I am a veteran traveler, having visited over 900 cities in 43 countries since my first trip to Europe in 1972. I love exploring, learning, connecting with locals and finding out what makes the place special. I feel it is important as we travel to avoid looking and acting like a tourist. You want to be a traveler and blend in with the locals in order to have the best experience. My recommendations on how to accomplish this goal include the following:
I try learning a few key phrases in the language of that country particularly on how to say “Hello”, “Good morning”, “The check please”, “Please” and “Thank you”.
I do take my large Canyon SLR camera on longer foreign trips, but I love using the iPhone for shooting. In that way you can be more discreet and able to capture a moment without being intrusive, particularly with people. It is also nice not to have to carry your camera at night. I just took a class in Creative Photography for the iPhone. There are so many apps and creative ways to use the phone without having to take a large camera. I just went to Vancouver, BC and just used my iPhone! In that vein, I don’t take selfies nor do I use a selfie stick. That is a huge giveaway of being a tourist! I just want to be able to document the experience while blending in. In order to be respectful, remember to ask permission if you want to take photos of people. I also don’t like having to tip for taking a photo.
I normally travel solo, so I try to stay in small boutique hotels, inns and B&Bs in the neighborhoods away from the tourist centers, but easy to get there by walking or public transportation. In that way you are meeting more locals and other travelers. You can do this as a couple or as a small group as well.
I also love going to the local cafes and coffee shops to hang out with the locals. Also don’t be afraid to travel alone or eat along in a restaurant. I have met some lovely people, just be smiling and visiting with them in a restaurant. On more than one occasion, I have been asked to join them at their table!
I don’t go to the tourist traps, nor do I ever drink too much. I see many tourists drinking way too much and becoming loud and an embarrassment.
I do love maps and take them with me, but try not to carry a guide book around, like a Rick Steve’s Europe Through the Back Door, which is a dead giveaway for being a tourist. I actually would try to avoid his recommendations and head in a totally different direction to a neighborhood where I could explore and eat with the locals. I had a friend who went to a restaurant in Rome and every person or couple there had the guide book! Sometimes the best finds are just to walk and get lost.
I try to look like I would at home in Chicago, New York or any major city in the US. No shorts, jeans or flip flops, but tasteful with khaki’s, a nice shirt or sweater. I always travel with a sport coat or blazer which is nice, particularly if you go to a nice restaurant in the evening or to the theater, concert or the opera.
What I am seeing and concerned about is the recent trend in many publications from Travel + Leisure, AFAR and Jetsetter.com about what to pack, what to wear, what makeup to take and use, what duffle bag to travel with and what backpack to buy. Maybe they are trying to make a commission on the sale of these items, but I am getting tired of seeing them. It seems to have become popular in the last few months. If you try to dress too flashy, look too perfect with the perfect hair, makeup jewelry or luggage, you will definitely look out of place.
No backpacks for me!! I do use a discrete shoulder bag, where I can carry my camera, maps and local information. Backpacks in my opinion are what tourists use.
I avoid taking large group tours when possible, except for an occasional bike trip, walking trip or small group trip to certain areas of Asia. Here you can definitely see the tourists coming off the bus with name tags and no idea as to where they are. This can also be a safely concern as they can be the targets for thieves or pickpockets. Often times, I hire a local guide in strange city or those where the language can be an issue, which is a good way to explore but again blending in, as it looks like you are out with a local friend.
For people on cruises, the offered shore excursions can be great, but in some cases, you might just get off and explore on your own. I did this several years ago when I was on a cruise and we stopped in Cabo San Lucas. I hired my own driver and explored the lovely town and galleries of San José del Cabo on my own and had a great lunch on the beach.