After a solo, five-week travel and work stint in Europe, I was brushing back up on what I think of as my “travel skills”.
I fumbled a couple of times as I worked off my travel rust (like forgetting to study my basic German words before landing because I was so engrossed in the novel I was reading), but I increasingly thought about four of the most basic traveller ‘rules of conduct’ and tried to stick to them.
It might seem like varied and even common-sense advice, but applying them mindfully should keep you from looking like less of an ignorant a-hole and more like a respectful world wanderer. And let me tell you, while travelling alone, I had the opportunity to surreptitiously observe many a traveller looking a little too much like the former.
Healthy relationships with the locals make for a much more enjoyable and rewarding trip. Here’s what to consider.
1. Do Your Language 101
Although English is increasingly thought of as the international language, your best bet at a positive first impression is to start with a few words in the local language. Although rolling those “R”s and working your mouth around the unfamiliar pronunciations can be humbling, the locals will appreciate the effort and will probably be more amenable to helping you. (Besides, it’s kind of endearing – a good way to break the ice.)
The absolute musts are: ‘Hello’, ‘Please’ & ‘Thank You’.
2. Turn That Frown Upside Down
This is maybe the easiest, most commonsensical advice, but it can also be the hardest. Here are some very likely (possibly even daily) circumstances and biological states you WILL encounter while travelling that are not conducive to smiling:
- Being very late for a train, plane or other automobile
- Getting lost
- Any of the above + hauling a heavy suitcase (which may or may not now have a broken wheel)
- Any of the above + being hungry/ tired/ having a burning need to pee/ overheating or sweating profusely
Note: these states will commonly occur simultaneously – exponentially increasing your distress.
No one could blame you for not smiling in these circumstances. But, your unhappiest moments travelling are also when you most need help from a local.
Nobody wants to help an irate, frowning foreigner barking orders in an unfamiliar language. So dig deep, say your “Hola, Bonjour, Ciao or Ni Hao” and smiiiile.
3. Be a Prudent Pedestrian
People sometimes forget that the same basic road rules apply to walking as driving, particularly in crowds, metro stations and busy shopping areas. Ignore your walking road rules and at best a local will roll his eyes at you; at worst – he’ll pick your pocket.
- Never stop dead in the middle of a busy pedestrian thoroughfare (just like you wouldn’t slam on your breaks on the highway)
- Always shoulder check before “changing lanes”
- Pull-over when consulting your map or GPS. A lost tourist in the middle of the sidewalk, distracted and peering at their map is a pickpocket bull’s eye
- And lastly – for the love of God, stay to the right! This goes for escalators, sidewalks and moving sidewalks just like the road. The slow (or standing) lane is on the right and the passing lane is the left. Failure to comply with this traffic law will getcha bumped around.
4. Drop Expectations & Know Your Tipping
One of the most magical things about travel is the observation of cultural differences. This extends beyond the fun ones like food and music, to simple everyday interactions and particularly, customer service.
If your server seems to be snubbing you or you can’t get the bill to save your life – just chalk it up to a quirky cultural difference and be grateful for any efficiencies you enjoy back home.
Oh, and p.s., all of that “I didn’t know I was supposed to tip – we don’t do it in [insert home country here]” BS doesn’t fly anymore. Be respectful of local custom and you’ll get respect right back.
Friendly interactions with locals can be the best part of any trip. They’ve got the inside scoop – not only about where to eat and which beach is least crowded, but the real behind-the-scenes of what makes the country and people tick.
You’ll learn infinitely more from an unguarded local than a theatrical tour guide, so stick to your tourist rules of conduct and you’ll have a very cool trip.