Dear Travel IQ: My husband and I are making our lifelong dream a reality: this summer, we’re going to Italy! And not just Italy – we’ll be making our way through Germany, France, Belgium and England! Unlike my husband, though, I’m pretty worried about “fitting in”: I don’t want someone taking advantage of us because they know we’re tourists. On top of that, I sometimes have social anxieties about standing out in a crowd. Can you advise on how to “fit in” while we’re in Europe?
Signed: Sarah in Tampa, FL
Many Americans dress for comfort when traveling, and who can blame them? After all they’re on vacation. It’s usually easy to spot American tourists in Europe – they’re the ones wearing a college football T-shirt with a matching baseball cap, shorts and running shoes or flip-flops. But dressing like this screams “American tourist”, making you an easy target for conniving thieves who target tourists. Less serious, but nevertheless annoying, is that if you look like a tourist you’ll be more frequently approached by vendors trying to sell you tacky souvenirs or an overpriced tour of some sort. Plus, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb, instead of just blending in. Whatever your reasons for not wanting to look like a tourist, a few simple tweaks to your wardrobe and you’ll fit right in – wallet intact.
Footwear – Most Europeans believe that flip-flops belong at the beach and running shoes in the gym. Comfortable as flip-flops or running shoes may be, most Europeans would not be caught dead wearing them while sightseeing. This doesn’t mean wearing uncomfortable shoes: Europeans like to be comfortable as well (with the possible exception of Italian women, whose love of sky heel heels is legendary). Calf-mid thigh boots with no heel or just a slight heel are good options for women, as are wedges, which fare much better on cobble stone streets than stilettos. Sandals or flats are also fine. Men have more flexibility, just nothing that’s white and resembles a running shoe.
Baseball Caps/Sun-visors – Some Europeans do wear baseball caps, but not nearly as often as Americans do. I can count the number of times on one hand I’ve seen my German husband or European friends wearing a baseball cap, and I’ve never seen a European wear a sun-visor, so if you want to blend it with the locals, it’s best to leave the baseball cap and sun-visors in the hotel, or better yet, at home.
Shorts – Younger Europeans (25 or younger) wear shorts, but the majority of Europeans don’t wear shorts no matter how hot it is, unless they’re at the beach. Skirts are a popular option for women as are capris. Pants made from a lightweight breathable material are popular for both men and women. Jeans are fine for both sexes and a safe option.
Logos – Some logos are a clear give away that you’re an American tourist. Coach, a popular brand in the U.S, is not easily found in Europe and a Coach handbag is a clear sign of an American tourist. The same can also be said for t-shirts with college football logos since football as Americans know it is not popular in Europe. “Football” to Europeans is what Americans call soccer and is an extremely popular sport, so feel free to wear your favorite soccer team’s logo – especially if it happens to be a European team. Name brands such as “GAP”, “Tommy Hilfiger” “United Colors of Benetton” are fine to wear since these brands are found in many parts of Europe and are also worn by Europeans.
Jewelry – Wedding rings are common in Europe and may be worn on either the left or right hand, depending on the country or religious beliefs. It’s common to wear the wedding ring on the left hand in the UK, Italy and Sweden, while it’s usually worn on the right hand in Germany, Greece, Spain, Poland, Norway and Austria. Given the diversity, there’s no need to switch your wedding ring to the other hand. What may give you away as a tourist is wearing a large engagement ring. Engagement rings are not popular in many European countries including Germany and France. It also goes without saying that wearing expensive jewelry of any type – watches, earrings, chains – makes you more of a target for theft, so leave your valuables at home.
Purse/Wallets – Never keep your cash and other valuables in your back pocket. A cross-body bag is ideal, since it’s more difficult than a regular purse to swipe, which can easily be ripped from your arm.
Accessories – European women love to accessorize, especially with scarfs – so bring a few along. Scarves are also a good way of changing the look of an outfit without taking up much space in your luggage. Scarves are also popular for men to wear underneath their coat. Many European women feel naked without a scarf or costume jewelery to pull the outfit together.
Don’t Wear a T-shirt to Dinner – Europeans generally dress up more than Americans and wouldn’t wear a T-shirt to dinner, even if it’s just a casual dinner. That doesn’t mean getting dressed to the nines; a simple blouse for women or button down shirt for men is perfectly fine. It just means making a bit of an effort and perhaps changing clothes after a day of sightseeing before heading to dinner.
The true test to see how successful you have been at passing off as a European? When a European tourist mistakes you for a local and asks for directions – and of course when you return from the end of your vacation with all your valuables still intact.
About the author: Laurel Robbins
Laurel Robbins is a freelance travel writer who writes for a variety of publications. She comes from Canada, but now calls Germany home and has also lived in S. Korea, Thailand and the U.S.A She is happiest when traveling, hiking or diving. Her favorite travel adventures include diving with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos and volunteering on a conservation boat off the coast of Scotland. She is currently busy exploring Germany and writing about her European adventures on her popular travel blog: http://monkeysandmountains.com