This post could also be titled “How to not look like a stupid tourist.”
I think it is what a lot of us travelers fear about the inherent discomfort of traveling: that you will look obviously displaced and awkward. But the fact is that, no matter what, you probably will not blend in.
No matter how carefully you picked out your outfit, somehow, Europeans seem to just do it better. Effortlessly.
No matter how carefully you mapped your route, you will get disoriented.
No matter how much you practiced how to ask for the bill, you will end up asking for the kitchen sink (yeah, there is a story behind that).
But there are small things you can do that will help you to blend in with the crowd- or at least not stand out at those tourists. Further more, there is a safety aspect involved. When you stick out like a sore thumb and attract unnecessary attention to yourself when traveling in unfamiliar places, you may be calling yourself out as a stranger and subjecting yourself to potential dangers such as pick-pocketing, haggling, or maybe just really, really poor service.
Here are the 10 best tips I have accumulated from my experience as a European tourist and resident:
(Note that my travel and living experience is restricted mainly to Europe, so these may not apply universally. However, I think they make a great start!)
Dial it back
First and foremost, take notice of the speaking volume of the people around you. Tourists -and Americans, in general- have a tendency to make themselves known in a crowd by their volume level.
I have literally stood in a bar and watched locals plug their ears at the noise of an American group. I walked out-it was humiliating. Furthermore, you are destroying your shot at making conversation with the locals that are around you.
Unless you are sitting in the middle of a big Greek family, keep your volume down and be respectful of the fact that others do not care to hear your conversation.
Take a style note
I remember the first time I came to Europe, we were told not to wear jeans, because they were quintessential American clothing. Now, that is no longer the case, but there are still ways that you can blend in just by making a few style adjustments. First of all, leave your favorite sports and college team tshirts and sweatshirts at home. In fact, just leave all those sweats at home and wear pants. Neon shirts and pants may be cool at the summer raves of Southern Europe, but you will look completely obscene in pretty much any city, and especially as you travel to northern Europe, where black and grays are the favored color palate. Over all, just opt for muted and neutral colors.
I know you are walking a lot, and you want your feet to be comfortable. Fortunately, athletic shoes are becoming trendy, so you can easily pull those off these days. (Apparently, white tennis shoes are the dead giveaway now, so leave those nurses trainers at home!) Also, there are plenty of comfortable touring and walking shoes that are actually quite fashionable. Or, sacrifice in the name of style!
Watch and learn
Be observant from the second you deplane. See how locals are interacting with each other -are they standing close or do they keep strict personal bubbles? Do they shake hands, kiss cheeks, or avoid all physical contact? Also note how they conduct business exchanges. Can you grab the merchandise at the kiosk first, or do you need to ask? Are people getting onto buses with a ticket, or are they paying the driver? Are they paying for lunch before sitting down, or being seated first?
Don’t be worried or intimidated by the number of unspoken faux pas: you are bound to step on some toes. I once was yelled at in Italian for leafing through a magazine before buying it. It happens- now you know and wont do it again.
Straps, fannys, and sticks
Ok guys, you’re tourists. I get it. Some days, you just gotta go with it- proudly wear the fanny pack, stick out the selfie stick and keep your camera permanently strapped around your neck.
Pics or is didn’t happen, right?
But there are also some times that you gotta calm it down and blend a bit more.
We usually plan our big touristing days together, so that we only have to bring everything on one or two days. Yes, I always have my big Canon camera strapped on, but I try to keep it pretty unobtrusive: worn strapped cross-body, with the camera tucked under an arm. Not around my neck. Not permanently attached to my hand.
But there is another reason for this: there are absolutely times to put away all the gadgets and simply take in all of the amazing that you are experiencing. On our recent trip to Ireland, we were not allowed to take our cameras on a late night kayaking expedition to experience bioluminescent plankton sparkle in the water as we paddled. It was one of the most incredible things we have ever done- and I don’t have photos. And I am so happy for that- I would have been absorbed with only capturing the perfect, Pinterest-worthy shot, instead of running my fingers in the water and proclaiming that I was a fairy.
Dine with the locals
As a general rule of thumb, don’t eat around a major tourist attraction. Not only will it be overpriced, but it will also not be very good. You are going to get Chef Boyardee-quality Italian and stale croque monsieur. Instead, walk a few blocks off of the main drag to find some better places. Better yet, be sure to ask around for recommendations. Ask your hotel front desk, Air BnB host, hostel keeper, the tour guide, even the guy at the newsstand. You’ll find something awesome.
And, yes, it is a bit awkward to walk into a restaurant and instantly feel like you do not fit it. Totally. Its also awkward to communicate with a waiter when you don’t know what is on the menu and they have few English words to describe it to you. But I promise that these will be some of the most memorable meals of your life!
