Only a person who can call herself a traveller has a legitimate right to claim knowing some things about travelling. And here they are – tips and tricks on how to blend in with the locals and experience travelling as if you are home.
When in Rome, do what do Romans do.
Even though I started travelling relatively recently – even though I now think it’s a long time, some may have me wrong – my current stats indicate I visit at least one foreign country per year. Sometimes I do not travel at all, sometimes I visit two or three countries in a matter of just a couple of months.
The more I travel, the more I learn about myself. The better I know myself, the better my travelling experience gets. And every time I visit a new country, my life gets improvements in so many ways I do not even have the intention of starting on now. Maybe some other time.
Good to know: Amsterdam is the place where locals feel out of place and tourists feel at home.
How my travelling started?
My parents have always had some unusual ideas about raising us. They never allowed us having more than one piercing per ear, let alone get pierced anywhere other than ears; would never EVER let us have tattoos; but on the other hand were never against letting us use makeup, nail polishes, or dressing the way we wanted. While other kids got grounded for having bad grades at school or strictly banned to use even transparent nail polish before high school, we were allowed to stay up as long as we wanted: even at the age of 9 or 10 we were up and about ‘til midnight, watching Heartbreak high, Baywatch Nights, Latin-American soaps, or any movie that was on at the moment.
All this was partly due to our parents’ lack of interest in their own physical appearance, and what I now suspect may have also been the case – they wanted to let us make fools of ourselves so they could take photos of us and later laugh with us when we come across the pictures. The other possibility was we never actually had any strict rules for eating or sleeping schedule. We’d eat when hungry and sleep when felt sleepy. The situation hasn’t changed to this day.
So, quite a long intro to the question of how travelling started: not until I reached a certain age. Here, if you are a minor and want to travel, there’s so much hassle with papers: your both parents have to officially sign the papers that they allow you to travel, and there always has to be someone to confirm where you going and for how long, plus the visas…
Yeah, when I started travelling, we still had to apply for visas, and there was always the possibility of being rejected a visa, in which case you’d lose all your previous investment into planning and organising your journey, not to mention your time and nerves.
Where have I been so far?
Hence, after I was 18, I was allowed to travel on my own, for as long as I wanted, wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and with whomever I wanted.
The result is the following: so far I have visited Greece, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, of course, Serbia.
I was supposed to visit Malta, Egypt, Slovenia, and Albania as well, but was unable to, due to reasons that no longer matter. I also do not include into the list the countries I only transited while travelling to other destinations, which means that Austria is also off the list, as well as Czech Republic.
What do I travel for?
One of the things I learned about myself while travelling is that I do not like being a tourist. I prefer blending in, and the best reason to travel is to combine business with pleasure.
It has become highly useless travelling just for the sake of travelling, pretending to be a normal tourist, knowing I certainly am not one. Going through the hordes of insane Asian tourists, cameras clicking everywhere, turned Athens or Pula into an exhausting experience to me, and pushed me even further into exploring locales on my own, preferably even without a camera.
It seems to me that nowadays travelling has turned into an annoying habit of taking photos all the time, not even stopping to see where you actually are, to breathe in the Greek air filled with the scent of tangerines growing in trees along the road, or to enjoy the landscapes of the Netherlands while biking to the next village, or to play with the sand on a beach in Knokke-Heist, Belgium, or swim in Bodensee in Germany knowing that Switzerland is just a couple of hundred metres away… Do you get the point? We learn where we had been only after we return home and see the photographs we took.
Although visiting a foreign country for a youth exchange seminar is a nice way to get a free, fully-funded trip to a place you’d never get to go otherwise, it surely leaves you no time to enjoy the country or learn about it in your own way.
However, if you go to a place for a two-day seminar, while you are there, make sure to accommodate your planning to having an extra day or two to explore the place on your own. You will enjoy it more that way. At least I do.
How to blend in with the locals?
So here is my – not extensive – list on how to be mistaken for a local while on a lazy stroll exploration of a newly visited country.
Research well in advance
It has never been easier to learn what the locals do at home: the web gives us a plethora of resources. It’s up to us how do we use them, if at all.
A friend of mine travels abroad at least twice a year. Sometimes it’s for business, but more often for pleasure or sports competitions. At the moment we speak, he’s in Copenhagen, Denmark, has just finished his taekwondo competition, and has also sent me a photo of a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka he’s enjoying to celebrate himself being there. Why I mention him here and now is because he is one, if not the only one, whom I know always does his homework well in advance: he uses the internet to see where he is going, what is there to see, where to eat, where to stay, and what not to miss.
