First, let me offer a caveat (intelligence-report writers love caveats): The title of this article is a bit misleading. It is not always possible to completely “blend in” when you are an American traveling overseas (or, conversely, a foreigner traveling to America). That is the first thing to realize when and if you do choose to travel overseas, and if you are concerned with appearing like a clueless tourist, ready to be mugged. Fear not. There is nothing wrong with standing out a little, and embracing your tourist-hood.
The secret to traveling overseas and maintaining a low-ish profile is to be smart about it, so that you are a sophisticated tourist, aware of his or her surroundings, and not aimlessly stumbling about a foreign country snapping selfies and waiting to become a victim.
With that goal in mind—being a smart traveller—this author humbly offers the following advice and tips, based upon my multiple years spent living and traveling overseas. These things will make you just a little bit more prepared—a little bit more sophisticated—in your travels.
Plan an itinerary and study area maps
Nothing will give you more confidence in traveling to a new place like doing some map study and trip planning. You should know the area to which you are planning to travel, such that if plopped down in the middle of a chosen city, you will at least be oriented and familiar with your surroundings. If you also have an itinerary planned out—even a rough one—you will be less likely to find yourself disoriented and at a loss as to what to do next in this new foreign place.
Learn a little bit of the language
First off, find out what language they speak in the country to which you are headed. If you are going to Belize, you are in luck, because English is the lingua franca. If you are traveling to Italy, learn a little Italian. At least be able to say “please,” “thank you,” “how much does it cost,” and “where is the bathroom?” Those are the important ones. It is also good to know if the average person on the street speaks English (many in Germany and Sweden do, for example), or if most won’t know your language at all (the case for most foreigners traveling here to America). Making an effort to speak a little of the local language can go a long way to endearing yourself to the natives.
One of the most common mistakes Americans make when traveling overseas is to dress like they are going on a safari. If you are traveling to Paris, you do not need hiking shoes, a Camelback, and a floppy hat. Yes, you might be walking all over the city, so wear some comfortable shoes, but you do not need to have enough hydration for a day trekking through the Sahara. Dress like you would if you were headed downtown to see a movie. Dress normally, for God’s sake.
Going one step further, if you do not want to stand out as an American (for security reasons)—a wise decision in lots of countries—then leave your American flag shirts, sports jerseys, and other identifying T-shirts at home. In many countries, people dress more formally than we do here in America. Shorts and a muscle shirt are not always the best idea if you are looking to blend in.
Avoid looking like a photojournalist
Of course you will want to take pictures while you are on vacation. That is completely understandable. However, it is probably best to avoid snapping photos the entire time you are walking around a foreign city. Be judicious. The more time you spend peering through a camera lens (or phone camera), the less time you are paying attention to your surroundings. Paying attention can prevent you from being mugged or becoming a victim of some other type of crime. Do not let picture-taking come before situational awareness.
Eat like a local
Every country has its own unique cuisine. Take advantage of it and try new things. Most importantly, avoid the restaurants immediately adjacent to the main tourist attractions. They are the ones that usually have English-language menus with pictures of the food. Those are pretty much always overpriced, and you will rarely see locals eating there. Ask the locals what places they like to eat. There is nothing wrong with hitting the Hard Rock Cafe in Rome or Moscow, but also visit the small family place off the beaten path. You will not regret it.
Avoid loudly proclaiming your citizenship
It is usually best not to go around ostentatiously proclaiming your American citizenship, telling everyone who will listen how much better things are in America. People usually do not want to hear the latter, and the former is a good way to mark yourself for a crime. No, you should not deny being an American if you are asked (unless you get a bad vibe from the asker), and sometimes you will even be treated better if someone knows you are American. Just do not beat people over the head with it. Be humble and, if necessary, pretend you are a Canadian if you think it the safest bet.
Make some local friends
Nothing will help you blend in better than meeting some locals and taking them up on some guided fun, if offered, and if you think you can trust them. This can also add some magic to your visit, in that you will hopefully get to experience things that you would not have otherwise been able to had you not had the insights of a native. It is their country, after all, and getting to know the locals is a big part of the fun of traveling.
Finally, plan unique experiences
Of course you should go to the Louvre, or the Coliseum, or the Vatican, or Red Square, or Machu Pichu. Those are can’t-miss experiences, and are deserving of your time. Plan also to attend, though, a local festival, or a parade. See a play in the local theater, or attend a concert with a local band. These are the things that the locals do, after all, and are a great way to fit in with the culture and truly experience it.
World travel is one of life’s great pleasures, and like everything else in life, there are smart ways to go about it, and not-so-smart ways. If you follow this advice and always maintain your situational awareness, you will have a safer, more rewarding experience in your travels.
Now, get out there and have fun.