07/19/2012 07:32 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Eight Effective Ways To Live Like A Local When You Travel

There was a time when tourists wanted to be fed, pampered and moved from country to country en masse only to return home thinking their vacation was a success because they had "an escape." Now the world is increasingly accessible and travelers are more and more educated about their destinations. They don't want escape, they want experiences.

Enter the hottest trend in tourism: Experiential Travel.

According to the latest American Express Spending & Saving Tracker, 48% of the people surveyed seek meaningful experiences when they travel. They want to immerse themselves in the culture and heritage of their destination.

"Seasoned travelers want an authentic, local experience versus a standard tourist itinerary," said David Patron, Vice President of American Express Travel. "These are people who invest in travel, they want to do more than just see a destination they want to live like a local." Patron continued, "When a traveler visits a destination they want to understand the local traditions and feel like they are getting a true insider experience."

So I got to wondering, what exactly allows us to be on vacation yet live like a local? These are my top eight effective ways to...

Live Like A Local

Meet The Residents - Just yesterday a friend told me about a trip she took recently. She didn't tell me about a museum, nor did she speak of her hotel. She told me that she and her husband met a lovely couple who had invited them to their home for cocktails. "It was so great to see how the locals lived," she said.

Yes! That's what we love, feeling like we are part of the community. That we belong there. Locals connect us to a place like nothing else can.

Home Exchange - There's nothing like strolling through an outdoor market in the quiet of the morning and collecting fresh eggs, vine-ripened tomatoes, handcrafted cheese and crusty bread, then carrying home your cache, cooking it and enjoying a homemade breakfast on your patio.

How can you do this on vacation? Home exchange. My family has swapped our home 13 times in 12 years. Not only do you get kitchens, but bedrooms, living rooms and yes, bathrooms too! Once you join a home exchange agency and pay the annual fee, about $100, you can schedule as many home swaps as you can handle. Your exchange partner may live across the country or across the world; you live in their home while they live in yours. You can even exchange cars and save on car rental expenses! For more information about home swap check out my blog at:

Cooking Class - "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said. I think he would have suggested that you enroll in a cooking class on your next vacation. It's a wonderful activity for families or solo travelers. And you get to eat what you prepare!

Food reveals much about the culture of a country, local agriculture and the artisans who make the regional delicacies. One of my favorite cooking schools is in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Sazon. The chef took us on a tour of the market where we purchased our locally grown lunch ingredients and then we helped him make Purslane soup, Chiles en nogada and Flan.

Worship - If you go to church at home continue the practice while on vacation. I don't mean touring a cathedral or taking photos of a glorious ceiling, I mean attending an actual service with people from the neighborhood. Even if the priest speaks a different language you can simply sit and absorb the spiritual energy.

Before your next holiday, go online and enter the name of your religion and the city you'll be visiting, and bingo, church choices! If you add the words "English speaking," your vacation city might have a specific service just for you. Many churches in the U.S. offer a pancake breakfast or a bake sale to raise funds. What a delicious way to meet locals and enjoy an inexpensive meal or loaf of banana bread!

Recreation - Recreation means refreshment of strength and spirit after work. Do you ride bikes, jog, fish, go to the beach? Whatever it is, you probably never have enough time to enjoy it when you're at home. Vacation time should include lots of recreation time.

A few years ago my family completed a home exchange on Cape Cod, MA. The beautiful Victorian home overlooked a private fresh water lake. Our home exchange partner told us to help ourselves to all the toys in the barn. Toys included rafts, fishing poles, lanterns and a couple kayaks. We were on the water almost every day. Talk about refreshment!

Dress Like The Locals - I could have also subtitled this, Fake it till you make it! If you want to feel like a local, you better look like one. Research the standards of dress for your destination. Outside of the U.S., shorts are considered beachwear. When you wear shorts and polo shirts with logos, you look like a tourist; tourists carry money and expensive electronic devices. Pack unbranded shirts, long pants and/or skirts. This is really a safety tip rather than a fashion tip. Here's a helpful article about how to dress like a local in Spain.

Volunteer - VolunTourism, as it's sometimes called, is when travelers take a service-based vacation. If volunteer work makes your heart sing, this is the perfect way to immerse yourself in a country. You can join local causes and help save sea otters, build homes or teach children. Not only will you meet locals, but you'll also be making a difference in their lives.

I know nothing about construction work but one weekend my husband and I helped pave sidewalks for an elementary school in Tijuana. At lunchtime the volunteers sat at little school desks while four Mexican moms served us a tasty homemade meal. I'll always remember their kind faces. Here's a great voluntourism article with list of resources to help get you started: Adventure Travel

Sit In A Park - Next time you're traveling, notice the people sitting in the parks. They're usually locals. They talk. They laugh. They relax. Somewhere in all the hustle-bustle of travel, remember that this may be one of your most important activities. Make time.

I hope these tips will help you live like a local and really experience your next vacation destination.