary research

Before you go, do some research on the types of cuisine your destination is known for, its local ingredients and its most-beloved dishes. Then do a quick search for places to eat, keeping in mind that review sites aren’t always accurate (more on this later). Eater is usually a reliable source, and places such as Bon Appétit, Saveur, Roads & Kingdoms and, of course, the New York Times’ Food section are all good options that use locals or experienced international journalists who have gone through these steps for you.

Curiosity Magazine, a publication I started specifically to help travellers find their way and get advice like this, hires exclusively local writers eager to share their local food culture with visitors. Local food blogs, which you can often find with a quick Google search, are also great resources. If you see a few places showing up again and again in a variety of publications and sources, that’s a good sign.

Sign up for a food tour

Food tours are one of my favourite things to do while travelling. They give an outsider a great overview of the must-eats in a city, and are easy to find. Ask your hotel concierge, search the web for vacation packages that include food tours, check with a travel agent, or check with a local or regional tourist office. Sure, the portions are small and you’ll wander around amid a group of tourists, but you’ll also learn something and try a variety of foods in an effortless way. Most importantly, your guide is a local who obviously loves food. Ask where she eats when not working and you’ll get plenty of tips to try once the tour is over.

Trust bar and restaurant staff

“Bartenders know best” is my motto for drinking around the world. Bartenders work with and drink with other bartenders, who work and drink in other bars. Whether you’re looking for a dive bar or a fancy cocktail, your bartender — whether it’s at a hotel bar or a restaurant you stumbled into — will point you in the right direction.

The same goes for your restaurant server, who works all night with people in the food world. The advice from your bar and wait staff is some of the best you’ll get. Tip accordingly.

Don’t (blindly) trust reviews

I spent a few years living in Rome and was always baffled with some of the top-rated restaurants on sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp. “This is the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life,” someone would write about a mediocre restaurant outside the Vatican, while my favourite (and very popular among locals) pizza spot was way down around No. 200.

But keep in mind that TripAdvisor reviews are written by tourists, not locals. Maybe it is the best pizza that person has ever had, because he’s on vacation and atmosphere matters when it comes to taste. That doesn’t mean it’s the best pizza in Rome. Reviews can help you pin down suggestions in a region, or if you have specific dietary needs or preferences, but that’s about it. If you must read, look past the stars. If someone has given a place a two-star rating because of “a misplaced fork,” or something else you know wouldn’t be an issue for you, disregard the review. Service speeds, for example, are cultural, and prone to bias. Look for reviews from locals, especially those who comment on certain dishes. “This Bolognese is as good as my Grandma’s.” That’s what you’re looking for.

Don’t shy away from street food, especially when there’s a crowd

Street food is usually cheap and widely available, and can give you insight into the local food culture. Just as with hot dogs in Chicago, most people can tell you where to go. However, while street food can be delicious, it can also carry the risk of food-borne illness. Watch how its prepared and handled, and follow our tips. If you’re skeptical — either of the location or the ingredients, or in a country where food-borne illness is a common problem for travellers — don’t risk it. If you see lines of locals waiting outside a street cart, though, that’s a good sign that turnover is high and food is popular and good.

At restaurants, make note of long lines of tourists waiting for the No. 1-rated place on TripAdvisor, but also look for crowds of locals spilling out into the streets, and eating happily at local restaurants or cafes where the lines are long before the doors even open. There are a few food experiences worth waiting for, but for the most part a comfortably crowded spot beats a long line any day.

Ask the right locals, not just any local

If you’re going to do it, let’s talk about how to do it right. Keep in mind that, especially when visiting a non-Western country, American tourists will often be pointed toward the most “western” place, which also tends to be the most expensive. The intentions are often good — avoidance of funky flavours or spice, for example — but the results are often disappointing.

Instead, get specific. Ask where to try a certain type of food. This is where your preliminary research comes in. Discuss your price range and the atmosphere you’re looking for, and convince them you really, truly do want to try local dishes, regardless of ingredients. Plus, there’s always a chance you’ll get lucky and run into the local who is passionate about and really does know a lot about food, and then you’re in for a treat.

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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip

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(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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Travel & Escape

What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled

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(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Travel & Escape

Be safe not sorry when booking travel online

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(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
    • A total price
    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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