If you travel to unfamiliar places, whether in your home country or abroad, what’s the number one thing you need to do so you don’t stand out as a tourist?
That’s right, blend in like a local.
You might think this is difficult, because after all, you need a map or guidebook in hand to find your way around, and a camera may be hanging around your neck, and your clothes or other features might spotlight you as a target for those with less than honorable intentions.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Can YOU Look Like a Local?
Yes, you can, with a little ingenuity and preparation. There’s a Korean saying that goes something like this – we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth so that we can observe and listen twice as much as we talk. Here are some travel tips applying those principles.
Ahead of time…
- First and foremost, do some homework. If trusted sources (I’m not talking about Uncle Fred, whose only long trip in the past five years was to a big box store one state over) advise being watchful about pickpockets, pay attention. Honestly, in any major city at home or abroad, this is sound advice these days, and never leave a purse or bag without some part of your anatomy connected to it.
- If the language is not one you know, learn basic phrases of courtesy and assistance, like, “please, thank you, excuse me, please help me, bathrooms.” (That last one – essential!)
- Buy a paperback you don’t care about that’s about the same size as your guidebook and rip off the cover. (I know, gasps of distress, but think secondhand stores.) Wrap the cover around your guidebook when you’re in a city, hiding the fact that you’re referring to it.
- Learn as much as you can about local customs. If Country A and Country B don’t get along, don’t wear a t-shirt broadcasting your time in Country A while in Country B. If it isn’t polite to haggle, don’t. If you should leave a tip, know the appropriate amount. If you need to bargain the cab fare or in a public market stall, enjoy the game.
When you’re there…
- Observe, observe, observe. If locals wear their backpacks on their chests as if protecting themselves from pickpockets, do the same. When locals spend the first two minutes of contact on pleasantries before getting down to business, you want to be polite and chitchat first. And DO NOT under any circumstances immediately bury yourself in your cellphone, because then you have no idea what’s going on around you!
- Security experts say it’s a good idea to create a cover story if you’re going to wander on your own, as a couple or in a small group. As a photographer and travel writer, I do this all the time – saying I’m on assignment to cover XXX works well – but only in countries where they like journalists! If you look and act like a seasoned traveler in that country, people tend to treat you as a local too.
- Hide the guides. Buy a local newspaper and open your map inside it. Don’t forget that innocuous paperback cover on your guidebook. Better yet, tear out the pages you’ll need from your guidebook and put those inside the cover – because guidebooks are only as good (current info) as the year on the cover and it won’t be something you want to reuse.
- Walk with purpose. This can mean strolling too, but consider arm-in-arm or in deep conversation, or anything that mimics the locals. If they stride across against the light, follow (safely, of course) and if they wait for the light, don’t dart into traffic. Again, two eyes, two ears.
Be a nice person…
- I really hate to have to point out the obvious, but it’s always amazing to me when I see fellow tourists act like idiots or worse. They probably wouldn’t be this way at home, so why do they behave this when they travel? Yelling louder in your home language won’t get you far if you haven’t tried to learn a few phrases and words in the local parlance. ONE MOUTH!
- Be a traveler, not a tourist. NEVER belittle the locals. Embrace what you can learn and seek understanding about the new experiences you’re having.
- Consider the context of any exchange, activity or custom. The world isn’t all about you (shock of shocks). Things aren’t like they are back home.
And really, isn’t that why you travel in the first place?
What are your words of advice when traveling to an unfamiliar place? What tactics and strategies have served you well? Please share in the comments!