Blending in to a city or country you’re visiting has many advantages. Among them, allowing yourself to have a more immersive experience and not falling victim to a robbery scheme involving human feces. Some cities come with their own code of conduct, such as Washington DC, where during Gadling’s recent summit we noticed anyone who stands on the left side of an escalator is immediately met with a barrage of furrowed brows and choice words. The tips below, however, can help keep you from being branded as an out-of-towner in any city the world over. Take these pointers in stride and the day will come when tourists ask you for directions while you’re out on adventures.
Be Discreet About Using Maps & Guidebooks
Let’s face it: We all get lost, even in cities we’re familiar with. But if you carry around a guidebook or unfold a large map in public, you might as well wear a neon sign flashing “tourist” over your head. That doesn’t mean you should travel sans map, but it does help to step out of foot traffic or even into a store or cafe when you need to regroup and figure out where you are.
If you do need to use a guidebook, try to unfold it so the cover isn’t visible or hold it in a (preferably local) newspaper or magazine. Another idea is to check and see if mobile guides are available, that way no one will suspect you are reading a guide as you scroll through your phone. Besides, in the age of smartphones and GPS technology, it’s easy to get around by discreetly consulting a map on your phone – just be aware of your surroundings and don’t pull out your fancy phone in a place where it could be an easy target for a robbery.
When riding public transportation, take note that the locals often use maps – but they tend to stick to the ones posted in subway and bus stations. Studying a map beforehand in your hotel or on a plane is one easy way to get acquainted with a new location that will end up saving you time (and causing you less stress) in the end.
Follow the Area “Dress Code”
One simple way to blend in is to camouflage yourself in the local mode of dress. Europeans tend to wear dark, neutral tones – but the opposite is true in the Caribbean and India where vivid colors are found everywhere. As a visitor you’ll blend in by wearing these colors, too.
Dressing for the local weather is also important. Forgetting to pack a raincoat in Seattle will surely brand you as out of touch with the local weather, as will running around in a sundress in San Francisco in February (no matter how mild it feels!). Abroad, many Americans tend to wear outdoor gear intended for hiking, skiing or similar pursuits, but these articles of clothing are uncommon in most countries. Even in cold places, the rest of the world tends to wear more formal attire, such as wool or leather coats.
In addition to outerwear, there are many stereotypically American articles of clothing travelers should avoid when going abroad. This includes sneakers, Crocs, baseball hats, cargo pants and shorts, but can also be expanded to clothes featuring the United States flag or U.S. brand names such as Abercrombie and Gap. These brands are gaining popularity across the world, but again, anything that brands you as a tourist should be avoided if you want to travel incognito. Travelers should also avoid wearing flashy or expensive jewelry, as its never a good idea to attract too much attention.
And by the way, fanny packs are not acceptable anywhere and are largely considered the ultimate fashion faux pas for tourists. Sandals with socks are a close second.
Try to Speak the Language
One of my nightmare travel partners was a person who assumed everyone in Europe knew English. She would begin speaking in her native tongue to concierges, shopkeepers, servers and anyone else she came in contact with, and when they gave her confused looks she would only repeat her question louder and slower. Sure, it can be embarrassing to put yourself out there, but making an effort to speak the local language is a huge sign of respect. Besides learning a few basic words (the translations for “please” and “thank you”) will go a long way. Be sure you know how to say, “do you speak English?” in any country you visit. It’s a great conversation starter for tourists.
Along the same lines, the less English you speak while out and about the more you’ll be able to travel under the radar. That’s not to say you and your travel partners should play “the silent game” while abroad, but it’s something to take into consideration. A great example is when taking a taxi in a foreign country. If you’re able to say “hello,” give directions and make small talk in the driver’s language and then make it through the rest of the ride without speaking English to your cohorts, the driver may never have a clue you’re from out of town. He or she will be less likely to scam you or take you into dangerous territory.
Take Things Down a Notch
All around the world, Americans are known for being louder than is customary in most countries. This includes using loud voices in public places – especially while talking on cellphones. Americans also have the tendency to use exaggerated arm and hand movements. Avoid making the wrong impression and sticking out by reminding yourself to be a little more reserved.
Resist the Urge to Photograph Everything
It’s easy to get snap happy abroad. With the discovery of new places and experiences comes the desire to capture these special moments (and bring a little photographic evidence back home). But how many times have you returned from a trip and looked through your pictures only to find you can pick out a handful of photos that represent your entire vacation? And how many times have those pictures been of the inside or a church or of a landmark that has already been the backdrop to thousands of tourist photos? It’s something to take into consideration before your next trip.
Living a little less through the lens of a camera will drastically help downplay your tourist factor. Unless you’re a professional photographer, there’s probably little reason you need to have a camera draped around your neck at all times. Camera-toting tourists are an easy target for theft because not only are they showing off expensive equipment, but they are also distracted from their surroundings. Believe me on this one, because I once nearly fell victim to a robbery while living in Quito, Ecuador. I still take lots of pictures in my travels, but I make sure to be discreet when doing so and always tuck my camera safely away when it’s not in use.
Research Local Manners
Knowing whether or not simple gestures such as a handshake are customary or which hand to hold a fork in is crucial to blending in abroad. Giving the “okay” gesture will land you in trouble in Brazil (it’s similar to flipping someone off in the United States), while not knowing how to correctly hold chopsticks in China will be a dead giveaway that you’re new in town. Knowing whether or not to tip is also very important, especially because in some countries (namely Korea and Japan) it can be considered an insult to leave one. Before you go, spend some time looking into local manners and etiquette. It doesn’t take much time, and you’ll be a much more considerate traveler after doing your research.
Stay Alert and Be Confident
Of all these tips, the golden rule for fitting in with the locals is to stay alert and be confident. Looking and acting the part with confidence will get you much further than you think. If you can do that while staying aware of your surroundings, you should have a much easier time mastering how to look like a local.
To truly blend in, become observant. If you don’t know how to do something such as swiping your Metrocard in New York, instead of fumbling at it and causing a bottleneck, take a moment to step to the side and observe how to go through the turnstile. Along the same lines, if you haven’t seen anyone walking down the street and drinking coffee in Rome, don’t be surprised to find most places don’t have a to-go option. In the same vein, if you’re lost in an unfamiliar place, at least try to look like you know where you’re going and nobody will suspect you of not knowing your way around town.
Of course, these are only suggestions. Becoming invisible as a traveler is difficult and the skill takes a long time to master. Don’t let the act of “trying to fit in” ruin your trip, and by all means don’t feel ashamed of where you come from.