Safety should be a key consideration no matter where you travel, and part of staying safe in an unfamiliar place is dressing to blend in — or, at least, not dressing to stand out. Beyond avoiding matching T-shirts, baseball hats and white sneakers, not to mention “I Love NY” sweatshirts, keep in mind local customs and attitudes, as well as religious beliefs, when choosing your attire for traveling abroad. This will help you avoid causing offense to locals or becoming a target to thieves.
“My adventures have taken me, as a solo female traveler, through primarily Muslim countries as well as primarily Christian countries,” says frequent traveler Lisa Munniksma. “I’ve always been modest in my appearance, but after traveling and meeting so many travelers and locals from various cultures, the importance of respecting traditions in dress has been driven home.”
Before you get out your suitcase, here are 10 things you may wish to leave in your closet when traveling abroad. Note that this list offers broad guidelines; you’ll want to research your specific destination to find out which ones are and aren’t applicable for your particular trip.
Religiously Immodest Clothing
It’s wise to dress conservatively in any country holding deeply religious views, such as those in the Middle East (if you’re not sure, your travel agent or guidebook can offer advice on local religious customs). Women in particular should avoid miniskirts, tank tops, bra tops, short-sleeved shirts, shorts and sometimes even capri pants. Revealing dresses and cleavage-bearing necklines are also huge no-nos. Men should avoid shorts and sleeveless tops in many Middle Eastern countries or when entering a church or other holy place.
Pants and long skirts are a safe bet, and women should carry a shawl in their bag or purse just in case. As a general rule, travelers should cover their shoulders and knees when entering any church or holy site to avoid unwanted stares or being denied entry. It’s also wise to keep your feet and ankles covered. When in doubt, stick to long sleeves, and men, keep that chest hair concealed.
Never wear expensive, flashy jewelry when traveling abroad, unless you want your diamond rings, pearls and pricey watches to be tagged for someone else’s collection. Since there’s probably no need to impress anyone that much on your trip abroad, leave the valuables at home.
Sneakers and Open-Toe Shoes
In many parts of the world, sneakers are for sporting activities only. White tennis shoes, Crocs and Birkenstocks are notably frowned upon by Spaniards and Italians. Instead, wear comfortable leather walking shoes in the city, and keep them polished and in good shape. White, lace-up tennis shoes are the calling card of American tourists (and don’t even think about Velcro sneakers).
If you’re traveling anywhere but a beach, it’s generally wise to stick with closed-toe shoes, which can help prevent insect bites or cuts on your toes from gravelly surfaces. “It is not sanitary to wear flip-flops and other open-toe shoes when traveling to some areas because you can get infections,” notes Talia Salem, a communications specialist at PlanetWildlife.
Yes, we Americans do love our shorts, but some other cultures — such as Indonesians and Vietnamese — don’t wear them for everyday walking around, no matter the season or how close they are to the Equator. Consider reserving your khaki shorts for beaches, parks, tennis clubs and hiking trails.
Religious Imagery, Curse Words or National Flags
Avoid clothing sporting religious or military symbols, swear words, national flags and any words or symbols written in a language you cannot translate. There’s no need to unintentionally spark an emotional debate while on vacation. It’s also not a bad idea to leave religious jewelry, even cross necklaces, at home. If you must, wear them under your clothes so they’re not visible to anyone.
Unless loud colors or bold patterns are the norm in your destination, consider sticking with conservative hues like navy, blue, tan and gray. Look put together, opting for classic, well-fitting clothing. You want to blend in, not draw unwanted attention to yourself (and nothing does that better than a neon green tank top).
In the Western world, we may wear black to wakes and funerals, but in parts of Asia, white is the funereal color — good to keep in mind on the off chance you may be mourning someone’s passing while on holiday. Meanwhile, stay away from wearing black or blue in central Africa; these are the favorite colors of large, biting tsetse flies.
Jeans are increasingly popular around the world, so they don’t scream “Tourist!” the way they used to. That said, they should fit well and be wrinkle-free. It’s even better if you opt for black or dark blue jeans. Baggy or ripped jeans are frowned upon in some cultures, and they may look disrespectful if you wear them into churches, mosques or other holy sites.
If you’re traveling abroad to a warm and/or rainy climate, consider alternatives to jeans; they don’t breathe well and take a long time to dry, making them impractical for many itineraries.
Planning to spend the summer backpacking across Europe or Southeast Asia? Then a large backpack is practical and probably a better bet than a rollaboard suitcase for lugging onto trains and traveling between destinations. But bring a secondary bag, like a small fabric tote bag that can be worn across your chest, for everyday touring around cities. Any kind of backpack, big or small, may mark you as a tourist. They’re also easy to reach into and steal from if you’re wearing one on your back on a busy bus or train.
This advice isn’t workable for pro photographers, but casual shutterbugs should snap a photo or two, then put the camera away. Nothing screams tourist like a camera permanently hanging from your neck. Not only do you stand out, but you may also get targeted by thieves. Carry a camera or smartphone that you can fit into your small bag.
A Few More Tips
Dressing appropriately while traveling abroad not only helps you fit in with locals and receive friendlier service, but it also protects you from standing out to pickpockets. When in doubt, look at what the locals are wearing. “The best thing a traveler can do is go to a local clothing store and buy a couple of outfits — then no one will ever mistake you for a tourist,” says travel expert John E. DiScala (a k a Johnny Jet). Plus, your new wardrobe additions make great souvenirs.
Beyond watching what you wear, there are a few other things you can do to make yourself look like less of a tourist when traveling abroad. For one, look like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going, even if you have to fake it. “Standing in the middle of the block looking confused — or worse, unfolding a map — calls you out as a tourist,” notes Matthew Reames, who traveled extensively through Europe a few years ago. “[Instead], pop into a coffee shop or something like that to give yourself time to pause and get your bearings.”
Be wary of hand gestures, both making them and wearing clothing depicting them, because these can have different meanings depending on where you are. In Bangladesh, for example, the “thumbs up” gesture is considered obscene. Since you may never know what certain images suggest in another country, avoid them to keep from offending anyone. Visitto read up on common local gestures and taboos.
Sometimes even more important than how we look is what we sound like. Many Americans can be readily identified by their loud (and often complaining) voices. Keep your sound level low and your speech polite, though this suggestion can certainly be applied to travel anywhere, even within your own home town.
–written by Erin Gifford