Solo Travel Safety: 10 ways to blend in when you can’t.

woman with white hair

This picture isn’t about the clothes. In Patagonia, everyone is a tourist. It’s about the hair. Look at it. There’s no mistaking me for a local in Chile!

I am clearly a tourist in most of the places I travel solo.

My skin is fair and my wildly curly hair is white. It’s amazing but only a very small percentage of women don’t color their hair most places I’ve been.

So, I stand out. Unless I’m in North America or maybe some places in Europe, I am obviously a tourist. There is really nothing I can do about it because I am physically different from the locals.

But, even though I can’t blend in, I can still visit like a quasi-local. I observed this as a beautiful friend with long blond hair and blue eyes managed her way through Santiago, Chile where the women have brown hair and brown eyes. I thought, if I can act as a capable and competent expat, I will be fine even if it’s obvious I’m not. So how to do it? Know the ropes and be nobody’s fool

Ten steps to blend in when traveling solo.

  1. Watch how the locals behave. Find a seat in a public area and sit back, relax and watch. Observe how they wait for public transit, how loudly they speak, how they make eye contact, how close they are when they talk to each other… Emulate their behavior. If they are timid and obey line-ups, do so. If they are pushy and loud, be so (within reason).
  2. Walk with confidence – as if you have gone the same route dozens of times before.Blend in when you can't.
  3. If people stare at you, ignore them as if you’re used to getting stares. I’ve even had people touch my hair because they were so curious. In this case I check to see who it is and they either get a smile (children) or a ‘back off’ look.
  4. Rather than a day pack, carry a shopping bag of a local retail chain.
  5. Dress appropriately. It may not be necessary to dress in local custom but it may be beneficial.
  6. Know the currency well. Fumbling with money and making mistakes is a sure sign of a tourist.
  7. Become a regular, even for a couple of days, at the same coffee shop or small grocery store. They’ll know that you’re new but when you say hi like a regular, others won’t.
  8. Put away the camera, the map and the water bottle.
  9. Keep to yourself on public transit and other busy places where people don’t make eye contact.
  10. Book a licensed guide for the major tourist sites and learn from them.

It is also best to keep English chatter to a minimum so that you’re not broadcasting your tourist status.  As a solo traveler you have a distinct advantage in this regard.

 

  • penis

    you look mentally retarded

  • Alison Swihart

    I’ve had people in New York City and Dublin stop me for directions. The amazing thing is that I was able to give accurate directions in Dublin! It’s all about walking with confidence. I also stop at the same Mom & Pop grocery store several days in a row. My biggest problem is trying to dress as well as the locals,

  • Lisontheloose

    I carry a water bottle with me round my own home town, so it would be weird (and dehydrating) not to carry one when I travel! If it slips into my cross-shoulder bag, which it does easily, then where is the issue?

  • TC

    My bright red hair only worked well in Scotland. In other countries I often wear a hat. Sun hats and sun glasses still say not local, but I’m not at obvious. In Nicaragua, my friend who lives there instantly gave me one of her purses. That made me an expat like her, just that one little change. I really like the local shopping bag idea. Local people sometimes feel insulted if you don’t know their currency, just like not knowing how to say their greeting.

  • Lula

    Great tips! And I LOVE your white, curly hair!

  • Cindy Van Vreede

    I assimilated so well in London that British people would ask me for directions and then die of embarrassment when I answered them in my American accent.

  • Rob Hall

    With cameras on cell phones being just as good if not better than held hands, I always resort to them. The pictures are great, you can upoad them to a cloud instantly in case it is stolen or lost, and you look like a local because they are using their phones as well.

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  • Mikaela S.

    I have the same problem with my curly hair. I live in Korea at the moment, and the funny thing is that the Koreans cannot believe it’s real and not a perm. I don’t know how many times I have been sitting at the bus stop when some old lady starts picking up random curls to examine them.
    (from: http://aplacelikemeinagirllikethis.blogspot.com)

  • Joanie K

    Thats the ticket…no shame in being a tourist but behavior certainly makes a difference in how we embrace their culture. No one likes a ‘Ugly American’.

  • Joanie K

    Some Germans are fair haired and blued eyes but not most. Germany has become so diverse with many foreign workers. They won’t give you a second look unless you are dressed oddly. My mother was German..a brunette, olive skinned and green eyes…. her father was from France and her grandmother from Spain.

  • Lincoln. E

    The whole fumbling with money aspect became a major problem for me in Europe. Causes frustrations. The best way to learn was find a Google image of all coins/notes displayed evenly with labels. Learn it, even carry it with you if need be.

