How to Travel Safely and Not Look Like a Tourist

January 19, 2016

The ability to camouflage in order to blend in and ward off predators is a survival skill used by every species—from butterflies to humans. National Geographic says, “Organisms use camouflage to mask their location, identity, and movement. This allows prey to avoid predators, and for predators to sneak up on prey.”

Travel calls upon the need to camouflage to diminish your chances of experiencing crime. Assuming you’re a traveler from Canada or the United States, visits to foreign lands will naturally draw attention to you. Although blending with your surroundings goes well beyond superficial exteriors, it helps to know the “look” of a particular region. In this article, we’ll assume you’re visiting Western Europe. (Do your research and adjust for your specific location). From clothing to body language to how you speak and what travel gear you pack, you can avoid calling attention to yourself as a foreigner and change the color of your feathers, fur, and scales to camouflage your tourist identity. First, we’ll offer some general guidelines to help you stay safe. Then, we’ll list a few fashion tips for the traveler who wants to be discreet.

girl walking down street

Wherever you may travel, always keep in mind local traditions and attitudes, not to mention religious beliefs and adjust your appearance accordingly. The general rule for anywhere you travel: aim for moderation. Don’t try too hard to look like a local and not a tourist; if you do, you’ll probably be even more obvious. Blending in will reduce offending the wrong person and is one more step you can take to protect yourself against being robbed, assaulted, or worse.

While being a tourist can be an advantage and make you fascinating to some who want to talk to you and learn about you, you should research the area you’re visiting to learn the ins and outs, like about greetings, gestures, and taboos from locations all over the world.

Be subtle when taking photos. Craning your neck at every new-to-you sight has long been a tourist cliché and a dead giveaway, but there’s no harm in mentioning it again: some travelers get distracted easily and need to be reminded of common sense. Discriminate in taking photos; using your camera is one thing, but when it’s constantly dangling from your neck, you’ll draw attention to yourself.

woman with camera

If you lose your sense of direction, be discreet about finding your way. Stopping and standing in the middle of a busy urban area with your mouth hanging open as you stare into your smartphone or study your map will call attention to you and make you a mark.

Slink into a café or a shop, where you can get your bearings or ask a shopkeeper for directions (while there, don’t assume those you encounter speak your language—ask first if the person speaks your language before rattling off questions). This respectful gesture will increase your chances of earning more respectful treatment. In Europe, while Canadians are often perceived as polite and self-effacing, Americans tend to be perceived as aggressive and rude. It’s interesting and entertaining to break a few stereotypes, so you might break a few while abroad.

Be aware of your body language.  Although you might think you’re effectively aping the European costume, you might do everything in the book and still not pull it off. How you’re perceived transcends what you wear. Mind how you carry yourself.

Many Americans tend to use a distinctive walk—with shoulders back and chin forward, the “positive, confident, straight ahead” walk, which is one of many Americanisms sometimes perceived as “aggressive” in Europe. And, while having a confident gait and walking like you know where you’re going is a good policy, you might be surprised at what you read in this article from Psychology Today, which offers tips from the perspective of street criminals and how they choose their victims (based on body language and other signals people exude).

Use travel gear to guard your belongings. Not just to keep prying hands out of your luggage at the airport, use TSA luggage locks to protect your baggage at your destination.  While walking in crowds or unfamiliar/more remote areas, protect your identity and prevent illegal scanning of your RFID credit cards and passports with the RFID Blocking Neck Stash/Passport Holder.