Actually, the only time he did not do this was when we went to Budapest, Hungary, last September – but he can be forgiven for it, as he not only went to compete while going down with a cold, as well as organising 6 more friends in two cars for a long weekend in Budapest, 4 of which ended up being rented a place that was double booked by Booking.com… Point is, I really do not mind. I was just fine exploring the city on foot, on a rainy day, with people whom I met for the first time ever, with a complete lack of plan or idea where to go or what to do. We ended up having a fine day together, which is the most important after all.
One website I have still not had the chance to use is Spotted by locals. The website is designed to be a local support for the foreigners, giving them insider tips on blending in with the local community and exploring a place from a whole new perspective. Now that I’ve mentioned it, it surely does seem attractive becoming a spotter, which is what I just might do soon enough.
For me, I am not a keen researcher, or at least I have not been one. However, when I went to Milan, Italy, two years ago, it was more than useful using Google Street View to explore the way from my hostel to the Biccoca University, where my lectures were to be held. Since I checked the way and got to see the buildings in advance, once I was there it was much easier following the way and finding the place without using much Here maps on my phone.
Until maybe 10 years ago, it was more difficult learning what clothing styles were in and what do locals wear. Today, however, this is not the case, thanks to or due to globalisation and the small world phenomenon.
Think about it the next time you travel abroad, and, especially if you travel to a famous tourist destination, look around yourself and try to spot that awkwardly dressed person. Fact is, that person is most likely to be a foreigner. Now, I have no intention of shaming or discriminating against anyone for their style, it just is true. People tend to stick out – and there’s nothing wrong with it!
When I was in the Netherlands for the first time, I dragged with me what now seems a huge bag of clothes I shouldn’t have brought with myself anyway, firstly because I bought so much new clothes, and secondly, because most of what I brought with me came to me earlier from the Netherlands, meaning it was outdated at the time I got it back there. Ah, inexperience…
However, when I was in Milan, Italy, I now feel I completely blended in. I was younger, understandably, dressed completely in accordance with my age: casual sneakers, jeans, belt, t-shirt, hoodie, a casual shawl, interesting sunglasses, and a purse over my shoulder. I walked around the place knowing exactly where I was going, hence displayed a confident in-towner attitude, and had a purpose with me all the time.
Of course, local clothing also depends on the social group you belong to. When I was in that very same Milan, or maybe it was Pula, Croatia, there surely was a part of town where I surely did not belong, at least according to my clothes at the time. Spending time with the academic community entails different style than visiting relatives who moved there and now have a different life. Point is, it all depends a lot, and one must be aware of it prior to departure.
First thing that comes to my mind when accessories are at stake are purses and backpacks, although other details are not to be forgotten: watches, jewellery, hats, etc.
Modern tourists are easy to spot, due to their voluminous bags or backpacks they tend to carry with them all along. Which becomes quite annoying after a while. At least it did to me. The rationale behind such bags is they come in handy when you want to carry many things with you, in case you need them. Your cameras, a bottle of water, some snacks, an extra t-shirt or socks, some basic hygiene, maps and guides, pen and paper, maybe an umbrella or a raincoat, and so many other – basically unnecessary – possessions. Would you carry those with you were you at home, on a stroll to work or university? Of course you would not. You would not need so many things with you, and you do not need them while travelling.
Fact is, if you have a modern smart phone, it can accommodate so much digital data, starting with your passport scans, tickets, maps and guides, books and software. Yes, it might get stolen anyway, but remember: foreigners are more likely to get robbed because they stick out. Blend in, and you are safe – as long as you know how to protect yourself from being pickpocketed.
Forget about carrying a hand luggage backpack with you at all times while travelling. Your backs will thank you for it, and you will feel much lighter when travelling with just the basic necessities, such as a wallet, your phone, lip balm, paper tissues, bubble gums, a bottle of water and some quick snacks.
It is easy being a tourist in a famous place when it comes to eating – only if you know how to eat out.
I think experiencing local cuisine is one of the essential joys of travelling. The smaller the place, the more likely are you to get the genuine dishes. For example, when we were in Budapest, my friend and I were starving, literally starving, but he insisted on finding that one local restaurant tucked in all the way back, somewhere… The entrance door was quite – local, unattractive; the interior plain, tablecloth in checkered blue/white pattern, tables with four chairs, such as you’d find in a granny house. No splashy signposts outside, no waiters lurking you in from the street, no fancy menus with hundreds of expensive – overpriced – dishes, nothing. Had we not known we were looking for such a place, we might have missed it out completely, thus also missing a delicious Hungarian goulash, which tasted even better as we were starved, as I already said.
