Though there are a lot of articles on the internet that tell you to “explore like a local,” very few of them provide actionable ways to actually travel and explore like one. The guide aims to do just that; so, on your next international trip, you won’t feel like such a tourist.
Understanding The Problems of Looking Like a Tourist
When you look too touristy (read: looking out of place, confused, and unaware), you expose yourself to risk and disappointment in three different ways:
1. Incomplete Experience
As a tourist, you can only scratch the surface. You won’t be able to experience your destination to the fullest. Always remember that no one really shows a houseguest how the household actually functions. It is always an enhanced and filtered reflection of reality.
2. Getting Scammed
Unassuming tourists who don’t know how things work are easy targets. You don’t need Sherlock-level skills to guess that. Opportunists and cunning people with ill intentions can spot you from a mile away if your attire or attitude screams “I’m a tourist,” and they’ll be more than happy to relieve you of as much money as possible.
3. Differential Treatment
There can be two types of differential treatment that you might receive as a tourist. Either you will get unwanted attention. (think of sellers, locals, and maybe beggars flocking around you because you are a unique personality that spikes their interest.) Or, you could be overcharged at shops and looked down upon by the locals because you don’t seem to belong.
So, here’s a three-part process to shed the tourist tag and step into a local’s shoes for an enjoyable vacation.
Part I – Looking Like a Local – Ace the Attire
You cannot act like a local if you don’t look like a local.
Wear Clothes That Blend In
Wearing high-end fashion in a small city in a developing nation, or opting for sneakers and a fanny pack in the hippest locations of Paris or Milan are sure ways to announce to everyone that you aren’t from around here. Use the internet to research how people typically dress at your destination, and try to pack clothes that emulate it. You can also shop locally for clothes, which can help you develop an eclectic wardrobe from around the world.
However, do this within reason. In some countries, particular styles of dress are reserved for those who practice certain religions, or are part of particular social groups. Do not choose clothing that specifically identifies with a group you do not belong to. Instead, choose middle-of-the-road options worn by common residents.
Try Not to Attract Attention
Your pricey handbag, gold chains, assortment of rings, flashy shades, and even those red shoes are an open invite for pickpockets, thieves, and robbers. It is not ideal to wear anything that you cannot part with. But it also helps you not attract undue attention and risk.
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Part II – Acting Like a Local – Fake It Until You Make It
Remember, practice makes perfect.
Ditch The Tourist Traps
One of the most surefire ways to identify as a tourist is by staying in a tourist hotel. Since taxi drivers know almost everyone going to these hotels is from out of town, they’re more likely to try to scam you. Also, tourist hotels often aren’t located in the middle of city, so you’ll have to spend more time traveling to the places you want to visit.
Instead, book a hotel that’s closer to the city center, preferably with easy access to public transport, which brings us to our next tip…
Use Public Transport
Public transport costs less than cabs. It will save you cash, and it will also save you from getting overcharged by taxi drivers. Private airport pickups are simply not worth the cash. Bonus points for supporting the locals and the local economy if you use public transport. And you never know what unexpected and unseen gem of an experience you might have on the bus or train.
Learn The Local Language and Customs
No one expects you to be fluent in a different language, or know all the details of a different culture. However, knowing the basics can go a long way. Learn how to greet people, ask for the menu and the price, apologize or thank people, or ask for directions in the local language. Also, learn the unsaid rules of your destination. It will take effort on your part, but it will be worth it. One, it will make the locals happy to see that you put in effort to understand them and their culture. This will open them up to you. And two, it will come in handy when you have to interact with locals who don’t know your language.
Warning: Don’t try to emulate the accent. You won’t really get it right, it can sound disrespectful to native speakers, and it will tell everyone that you are a tourist trying too hard to blend in.
Be Skeptical and Aware of Scams
One Google search – “common tourist scams in *your destination*” – can save you from losing a lot of money. Know what to expect. And stay suspecting. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is not true. While it’s possible that an overly friendly stranger is just trying to help, it’s also possible that they’re trying to scam you. Question everything. This does not mean you shouldn’t have a good time though. Stay skeptical, not cynical.
To be on the safe side though, it’s always a good idea to make sure you invest in travel insurance. If something unexpected does occur during your trip, you’ll be glad to know you have insurance that can provide coverage for situations included in the policy.
Don’t Display Your Cameras and Selfie Sticks
Yes, you need those memories for later. And no, you cannot NOT take pictures. But an expensive camera hanging from your neck is a beacon for thieves and muggers. Taking pictures of everything and everyone on your way isn’t very respectful either. You are intruding on other people’s privacy, and you might also be inviting a legal hassle. Cameras and selfie sticks (especially!) are banned in several public places because they have caused so many accidents in the past.
Special tip for traveling photographers – invest in compact-sized gear that can be carried easily and safely. And always check the rules and laws regarding taking pictures at your destination.
Use Local Currency
Debit and credit card markups on international payments can make a deep dent in your wallet. And you’ll be left converting the cost of whatever product or service you are paying for to your home currency. Instead, just hand over cash in the local currency. Remember, tourists who attempt to pay with currency from their home country are easier to deceive and overcharge.
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Part III – Feeling Like a Local – Comfort and Confidence
You won’t succeed unless you feel it from within.
Eat Where the Locals Do
Get a little bold with your food choices. Fancy restaurants won’t give you the real and raw flavor of the local cuisine. Watch where the locals go to grab a bite and follow suit. (Be mindful of hygiene though, you don’t want to end up with an upset stomach or allergy.)
Book Everything Ahead
The long lines outside of tourist traps are, well, cramped with tourists. The locals usually know the best time to avoid the queue, or they book ahead. If you can find out the former, great. If not, go with the latter and avoid the line altogether.
Ditch The Guidebook
Guidebooks show you shiny, glossy pictures of your destination. That’s not how the real world looks or operates. Ditch the destination guidebooks. With your nose buried deep in a guidebook, you are literally screaming, “I don’t know what to do.”
Also, do you really think the “off-the-beaten-path” destinations in those guidebooks are actually unexplored? Hundreds of other travelers have read the book you have in your hand.
Instead, set out exploring on your own. You may come across amazing locations and experiences that you’d never find in any sort of guidebook.
Don’t Be Shy
If you needed directions in your hometown, you’d ask people, right? Do it at your travel destination too. Speak up and ask for help and recommendations when you need it. Confidence is the key, and striking up conversations with people will make you appear confident, just like you are in your own town.
Start Exploring and Enjoying Like a Local
Now that’s enough of dos and don’ts. Get ready, stay steady, and go explore a new place like a local.
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