The importance of blending in abroad is quite obvious. Although many of us enjoying standing out from the crowd in our home countries, sticking out like a sore thumb when traveling can land any traveler in hot water. Not only do you become a target for thieves, but your attitude and/or dress might also offend locals. But have no fear, just follow these easy tips and you’ll have no trouble blending in when traveling abroad.

Pack Appropriately – Every item packed into your suitcase needs to serve a specific purpose and “being stylish” should only be secondary to the item’s primary function. One night in Santiago I opted to use my cute red clutch instead of the cross shoulder bag with the zipper closing. The clutch’s primary function was fashion and as a result it was quite easy for the robber to slip it off my wrist. Leave the clutch, flimsy shoulder bags, expensive clothing/bags and gold jewelry at home as these items serve no purpose and greatly increase the probability of being robbed. I highly stress that travelers should re-think any jewelry that they pack. A Chilean once warned me that dangly earrings can at times be ripped off (ouch!!!) if the thief thinks that they are remotely expensive.

Thumbs Up

The point is to pack items and clothes that won’t scream tourist (especially if they scream wealthy tourist). Modesty is also a factor to consider when traveling to more religious or conservative countries. For my travels in Morocco, for example, I bought a couple of elbow length shirts and wore pants or skirts that went past my knee. In short, you want to blend in and also be respectful of the local culture.

If you plan on traveling with expensive gear then consider roughening them up, making them look old and used. To do so, accessorize your expensive items with duct tape or carry them in a normal, dirty backpack. Last but not least, make sure all logos (especially on DSLR cameras) are hidden – some thieves have learned the value of certain items, like cameras, and are therefore more likely to rob you if they recognize the logo.

Do not carry your valuables when sightseeing – Leave your passport, laptop and VISA card safely locked in a locker at the hostel and only bring the basics when you are out and about in the city. For example, if you are heading off to a nightclub leave your passport and credit card locked up at the hostel. Bring only enough cash for the night, an ID card (I use my Canadian driver’s license) and a small camera.

Adopt a minimalist mentality; the less you carry in your pocket, purse or backpack, the less amount of valuables you have to worry about, allowing you to relax and have fun.

Morocco

Avoid being overprotective - I learned this lesson from a friend who decided to take her Iphone to a club in Buenos Aires, and subsequently had it stolen. My friend placed her phone in her purse and for the duration of the night kept her purse firmly pressed against her body and protected by one of her hands. She had quite the death-grip on that purse, signaling to any thief in the club that there was something valuable inside. While dancing with a guy she let go of her purse for only 5 minutes and her phone quickly disappeared. The moral of the story is to avoid drawing attention to the places where you have stashed your important items. Placing your passport or expensive camera in your hidden jacket pocket is pointless if your nervously claw at the pocket every second. Remember someone is always watching, so go with the flow and try not to tip off any thieves on the location of your valuables.

Read up on local customs - gestures and greetings can be easily misinterpreted overseas especially if you assume that all signs are universal; they are definitely not! As a result, it may be wise to acquaint yourself with the local ways to avoid trouble. For example, in the 1950s Richard Nixon visited Brazil and as he stepped off his airplane he flashed the A-OK sign to show the people his good intentions. Unbeknownst to him, that seemingly harmless gesture in the United States is also the equivalent of the middle finger in Brazil. In Italy, the sign of the horns (or as I like to call it the “Rock-On” hand gesture) is one of the worst possible insults you can give to a man. Known as il comuto the gesture indicates that someone’s wife or girlfriend is being unfaithful and can initiate a physical altercation.

hand gestures

Other pertinent research topics could include body language etiquette, tipping customs for taxis and/or restaurants and proper manners when entering a house, visiting an ancient site and/or a place of worship. To top it all, always do your homework on important local laws so as to avoid some serious trouble. For example, eating in public during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia could actually land you in jail.

Stay Open Minded - tolerance is the key to blending in. When I lived in Chile and visited other Latin American countries, I experienced another type of lifestyle unlike the one that I was accustomed to back in Canada. Everything was slower and customer service was exceptionally frustrating. Restaurants would run out of menu items, servers would be chatting on their cell-phones instead of attending to their customers and during certain days (like Sunday) much of the town or city that I was visiting would shut-down completely.