(In case you are ever in that situation, I always try to ask what they recommend or what is their favorite, and order the first thing they point to. Its like dinner roulette.)
Be spatially aware
I don’t know what it is, but the second you leave your every day routine, you become an idiot.
I, too, am susceptible to “traveling idiot” syndrome.
You start wandering, eyes up looking at something awesome, without looking around you. Suddenly you are in traffic, walking through a tour group, or standing in a traffic-heavy bike lane. Its the weirdest thing in the world- you just become sort of stupid.
So just take extra care to see where to walk. There will probably be a designated bike lane- don’t walk in it. In large squares, don’t accidentally walk into a street artist or on top of the crappy re-print posters that people are peddling- you may end up owning them. But, hey, at least they have been signed with your footstep.
Take advantage of transit
Unless you are from a major American hub, you probably don’t use public transit all of the time. Do in Europe. It will save your tired feet extra steps, and your tight schedule some unnecessary travel time. It will be uncomfortable the first time, but even after a few rides, you will figure out your routes and it will be easy.
This will also be a great opportunity to observe and meet locals in your area. While you are on your way to a major attraction, they are on their way to work. But it will make you entirely more comfortable in the city that you are visiting, as you know how to live and move like a local!
Even some metro stations in Europe are UNESCO World Heritage sights- such as Budapest and Moscow- so there is the added bonus of enjoying that these beautiful stations are so much more beautiful than the old wooden Chicago L structures.
Don’t expect kindness
I am not saying that you should expect rudeness, but do not expect everyone to be kind. They wont be. And if you are prepared for that, you will be more prepared to respond.
I think us Americans are so used to accommodating kindness- maybe because many in the service industry work hard for their tips in order to even make a living wage, or maybe it is because our lifestyles are just so comfortable. Either way, the fact is that no one feels obligated to be kind to you; your waiter does not work for tips, the ladies in the store will not humor you when you are confused. Do not be offended and do not respond in frustration; they mean nothing by it. Europeans just tend to be more direct. They do not live to accommodate tourists. It is simply how they work- and you are in their space now.
Listen, Finns don’t use cash. You can buy a 70 cent stick of gum with a credit card. SO I still feel awkward dealing with euros. Some bills are huge, some are small, they don’t stack well, and I just never can get the damn thing out of my bag smoothly enough.
But when you are traveling, save yourself some embarrassment and take the time to organize your money. Stack the bills in a way that makes sense to you. Put them somewhere that will be easy to be to take out without random bills flying everywhere, but that is still safe.
Sorry guys, but that is not a money belt-not for most of Europe, at least. Money belts are great if you are backpacking, taking trains and staying in hostels. We keep our credit cards, large cash and passports in RFID travel wallets, which go directly in and out of our carry ons. When we are not in a hotel, our carry ons are always on our person, not sitting on a chair in the corner while we ask for directions. From there, they go into the hotel safe. My actual passport case here . Many more can be found with a simple Amazon search.
But if it makes you feel better, then you can keep your passport, credit cards , and large bills in there- but keep cash in a more accessible location. You are actually making yourself a target when you stop to pull out your belt in order to buy something. And probably irritating any other person in line with you, as they usually have money out and ready to go.
And in fact, this starts before you leave. You need a credit card with a chip- don’t come to Europe without one.
Do your research
Do your research. Do your research. Do your research.
Aside from making you more prepared to make the most of your time and investment, keeping you from showing up at a major museum on a Monday when they will be closed, and ensuring you eat some fabulous food, it will also help you to blend in with the crowd. You will know that it is best to take the bus #X to that museum, that this attraction is busy after noon, where to wander for a local coffee shop and maybe even what areas to avoid.
Buy a book and flag pages before you even leave- on the airplane at the very least. Search Google, search Pinterest, ask around, talk about your upcoming trip- you may end up with some really unique suggestions! We usually get great advice from our waiters and bar tenders, which we make a point of asking in our first days of traveling.
The odds are that, where ever you wander, you will not be the only tourist; you’ll be one of tens of thousands. Especially in Europe. And, hey, when you are visiting the Coliseum, you are going to lumped into that tourist category. On occasions such as these, embrace it, strap on your big-ass camera and let your tourist freak-flag fly! However, I always suggest that you spend half your day being a tourist and the other half wandering neighborhoods and exploring the city away from the tourist magnets. Not only because touring is exhausting, but also so you leave with an experience that goes deeper than the photograph-and-go attractions.
OK, world travelers. Give me your best suggestions for traveling in the comments below! Every experience creates good advice. Give it to me!