My very lucky and talented sister is heading to the Mediterranean and Western Europe in March to be certified internationally as a yoga instructor (yes, we can all take a moment to be jealous here). And it got me to thinking – with all the craziness that is going on overseas and the relatively low opinion many there have towards Americans, what are some travel etiquette tips I could give her to help her navigate social norms abroad?
I came up with a list of the top 10 tips from travel experts and thought it a good idea to share them with all. Just in case you plan on venturing abroad anytime soon. (In which case – take me with you?)
Here are the best ways to avoid being “that guy” when traveling abroad:
I don’t mean an actual pimp here (although, that might be a good thing to avoid as well), but instead, try to avoid flashing money around. This may seem obvious but it’s one of the things that many travelers do by accident. You may have a large amount of currency that you’ve converted prior to leaving or be fumbling with your wallet as you try to pay for a subway or train card in your new destination.
If you prefer to carry some cash around – seperate out most of the bills and put them in a secret compartment or wallet from the one you will be taking out when you purchase items while out and about. Having just a few bills on hand (or at least appearing that way) will make you much less likely to become a target for potential pickpockets. [source]
You don’t have to become fluent in a country’s language before traveling there (although, if you have that ability, by all means, do so). But it does help to learn simple words like “Please” and “Thank you” as well as greetings (“Good Morning”) and short phrases (“I am so sorry, I only speak English”).
When I went to Paris in 2010, I learned how to greet store owners (“Bonjour, Madame/Monsoir”) as well as to alert them I didn’t speak French when attempting to ask a question (“Je suis desole. Je ne parle Francais. Parle vous Anglais?” which means “I am sorry. I do not speak French. Do you speak English?”). Outside of please (s’il vous plait) and thank you (“merci”), that was basically all I knew. But I found that people greeted me with a smile and were much friendlier when I at least made the effort to use these few phrases I had learned.
There are a number of apps and website that can provide these phrases for different languages, as well as audio and video clips to help you with the pronunciation.
According to Anna Post, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette 18th Edition (who was interviewed for the article here), “One thing that I’ve been told grates is to just start speaking English in a foreign county. Yes, it’s likely that a lot of people, especially in touristy spots, will speak English, but the presumption that they do is really obnoxious.”
Be a gracious guest, wherever you go. Don’t turn your nose up at an experience or new food just because it’s different from what you’ve done or tried before. Even if it turns out to be bad – it will make for a great story someday. And being nice and courteous will always get you further than being a jerk about someone offering you a piece of their culture. [source]
No, you don’t magically gain extraordinary athletic talent when traveling abroad (though, that would be freaking awesome). But, like an Olympian, you ARE representing the United States. And yes, that kind of sucks in a way (esp. when you see other Americans being “that guy”), but it is what it is. You have to accept this responsibility and act accordingly.
By that, I mean try and follow the tips in this list so that you can help defeat the widely accepted stereotype worldwide that Americans are loud, obnoxious and have crappy manners. You want to leave people with the impression that Americans are pretty awesome and are actually great travelers. As Budget Travel so elegantly put it, “You can’t cancel out the bad behavior of every American doofus traveling abroad, but you can make a difference by being a positive example of a U.S. citizen.” [source & source]
While I don’t mean to go out and buy a new wardrobe just for your trip (although that would be nice) – be sure to look into typical styles of the country, as well as to any customs regarding clothing that are widely accepted in the country you plan on visiting. Though it will likely be obvious to most people you speak with that you are an American, you can avoid shouting from the rooftops that you are “that guy” by dressing appropriately for your travels. Also, avoiding shouting in general is a good idea. Most other countries are not as in your face and loud as we are, so toning down your awesomeness a bit in addition to editing your wardrobe is an excellent idea. [source]
While here in America, most people tip between 15-20%, many other countries either include the tip into the bill or frown upon it altogether. Crazily enough, in Argentina, tipping is actually illegal. You can brush up on when and how to tip from this awesome infographic, courtesy of Wego:
Many, many countries (esp. in the Carribean) do not run on the American style go-go-go schedule. Time is far more fluid for them. As the daughter of someone who was born and raised in Jamaica, I can definitely tell you that “Island Time” is a real thing and that “soon come” can mean anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours.
Even if you’re not in the Caribbean, many European countries also operate under different time principles than we do stateside. When I was in Scotland, I was shocked to find out most stores closed by 6pm. When I asked one of the hostel staff about it, she told me it was so that workers could be at home with their families instead of working. While I thought that was awesome, it was something I had not known about the country until I was there. Additionally, in Spain, when its mid afternoon “siesta” time, don’t even think about going out and about and getting things done. (While there are some exceptions, many stores still close their doors during this time. You can learn more here.)
So while we are used to getting things done when we want to and stores that are open until 10pm or later, don’t expect these retail rules to carry over to other countries. And you can save yourself some headaches by researching whether any of these traditions hold true in the country you are going to visit. [source]
For the love of all that is good in this world, please do not go to another country and order french fries and a burger. The only time this is acceptable is, if you do like I did, and want to comparison-taste-test the McDonalds in France with the McDonalds here in America. The by all means – go ahead. But if you are at a restaurant that serves a variety of local foods, just grow up and try it.
I know so many people that refuse to break out of what they know and are against trying so many new dishes. How will you know you don’t like something unless you’ve tried it? Part of traveling and being immersed in another culture is sampling all the food that country has to offer. And if you end up hating it? At least you tried. But seriously, if you go to another country and hit up fast food joints or only order “American” style foods at restaurants, you are absolutely, 100% being “that guy.” [source]
Following Tip #8, this tip is about knowing what is proper when you are eating abroad. Don’t make the mistake I did by using two hands to eat Ethiopian food (and yes, you use your hands to eat the food – you can learn more here). This helpful infographic is a quick guide to some of the more common eating habits:
Additionally, Budget Travel has a list of international dining rules that you can find here.
Lastly, this tip sums up most of the other tips in that you should always, always, always do some research before you travel abroad. Look into the local customs – from Dress to Food to Eating to Tipping. Find out what may be considered rude or a faux pas in that country. Learn what will increase your odds of receiving excellent service. If you are going to spend the amount of money it takes to travel abroad these days, the least you can do is take some time and find out what exactly you should do and say and how to act over there. Make the effort to avoid being “that guy” – it will pay off for you when you have the trip of a lifetime! [source]
Share any additional travel tips with me below! And, as always,