On another occasion, when we went to a field trip in Wroclaw, Poland, although we split into several smaller groups for the rest of the day, we were fortunate to have a local girl with us. Luckily, the group wanted to eat a local dish, in an affordable place. The friend was a student, hence often eats out, and knows the best places. That is how we ended up having delicious Polish pierogy, while the others had pizza for almost the same price.
One food trend I had no idea about was sweet Italian pastry and coffee for breakfast. Although I do enjoy pastry from time to time, eating pastry filled with chocolate creams or jams for breakfast is something I can absolutely do without. I prefer salty breakfast, cheeses, butter, salami or ham, scrambled eggs, you know, the regular hotel buffet. Sweet breakfast happens so rare for me that I never actually thought about it until I was forced to not eat it. I also prefer tea to coffee.
To cut the long story short, the rule of thumb with eating out would be to avoid expensive high street restaurants and instead look for hidden inns and taverns where the food is delicious and affordable, yet not as attractive; and where there are locals – they are the best warrant of the quality and affordable food.
There are several ways to find affordable accommodation online prior to setting off. I am talking about budget travelling, which is how I travel most of the time.
While I know there are many websites that offer accommodation online, such as AirBnB and Couchsurfing, the only one I have used before and will use again is Booking.com. In fact, maybe I would have used Couchsurfing – had anyone responded to my pleas when I was planning my trip to Milan, Italy. However, people completely neglected my messages, and thus I ended up booking a relatively humble hostel in some ghetto area of Milan. I’m kidding, it was not a ghetto area – it just seemed that way when you looked around from the balcony. However, I did not read any reviews before I went there, mostly because I had no time to do so. Luckily! Otherwise, I may not have chosen the place at all.
Why? Because some of the comments said the place looked as if from a post-apocalyptic Mad Max scene; that there was no hot water nor enough blankets in winter, etc. For me, the place had everything I needed for my stay: a roof over my head for the night, and a clean toilet and a hot shower in the morning, and proximity to Biccoca, and an acceptable pedestrian stroll distance from the main train station. I was not comfortable with using public transport that first night, so I ended up in a rain shower, with a suitcase, in the middle of the night, going who knows where, over some strange stairs on the way… It was May, so spring weather made sure to not need extra blankets not heating.
To go back to Budapest once again, my friend took care of the accommodation for the four of us. He rented a two-bedroom apartment for the weekend, 10 minutes on foot from downtown, so even though it was not a first-class hotel, it was also enough what we needed it for: sleep over, shower, and get out and about.
Photographing & technology in general
I already mentioned insane tourists who run around as if insane, clicking with their cameras and snapping photos with their phones incessantly. And those selfie sticks resellers in Il Duomo square in Milan, Italy. Oh, my god, so annoying!
Once again, whether to carry your devices with you or not is a matter of the reason for your trip, and especially if you are not staying in a fancy hotel you are more likely to feel safer if your pricey items are with you – I have seen people who drag their laptops with them all the time. However, I am sure you can do without your tablet or your laptop or whatever for those couple of days you’d be away. Use that freedom to explore the place on your own without digital disturbances.
I don’t carry along my devices with me. I never did it. In fact, I learnt that I even enjoy travelling without my mobile phone. When I was in the Netherlands for the third time, I actually did not have a mobile phone for a month. And did not miss it at all. Of course, it was before the age of Whatsapp or Viber, or even smart phones, hence there was not much to miss, and everyone already knew where I was and how it was, and could get in touch with me via email or MySpace or maybe even Facebook.
I now do carry my phone with me, but just my phone. My camera and my mp3 player and my wi-fi ebook reader (products of the ancient times, ay) stay at home. I have all I need in it: my music, my maps, my tickets, my passport, and a 16 GB memory card is more than enough to keep it all neatly organised.
If possible, I prefer not using transportation. That way I get to know the place better, and to orientate myself.
However, in Milan, Italy, and Sofia, Bulgaria, I was forced to use the public transport because the place where I stayed was quite distant from downtown, and I needed to get there somehow.
Sometimes you just have no money and you need to get somewhere. Or you saw a good offer well in advance, and get the days off two days before the trip, so you have to do with what you’ve got. That’s what happened to me with Milan. I actually saw a 129 euro round trip flight to be valid for one day only, but by the time I got home to book it, it was already sold out, so I had to opt for the next best thing. It turned out to be a 250 euros flight with layovers in Vienna on the way to Milan and with Munich on the way back. But, hey, at least I learnt that Austrian gives 20 g crackers meals, and that I do not want to travel with them ever again if I don’t have to. And that the flight attendants’ grotesquely red uniforms, stockings, shoes, lipsticks, and hats, are not a pleasant sight to my eyes.
