A new generation of travel marketplaces lets you plan and book trips with travel professionals actually living in the places you want to visit.
As travelers, there’s nothing we crave more than first-hand knowledge, especially when we’re deciding on our next trip. We want honest, on-the-ground reviews and up-to-date recommendations, we put more stock in the opinions of locals than we do in those of strangers on the internet, and we really yearn for the authenticity that comes from interacting directly with the hoteliers, restauranteurs, and shopkeepers we hope to visit. And yet, even in such a hyper-connected world, that sort of inside information is frustratingly absent from the travel planning process.
Take the do-it-yourself traveler. This person spends hours on research, relying on reviews written by tourists, blogs by travel influencers, and whatever else Google gives them; then they book through big, impersonal online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Priceline, never once getting the chance to interact with anyone who knows the destination intimately.
Then there’s the person who goes to an agent or travel company. They get more expert knowledge, but it still comes from an outside perspective: Their agent is most likely based in their home country, and, while the good ones specialize in a select few destinations and have cultivated relationships with local hotels, restaurants, and activity suppliers, those agents still don’t live in the destination day in and day out.
But now, a new generation of tech-savvy booking platforms is changing all that by connecting travelers directly to in-destination experts wherever they want to go.
A direct-to-local booking platform is a user-friendly, online service that allows travelers to select a destination and then matches them with vetted travel specialists located in the places they want to visit in order to co-create and book unique, custom trips.
“When you book your travel via a direct-to-local marketplace, you bypass the traditional tour operator, travel agent, or booking aggregator, and go straight to the source,” explains Alexis Bowen, co-founder of pioneering direct-to-local platform Elsewhere. “Not only is it cheaper and more efficient, but the traveler ends up with a more authentic experience.”
The first thing your local expert will do is get an idea of the kind of experiences you want to have, either with a survey or an email conversation. Then they’ll help you enhance your itinerary by suggesting things you would never have found on your own: a hot new bar that hasn’t made it into travel magazines or an uncrowded alternative to a popular attraction. Finally they’ll book everything for you—scoring perks and VIP treatment for you where they can and saving you from any lost-in-translation moments—and package it in one neat itinerary that you can access at any time through an app or web portal.
If that sounds a bit like a travel agent, it’s because the professionals you connect with on direct-to-local platforms are essentially travel agents—just ones that are based in the country you plan to visit.
And because they live in your destination, your local expert is plugged in to what’s happening in the area in real time and can help you adjust logistics accordingly, communicating seamlessly through the platform itself. Construction happening next to the hotel you want to stay in? They’ll suggest an alternative. Surprise snowstorm passing through the area? They’ll know before it happens whether to reroute your trip or whether you’re fine to stay put and set up a last-minute ski excursion.
But direct-to-local booking isn’t only good for the traveler—it’s a big step forward towards creating a more sustainable future for travel, economically, socially, and environmentally.
“The direct-to-local model puts more power in the hands of the destination itself,” says Alexis. It strips out the layers of intermediaries, leaving more money in the country than traditional models of tourism do. It also gives the destination the autonomy to define and promote environmentally conscious and socially responsible experiences for visitors. “Our vetted Elsewhere experts are dedicated to preserving their countries for generations to come,” she adds. That could be by recommending restaurants reclaiming an overlooked culinary heritage or by refusing to promote damaging or cruel environmental experiences like elephant riding.
For Elsewhere expert Andrea Marco Simone Gambino, who lives in Turin, Italy, the direct-to-local model allows locals and visitors to work together to combat over-tourism, which threatens fragile destinations like Italy’s beloved Cinque Terre and Venice. But that doesn’t mean a local expert will try to dissuade you from visiting a city or attraction you really want to see—instead, they will help you judiciously plan where, when, and how to best experience the place you want to visit, whether that means avoiding the crowds by floating through the canals of Venice in the off-season or traveling deeper by staying in locally-owned accommodation in Cinque Terre. “Direct-to-local models try to wisely direct the flow of tourists, avoiding super crowded places and highlighting terrific areas where no one goes,” he says. “This is vital in order to equally distribute the beneficial development tourism can bring.”
At its core, direct-to-local is simply a better way to book travel. “It creates a much more authentic and direct connection between the traveler and the locations and their people,” says Laura Jara Reyes, a lifelong traveler and Elsewhere expert in Bogota, Colombia, “and local communities see a much more positive impact. And, well, I think that is what makes travel meaningful, exciting, and gratifying.”
By Maggie Fuller