How I Use Tinder to Find Local Hidden Gems All Over the World

I won't argue about healthcare, climate change, or politics — even during an election year. But if you want to bring my blood dangerously close to its boiling point, tell me Tinder is just a hookup app. I will debate it's more than that to the death. Forget Airbnb, Orbitz, Uber, or other must-have apps: The most valuable travel app on my phone is Tinder.

Technically, Tinder — founded by two 27-year-olds in 2012 — is a lifestyle app. According to Apple, it's the second most downloaded lifestyle app, beating Google Home and Amazon Alexa. I started using Tinder in 2015 after my five-year relationship ended when I moved across the country. My first Tinder date was with Brad, an entrepreneur who surprised me with a night flight over the city. My parents never said anything about not getting into planes with strangers. Brad and I didn't last, but it wasn't my last time using Tinder.

In 2016 I wrote a Fox News article titled "10 top tips to up your international Tinder game." In 2017 I wrote a story for a South African magazine titled "Tales from Tindering in 25 countries." In 2018 I met my long-term boyfriend (and my best friend to this day) on Tinder. But even when we started dating, exclusively, I didn't stop swiping. I was still traveling for a living. This app was my Aladdin. It could show me the world.

Guidebooks are great. But there are plenty of things a local knows better than Lonely Planet. I had this epiphany in Spain, shortly after matching with your stereotypical sexy Spaniard. Carlos was a kite surfer and my key to unlocking doors I didn't even know existed. They opened onto beautiful secret beaches and into the best off-the-beaten-path tapas bars. He took me to places so authentic that if I didn't order in Spanish, I starved.

But it was Toby, a hotter-than-a-Hemsworth Australian who took my oyster virginity at a fancy raw bar in Brisbane. I grew up in Montana where seafood is synonymous with Red Lobster. Toby and I never even held hands. But our relationship, still going strong three years later, is as intimate as platonic gets. We're pen pals — the snail mail kind. The best card he sent me is basically an Aussie slang dictionary. I plan on using the lexicon the next time I visit him down under.

I'm also returning to Bali someday to reunite with a former potential flame and meet his new wife and baby. Roger, a Swiss expat who opened Bali Beach Glamping in the middle of the pandemic, and I matched on Tinder several years ago. He was a godsend when Mount Agung started spewing ash and closed the airport, leaving me stranded. Roger helped me sort out transportation on the island, telling me which taxis were the most reputable and what to expect for fares. He even called Air Asia for me when their website was down and I didn't have access to a phone.

Roger and I stayed in touch, and about a year later, he visited me in Thailand where we spent Valentine's Day at the launch of an online dating service, Nomad Soulmates. I don't think it ever took off as much as Tinder did.

Tinder is even faring well despite the closing of borders. A year ago, it had its busiest day in history with more than 3 billion swipes on March 29. In April, the company made Passport free for all members. For years I've been paying for this feature, which allows me to place myself in other locations without physically traveling there. It helps me to lock in dinner plans even days before touching down.  

Of course, I always insist on meeting in public places. I believe in the law of attraction. If I'm looking for a like-minded traveler hoping to split costs on transportation and tours or a local interested in a free language exchange, that's who I end up meeting. I don't have a single scary stage-five clinger story to share. Even when I use the app for romantic reasons and there's no physical chemistry, I still come out ahead. I have dozens, if not hundreds, of success stories.   

Gary, an American expat in Thailand, introduced me to a pizza place with a stone oven straight out of Naples. I never saw him again, but I took every subsequent Tinder date in Chiang Mai there. I didn't know if we'd fall in love with each other, but I knew at the very least, we'd love the food. Rui, a Portuguese George Clooney meets Josh Duhamel, invited me to join him and his ex-girlfriend, a stunning Estonian woman, and a current prospect, a British businesswoman he met on Bumble, for dinner one night in Porto. I left with two new much-needed female friends. Plus, now I have a place to stay in three different countries.

Marijn, a brainy Dutch cyclist planning to ride across Morocco, took me to trivia in an unassuming speakeasy. Not only did I learn a lot about climate change, the theme of the night, but we also won (thanks to him) so I scored free drink vouchers. I also attended a trivia night with Joshua Cripps, an award-winning wilderness photographer I met in Mammoth Lakes, California. We didn't win. But for five years he's been a serious source of inspiration when I'm looking for new destinations. He's also the first person I reach out to when I have camera questions.   

Then there's Lian, a Matthew McConaughey lookalike from South Africa. We spent less than 24 hours together before going our separate ways. Nothing romantic happened for months. However, we stayed in touch, texting every day. We even started a book club. Our first book was Malcolm Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers." The last book was his doppelganger's debut memoir, "Greenlights." But the book I cherish most is the history book of his country he gave me when we met in January 2020 to go on a Star Wars-themed Disney Cruise. For seven days it was just the two of us (and a few thousand of our closest wannabe Jedi and Stormtrooper friends).

Inspired by that iconic scene where Princess Leia thinks she's surprising Han Solo with those three weighty words, I told Lian I loved him. Unfortunately, coronavirus put the kibosh on our budding romance. He went home to quarantine in Cape Town. With Biden's restriction on travel from South Africa, I don't know when I'll see him again.

Statistically speaking, I have the best chance of running into Bryce, an artist who lives near me. He's now engaged. But when we matched we were both single and interested in other cultures enough to road trip to Crow Fair, a pow wow so big it's billed as the "teepee capital of the world." We paid our respects to elders during traditional dances, cheered on kids competing in pony races, and indulged in Indian fry bread the size of a saddle. As two of a very few white people in a sea of thousands of Native Americans, neither of us would have been bold enough to attend alone. Today, I'm a firm believer Crow Fair belongs on every traveler's event bucket list.

I also believe Tinder belongs on any list of top travel apps. For some users it's a hookup app. But for users like me, it's how you meet locals who have the insider hookups guidebooks will never have. It's also a tool for meeting like-minded travelers. Whether you want a companion for a day tour, someone to share an expensive taxi to the airport with, or even just another person to take your picture because you're sick of selfies, they can all be found on Tinder. All you have to do is swipe right on the right people.  

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