  • Taikwee Tan

    Do not pretend not to be a tourist. The local knows you are one. Just act naturally and looks confident. They will respect you as a visitor :-)

  • Maria

    This is so helpful thanks! Im from Spain but have dark hair and dark eyes Im going over the holidays to Germany so yeah thats gonna be interesting.

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  • Tom

    :-) yepp a hard one! check out http://nemerhaddad.thetravelerblog.com/

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  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Agreed. Always keep important things secure. A zipped purse for important items with the flap facing your body is a good complimentary item with the shopping bag.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.w.langston Elizabeth Ward Langston

    Maybe, but with your more secure bag inside it. Shopping bags tend to have large, easily accessed openings.

  • Bonnie J. Speeg

    Small travel camera works just fine. Some fit in pockets!

  • Bonnie J. Speeg

    Though an auburn head….I have dark eyes and other features….I am Irish. But when in Greece, people constantly assumed I was Greek because I had such a great 2nd grade Greek accent I learned from a Greek friend. I definitely knew how to say “Sorry, I know just a little Greek” in Greek.

  • Bonnie J. Speeg

    Thank you for sharing this. I can’t even conceive of not putting at least a shawl around me when entering a temple. Any effort makes all the difference. I lived in Greece and though I could have, a woman walking into a kafeneon is not okay at all, so I didn’t; though they were everywhere, appealing and interesting, and usually without any doors, just open air mostly….

  • Bonnie J. Speeg

    Excellent and fabulous suggestion….light, not showy, easy to store, hide cool stuff….I’m going to remember this one. This will work well for a walk around town or in a tourist area….but may not be good enough for secure carrying….such as cross shoulder bags. I don’t know what a day pack is. I don’t even like the sound of it….is it a fanny pack? None of those thanks…I like to carry light…and an over shoulder, flat to body (though, yes I’ve gotten a camera in) suits me best. But the store back is great to remember. I actually have some store bags I brought back. Guess I’ll pack them again.

  • Bonnie J. Speeg

    Oh the eye contact thing…sometimes you want to do this…and then again, in Greece for instance, older yia yias will stare a hole right through you as a single women…they’re kind of supposed to do this culturally…(I lived there, and married to a Greek). But this doesn’t mean you glare back, stare back or keep looking. Just a glance and a half smile (don’t try to get a smile out of them with a big Dinah Shore one of your own) will do. Nix those white sports shoes and water bottles. Those shoes especially. Absolutely no one else on the planet wears them. Period. Fanny packs….just get something else please, AND the water bottles. And if you don’t own jeans get some. It’s one of the most universal pieces of clothing. Check in Muslim countries about sleeves, pants legs, etc. It can be worth everything to at least have similar dress code behavior. I’ve never had a problem anywhere, yet.

  • Travelbug1

    Your welcome. I love your website, wish I thought of it!

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    I know, it’s tricky but I thought this a topic worth exploring. My point was that there is a difference between looking like a native local and an expat local. My friend with the blond hair definitely looks like she is from away but because she acts like a local she blends in. Thanks for leaving a comment. :)

  • Travelbug1

    I like most of the advice and do try to follow some of it, but not going without my camera? I even carry my camera in my own home town because there could be a good photo op. I also agree with Jeff, you’re going to look like a tourist in some countries and you can’t that fact, no?

  • http://gotravelzing.com/ Jeff @ GoTravelzing

    When you are visiting another country where you do not look like the locals you are going to look like a tourist no matter what you wear.  The trick is to look less like a tourist than all the other tourists.  

  • solotraveler

    It depends what you’re doing of course but this sounds like a perfect solution as well. Good advice!

  • solotraveler

    sounds like it was perfect!

  • http://www.facebook.com/collaborativewriter Alison Gunn

    I found a very inexpensive black shopping bag at a grocery store in Sweden and used it instead of a proper purse while in Paris last summer. It didn’t last forever; it wasn’t made to be particularly enduring or anything, being cheap, but it did what i needed for it to do, which was hide my stuff and make me look less obtrusive. I would choose that bag again for travel to places where street crime is high (not that that is necessarily true of Paris; it was just a good idea since it was very light and black, and, most importantly, it rolled up into a little package of nothing, which is nice when you’re traveling light).

  • Becky

    I understand the idea about carrying a bag from a local store, but I think it would be impracticle to have my hand(s) tied up all the time while trying to do things.  I don’t recall these types of bags being easily carried on the shoulder or across your body.  I look for alternatives to day packs, such as satchels or big purses, that may not look as touristy as a day pack, but can be better secured on your body and provide enough room to stash things you pick up along the way.