Lobster

But every time I started to become frustrated, I gave myself a reality check; I reminded myself that customer service may be exceptional in Canada (or the United States) but I wasn’t in Canada. If something frustrates you, which something will, take a deep breath instead of reacting negatively. Your complaints will not only irritate the people around you, but will easily label you as the obnoxious outsider.

Speak Half As Loud As Normal – many Westerners culturally speak at a higher volume than people in other nations. Remember my red clutch that was stolen? I’m pretty sure my friend and I tipped off the thief with our conversation which was extremely loud and in English. Speaking loudly, especially in a language other than the official language of the country that you are visiting, will attract unnecessary attention. Instead try to either avoid unnecessary conversations in public places that might be somewhat unsafe or keep your conversation at barely above a whisper. Nothing screams tourist more than someone speaking loudly (and sometimes obnoxiously) in English.

keep swimming

Just keep on swimming – Lost? Keep walking tall and with a purpose; pretend like you have someplace to be. The worst thing a person can do when they’re lost is to abruptly stop in the middle of the street (often with a perplexed and often panicked expression) and pull out a map.  If you are ever feeling overwhelmed or lost, just keep walking intently and pop into a nearby cafe, convenience store and/or restaurant to  check your map or ask for directions. The point is to always try to act like a composed and confident individual.

“DO” a City Like the Locals Do: travelers can discretely observe their surroundings to get a feel for the atmosphere and then try to mimic the locals so as to blend in. However, instead of only mimicking their actions, try to engage with the locals; talk with them and ask their advice on what to see or do in that particular city. Not only will you blend in but you will also experience the local life and avoid the tourist traps of many big cities.

Do YOU have any tips to blend in abroad?

A self-proclaimed travel fanatic, Yvonne Ivanescu has embarked on a number of unforgettable adventures across the globe. In 2012 Yvonne launched Under the Yew Tree, a website about travel, green living, food and fashion in South America. She will also be launching her own travel safety book in 2014. For more South American travel tips and safety tips, visit Under the Yew Tree or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

This is an ongoing series that will be running until the end of 2013 called, Learning to Travel Safely in the New Year. Yvonne will be our travel safety guru and you can ask her anything your hearts desire. We’re very excited to have Yvonne join the team for a bit. Her Lessons Learned from being Mugged Abroad created quite the discussion here at ThePlanetD and we look forward to more discussions in the coming months. Read more safety tips by Yvonne at Travel Safer with Personal Safety Items, Lessons Learned from being Mugged Abroad, Common Travel Theft Scams and How to Avoid Them

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34 Comments

  1. LifePart2

    Great advice. I would add ask locals for their advice of where to eat, shop and visit. Local perspectives are almost always better then guide books.

  2. Jessica

    Awesome tips! The speaking voice thing is something that not a lot of people pick up on. In Canada, I don’t think most people would consider me a loud person. It was amazing to be chatting on a train or something on Asia, and then to suddenly realize that my voice was booming over everyone else’s.

    1. Yvonne

      The same thing happened to me when I was living in France. I also was the type of person who didn’t think they spoke loudly up until I started to live in Paris and I was told numerous times (by French people) that I was speaking too loudly and I was “screaming”!!!

  3. Renuka

    Yeah, it’s important to not look like tourists and attract attention. Helpful tips! I think the key is to just be relaxed and slow down.

  4. Megan

    Great tips! “Pack Appropriately” is my ABSOLUTE must do. I even feel uncomfortable being with someone who doesn’t.
    But sometimes they can still tell you not from there. Even after a year of living in Germany (and buying clothes and whatnot over that year), the Germans still knew I was foreign by just looking at me… which I always thought was weird. *sigh*

  5. Sarah

    Really great tips! I also found it helpful to buy a few clothing items, especially shoes, from the destination. When I lived in Italy if I was dressed nicely and wearing my Italian flats people would speak to me in Italian (a pretty good sign they think you’re a local). But if I was wearing my sneakers from back home or with people who were dressed more casually I was always spoken to in English.

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  7. Joshua

    Dressing well (practical without being too or not stylish enough) and walking tall was key to my visit to Morocco. And speaking French as frequently as possible too. As a result I rarely got hassled for being a tourist, and it reduced the effort I had to make when I did. Definitely some good advice here!

