Top sites for unique experiences

At an early age, I learned my parents’ road trip dining secret: ask a shopkeeper or hotel desk clerk for recommendations. Guidebooks are useful — but locals know the best places to eat, what places are worth visiting, where to find specialty items and how to get off the tourist track.

Undoubtedly, the internet has changed the way we plan our travels, but it isn’t just big booking services and travel review websites reaping the benefits. Technology makes it possible for independent and niche providers to find a wider audience. As travellers, the possibilities are endless. From planning tips to accommodations and day trips to full vacations, you can tap into the expertise of people who know your destination best.

Here are some top websites to inspire your next trip:

The brainchild of travel guru Sally Broom, UK-based holds true to its philosophy of sustainable, local travel experiences. The site connects travellers with vetted experts (Tripbods) who offer everything from planning advice and personal welcomes at your destination to off-the-beaten path tours and customized activities. If you’re looking for a particular experience or ideas, you can post requests and sign up for alerts for your destination too.

Sample activities: Traditional Home Cooking in Slovenia (£92.00/person), Indian Textiles and Handicraft Hunt (Kutch, India, £29.00/person), French Pastry and Bakery Tour in Paris (£43.00/person) and Canoeing with Flamingoes (Cagliari, Italia, £23.00/person).

Inspired by her years of globetrotting, founder Jamie Wong created Vayable as a venue for local experts to offer fun and unique activities to travellers looking for those “hidden gems” and authentic activities. Like Tripbod, the offerings are vetted by staff and you can book online through its secure payment service. Many of the experiences are offered in Vayable’s home town of San Francisco, but you’ll find some unusual offerings in major cities across the globe too.

Sample activities: Queens Tastes of the World (New York City, $59 USD/person), DIY Seafood With a Sea Forager (San Francisco, $40 USD/person), Fish with a Fijian King (Laucala Island, Fiji, $40 USD/person), Secret Gardens ($25 USD/person).

Frustrated by the lack of offerings at your destination? Sites such as CanaryHop offer a listing service with a broader range of activities than curated sites — but it’s up to you to check up on the providers. (User reviews are sometimes available.) You can search by destination, type of activity and price — and find a little of everything, from one-off activities (such as a magic show) to multi-day safari adventures.

Sample activities: Beer Makes History Better (Toronto, $40/person), Harlem Acoustic Guitar Workshop (New York City, $20/person), Venetian Art Master Class Tour (Venice, Italy, $81/person) and Shark Cave Diving (Eyre Peninsula, Australia, $535/person)



Travelling to New York City? If you’re looking for something different from the usual tourist activities, SideTour’s diverse staff of guides (including authors, artists, musicians, professional chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs, among others) host some unique opportunities in the Big Apple. You’ll need to create an account before you can browse listings and book well in advance — popular activities sell out quickly!

Sample activities: Dine with a Banker-Turned-Monk at an East Village Monastery ($20 USD/person), Get Insider Access to Hollywood’s Secret Weapons Depot in Soho ($60 USD/person) and Explore Cutting-Edge Art in Chelsea with a Gallery Insider (TBA).

Urban Adventures

Want to keep that local, authentic experience but still stay with a well-known organization? Intrepid Travel’s Urban Adventures offer day tours of over 80 major cities around the world. They aren’t your typical sight-seeing tours. Led by local guides, the tours follow a particular theme and mix popular sites with lesser-known experiences that let you experience the city like a local. Though its tours are often listed on some of the websites listed above, its easy-to-use search lets you zero in on specific countries and cities.

Sample tours: Mayan Biking Experience (Merida, Mexico, $64/person), Hidden Berlin ($64/person), East End Uncovered (London, $40/person) and Stockholm City Kayak ($86/person).


If you’re looking for something that’s more social networking site and less classified listings, TouristLink covers all the bases. This site not only lets you find and discuss unique activities, but covers the whole range of travel planning from accommodations (like homestays with local families) to discounts for group travel. You can post your travel needs and let providers send you deals, or ask questions so other members can answer.

The site is about making connections between travellers and local experts and guides rather than providing listings, but you may just find some good advice in the process.

Travelling sans spouse or don’t have friends or family who share your interests? This site isn’t just about finding interesting experiences — it will help you find someone to enjoy them with too. If you have a specific idea in mind, you can post your trip idea and let others join. Looking for inspiration? You can search through trips and guided tours created by fellow travellers looking for partners. Trips can be one or two weeks in duration, or as ambitious as around the world journeys.

Sample trips: Many of these trips are one-offs and works in progress, but some themes include driving from Argentina to Alaska, paddling the Murray River in Australia and backpacking through Europe.

Rent a Local Friend

You don’t have to have friends or family living in the area to get an insider’s perspective of your next destination. Rent a Local Friend has two options to help you make the most of your trip. You can connect with an “online friend” who makes suggests and offers tips to help you craft your itinerary — usually through a video chat on Skype.

Looking for someone to help you navigate a new city and join you on your favourite activities? The “friend for the day” option connects you with a like-minded guide who knows the ins and outs of the city. Rates depend on the city, but can range from 120 EURO for a half day in cities like Paris and London to 200 EURO for a full day.

If you want to trim costs but still get some insider information, the city-specific Tips & Traps booklets run about 25 EURO.

Before you book

Thinking of giving one of these ideas a try? Here are some tips to help you make a smarter booking:

Look at the all-in price. Activities vary in length and amenities, so it’s important to know exactly what you are paying for. For instance, a cooking class might include a trip to a market, instruction, food and materials along with the instructor’s time.

Consider group size. Some activities are meant for a pair or a small group, while other tours and activities could be larger. Fewer people means more individual attention — but usually a higher price.

Look into accessibility. Some experiences aren’t suitable for people of all abilities, while other providers offer custom tours and activities for people who have limited mobility or visual impairments, as well as people who are hard of hearing.

Do your research. Find out what you can about the provider or service you’re using. Is the company well-known? Do they vet their staff and offerings? What do reviewers say about the experiences?

Make sure the payment method is secure. As always, your best bet is to pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charges, if needed.

Ask about cancellation and refund policies. If you can’t make it or you’re not happy with your experience, who is responsible? It may be up to the provider — not the booking service — to pay up if you need a refund.

Naturally, there are many unique and authentic travel opportunities out there — these websites are just a few of the places where you can find them. Whether you want something to do for a day or an entire trip, it pays to think local to learn what a destination is all about.

Sources: The Guardian, The UK Independent, The New York Times

Photo: Dine with a Banker-Turned-Monk at an East Village Monastery ©SideTour

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