5 Surefire Ways to Fit in With the Locals When Traveling Abroad
No matter whether you’re traveling long-term or living abroad, fitting in with your surroundings can bring countless benefits. Here are 5 tips for going from an ostentatious tourist to a camouflaged traveler that fits in with the locals.
Vagabondish is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Read our disclosure.
Tip #1: Stop Speaking English
… or whatever your native language is. Instead, make an effort to speak the lingo of the place you are in. Yes, I know, it can be difficult at first. I spent summer after summer in Spanish language camps, and shed more than a few tears before I could communicate with the locals. Back then, little did I know that Spain would become one of my great loves, and that I would eventually end up living in Madrid long-term. Learning the language made it possible.
There are several ways to get started. If you know where you’ll be heading and have time beforehand, sign up for a course back home. A simple Google search can help you find an in-person private or group class in your home town. If you prefer learning online, Rosetta Stone is notorious for language learning success and offers Level 1 packages starting at $179 for a total of thirty-one languages.
If this price tag is too high, check out Livemocha, a community-based language learning service that offers both free and paid options. In addition, you can look into learning portals that specialize in specific languages, such as Net Languages (Spanish and English) or Busuu (English, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and Spanish).
Once you’re in-country, continue learning by practicing your skills at the local market, restaurants, cafeterias, etc. Don’t be shy!
Tip #2: Throw Out the Flip-flops, Uggs and Abercrombie Sweaters
The way you look will immediately identify you as a foreigner. While there’s no need to emulate exactly what the locals are wearing – in some cases, this can be ridiculous – try to fit in in a more subtle manner. Are the people around you wearing flip-flops? Unless you are at the beach, probably not.
Observe what the locals are wearing, and emulate. A pair of Spanish espadrilles or Moroccan slippers will keep out the heat just as well. You will also look more elegant, and can wear them both around the beach, the house and to a half-way fancy restaurant. Instead of buying an overpriced souvenir that will collect dust in your apartment back home, buy something that you can wear. You will literally get a lot more wear out of it.
As tourists, we sometimes cling to maps as if they’ll save us from any unanticipated trouble. And yes, sometimes, they do. But they can also be an impediment. If you’re always stopping to stare at your map, you’re not only instantly recognizable as a foreigner, but you might also be missing out on some local treats.
Cast your fears aside and leave the hotel without a map. Simply embrace serendipity and start wandering — given that this is safe in the place you’re in, of course. If you’re in the middle of the Andes hiking by yourself (something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place), leaving your map at the mountain hut is probably going to get you into trouble. Use your common sense to evaluate whether it’s an option.
Once you’ve decided that it is, explore on foot. Take the subway or bus and get off at a random stop when you feel like it. If you do get disoriented, use your newly acquired language skills to ask a local how to get back where you came from. On your way, you can use major landmarks, such as towers, skyscrapers, parks, main avenues, etc. to keep yourself on track.
Unless you’re a professional photographer, carrying a camera can be more of an impediment than a help. In fact, even for professional photographers, lugging around expensive and heavy equipment can hold you back from adventurous and spontaneous detours. You are always more of a target for theft and as you look for your camera, you’re not concentrating 100% on the area around you.
Take a leap and see the world around you with your own eyes. You won’t have pictures to take back home with you, but the memories will remain. You can write them down afterwards and illustrate them with pictures. Or just let them be an oral story to tell your grandchildren when the time comes.
Tip #5: Act As If You’d Be Voting in the Next National Election
This tip can be a sensitive one, so treat it with care. What I mean with acting as if you’d be voting is to inform yourself as if you were a local. Read the local newspapers, watch the local television channels. Not only will your language skills improve, but you will also get an insight into the culture. Politics reveals more than you think.
Once you feel confident, you can even strike up a conversation with a local to learn what he or she thinks about the upcoming elections. Sometimes, you won’t even have to, they will be talking about this anyways. But again, go into the conversation with care. You don’t want to be the one thrown out of the bar because of an ignorant comment. Judge the moment with common sense and ask a sincere question instead of making a sweeping know-it-all remark.
In Short …
I could keep the tips coming, but overall the key is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Laugh about yourself. Be adventurous. Eat and drink what the locals do. If they have lunch at 2 p.m., as they do in Spain, don’t isolate yourself by eating at noon. Traveling should reveal not only new aspects of a foreign culture, but also sides of yourself that you hadn’t seen.