Both at home and away I prefer not to stand out in a crowd. That may just be the introvert in me, but there are also clear benefits to attempting to blend in when you travel.
We're all familiar with the image of the obnoxious tourist from comedy films: bright Hawaiian print shirt, camera around the neck, eating at familiar chain restaurants, wearing a fanny pack, and loudly proclaiming how everything is better at home. While I would hazard a guess that no one reading this article fits that profile, there are also less obvious signs that mark us as outsiders when we travel.
There are good reasons to want to blend in when you travel solo. You don't want to become a target of unscrupulous sorts who prey on tourists, from those who would inflate their prices to those who would try to catch you in a scam to those who would do you personal harm.
There is also much to be gained from blending in, not least of which is the opportunity to observe the culture and gain a better understanding of life in your chosen destination. By not drawing attention to yourself, you have the advantage of being a fly on the wall, an unobserved observer of daily life. It brings to mind one of my favorite travel quotes by Storm Jameson, “I am never happier than when I am alone in a foreign city; it is as if I had become invisible.”
Here are some steps you can take to blend in to your destination when you're traveling on your own.
12 Steps to Help You Blend In with Locals
Tourists can be marks for con artists and pick pockets. Blend in with these tips to increase your safety and enjoy a more local experience.
- Watch how the locals behave. Find a seat in a public area and sit back, relax, and watch. Observe how they board public transit, how loudly they speak, when they make eye contact, how close they are when they talk to each other. Emulate their behavior. If they line up orderly and wait their turn, do so. If it's more of a free-for-all with no expected order, follow their lead.
- Walk with confidence, as if you have taken the same route dozens of times before. Even if you realize you've taken a wrong turn, walk back just as confidently. No one will know the difference. For more on this, read 10 Ways to Look Confident.
- Carry a shopping bag from a local retail chain, rather than a day pack or a tote bag. It will signal that you live in the neighborhood and shop there.
- Dress appropriately for the culture. It may not be necessary to dress in local custom but it may be beneficial. You might even consider supporting the local economy and treating yourself to some new clothes. Dressing in an understated way will serve you well. Pack clothing that can be dressed up or down as the situation requires.
- Develop an understanding of local currency. Nothing will foil your attempts to blend in when you travel like fumbling with money when it comes time to pay. Take a bit of time to familiarize yourself with the bills and coins so you can pay smoothly in cases where cash is required. Have a rough idea in your head of the exchange rate to your home currency so you know how much you're spending.
- Become a regular. Even for a couple of days, frequent the same coffee shop, pub, or small grocery store. They'll know that you're new but when you greet them like a regular, others won't. You'll also learn more about the day-to-day routines of locals by hanging out where they eat or shop.
- Be selective about when you pull out a map. Studying a map at your hotel or in a coffee shop won't draw attention, but waving a selfie stick around monuments or fumbling with a map in the middle of the street will clearly identify you as an outsider.
- Shop like a local. There's nothing I love more than exploring grocery stores when I travel. Not only can you save money by picking up a few items so you don't have to pay restaurant prices at every meal, you can learn a lot about the culture.
- Consider renting an apartment. Staying in a hotel, especially one in a tourist district will not give you a taste of life in your destination. Renting an apartment in a residential area will allow you to feel less like a tourist and also creates the opportunity to do some cooking for yourself, perhaps try out some local recipes. You'll get a feel for the rhythm of the community.
- Take a tour on your first day. I find Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours great for getting a visual overview of a city. They're also a relaxing activity if you've had a long flight or are fighting jet lag. Alternatively, arrange in advance a tour with a local through the Global Greeter Network to not only get the lay of the land, but valuable tips and information from someone who lives in the city. You'll blend in with the locals in no time!
- Forego the big shows. Instead of automatically buying tickets for the big spectacles or Broadway-style shows, check out what the locals are doing. Pick up a copy of Time Out in large cities or a local paper in smaller communities to see what events are advertised to those who live there. There may be a film festival featuring movies made in that country, a community theatre premiering a new play, or a bar with a great local band. You'll see something unique, be among local residents, learn something about the culture, and likely strike up a conversation with a fellow patron. You may also save some money, as I talk about in Your Solo Travel Budget: It's All About Balance.
- Do your research. To help you blend in when you travel, take the time to learn about local customs such as how people greet one another, common gestures and their meanings, and general etiquette. You don't want to use a hand gesture that means one thing in your home country but will offend people in theirs! Learn a few phrases in the local language, at least things like hello, please, thank you, and goodbye.
Do you have other strategies for blending in when you travel? Please share them in the comments section below.