When you are in the tourism industry, you are often surrounded by people from all over the world with different ways of….behaving, different ideas about travel etiquette. Travel pushes us out of our normal life and into a zone that we are not used to, putting us in touch with cultures we are not familiar with. That’s a wonderful thing for everyone involved and leads to better understanding. However, there can often be cultural miscommunications.
I’ve made some observations over the years of how to best conduct myself when I’m traveling. I’m a second child, so my job in this life is to observe others and try and learn from their mistakes. I have faith that most travelers would really like to be good citizens and be, what we call in Italian, “La Bella Figura” or the beautiful figure. It’s a concept that encompasses presenting yourself well, respecting others and following social customs.
I’ve compiled a little list of travel etiquette Dos and Don’ts for travel abroad. You may agree or disagree with my observations and that’s cool. We all have our opinions, and here are mine. Hopefully I’ll avoid sounding preachy or like Mean Mommy, but this is sort of a list of rules and it is what it is. I do hope it’s helpful and will make your trip happier and more comfortable. Nothing feels worse in travel than offending others on accident. I’ll add to this article as ideas come to me, so check back.
In the Airport
DO- Be prepared before entering the security line. Have your tickets ready, your liquids emptied and your electronics and toiletries separated and ready for the tray. None of us like a long line at the airport, being ready to do your part to get through it quick is a nice courtesy for everyone.
DO- Talk to and be friendly with the TSA staff, no matter how grumpy you may feel. That’s got to be a tough job, dealing with grumpy travelers for hours at a time. I always smile and think them for their work. They are keeping me safe, after all.
DON’T- Bring more than your allotted carry-on weight and size and try to sneak it on. It will just delay everyone.
DON’T- Bring more luggage than you can reasonably handle and assume some kind stranger will help you maneuver through the airport and put it in the overhead compartment. That’s not really fair to other travelers, and your luck may run out.
On the Plane
DO- Chat and be kind to flight attendants. They are on a long flight too, but not sleeping and sometimes wearing heels. I was once advised to bring candy to give to the crew, which is a nice touch.
DO- Greet your seat mate, but don’t impose your conversation on them unless they are obviously interested. Some people don’t like to chat on flights.
DO- Be courteous to the person in the middle seat. That seat is a bummer. Give them more armrest space, be gracious when they need to get up.
DON’T- Immediately recline your chair as soon as you sit down. Or bounce up and down constantly. And on behalf of tall people everywhere, I beg you, please look before you recline and make sure you’re not crushing the knees of the person behind you.
DON’T- Start an armrest cold war with your seat mate (unless you know them). Try and take your 50% and no more.
At the Hotel
DO- Confirm the day before your arrival and tell them your arrival time. Even if it’s a larger hotel, it’s a nice courtesy. For smaller hotels or homes it can be critical.
DO- Treat your lodgings better than your own home. Be a good guest and, like the Boy Scouts, leave no trace of your stay.
DO- Leave a little tip for the housekeepers if your room was well cleaned. It doesn’t have to be much, but something as simple as a note thanking them is appreciated. If you see the cleaning staff in the hallways, make eye contact and say hello.
DO- Use make-up remover and tissues rather than wipe off with a towel. Make-up can ruin towels for hotels.
DON’T- Turn your TV or music way up, and try and keep TV sound low after 10pm. Keep conversations low, you’d be really shocked by how easy it is to hear through the walls. Don’t even ask me what I’ve heard.
DON’T- Hog all the hot water. In many small hotels abroad, the hot water is finite. Be cool and take a quick shower, or take a shower at times of day when other guests aren’t, like before bed.
DON’T- Ignore the breakfast staff. Be sure to greet them and look them in the eye. I’ve learned this one the hard way. I’m really shy and tend to keep to myself before I’ve had coffee. I wouldn’t blame anyone for spitting in my cappuccino.
On Public Transportation
DO- Get a map and tickets ahead of time, asking all of your questions from the staff before you get on the bus. Be prepared and use it like a local. Have exact change in the correct currency.
DO- Offer your seat to the infirm, pregnant or elderly. You’d be shocked how many people don’t do that.
DON’T- Bother the driver while they are driving.
In a Restaurant
DO- Have an open mind. Try the local specialties. Ask the waiter for suggestions.
DO- Be gracious if you have a food allergy. Work with the restaurant and they will probably be able to find something that works for you. Avoid being pushy or demanding about it, other cultures may not normally deal with allergy issues and may not know what to do. Have something in your bag as a last resort.
DO- Become familiar with the tipping customs. Leaving too little can be offensive, but leaving too much can also look bad. I aim for 10% if I have no clue and Google isn’t available to answer the question.
DON’T- Split a plate between two people, order tap water and nothing else. Not cool.
DON’T- Expect free water. Assume you will be paying for water. Water is considered a beverage abroad, and therefore costs the same as any other beverage. Water from the tap is what you wash your clothes in. This attitude is changing, but be sure to ask before you order to avoid uncomfortable bill questions.
DON’T- Expect ice. Ice in your drinks is not a normal thing outside of the US. More below.
DON’T- Be loud in a restaurant. Keep your conversation level low. It’s hard to gauge sometimes, and I’m suggesting this because I’m the worst culprit. Especially after a bottle or three of wine.