Tarriss RFID Neck Stash

Things that tend to identify people from the US/Canada in Western Europe

1. It Starts with Shoes. Europeans often spot tourists by their shoes. Search Google for “how to not look like an American tourist in Europe” and the wearing of white tennis shoes comes up repeatedly as a huge transgression, and combining white tennis shoes with baggy jeans will sound a bullhorn of your tourist status. Reminiscent of the Jerry Seinfeld look, gigantic white tennis shoes, especially worn in the 1990s Seinfeld way–with practically everything—will be a dead giveaway and make you stand out (although wearing white socks with sandals would be worse). Europeans tend to view sneakers as being fitting for sporting activities only. Low-profile sneakers in neutral colors are good if you’re set on wearing sneakers.

street

Avoid flip-flops, which Europeans mostly reserve for wearing in the shower. Aside from being ugly (unless worn in the house or near a swimming pool; sorry, this comes from a traditionalist), flip-flops can expose you to germs, offer zero arch support, and throw you off balance. And, since you’ll be doing your share of walking, you’ll be sorry if you wear flip-flops, especially in a crowd where your feet could get stomped on hard.

Not to mention, flip-flops may even bar you from some businesses. You can probably leave any open-toed shoes at home, too; avoid exposing your feet unless you’re visiting a beach.

You can have comfort and style by wearing dark, discreet, supportive leather walking shoes in the city, and keep them polished and well maintained. Really, any solid color non-athletic shoe will do. Clarks or Børn or a similar look might be interesting to you.

2. When in doubt, go conservative in your dress. An understated look will help you blend in Europe. Dress somewhat more elegantly than you would at home, even when being casual. You might choose neutral, well-fitting jeans (no rips!) and a more classic, tailored look. Dress casually but not carelessly. If you want to be a slave to the principles of organics, the more natural fibers in your clothing,  the better.

3. Clothing that fits your body well, no matter your size, tends to be more attractive–no matter where you are.  Stay away from baggy clothing, especially voluminous ‘90s style jeans.

4. Avoid busy patterns. Plaid, checks, and stripes broadcast your tourist status.

5. Don’t wear your national flag or anything profane. It’s a sign of respect to refrain from wearing those pants bearing Old Glory or that T-shirt displaying the Maple Leaf. Why draw attention to yourself?

6. Too-bright colors are sometimes perceived negatively as another attention-seeking Americanism (along with back-slapping enthusiasm and boisterousness). Lean toward the absence of color—black or white. Otherwise, navy, brown, and tan are good neutral choices (if not bland).

7. Jazz up that neutral clothing with a scarf. The wearing of scarves in Europe has been practically legislated, anyway, from September through April.

8. Buy an outfit or two abroad.  It’s interesting to note that Americans pants seem to often be shorter, whereas European pants come near the sole of your shoes.

9. Wear sports apparel for sports activities. Although there are always exceptions, Europeans tend not to wear sports clothes unless they’re actively engaged in sporting activity.  Americans and Canadians tend to wear sports clothes as casual street fashions both on and off the field. You may draw attention to yourself as being “other” if you wear that baseball jersey outside the diamond.

10. Unless you’re backpacking, backpacks are not ideal and make you a mark. You’ll make it incredibly easy for someone to steal from your backpack while walking in crowded areas or riding on public transit. Also avoid fanny packs, which tend to be perceived as tourist garb.

11. Dial Down Your Volume and Effusiveness.  Imagine a cat, and go from there. Europeans have lots of opinions about American peculiarities, from moral contradictions, social injustices, and political lobbying to an obsession with guns, sports, and competition. Americans tend to value and reward extroversion, being busy, being a joiner. Americans are often viewed by Europeans as loud and proud, obnoxious and ethnocentric…the first to shout: “We’re number one!” (index fingers pointing upward for emphasis). To European ears, Americans are constantly shouting. Europeans may seem to be talking in a monotone; American speech can be perceived as bordering on histrionics.

12. Americans are also perceived as smiling more—which may be true. Wearing false smiles like the eager grinning dog breeds with cute underbites may put off Europeans.

13. Leave Expensive Jewelry at Home. Less to worry about losing or having stolen.

Although an owl can blend with the bark of a tree, and a zebra can hide in tall grass, don’t go overboard with camouflaging or get so paranoid that you take the fun right out of your trip. Especially if you’re at your destination for only a short while, you’ll want to see and do things that the locals have seen and done and may not care about; you’re a foreigner, after all.

Written by Katie Anton