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 cannot 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 #6 below.
3. Tone down the camera and other tourist accoutrements. Taking photos of your travels is a natural and very enjoyable thing, 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 glossy 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 an outsider, 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. (See Money Safety for more tips.)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.