If you’re planning a trip abroad you already know the basics. You know to get your passport months before your trip, read up on safety, and learn a few local phrases. You do some basic planning.
But here are a few less obvious things to think about — things many of us learned the hard way when traveling abroad.
1. Are your hand gestures obscene?
I took my very first trip abroad to London when I was twenty years old. After flying from Denver to Newark to London, I was jet lagged and exhausted. I nearly got nailed by a bus when I stepped out of Victoria Station, but somehow managed to survive the short walk across the street to catch my bus.
When we got on the bus, my travel companion, just as sleepy as I, looked at the bus driver and said “two tickets.” However, she had her hand turned so her palm was facing herself. The bus driver laughed, sold her the tickets, and we boarded the bus with our backpacks. It wasn’t until we rested, ate, and reflected on the travel that we realized she had flipped him off, British style. It would be like someone asking a bus driver in the U.S. for one ticket, but using their middle finger to do so.
You’ll take some time to learn a few phrases when you’re going to another country; also take some time to learn what gestures are profane. Thumbs up, okay signs, etc. are just fine in the U.S.A., but you might horribly offend someone in Singapore. Matador has a great list of common gestures that Americans don’t think twice about until they’ve alienated their foreign friends.
2. Don’t eat like a pig (unless that’s what the locals do).
Eating is one of those things that we don’t even think about. It’s so automatic. We learn manners and etiquette (or not) from our parents, and then we go about shoving food into our faces in whatever way seems proper (or not) for our culture.
But eating can be vastly different depending on where you go. When I was in Thailand I had friends who fed the stray dogs scraps from the table. This seemed to make everyone around us quite uncomfortable. In Japan my friend’s family thought it was hilarious that I couldn’t slurp my noodles the right way.
In Germany it’s proper to eat french fries and pizza with a fork, but when it comes to crepes you just roll them up like a burrito and eat them with your hands, even when they’re dripping with Nutella.
Are you offending people by sticking your chopsticks straight up out of the bowl or rubbing them together to get the splinters off? You might be.
Do some research on eating customs so you know what to expect. Heavy tourist areas are accustomed to oblivious travelers, but it can’t hurt to be polite any way. It may ingratiate you to locals and enable you to get invitations you wouldn’t otherwise get.
3. Why aren’t you making room?
Americans typically have very different ideas about personal space than other cultures. Unless you’re from New York and used to being shoved into a subway car with hundreds of people, you might naturally place your backpack on the seat next to you on the train and just assume that it’s ok.
I’ve seen train conductors get angry at Americans who do this, and a lot of Americans do. Did you pay for a seat for your backpack? No? Then get it off the seat.
I bought a ticket on a very slow overnight ferry, and when I reserved my spot I saw that I would be sharing my floor mattress with another person. A stranger. You will not get your own space, so you’ll need to accept that it won’t hurt to be closer to a stranger than you normally would feel comfortable with.
This is true not only on ferries, but on public transportation all over the world. On a night train from Madrid to Barcelona I sat crammed into a very small train berth with an angry drunk German, a family of four, and several other people. It was hot. It smelled bad. There wasn’t enough room for me to sit with my back against the bench.
After much grumbling and a few trips to the bar car, I accepted my lot and spent the night awake in that hot, tiny berth. It wasn’t fun, but it was necessary. Unless you pay for it, you’re not going to have a ton of room. And that has to be okay.
4. Your feet are gross.
Ugh. Feet. Feet and Americans. We rest our feet on the seat in front of us, we sit with our feet sticking out, we point our feet at whatever we choose.
In much of Asia, pointing your feet at someone or at something regarded as holy (statues of the Buddha, etc.), is horribly offensive. Your feet are dirty and gross, so keep them folded neatly under you.
No matter where you are, don’t rest your feet on anything. You might feel the need to stretch out on the bus or in a cafe, but please, please, PLEASE don’t put your feet up on the armrest, on the seat in front of you, or on another chair. This isn’t the Wild West, and you’re not entitled to act like Billy the Kid. Were you raised in a barn?!
Even if you were raised in a barn, you don’t have an excuse to be rude about your feet. You might be expected to remove your shoes when you enter someone’s home or even an office building. Most temples require you to remove your shoes, and it’s extremely rude if you forget.
This is why many people wear easy-to-remove sandals; you might be taking your shoes on and off quite often, so be prepared. If you’re not in a part of the world where people expect you to remove your shoes, you should still be aware of where you put your feet. A friend of mine got a very stern talking to when she rested her feet on a chair at a cafe in Madrid. It was embarrassing for all of us that she was so oblivious.
5. Your self-reliance is costing someone a job.
In New Jersey and Oregon, you’re not allowed to pump your own gas. So you don’t. You sit in your car and let someone do it for you, and BOOM. You’ve created a job.
In some parts of the world, you really need to swallow your self-reliant American pride and let someone open the door for you. Let them carry your bags. Let them drive you in a rickshaw down the street. Yes, you can do it yourself, but if you can afford to travel abroad, then you can afford to participate in the local economy.
Haggling is fine. People expect it. You can haggle down the price of that handmade purse or trinket sold on the street. That doesn’t harm the local economy. But when you refuse to let a local show you around Angkor Wat for the day, not only are you making it harder for them to find work, you’re also missing out on a ton of great information.
My motorcycle driver in Siem Reap was training to be a tour guide, so he drove me to the temples and gave me an incredible lesson on the history and cosmology of Angkor. And he knew where to stop and rest in the shade with a cold bottle of water.
Yes, I hired a motorcycle driver. This wasn’t because I am rich or I wanted to feel pampered. It’s because you cannot hide your privilege when you travel abroad, especially when you travel to a developing country. Backpackers often like to think of themselves as roaming vagabonds, but if you can take time off work, if you can afford a plane ticket, then you’re already much more privileged than many of the locals whose countries have opened themselves up to tourism.
They depend on you, and they’re welcoming you into their community so you can experience something new, something memorable, and something that you can photograph to show to your friends back home. The least you can do is support their economy by acknowledging that when they offer you help, that’s their job. And you can afford to spend $20 for an amazing tour guide.
It’s like this: if you don’t have enough money for a tip, you won’t eat at a restaurant. The same goes for travel. When you’re budgeting for your trip, budget for small things like this and know that it’s something you owe the local community for their generosity of letting you in.
Seasoned travelers, do you have any other tips?