The word “tourist” almost seems like a dirty word to some travelers.
“I’m a traveler, not a tourist” is a common meme that’s been around for a while.
But should you really spend time and energy trying to avoid looking like a tourist when traveling? Or is it really not that big of a deal?
In this article, I’ll give you some things to think about when it comes to being a tourist, including my top tips for blending in (when you need to).
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Should you avoid looking like a tourist when traveling?
Not looking (or more importantly not acting) like a typical tourist can help you avoid appearing as an easy target for criminals and can prevent you from annoying or offending locals.
However, looking like a tourist is not always something to be avoided as long as you use common sense and develop good situational awareness. I’ll go into more detail below!
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Why you don’t want to look like a tourist
There are a few key reasons why you don’t want to look like a tourist and I’ll dive into each of these below.
Perhaps the most important reason for avoiding the appearance of a tourist is to avoid getting assaulted or mugged.
If you look like the stereotypical tourist, local thieves may see you as someone who likely has money on them and is easy prey (i.e., oblivious to threats).
You can avoid scammers
Not everyone is out to get you in a violent way but in a lot of countries scammers will still hone in on tourists in order to scam them or take advantage of their ignorance/kindness.
For example, if you’re arriving at an airport or train terminal, scammers will look for people who look like out-of-towners and try to persuade them to book a ride with them while they charge them triple the standard price.
I’ve seen this in many places like Paris, Milan, etc., but there are lots of different taxi scams used around the globe.
In another situation, you might be approached by trained “beggars” who will not stop pestering you for money and won’t be afraid to make a scene.
In Cape Town, South Africa, we once were hounded by two teenagers who followed us for several blocks demanding that we give them money. No doubt, our tourist appearance made us targets.
You can induce the local rudeness
Some places may have reputations for being rude to tourists. For example, Paris doesn’t have a reputation for being the nicest place on the planet for tourists.
By flying under the tourist radar, you might get better treatment from locals.
Sometimes the rudeness is uncalled for but other times it happens for a reason.
Tourists (including US tourists) have a reputation of being obnoxious/disrespectful/entitled — you get the picture.
For example, tourists might be loud in inappropriate settings or disregard important local customs like showing too much skin.
For these situations, the real problem isn’t that you “look like a tourist” — it’s that you come off as disrespectful.
Tip: If you’re worried about locals being rude, learn some basics of their language and they will almost always be surprised and more willing to be friendly with you.
Why it doesn’t matter if you look like a tourist
At the end of the day a lot of times it really doesn’t matter if you look like a tourist.
Most people don’t care
Most people just don’t care about your visitor status.
As long as you are not impacting them in a negative way, they have no reason to give you a second look.
Easier to engage with locals
Some people will actually be happy that you decided to visit their home city.
Many locals will be interested in where you are from and might engage in some type of conversation with you.
I recall having one great conversation with a local man in Taiwan at Elephant Mountain — he was genuinely intrigued with what I was doing solo in Taiwan and super pleasant to talk with.
Being labeled as a tourist can also be a great way to get help or good recommendations on places to eat and visit. Strangers become concierges. You might even get a free beer out of it in places like Texas.
Common sense and awareness are what really matters
If you know how to deal with scammers, have common sense on how to identify sketchy areas/people, and basic awareness of local customs, then looking like a tourist is actually not a major concern.
Side note: Don’t skip out on tourist sites
Also, as an aside, I would recommend not skipping locations purely because they are “tourist spots.”
I’m like most people who try to steer clear of crowds but tourist spots are often tourist spots for a reason. They are usually very interesting sites with fascinating stories behind them.
Try not to get turned off by every tourist spot because you’ll end up missing out on some cool sites.
Ways to avoid looking like a tourist
Ditch the DSLR camera
This is really a tough one for people like me who like to capture the scenery in the optimal way.
But one of the biggest giveaways that you are not a local is when you carry around a large DSLR.
Not only that, but you also look like you have money to a lot of people because they know those cameras are not cheap.
Some places like those in South America have a reputation for targeting tourists with fancy cameras so bringing them out can be a pretty risky move.
Smart phones now take such good photos that you often can get away with just relying on them for your memories.
And while your iPad may take good photos, taking photographs with an iPad (or selfie stick) is a pretty typical tourist move.
Leave your vacation apparel at home (or the resort)
I get it, sometimes it’s just fun to dress up in vacation gear especially when heading to places like Hawaii or other tropical destinations.
Putting on that leisure attire (floral shirts, wide brim hats) is just yet another reminder that you are disconnected from your daily work load back at home.
But this type of clothing just screams: “I’m on vacation, have money to blow, and might be exercising poor judgment when I get tipsy later.”
It’s totally fine to rock these while hanging out at your all-inclusive resort but try to avoid this garb when venturing into town, especially on your own.
Make some style adjustments (within reason)
The other type of apparel to avoid is shirts or jackets with your country, state, or city’s name on it.
I love to rep Texas but I am well aware that when I do, I’m calling attention to myself pretty much whenever I am outside of the Lone Star State.
Sometimes that attention is welcomed but other times it would not be the best idea.
Also, consider that there are some types of clothing that are common in the US but stand out in other countries. For example, shorts and flip-flops can be tourist giveaways in a lot of places.
Another dead giveaway is whenever you don’t dress appropriately for the climate.
When I used to live in the Bay Area a lot of times it would be easy to spot out-of-towner’s because they were way under dressed for the cold weather.
You can try to fit in with the local attire by doing some research on the local style but that can be extremely hard to do and a waste of time and money.
Plus, no matter how much you go all out with the wardrobe sometimes you’re still just going to stand out….
Keep the backpacks small
Depending on where you are traveling, backpacks might be something a lot of locals wear, so they don’t always “out” you.
