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When planning your next travel adventure, check out the Global Greeter Network. It’s a hidden gem of an organization that facilitates connections between travelers and locals who will show you around their beloved cities—for free.

RELATED: Here’s how to find the best local restaurants in any city

Despite this network of volunteer tour guides having a presence in more than 100 destinations around the world—from New York to Buenos Aires to Mumbai to Tokyo—not many people know about it. You can check out the full (and growing) list of cities here.

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Our kind of town | Photo by Erica Bray

Connecting with a Greeter is easy. Just contact the volunteer branch in your destination city ahead of time (usually at least 10 days in advance), and you’ll be matched with someone who speaks your language and can design a two-hour walk, or an entire day, around your interests.

Another cool bonus: unique access. This may not be something you typically associate with a free service. However, because Global Greeter guides often have deep ties to the places and people within their respective cities—and some have pretty cool day jobs—you could enjoy exclusive perks not offered on group tours.

For my family’s recent visit to Chicago, the perks included Cubs tickets, a free boat tour and a private audience with the boat’s captain.

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A two-hour tour: Personalization and access

My six-year-old niece Audrey was going to visit the Windy City, my home, during her spring break. I thought it would be fun to schedule a Greeter tour during her stay.

I connected with Chicago Greeter Tour (the Chicago-specific group within the Global Greeter Network) to find a guide who was available to escort my out-of-town family including Audrey, myself and my sister and brother-in-law. Chicago has more than 200 active Greeters, ranging in age from 19 to 80 and speaking numerous languages. There’s a special filtering system to ensure that the appropriate Greeter is matched with each visitor request.

We were connected with Chicago Greeter guide Andrew Sargis, the 30-year-old Chief of Operations for the Chicago Water Taxi. While his day job is demanding, he takes his volunteer gig just as seriously. He leads about six tours each year and is partial to guiding families, since his job comes with perks that are kid-friendly.

If you haven’t “Bean” to Chicago, try discovering it through the Global Greeter Network | Photo by Erica Bray

I coordinated with Andrew via email to meet at Millennium Park near “the Bean” sculpture to begin our walking tour at 10 a.m. When we arrived, he sprang two Cubs tickets on us for a game later that afternoon. He said he regularly offers his company’s Cubs tickets to guests when timing works out, as a way to foster a cool memory in the city he adores. Not to mention, he encourages any sports fan to visit Wrigley Field because he is also a die-hard fan. (“I do believe the Cubs are the greatest sports team in history.”)

Andrew spent more than two hours with us. We walked—slowly, to keep with Audrey’s pace—through Millennium Park and up Michigan Avenue to the Chicago River. Along the way, he would stop to point out artwork, architecture, sprinkling in history he had stored in his small notebook of scribbled facts.

Global Greeter Network, Chicago

Hanging out with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can be a moooving experience | Photo by Erica Bray

We visited Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, the animal infamously blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by allegedly kicking over a lantern. We learned about the founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. And we visited Abraham Lincoln—our nation’s 16th president, a longtime Illinois resident, and currently part of a gigantic art installation near the Chicago River.

Then we all enjoyed a free 30-minute voyage up and down the Chicago River on a Chicago Water Taxi—a unique perk given Andrew’s job. As the boat sliced through the heart of the city, Andrew pointed out the city’s architectural marvels and sprinkled in a few ghost stories, too.

We essentially got a free and private architectural boat tour by someone who’s navigated these waters for more than a decade, as other “formal” boat tours (which typically charge $25 per person) passed us by.

For Audrey, the boat ride included an additional perk: a visit with the boat’s captain in the pilot house, where the giant steering wheel and all sorts of buttons and levers were on display.

As Andrew explains, “With a Greeter tour you are seeing that city through the lens of a local resident as opposed to a scripted tour; you get personal anecdotes, stories and unique perspectives that a rehearsed tour will not give.”

The opportunity is a timely one, perfectly plugging into the growing demand for meaningful travel, the kind where intimate experiences that tap the expertise of locals are valued over cookie-cutter bus or walking tour itineraries where you’re simply part of a tourist herd.

ALSO: Want more insider status? Sign up for Orbitz Rewards and earn toward free stuff that only comes with membership.

Chicago Water Taxi, Global Greeter Network, Chicago

Mugging for the camera aboard a Chicago Water Taxi | Photo by Erica Bray

Before parting ways with Andrew following our boat tour, he mentioned that he typically offers his cell phone number to guests, in the event they need advice or help with anything during their stay. This sort of generosity was pretty awesome. He clearly takes his “ambassador” role for the city of Chicago seriously, to the point where he’s available as an on-call concierge even after his free tour ends.

I asked him if people ever took him up on that generosity. He said yes, that he and his wife even met up with a guest for the Lollapalooza music festival the day after she went on a Greeter tour with him. She was visiting Chicago by herself, so Andrew became a trusted friend during a very busy time in the city.

For the Greeters, the benefit of connection and learning works both ways, it seems. “I have discovered immense value in being a Greeter,” Andrew said. “I have made new friends and even discovered new ways to view our city.”

But he does it for his hometown, too. “Becoming a Chicago Greeter is one of many things I got involved with to do my part to improve our city’s image,” Andrew said, noting that he considers himself an ambassador who shines a light on the positive and exciting qualities of the city, even as its reputation takes a beating in the media.

The two hours we spent with Andrew certainly put a few new spins on how I view my hometown of Chicago, and has inspired me to sign up for Greeter tours in future cities I visit. It takes a special person to volunteer their time to show total strangers around their city—and the perks ain’t bad, either.

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Tagged: Chicago

Erica Bray

Erica Bray

Erica is a practical free spirit who loves travel, yoga and ice cream. A Northwestern University-trained journalist with more than 15 years of experience straddling digital and broadcast media, Erica can be found doing handstands everywhere she travels -- even risking arrest in some cases. Learn about her at www.erica.media.

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