While I am a proponent of bringing as much to the travel game as you hope to take away -- because local folks can well be just as interested in visitors as visitors are in the locals -- the benefits of simply blending into the culture that you're visiting can't be underestimated. Doing so gives you an intimate look at the local culture that might not be granted to outsiders -- and it may even help keep you safe in places where outing yourself as a wealthy tourist makes you a target for pickpocketing and other crimes.
But you don't have to abandon your sense of self to fit in. I have found that many of the most successful ways to do so can be very superficial and benign, such as wearing different clothes, leaving certain items in the safe in your hotel or changing where you buy your food. Here are 20 tips to help you to blend in with the locals the next time you travel.
1. Wear muted clothes. When it comes to blending in, the clothes you wear are your first line of defense. Simple, muted clothing is almost always the way to go when traveling. It might turn out that a Flyers T-shirt or Mariners cap is really popular at the moment in the country you are visiting, but you are taking a risk if your goal is to blend in.
2. Pack clothes you can wear anywhere. One of the challenges of blending in is being able to do so when visiting the local barber as well as dining at the best local restaurant. If you pack clothes that are versatile, and neither flash nor trash, you have a better chance of being able to blend in in many different situations. Unfortunately, clothes specifically designed for travel -- cargo shorts, or pant legs that zip off to become shorts, for example -- don't always fit in. For ideas on how the locals dress where you are headed, see tip No. 6 below.
3. Tone down the camera and other tourist accouterments. Taking photos of your travels is a natural and very enjoyable pastime, but if you want to blend in, you may want to tone it down a bit. Having a big honking camera hanging from your neck everywhere you go acts like an outsider's scarlet letter -- not to mention an attraction for thieves. Bring the camera, but keep it under wraps a bit, and don't point it where it is not welcome. The same goes for things like fanny packs, guidebooks and the like; you can bring them, but try to keep a low profile.
4. Ditch the white shoes. It seems that in particular white shoes or running shoes paired with white socks are an outsider's freak flag. In many European countries, for instance, this type of shoe is only worn when working out -- not in any other sort of public situation. I'm not sure about the fashion component here, but it makes sense that bright white shoes attract attention, the antithesis of "blending in."
5. Buy clothes at your destination. If you have the budget for it, consider picking up some clothes upon arrival at your destination. (Just make sure you're buying where the locals do, not at a souvenir shack designed for tourists.) One possible financial consideration: If it means you have fewer bags to check at the airport, you might recover some of your expenses even before you leave home.
6. Do an image search on the Web. Here's a tip I learned from a friend who recently took a "gap year" after college to go around the world: pictures of a place found in the news and other online resources really can tell you what a place will look like when you get there, and how people dress -- unlike idealized tourist brochures or guidebooks.
7. Have your money under control. If you understand the value of the local currency and various denominations, carry it in a straightforward way (wallet, purse), and can make transactions competently, you will blend in much better. Fumbling with money not only outs you as a foreigner, but also can make you a mark for thieves. Keep in mind, however, that you should carry only what you need for a single day in a wallet or purse. If you're carrying a big wad of cash, a passport, etc., it should still go in a money belt under your clothes or stay in the hotel safe for more security.
8. Be courteous without being fawning. I grew up in a tourist town, and know the love/hate relationship the locals have with their money-spending interlopers. Locals do often need the revenue that tourists bring, but in the worst cases it can be like having an awful boss -- almost not worth the dough. Finances aside, locals want neither to be treated like they live to please you, nor to be treated like you are doing them a favor by saying hello. Take your cues from them, and you will start to blend in. When in doubt, err on the side of being overly courteous -- trying to be a little bit likeable never hurts -- so long as you remember that you're not doing anyone but yourself any favors.
9. Plan out your day and route. If you have a sense of what you are going to do and how to get there, you will be able to navigate through your day with confidence. Plan out your driving route or check public transportation maps back in your room -- not on a street corner or in the middle of an intersection.
10. Buy stuff at local stores. There may be no better place to learn a lot and fit in better than a local grocery store. Get a haircut at the local barber shop (this is my personal travel custom), or buy your lunch from a food cart.
11. Move counter to the crowds. Folks who really want to blend in with the locals also tend to want actually to go out and be with the locals -- and following the well-worn tourist tracks won't get you there. If you visit the Liberty Bell, you should expect to be surrounded by other tourists visiting the Liberty Bell. This advice is applicable to almost everything you do -- so try staying somewhere other than the popular tourist hotels, going somewhere other than the most popular tourist beaches, and seeing some of the more unusual or out-of-the-way sights (which can still be found in tourist guidebooks and websites).
12. Learn -- and use -- some of the language. Arguably mangling the local language just makes it clear you aren't from around here, but you would be surprised how much slack you get for trying. If you don't know how to say something, ask -- many locals are happy to help you learn. And the more you practice, the better you get at the language, which can open doors that lead you deeper into the local culture.
13. Say hello. At the very least, say hello to folks you encounter. You would do this at the local Wawa, so you should do the same at the panaderia.
14. Modulate your voice. Don't be the guy in the corner booth whose loud laughter disrupts everyone else's dinner. It's not like people in other places are quiet -- every neighborhood has a local or two who is really noisy -- but that person shouldn't be your role model if you're trying to blend in. (Some travelers recommend you speak at about half your usual volume.) Keep in mind that there are exceptions to this rule, though; in some cultures and settings (like a noisy public market), you'll need to speak up in order to be noticed and fit in with the locals. Also on this topic: If you don't speak the language, talking even louder in English is not going to make you understood.
15. Be a prepared and attentive driver. Nothing screams "outsider" like someone stopping and starting, going under the speed limit, gawking out the windows, and generally clogging up the streets and roads. Try to check your maps and route ahead of time, put someone in the copilot's seat who has a handle on it, and most of all watch the road ahead of you.
16. Pay attention. If you want to blend in with the locals, pay attention to how the locals act, what they do, where they congregate, how they dress -- and follow suit. If you want to walk the walk, it's going to have to be their walk. And don't assume that your custom is their custom. If you are paying attention, you might find that things like prolonged direct eye contact or a giant smile don't go over too well in a particular location, even if at home these are always the way to go. Change up your style to match their style as you go along, accepting that you won't get it right immediately.
17. Carry yourself with confidence. Locals tend not to walk wide-eyed around their own neighborhoods. Look like you know what you are doing and where you are going, and other people will think you do -- even if you don't have a clue.
18. Consider alternative lodging. A homestay or an apartment rental in a residential neighborhood will give you more of an opportunity to interact with locals than staying in a hotel in a touristy part of town.
19. Look for local events. Check out fliers and local entertainment listings to find concerts, festivals, lectures and other events that will attract locals rather than tourists (universities, libraries and churches are good places to look for this sort of thing). Senior Editor Sarah Schlichter recalls, "I once pushed aside my afternoon sightseeing plans when I stumbled upon a free organ concert in a Rotterdam church, and it ended up being the best memory I had from my time there."
20. Be yourself. There is only so much you can do to make yourself disappear into the local culture. When I was in Beijing, I could have worn a dragon costume in a street parade and I still would not have been able to blend in. But I met a lot of great people merely by saying hello and being myself from there on out; if I had tried to be too cool, it would have been a far lesser experience.
If you employ enough of the tactics listed above, don't be surprised on your next trip if someone asks you for directions in a language you barely understand.