How NOT to Look Like a Tourist

I love my family, but they're not exactly the most inconspicuous group of people to travel with. I can remember clearly on a trip to Europe back in 2010 when my brother showed up to the airport in Winnipeg with his neck wallet protruding clearly from underneath his t-shirt, wearing white socks and sneakers with a pair of hemmed jean shorts. Seriously, it's bad.

Hopefully it goes without saying that I think tourism is a wonderful thing (that's kind of what this whole blog is about :) ), but wandering foreign streets with a flashing sign reading ATTENTION: TOURIST over your head is not. Around the world, North American tourists (especially those from the States) are often unfairly stereotyped as clueless at best, and ignorant and rude at worst. Sticking out like a sore thumb also makes you a target for pick-pocketing, elevated pricing and street scams. 

To that end, I have a few tips for blending in with the crowd a bit more. Will everyone you talk to assume you're a local? Probably not. But following these tips will help you to avoid some of the negative attention tourists can receive abroad.

Waiting for the El in Chicago in 2012
Dress the Part
When travelling to a warm destination, the temptation to wear a tank top and shorts everywhere you go can be high, but keep in mind that there are other ways to keep cool. Stick to natural fibres that breathe, like linen, cotton and silk. A lightweight silk button-down can be cooler and more comfortable than a spandex-cotton blend tank top. Also, skirts and sundresses are just as easy to throw on as a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and they tend to look more polished. Absolutely go for the cut-off and t-shirt look, but try to choose more fashionable drapes and cuts. When in doubt, stick to neutral basics (a white cotton button down, vintage denim cut-offs, a three-quarter length Breton top, a drapey grey tee) that can easily be mixed and matched for a casual, yet pulled-together look.

Orient Yourself the Right Way

Whenever I travel, I get an idea of the lay of the land before I even board the plane. Spend enough time looking at maps (in hard copy or online) before you leave so that you have a rough idea of where certain neighbourhoods are located and how they're connected. If you're stuck somewhere without a map, you'll at least know which direction to head in. 

Before leaving your hotel each morning, check your map and plan your route for the day. Get an idea of some of the major streets so you don't have to walk with your map in front of you (picture Joey during his trip to London on Friends). Instead, you can devote your attention to your exotic surroundings. Most hotels offer free maps of the area and concierge services to help you find your way. Don't be afraid to ask hotel staff for recommendations and directions. It's part of their job.

There are plenty of map apps you can get for free that don't require any data (helping you to avoid those nasty roaming charges). So when you're on the street and need to step out of the way to check your map, you'll just look like a person using your phone rather than a clueless tourist huddled over a map. An app like CityMaps2Go is a good place to start, and most major cities have their own free map apps.

In Prague (with short hair) in 2010

Be Respectful of Language Barriers

Nothing screams Ignorant Tourist like a person shouting slowly in English to a confused (and likely amused) local. Even in popular tourist destinations, you will find many people whose grasp of the English language is loose at best. In these situations, remember that you're a guest in their city, not the other way around. It may be helpful to learn a few key phrases in the language of the city or country you're travelling to. "Hello", "Please", "Thank you", "Where is _________?", "Do you speak English?", "Excuse me", "How much?", and "Where are the washrooms?" are generally enough to help you get by. 

If you need to communicate with someone who doesn't speak much English, avoid increasing the volume of your voice at all costs. Speak a bit more slowly and quietly than you normally would, use simple words, gesture, and if you have a map with you, point. Be careful to use your whole hand when gesturing to a person, as it can otherwise be considered rude in some countries. At the end of the interaction, whether the person was able to help you or not, smile genuinely and thank them.

Wandering the strip in Las Vegas earlier this year
Tourism is a wonderful thing. It can help improve our appreciation of the diversity in the world while affirming the connection we all share as human beings. And of course it's fine to be a tourist, but aspire to be the kind that locals are glad to interact with. This will not only earn you better treatment, but help you avoid falling prey to the kind of scams and schemes that are so common in popular tourist destinations.

I hope this helps, and happy travels :)