  • solotraveler

    Thanks Nancie. I have a white cotton pashmina style scarf that I carry everywhere and it takes care of situations like the temple above. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://budgettravelerssandbox.com Nancie

    Living in Asia for more than 10 years, I am used to be stared at. However, I do like to blend in when I can. Great tips, and “dress appropriately” is so important. Right now I am in Chiang Mai and I am always amazed how many visitors to the city don’t respect the request to dress modestly when going into temples. Shorts and tank tops are not appreciated, but many don’t bother making the effort to respect the request. If I’m wearing a sleeveless t-shirt I always throw a cotton shawl in my bad just in case I unexpectedly walk by a temple that I want to visit.

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  • Roy | Cruisesurfingz

    Great idea about carrying a shopping bag!

  • solotraveler

    Certainly. It’s always a sign of respect when you try to speak the local language.

  • http://volunteercapitalcentre.blogspot.com Zablon Mukuba

    Another option is to try and speak the local language

  • solotraveler

    Hi Mara, Yes, blending in has it’s difficulties as well. :) I can speak a some French like a native but when they start talking back quickly I get stumped. And the camera thing? Well I use a travel camera most of the time so that it can slip into my pocket. I’m dying to have a DSLR but I really don’t know how much I would use it.

  • http://www.motherofalltrips.com Mara

    I really like this post – as a woman with blond hair and blue eyes I’ve often felt like the proverbial sore thumb when I travel. India was especially challenging in this regard. On the other hand, I did have the funny experience in Amsterdam of people continually speaking Dutch to me, while I found the language so confounding that I couldn’t even figure out how to say “Sorry I don’t speak Dutch” in anything but English.

    I think these are all great tips (although as a blogger, I ALWAYS have my camera out). I also think that being polite and learning a few key phrases in the native language (hello, please, and thank you are all good ones) and then employing them to good effect are important as well.

  • Cailin

    I love the idea of carrying a local shopping bag! Hadn’t thought of that before :)

  • solotraveler

    thanks Melanie. Good tip on the map/gps point.

  • http://www.excellent-vacation-ideas.com/ Melanie

    I love your tips! I used to say that pulling out a map was a flashing neon light to pickpocketers! Now with smartphones and GPS it isn’t so obvious!

  • solotraveler

    These tips for when you feel the need to blend in, but, there are many times when I don’t want to. I am friendly too. In reality, most people are great! It’s knowing when to blend in and when to stand out that optimizes the fun and the safe factors.

  • MaryM

    Thanks for the great solo travel tips. I thought I had a pretty good list, but I’ve picked up a few new tips from your post.

    I wish I could get my beautiful 18yo daughter to use the one about not making eye contact. She’s just overly friendly! All I can say is…I’m glad my sister and I were with her in NYC…

  • http://spinsterscompass.wordpress.com Spinster

    These are good tips, especially for someone like me who hates attention – being stared at, etc. – and is an expatriate. In my past travels (and definitely in my future travels), I stuck out for obvious reasons – hair, skin color, accent, etc. – so these tips can help decrease the stares sometimes.

  • solotraveler

    You have a point Ted. I like to engage locals and other travels as well. But, by blending in normally, I can choose to stand out when I want to.

  • Ted Nelson

    These are good tips to blend in; however, I like to stick out like a sore thumb when traveling. I feel more people will talk to me when they know I am a tourist. Of course, I respect the local cultures and try not to act like the idiot tourist we all detest.

  • solotraveler

    Yes, Rught, there are moments like your time on the bus that make these guidelines really sink in. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://travelthroughhistory.blogspot.com Ruth Kozak

    I think dressing appropriatly is a major rule. And usually if I’m solo I don’t give men eye contact. I’ve acutally never had any problems other than once on a bus in Turkey i realized it wasn’t cool that I was wearing shorts (though they were fairly long ones). Nobody bothered me but I felt uncomforable for myself and the strange man I was sitting next to.

  • The Ronald

    Great article. The trick of carrying a bag from a local chain is a winner.

    Some good advice for everyone,even the seasoned traveler.

  • solotraveler

    thanks Ross. Walking with confidence is always a good idea.

  • Ross Roams

    Carrying a bag from a local chain is a great alternative to a day pack.

    Morocco the most difficult place where I traveled and where I stuck out the most. The most important lesson I learned is to walk tall and be firm, just ignore people who are calling or hassling you. Keep walking, and they’ll go away.