How To Avoid Looking Like A Tourist

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.

[Photos (top to bottom) by Ed Yourdon / Flickr, istolthetv / Flickr, and sidewalk flying / Flickr]

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

know before you go travel planningSo you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.