For example, we were recently exploring Washington DC and a lot of people wore backpacks on their commute. And when I used to commute into London a number of us locals wore backpacks on the train/London Tube.
But if you don’t look like you are heading to school or to work, chances are a backpack will mark you as a tourist, especially if it is on the larger side.
Move at the right pace and with purpose
Tourists often have a distinct way of moving that you can spot from a mile away, especially in cities like New York City, London, etc.
It’s usually because they are walking slower, looking up at the various sites, stopping for street performers, or pointing around at different things.
One of the easiest ways to not look like a tourist is to simply walk with a purpose and match the pace of other pedestrians.
Know where you are going and walk as if you have navigated this route 1,000X.
When we are exploring a place by foot I like to navigate by staying on one main road rather than zigzagging through other (potentially sketchy) roads even though that route might be faster according to Google Maps.
This makes it a lot easier to make your way through a city with a bit more purpose in your steps since you’re not checking your phone for directions every two seconds.
Obviously, if you are new to an area it’s good to take your time and admire the sites — that’s why you travel in the first place.
But when you are doing things like crossing a busy intersection or making your way through public transportation those are the times when you really want to try to look like you know what you’re doing.
Pick-up on local customs (quickly)
As an outsider you can’t be expected to know all the customs but certain things should be picked up on pretty quickly.
- If everyone is standing on the right side of the escalator and passing on the left, don’t cluelessly stand on the left side.
- If nobody walks in the bike lane, stay out of it when walking.
- If people start crossing the crosswalk when no cars are coming, cross or get out the way.
- If people let others out of the train first don’t go barging in when the doors open.
Picking up on these little things will go a long way. They’ll help you avoid frustrating locals by not getting in their way and will help you will look like less of a target for thieves.
Strategically access your map
If you need to pull out a map or look at your phone to see where you’re going, try to do it somewhere that is not in the middle of a busy public setting.
This will prevent you from disrupting the flow of traffic and reduce the odds of you getting approached by someone looking to take advantage of you.
I prefer to take a seat on a bench to figure out my next move or simply lean up against a wall somewhere that is not in the middle of a busy walkway.
If you’re riding public transportation, download the subway maps to your phone or take pictures of them so that you’re not constantly looking at the signs posted in the train or rail stations.
The idea is to just fade into the background so that to the average passerby you just look like someone texting or browsing social media instead of consulting a map.
Don’t always use an umbrella
Umbrellas can be a unique tourist identifier.
In some rainy/drizzly destinations like London a lot of people go without umbrellas and may just use waterproof coats.
That’s often because the rain does not last very long and because some of the walkways are very congested.
By popping up that umbrella in places like that you can instantly stand out as a tourist, especially if the logo of your hotel is on the umbrella.
Tourists often get sunburned really fast while on vacation.
If you want to avoid getting spotted as a tourist apply some quality SPF to your face every day while out in the sun.
When you can’t avoid looking like a tourist
Sometimes you simply can’t avoid looking like a tourist or hide your tourist status very long.
For example, if you are a 6-foot plus white American traveling to Japan you will certainly stand out. There’s just no getting around it.
When you can’t help but to stand out like a tourist you can still take some measures to protect yourself.
Up your situational awareness
When you know you’re going to be sticking out as a tourist you need to up your situational awareness.
How do you do this?
Avoid walking through places that look even remotely suspect, get off the train if people look like they are up to no good, don’t drink too much, etc.
Don’t fight your instinct if it is telling you that you need to get out of a certain place or avoid certain people.
There is a major difference between being a “scared traveler” and a “naïve traveler.”
You don’t want to be the latter.
Sunglasses + cell phone = not getting bothered
If you’re walking through a narrow street where there are a lot of people pestering tourists or you have to cross through a market area where you know aggressive locals will try to hound you to buy something there is one trick that works amazingly well.
Put on your sunglasses and act like you’re talking on your cell phone.
These two things together act like a repellent to those locals who want to bother you.
The sunglasses help you to avoid eye contact and the cell phone acts as another barrier to get your attention that they won’t want to bother with.
You basically become one of the most difficult tourists to flag down and most swindlers will simply let you pass by.
One of the most common mistakes people make is to not dress down properly.
Ditch the Louis Vuitton and other designer apparel that is flashy and calls attention to yourself.
For men, jeans and a plain (non-bright) t-shirt is often a good combo. In some countries, collard shirts or a button down shirts might be more fitting.
Don’t wear your wedding ring, fancy watch, or any other type of expensive accessory because all you are doing is calling attention to yourself.
You can leave those items in your hotel safe or simply hide them in your luggage somewhere in your hotel room.
Use a fake wallet
When you’re going to be out and about in an area where you suspect there may be criminal activity, consider carrying two wallets with you.
One wallet is your fake wallet which goes in your pocket and has a small amount of cash, an old ID, and perhaps a couple of old credit cards.
The idea is that if you are mugged you could hand this over with little to no financial consequence.
Meanwhile, you may have a smaller wallet hidden under your clothing or somewhere else on your body.
Do something a local would do
If you were a thief and you suspected two people of being from out of town but one pulled out a local newspaper on the train and started reading it who would you rather target?
When trying to blend in, you can do things like reading the local newspaper or other little acts that will send a signal to potential perpetrators that you’re not an outsider.
If you’re worried about someone talking to you in their foreign language put headphones in and most people won’t bother you.
Trying to avoid looking like a tourist for the sake of not looking like a tourist is not really that useful.
The main reasons why you would want to not look or act like a tourist is to avoid becoming an easy target for thieves and scammers and to ensure that you’re not offending or disrespecting locals.
There are a number of things you can do to make yourself fly under the radar but in some cases you will always stand out. In those situations, you just need to use heightened awareness and common sense and you will probably be okay.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.