  8. Michael

    Great advice.

    The super obvious one is speaking loudly. It’s just a dead giveaway and I’m sure I can see locals rolling their eyes when they hear them.

    1. Yvonne

      Yup! When I was in Lapa I was on a bus and a big group of gringos (that were drunk!) came onto the bus and starting to sing extremely loudly in English. The whole bus was so annoyed!

    2. debndave Post author

      I always notice that other cultures speak much louder than us from the English Speaking world though. Italians have so much passion in their talking, the Spanish too. Asian cultures talk quite loud as well. I know for Dave and I, we are quite quiet when we have conversations and can’t get over how loud people are in the world :)

  9. Jon @ jonistravelling.com

    People shouldn’t need to be self conscious and mimic locals when they are travelling. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist as long as you aren’t too annoying, but then everyone gets annoyed by different things so why worry.

    1. Yvonne

      Hi Jon

      It isn’t about insecurity. I think that people should try and avoid being the tourist and instead try and be the traveler. Whenever I hear the world tourist – I imagine a person who walks around obliviously taking pictures without really understanding the people, culture or language.

      By mimicking or “doing” what the locals do, than you can essentially learn how they live and experience life the way that the locals do. Thus becoming a well-informed traveler.

      1. Jon @ jonistravelling

        I see your point, but i think people get hung up on the traveller/tourist debate too much. Everybody is guilty of breezing through a place and not getting to know or understand the culture or people occasionally. I agree that people should try and delve a bit deeper, but obviously a lot of people who travel have time constraints and it’s not always possible. I see a lot of negativity towards tourists, but really they are just doing the same thing as travellers (seeing the world) and I don’t think they should be derided for that.

      2. debndave Post author

        Well said Jon. I think being a tourist is a great thing. I don’t think that Yvonne is putting down the tourist out there, she is giving advice on how to stay safer. You don’t want to call attention to yourself anywhere so even if you don’t know a lot about the culture or are on a time constraint, it’s still good to blend in so that you have a better chance of not being robbed or pegged as an easy target.
        I do totally agree with you though, no one way of traveling is better than the other. Everyone should just enjoy their travels no matter what way they choose to see the world. Cheers.

  10. Kristin

    I completely agree about fitting in. Especially if you are staying in a major city like London or Paris. I think some people actually make the mistake of underpacking and not bringing stylish clothes. This is your vacation, don’t you want to wear your best stuff and not in a “travel friendly” palate of blacks in stretchy fabrics? Locals don’t dress like that and neither should you! While it’s certainly another story elsewhere, if we are talking about major cities you should have no problem bringing your nice jewelry– my motto is that if I wear it on the street in my hometown of New York, why wouldn’t I wear it in Paris?

    1. debndave Post author

      Great point. We used to travel that way. We looked like we just got off the trail when we were in a city. we’re more stylish now, and we fit in much better. It’s good to pack smart, but pack for the occasion as well.

  11. Devlin @ Marginal Boundaries

    Great tips, I’ll drop a few myself.

    More for safety than not looking like a tourist, but pay attention to the ground, a lot of places may not have the infrastructure you have been accustomed to back home and might not be maintaining the sidewalks/streets that often. Be wary of massive holes!

    I definitely like the minimalist approach to clothing and accessories, while you may not need to worry too much about it in the daytime. If it’s late at night and you need to use your swanky smartphone you may want to go into convenience store of some sort (e.g. OXXO in Mexico). Just so you’re not walking about on a dimly lit street w/ that bright beam of your screen calling out to every desperate citizen.

    To add to that, be mindful of your surroundings, in particular the people, are the majority of them poor? Could your macbook – if stolen and sold off – feed them & pay their rent for a few months or longer? If that’s the case you may want to keep high ticket electronics at home, not just to dissuade would be thieves but also out of respect for the people around you. You could come off as a pretty big douche unkownlngly flaunting your “wealth”. Same goes for high fashion & accessories.

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  14. Jeff

    Not stopping in the middle of the flow of pedestrian traffic when walking on the sidewalk I think is important! Also, not almost poking out other people’s eyes with your umbrella, lol.

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