Other than that, I learnt that train is the most common transportation means in the Netherlands, other than private cars for long-distance travelling and biking for short-distance trips; that Sofia subway is exquisite; that it is perfectly easy to manage Milan subway in a day; that Belgrade-Bar train is the best option to travel to Montenegro due to scenic landscapes the railway goes through (ever travelled through clouds?); that Brussels is a hell on earth if you are looking for a private car parking lot in wider downtown area; any many, many more interesting data.
One thing we were somehow used to when travelling to the Netherlands for the first couple of times was spending all our money so as not to waste it, as if it’s going to lose its value or get lost or something.
However, it was only recently that we realised that we actually constantly travel back and forth, and that there is no need to either leave it behind or spend on nonsense just for the sake of spending it.
Another trick I want to believe will somehow come true is that I will return to a place if I keep its money with me. When I was in Macedonia for the first time, I actually made plans with my friends to get back there in two months, on my way to Albania, to the next TC, so I consciously exchanged more money than I needed at the time. However, my intended trip to Albania did not happen, and the money stayed. Now I hope to visit another friend in Ohrid, so the money will be there to work with the law of attraction and get me there in the future.
Many countries in Europe now use euro as their official currency, but with those that do not, ugh… When I was travelling to Bulgaria 2 years ago, I actually did not manage to exchange money before arriving at my destination. One would think an exchange office in an international bus station would have a currency of its neighbour country, but no, not in that part of the world. Furthermore, since all my expenses were covered by the programme organisers, I had no need to use any money – until we had to use the subway in Sofia. The closest ATM? At the subway station. I redrew about 5 euros, and the bank fee was almost 60% of that amount. I was shocked and appalled when I saw that in my bank report.
On the other hand, I did something similar in Pula bus station in Croatia, and even though the amount was significantly higher, there was no fee whatsoever.
When you do need to exchange global currency into a local one, they say it’s better to do it well in advance. I do not mind doing it at the very spot, particularly because I usually need very small amounts, and the fee added to the exchange rate should not matter that much.
Unless in Hódmezővásárhely, Hungary! Last summer I was there for an Erasmus+ TC, and the nearby mall had only one exchange office, with a flat fee rate. E.g. if you exchange up to 20 euros, you pay 1 euro fee per transaction. If you exchange 21 to 50 euros, you pay more, and so on. Exchanging money that way once was fine, but 5 times? Definitely not.
Bear this in mind prior to blending in – unless you have money to waste.
When at home, do you run around the place looking for postcards and other meaningless souvenirs to bring along with you to collect dust? Of course not. Travelling like a local should also include that rule.
While some people do enjoy collecting postcards from abroad, be it from their friends or their own quests, most people do feel happy with a postcard, but end up throwing it away after a while. In a way, postcards equal wasting your precious money, plus time to find the post office.
I will not even mention other souvenirs, as there are so many of them.
Another problem with souvenirs are the people at home. You want to bring souvenirs to the most important ones, but what to do with those who expect them and not receive them? You do not want to disappoint people, right? Well, I solved that problem by not bringing anything to anybody! Not even postcards. Somehow people did get used to it, but I would also fill them in with loads of photos and stories, sometimes even while I am there. That way they know I think of them, and that matters more.
However, I do break the rule for some people: I buy fridge magnets and expect my close friends or family to bring them to me as well. Once again, since my father believes keeping magnets on the fridge somehow meddles with the power supply signal (huh?!), he banned us to keep the fridge magnets on the fridge. I now keep them on a magnet board on a wall right above my desk.
I like buying some more things, but it’s because they are useful! I have a t-shirt from Amsterdam, because it was (and still is) very interesting, simple yet effective; and I have a purse from Milan, Italy, which is funny because it has text in English with a grammar mistake.
Many people cringe at the thought of travelling on their own, but it sometimes may turn out to be the best decision they’d ever made. I surely haven’t regretted (yet) setting off on any of my previous journeys, no matter the cost, and, in fact, have several more planned out for the upcoming months. Time only will show if they are to come true, but whatever happens, I am happy just planning them for the moment.
While I may have forgotten to mention some ways to blend in with the locals while travelling, what I have so far is the result of my previous journeys. Hopefully, with every new trip comes a new experience, and I surely do hope to have many, many more!
Hail to travelling!