As we head into summer vacation season, it's time to think about how to get the best experience -- and the greatest value -- from your travel dollars. My advice? That's when you want to think like a contrarian, toss out the traditional guidebooks and travel like a local.
What does it mean to travel like a local? It means actually talking to the locals to find out what they like to see and do in their hometown. Where do chefs eat when they leave the restaurant? Where do firefighters take their families on the weekends?
I travel more than 400,000 miles each year, and talking to the locals is how I really get to know a destination. And, for the first time its history, the prestigious Michelin Travel & Lifestyle partnered up with an outsider -- me -- to create an entirely new series of guidebooks called, "Like a Local." These book go beyond the typical tourist experiences and get you into the heart of your favorite travel destinations.
We kicked off with five guides: Buenos Aires, The Caribbean, Cuba, New Orleans and Miami & The Keys, all of which incorporate my tips on insider experiences and how to navigate the travel process, along with Michelin's respected guides and maps.
So how can you travel like a local? Check out my top five tips.
Tip One: Get off the computer
I've said it a million times. Don't do all your research online! You learn so much more by talking to a human being. (Imagine that.) In Buenos Aires, the opera house has a website, but guess what: Not all performances or seats are listed. When you go to the box office, they'll tell you all of the shows that aren't available online.
Tip Two: Eat like a local
For a casual seafood meal in the Bahamas, go to the Fish Fry, a strip of small, colorful restaurants on West Bay Street. Under the Paradise Island bridge is Potters Cay Dock, another local hangout with food vendors, farmers and fisherman selling their wares. Tucked in the corner of Dowdeswell and Armstrong streets is Chea's Corner Bistro, owned and operated by a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. Even individual islands have their own specialties, like the soft, slightly sweet Bimini bread. Ask the locals where to find it and they'll tell you to go to "Charlie's house." Yes, it's actually the home of a man named Charlie who makes what is widely believe to be best bread on the island.
Tip Three: Visit residential neighborhoods
In New Orleans, forget the morning beignets and coffee when all the tourists are crowding the French Quarter. Start your day by volunteering in the morning with organizations like St. Bernard Project or Habitat for Humanity. You will be able to see the true diversity of this eclectic city and help make a difference during your stay.
Tip Four: Make your own excursion
Havana is a dynamic, cultural and engaging city -- but that doesn't mean you want to spend all your time there. Instead, travel about an hour and a half outside the city to Viñales in Western Cuba's Pinar del Río province. The tropical valley is home to sprawling tobacco plantations where all you have to do is stop in and visit with a local family to see how a working farm operates.
Tip five: Go to local hot spots
When you say Miami, most tourists think of South Beach nightlife; mention the Keys, and they only know about Key West. But to find those local hot spots, you want to skip the concierge and talk to the locals -- like the housekeepers and the bellhops -- to learn where they like to go. You might not expect something with Ritz-Carlton in the address to be a local haunt, but locals successfully fought to preserve the Lido Key Tiki Bar when this institution was facing demolition from the Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club. This beach bar is right on the water and has everything you'd expect -- strong drinks, bar food, live music -- as well as some surprises.
Remember just because you're on vacation, doesn't mean you have to be a tourist. Want to see more? Check out my Like a Local video series.