How to not come off like a tourist

This article is the second part of a week-long series about traveling. My main traveling experience abroad has been in Europe, but these tenets should fly just about anywhere.

As I’ve said before, there is a difference between a traveler and a tourist. Travelers go to a place to experience it naturally, even if what it is contradicts what they think they know about it. Tourists often expect a locale to conform to their preset expectations. Travelers go with the flow and behave like guests. Tourists are pushy, obnoxious and entitled.

Here are a few basic ways to set yourself apart from that guided herd ahead of you in line at the Vatican. Note that these tips are also as much about safety as they are about courtesy — someone who’s obviously out of their element makes an easier target for thieves and other miscreants.

1. Attempt to speak the language. The last post offered a list of suggestions to get started. Don’t be frustrated if you go on a wine tour in rural Tuscany and no one speaks English.

2. Familiarize yourself with a map of the city before you get there. Getting lost at some point is almost inevitable, but you can make it easier on yourself by studying your maps on the plane or train before you arrive. It also limits the number of times you have to block street traffic to whip the map out (if you need to, duck inside a shop or something).

3. Don’t just explore tourist traps. Yeah, you go to Paris to see the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and London to see the clock and Parliament and Buckingham Palace. But so do millions of other people. Take at least a day or two and explore off-beat parts of the city you’re in. Pick a neighborhood on the outer edges, for example, and walk it. Or take a train to a smaller town nearby.

4. Don’t get stupidly drunk. Each region of the word offers its own unique drinks, but that doesn’t mean you need to go crazy (this is especially true if you’re of legal drinking age in your holiday country but not your home country). All your obnoxious antics will do is make a mess and annoy the neighbors.

5. Keep it down. Americans are loud. Many, many other people around the world are not. Don’t scream at them.

6. Eat the local food. Smoked salmon tapas, weisswurst, fish and chips, bangers and mash, French pastries, freshly caught seafood, pasta, wienerschnitzel. All delicious, and yet you’re eating at McDonald’s again. Stop it.

7. Don’t complain about the way things are done. “This isn’t how we do it in Insert-Place-That’s-Probably-Texas-Here!” If you’re perfectly happy with the way things are where you live, stay there. If you dislike how something is done in a different country, suck it up, note it and don’t go back if it bothers you that much. And I just used Texas as an example, don’t jump me.

8. Respect the signage. There is a BIG display right outside the Sistine Chapel that clearly prohibits photographing it. Yet you walk in, and everyone is taking photos. Most annoying and obnoxious thing I’ve ever seen. And just because other people in a place might be acting trashy, tacky and rude doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to.

9. Respect houses of worship. This goes even if you are an atheist or not a follower of the religion in question. Churches, cathedrals, mosques, temples, synagogues — almost all of them, including the ones open to visitors, are still operating houses of worship. Treat them as such and respect the local people who may be praying there.

10. Don’t just stay at the homogenized chain hotels. This is more about getting a good experience. Look up hostels on a site like Hostel World (I recommend the Flying Pig in Amsterdam). If you’re going to be staying awhile, rent a flat or stay with a host family. If you’re a braver soul than I am, look into couch surfing. You’ll meet local people, make friends, get good traveling tips and connect with fellow travelers in ways you never could if you checked into a chain.

11. Travel light. Take only the essentials that you’ll need for the day — passport, tickets, map, wallet, phone, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, camera, key to your room and maybe hand lotion, aspirin or a compact. All of this should easily fit in a purse or other small bag. I’ve seen people in line for museums or at restaurants who look like camels because of all the crap they’re trying to carry. It makes you stick out like a sore thumb, it makes it easier for people to pick something off of you and it’s murder on public transit. The guy on the Tokyo subway trying to get to work does not need your bulging fanny pack poking him in the spine.


2 thoughts on “How to not come off like a tourist

  1. I enjoyed this list, and I think #9 is often forgotten. I think tourists are less inclined to see the places they visit as places where people actually live and work day to day.

  2. I really enjoyed your post – especially you saying that there is a difference between a tourist and a traveler. I moved to the UK two years ago and I still carry my big camera to places and my boyfriend keeps saying how I’m a tourist…. But now that I know I’m more like a traveler because of the way I go about it. Thank you, this is liberating!

    I think the best advise to give is that whatever you do you should keep an open mind. That way you meet the great people and get to try and experience things you otherwise wouldn’t have.

    Thanks for the post, I’ll be visiting again 🙂

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