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Ways to Support Small Businesses When You Travel

By Kristin Braswell

Aug 5, 2021

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Local vendors offer all kinds of things you won't find at a big-box retailer.

Photo by Maynard Switzer

Local vendors offer all kinds of things you won't find at a big-box retailer.

Rethink where you stay, shop, and eat.

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As travel transitions from wanderlust wishes to booked flights, we have an opportunity to make a difference simply by the way we plan our trips. In all corners of the world, businesses have been hit with pandemic-related revenue losses that may continue to have an impact for years to come. The good news is that we can help. Our travel choices can support and sustain our global community at large, as well as in the specific communities we visit—even something as simple as a quick souvenir stop can contribute to someone else’s livelihood.

Tourism Cares is just one organization that has made it easy to support local entrepreneurs with its newly launched “Meaningful Travel Map,” which highlights businesses that promote sustainability, diversity, and local economic growth. Here are a few more ways you can find and support small businesses when you travel.

Ask a hotel concierge or a local about their favorite business

While the internet gives us practically all the information we can think of and then some, there’s nothing more valuable than an insider tip that reveals a place or experience you wouldn’t have otherwise known about: an unnamed shop that sells local jewelry; a food market that’s only open off hours; or a business owner who makes a positive impact in her neighborhood. That’s why, in addition to my often obsessive wish list of restaurants to try in new places, I also keep a list of businesses to support, with tips straight from locals like hotel concierges, taxi drivers, and restaurant staff.

The most meaningful travel experiences I’ve had over the years have come from word of mouth, like when a concierge told me about a shop, blocks away from the touristy Marrakech souks, that sold the most intricate rugs crafted by a third-generation weaver, or when my taxi driver in Puerto Vallarta shared the secret of his favorite food truck, run by his family friends who served the juiciest carne asada taco I’ve ever tasted. So instead of heading straight to that street flooded with souvenir shops, consider asking for suggestions from a local first.

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If you’re not traveling and still want to support small businesses around the world, Local Purse offers live virtual shopping experiences. From the comfort of your own home, you can tour spice shops in Marrakech with a beauty and wellness expert, or visit a store in Buenos Aires that specializes in handicrafts, such as colorful ponchos, pottery, rugs, and wooden artifacts made by native communities from all over Argentina.

Exploring side streets and lesser known paths can be rewarding.

Find a walking tour

Sign up for a walking tour led by a local to get an authentic history lesson on your destination. Along the way, you’re likely to make connections with your guide and other people you meet that can last years. I typically rely on Google or TripAdvisor to find walking tours in the city I’m visiting, and some of my favorite results have included bespoke cultural tours with Curated Kyoto in Japan and Little Africa Travel in Paris. Walking tours are so popular that you can find just about any theme to fit your travel personality—including culinary tours that let you sample various street foods and art-inspired walks that highlight murals and galleries.

Stay at locally owned accommodations

Although our favorite hotels guarantee comfort and familiarity, part of travel is exploring something new and that includes accommodations. There are numerous benefits to bedding down at locally owned places, such as more personalized service or a design that reflects the culture and aesthetic of a destination, like the riads of Morocco.

One of my favorite boutique hotels, the Ivy, is located in the heart of Baltimore. Set in an 1889 mansion, this historic property is a feast for the eyes, with paintings throughout by local artists and students from the Maryland Institute College of Art. If camping is more your style, Harvest Hosts is a membership service that lets RVers book stays at unusual overnight spots, like wineries, museums, and even an alligator ranch.

Cooking classes give you skills that last long beyond the vacation.

Get hands-on with a cooking or winetasting class

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Chances are you enjoy a good glass of wine and meal while traveling, so why not get hands-on with an instructional experience too? By signing up for a cooking class or winetasting lesson, you’ll not only support a local expert, but you’ll also be able to take those skills back to your own home kitchenand add to your wine collection. Sites like Eatwith, Local Purse, and Airbnb have a number of hands-on activities to choose from, and it never hurts to ask for suggestions from your hotel concierge, locals you meet while traveling, or staff at restaurants and bars you fall in love with along the way.

Farmers' markets cut out the middle man.

Shop at a farmers’ market 

Browsing a farmers’ or flea market is a great way to enjoy fresh food and artisanal products, often for less than they’d cost at a store. Even better, by investing your dollars into public markets instead of a chain grocery store or mall, you’re helping local farmers and artists generate income on a consistent basis—and show that their services are valuable and needed in the area.

Websites including Local Farm Markets or the National Farmers Market Directory are handy for pinpointing markets if you’re traveling in the United States; for overseas trips, a quick Google search will lead you in the right direction, and if you find a new favorite restaurant once you land, ask the chef where they shop.

Don't fly all that way for a Burger King.

Eat at a local restaurant

Though a number of American chain restaurants find their way onto streets geared toward tourists around the world, it’s always worth skipping the familiar to try something new. A meal in a locally owned restaurant can bring you closer to the place you are traveling with each bite. A helpful app to find U.S. local eateries is ChefsFeed, which provides dining recommendations directly from chefs. Your fellow diners are a good source of information too. I travel solo often, which frequently leads to conversations with diners at nearby tables and waitstaff. Those encounters always lead to more suggestions.

Tip whenever you can

Gratuities go a long way for many who work in the tourism industry—and tipping is one of the easiest ways to support local businesses when you travel. Especially these days, when service workers have lost so much income due to the pandemic, I make it a point to offer what I can, and if I’m not sure what’s customary, I just ask. The magic number can vary from country to country, but in general, I’ve found this international tipping guide from Western Union helpful, as well as AFAR’s own guide to tipping in Europe. In general, I at least round up the bill.

>> Next: AFAR’s Gift Guide for Shopping Small Businesses

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