With that said...
Get to Know Them First
Mingle with the locals for a bit and don't expect anyone to offer up any help for a few days or more (although they often do on your first meeting!). There are some extremely kind people in this world and many of them are willing to help you right off the bat. Don't expect this, though. You're an adult and should take care of yourself. :)
Still, the kindness of strangers amazes me. People go out of their way to help you sometimes, and it touches my heart (and theirs) every time they do. I have been dug out of some hefty situations due to the kindness of strangers. A lot of times they become my friend who I see many more times. Even if I never see them again, I still feel as though I made a lifelong friend. With all of the anger and injustice in the world, it's good to know that most people are still kind and generous - no matter where you go.
Friends can be the go-to source for a wealth of information on their locality. For me, they have been the reason why I find cheap restaurants (although I usually cook my own food), hidden or discount supermarkets, freebies such as local concerts and the like, and low cost entertainment or attractions. They are also often a reason for me to get into places at a resident rate.
All of this simply because I know them. Most people are honored to give out information like this. It makes them feel important and helpful. And it saves money to boot. You can't go wrong asking one of your newly-made local friends how you can do stuff or buy stuff cheaper. After all, they do live there and have to stay within their own budgets. Their opinions and suggestions are non-biased. They won't profit from recommending a certain restaurant or place to you, so this is all the better reason to listen to them. Who else better to ask? Plus, they don't even have to be a friend per se for you to ask them general questions. You can ask any local. Go ahead - try it...
What about guidebooks if you're shy? Don't be shy... The Europeans will shake the timidity out of you before you leave, so don't worry about that. Back on topic: guidebooks give me nightmares and make me max out my AmEx card anyway.... Just look at what most of them recommend: hotels! A big no-no in my experience. Locals are MUCH better than guidebooks. They are the ultimate living guidebook!
I have had friends (and even acquaintances) offer me very cheap places to stay. I say very cheap because it's even cheaper than the village rooms I referred to in my last post. Some of them are even so kind as to insist I stay for FREE. Some of them won't take my money, and that's okay. Take them up on it, but don't overstay your welcome. Move on ASAP so you don't burden them. Oh, and buy them a gift for their hospitality whether they charge you to stay there or not! A couple bottles of wine or other similar gift fits this situation nicely. Even better is if you brought any items in your luggage that symbolizes where you're from (Colorado in my case). They love getting items like that because they're unique and reminds them of your friendship.
Say Goodbye to Language Barriers
If you have a local friend, you will no longer need to play Charades with other locals who don't speak your language. This makes getting around a lot easier and saves a load of time.
Also, this friend can help sharpen your skills and lead you that much closer to learning his or her language. Eventually you will be able to speak enough yourself to not need their help anymore. This reminds me of the Lao Tzu quote: "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime."
Another important thing I would like to mention is how making a local friend can provide you with increased safety. By hanging out with a local, you blend into the scene more and don't become such a target for thieves and other criminals. This also goes with the theme of my blog, which is saving money. If your money doesn't get stolen, you save money. Right? Friends help you to not blatantly and unknowingly scream out, "I'm a tourist! I have all my money on me right now! Look! Here's a laptop, too!" They also probably know the places to avoid as well.
I've had numerous friends give me a ride to places, so this is much cheaper than paying a taxi or renting a car. It's even better/cheaper than taking the bus and saves you more time than riding a bike or scooter. I always offer to reimburse them for gas - sometimes they accept, but mostly they don't. Usually it's free for me even though I beg them to take some gas money.
One final thought I have is that I am not the best traveler. Fundamentally, I am a writer. Obviously I can't rely on friends to dig me out of steep situations or help me every single time I need it, but they haven't failed me yet along with my common sense. As with many things - careers and such, it's not necessarily what you know so much as who you know. Those in the corporate world know what I'm talking about. What you know will make you wiser, but who you know will help you through the present so that you have the opportunity to obtain that wisdom.
These are my initial thoughts. I might add a spin-off post on this very important topic later! There is so much to say about it, so I will build upon it as my blog grows.
"I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself." -James Baldwin