DO- Bring a sketchbook. There is something really joyful about seeing people sketch in museums, please do it if that’s your thing. It’s a nice conversation starter as well.
DO- Read up on the museum ahead of time if you can. It will be more enjoyable and you can ask any questions you may have from the staff at the ticket office.
DON’T- Linger for a long time in front of works that many people are trying to see. Conversely, don’t shove people out of the way to see something. Wait your turn. If you’re tall like I am, be kind and stay to the back of the group.
DON’T- Hog the seating if there isn’t much available, and always offer your seat to anyone older or more tired than you.
In Holy Places
DO- Observe the customs of the religion. Dress modestly in all religious places, keeping knees and shoulders covered, hats off. Most religions welcome foreigners, but ask that you follow their traditions during your visit.
DO- Keep your voice low, you never know if someone is praying. If a service is in session, stay to the back and just observe.
DON’T- Take photos unless you are sure it is ok.
DO- Learn to turn your flash off before you leave home. Keep it turned off in general, only use it when you need it. Photos are usually allowed in museums but without a flash.
DON’T- Use a selfie stick. If you must, do it well away from humans and valuable objects, and please don’t use it in religious places.
DON’T- Hold up a tour group while you try and take the perfect shot. You can always as the guide where to meet them if you need a few minutes to take pics.
DON’T- Expect the world to stop for you while you take a photo. Stopping and blocking foot bridges or sidewalks so you can get the perfect shot while 500 people wait is just rude. If you want a shot without other people in it, go out early in the morning. The light is better anyhow. Be warned if you see me, I photobomb with impunity.
On a Tour
DO- Be nice to your guide. Be understanding if they can’t answer your question immediately or have other things on their minds. Guiding is a much more complex job than it appears. They are not on vacation and are usually working during your free time.
DO- Be on time. Always.
DO- Ask lots of questions, guides love an interested group. But make sure they are of general interest and not just something that pertains to you.
DO- Have team spirit. Tours are a group sport. Pitch in when the guide needs a hand. Jump in to load luggage or pass out tickets. Keep an eye on others in the group, consider them your temporary family even if it’s just for a couple of hours.
DON’T- Be grumpy, selfish or difficult with the group. It’s everyone’s vacation.
DON’T- Talk when the tour guide is talking. This is really irritating to other people in the group and makes it hard for the guide to focus.
DO- Find out tipping policies for your tour company, keeping in mind that some guides work for tips, not salary. If tips are not allowed, find a way to thank your guide and driver if they have been good to you. Even a simple thank you note written on a napkin will warm their heart. Wine is better, though 😉
DON’T- Disrespect the guide, no matter how boring you may find them. Deep sighs, rolling of eyes, chatting with others in the group, putting on headphones or reading a guidebook in the middle of a tour is just mean.
DON’T- Underestimate the work and skill involved in tour guiding. Guides are usually highly educated professionals, so don’t ask them what they are going to do when they grow up or ask them how they can get your kid who speaks a foreign language a job. You’d never ask a doctor if she can get your kid a job as a doctor because they know CPR.
DO- Investigate the local culture before you go. What do people wear? How do they gesture? How do they greet each other? Knowing a few really simple things can open doors to any traveler. I’ve found the Culture Shock series of books to be super helpful in preparing for a trip.
DO- Try and speak the local language first. It sounds old-fashioned, but phrasebooks are a great resource. A well-written one can be a great read on the plane.
DON’T- Speak louder and slower if you are not understood. They can hear you, they just don’t understand you.
DON’T- Try to pay with dollars in Europe. Doesn’t work and makes you look like you’re a tourist from the 1950’s.
DO- Try and support the local economy. Buy locally made things that support an artist.
DON’T- Buy knock-offs from a guy on the street. You can be fined for that. And those guys will never go away if they always have customers.
DON’T- Cling to American ways. Ice. Ice is the big one. Some other cultures don’t put ice into their drinks, they think it is dishonest to water down the drink you’ve paid for. If you NEED ice, ask politely but don’t get pissed if they won’t give it to you.
DON’T- Wear obnoxious clothes or lots of perfume. Keep it low key, you never know the expectations of other countries.
DO- Dress modestly, avoid the “butt shorts”, sweatpants, clothes with holes in them. You’ll be treated better everywhere if you’re dressed appropriately, and in many places the normal standard of dress is higher than we are used to. I’m from Seattle where people wear sweats to the opera. That’s not ok in Europe, you wouldn’t be let in the door.
DO- Practice random acts of kindness while you travel. Overtip occasionally. Open the door for strangers. Compliment someone. Smile a lot, even if other cultures don’t tend to do that. Bringing a small item from your city to give away, like local candy or pins, can be a fun way to connect.
DO- Be patient. Be kind to others, no matter who they are. Treat every stranger like they are your favorite grandparent. Respect and dignity are really important in other cultures, no matter what a person’s job may be. You have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives, a little kindness can mean a lot.
Geez, now that I read back through this list, if everyone actually did these things every day while traveling and also while at home….I think we’d achieve world peace!
It’s all about respect. Respect others and be patient. Travel can fray nerves. Cultural communication is an art form. People can be at their best and their worst while traveling. Let it start with you. Be at your best.