Tourists paired with locals for short visits, absolutely free
You come to New York and you get your own, personal Seinfeld!" bubbled Liz Smith, one of the dedicated staff at New York City's Big Apple Greeter program. Of course, she can't guarantee that you'll meet "the" Jerry Seinfeld, but what Big Apple Greeter does offer is a "match" service of sorts for people who enjoy meeting the locals when they travel. The program pairs tourists with friendly New Yorkers (no, that's not an oxymoron) for a two-to-four-hour tour of the city, absolutely free of charge. They visit Chinatown, hop the subway up to Times Square, stroll through Harlem (the program's most requested neighborhood), or tour one of the city's fascinating, multiethnic boroughs. Karen Ambrose, a Chicagoan who participated last fall, raved about the experience: "Meeting up with a local person who can say, 'I used to swing on those swings over there,' or 'This is what this place used to look like'-that's very engaging," she commented. "And you start to feel like this new city is your own after only a few short hours." Sound interesting? Well, you don't have to go to New York to participate. These terrific programs are springing up in cities all across the globe, from Melbourne to Montego Bay, Seoul to Chicago. Some were spawned by the decade-old Big Apple program, others created independently, but they all share the same price tag: zip. The "tour guides" are volunteers who simply love their hometowns and want to share that pride by helping visitors.
And help they do. In the bustling metropolises of New York, Chicago, Melbourne, and Adelaide, Australia, greeters explain the layout of the city, how to use public transportation, where to find the best buys and meals. In Korea and Japan, English-speaking "goodwill" guides bridge the language gap. The programs in Jamaica and the Bahamas concentrate on getting the tourists out of the resorts and into the real Caribbean through home-cooked meals, church and school visits, even volleyball games between local clubs and visiting enthusiasts.
Following are the best established, and most reliable, of the greeter programs: Big Apple Greeter Pairs visitors with volunteers based on the visitors' interests and background. The volunteer picks up the tourists at their hotel and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority throws in a free MetroCard to cover public transportation. The program currently has a pool of 400 volunteers from all walks of life and nationalities (tours in 20 different languages available). To assure a spot, call 212/669-8159 at least two months in advance or go online to bigapplegreeter.org to fill out an application.
Based on the New York City program and launched this past April, Chicago Greeter differs only in that vacationers and volunteers meet at the Chicago Cultural Center rather than at a hotel. Again, local transportation is thrown in free of charge. For more info, call 877/244-2246 or go to chicagogreeter.com.
Meet the People, Jamaica
Like many programs, coordinators pair persons with similar interests or backgrounds-teachers with teachers, bird-watchers with bird-watchers, pastors with pastors, etc. In an unusual twist, the program doesn't limit itself to adults: Parents can arrange to have local playmates for their children, too. Go to jamaicatravel.com or call one of the Jamaica Tourist Board's regional offices at 312/527-1296 (Chicago), 213/384-1123 (Los Angeles), or 212/856-9727 (New York City).
Goodwill Guides, Japan
More than 56 "goodwill" groups are scattered across Japan, each with a roster of English-speaking guides. Some have preset walking itineraries for wh ich you simply show up at a certain time and place; others operate on a person-to-person basis. Although guide services are free, visitors are expected to pick up the tab should guest and guide decide to dine together or for any transportation expenses incurred in the course of the tour. Call the New York office of the Japan National Tourist Organization at 212/757-5640 or visit jnto.go.jp/eng/RTG/.
Goodwill Guides, Korea
Korea has nearly 3,000 guides eager to help visitors better communicate and enjoy their stay. To that end, locals offer advice on travel plans, interpretation services, and commentary at sites of interest. As with the Japanese program, visitors are expected to reimburse any expenses the guide may incur. Call 201/585-0909 (New York area), 312/981-1717 (Chicago), 323/643-0025 (Los Angeles).
Service and Adelaide Greeters, Australia Founded at the time of the Sydney Olympics to draw attention to Australia's other great cities, both programs offer half-day city tours, seven days a week. Tourists are asked to apply at least three working days in advance, and the cost of public transportation is not covered. For more information on Melbourne, call 011-61/3-9658-9658 or go to melbourne.vic.gov.au and click on "For Visitors." For Adelaide, call 011-61/8-8203-7168 or log on to the Web site: adelaidegreeters.asn.au.
People-to-People, The Bahamas
Along with one-on-one half-day exchanges throughout the Bahamas, visitors who happen to be on the islands on the last Friday of the month can go to Government House at 4 p.m. for tea with the governor-general's wife. Call 242/356-0435 or go to bahamas.com.