It’s now easier than ever to get travel advice from locals, and you don’t even have to talk to them in person.
Sure, you can still ask a stranger where to find some good sushi, but there is no guarantee they will be interested in, or qualified to, help you.
Thankfully, there are several smartphone apps that cut out those potentially awkward moments but still provide valuable recommendations from those in the know.
The three I tested out recently while roaming the streets of New York all had something to offer — though some were more useful than others.
Spotted by Locals
This app costs $3.99 per city (67 major cities are available worldwide), while the others are, for the most part, free. But you get what you pay for: this was the most well-rounded of the three I tried. One of its many perks is that it runs entirely offline, so you do not need to stress about data usage.
Like all of these apps, Spotted by Locals provides recommendations submitted by actual local residents on where to eat, shop, be entertained and more. The idea is to keep you away from tourist traps and steer you toward hidden gems.
I used it to explore a neighborhood where I used to be a local (Astoria, Queens) to see if it could deliver. The fact that it included a wide assortment of suggestions in a borough not named Manhattan was impressive enough, compared to the other apps I tested, but the recommendations themselves were also spot on.
For example, Astoria’s popular Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden was rightfully featured, but so was SingleCut Brewery, a lesser-known, but worthwhile, beer spot.
The advice for each location is the perfect length — detailed but not overwhelming, and the “Nearby” tab on the map makes it easy to scope out places wherever you are.
This app scored points for originality as well as its practicality, and is perfect for travelers who don’t have any cool cousins of their own.
Cool Cousin gives you access to contributors in 40 large cities around the world. Each “cousin” has a profile, with name, age, photo, occupation and a lot more information. The idea is to add those to your network who seem to have similar tastes to your own. After each add, the cousin’s recommendations are added to your map and broken down into eight different categories, such as food, coffee, night life and outdoors.
The app seems geared toward younger travelers — it feels like a cross between Facebook, Tinder and Foursquare — and most of the cousins themselves have an appropriately hipster look. For New York, this leads to a higher concentration of recommendations below 14th Street in Manhattan and several in Brooklyn (very few in Queens), and heavy in the food and night life areas.
But the app itself is easy to figure out, and the map includes the option to download and use offline (for free). No matter where you are, just hit the location arrow to see what’s nearby.
The recommendations themselves are solid and are written casually — think Yelp, minus the negativity. I added 26 of 55 available cousins in New York and was impressed with what was revealed, including free public gardens and lesser-known art galleries, as well as a wide variety of intriguing bars and restaurants.
Your new cousins will even message you through the app to say hello, and you have the option of writing them back to ask for more tips. You will also get a push notification every time you receive a new message, which you can turn off by adjusting your settings. After asking two of my paired cousins, I received additional restaurant recommendations.
Like a Local
Well-designed and easy to navigate, Like a Local has fewer contributors than the other apps (28, providing 197 tips for New York at the time of writing) but it is in more cities than the others (over 300) and best functions as a complementary tool.
The recommendations are detailed yet concise, giving an excellent general overview and a “special tip” for each location. For example, at the Brazilian restaurant Beco in Brooklyn, Kelly advises: “Come early because the restaurant’s seating space is limited. CA$H ONLY.”
You don’t have to sign up to use the app, so you can dig right in and explore — though if you want to use the app offline, you have to pay $1.99 per city.
There’s also an option to “ask locals,” which works like a message board. I asked for Upper East Side restaurant recommendations (it is a neighborhood not represented well on any of the apps) and after a week had yet to get a response.
The recommendations included mainstream spots like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Central Park more often than the other apps did. These are not underappreciated landmarks, but not necessarily bad places to check out if you’ve never been.