If you’ve traveled to any extent, you’ll most likely have noticed tourists. They’re the ones being loud and drawing attention to themselves, oblivious to what’s going on around them, and likely causing trouble for attraction attendants or those around them. I have dozens of stories of people acting like the world revolves around them, from demanding they get to the front of the attraction line because they have a kid, demanding people in another country speak English with them, to damaging property and totally ignoring social norms to the point of total disrespect for the local culture. They’re the worst. You’ve also likely seen travelers. People who are prepared and confident, people who speak at least a bit of the local language, they blend in with locals as much as possible, and are respectful of everyone around them. I’m going to share a few pointers for being a traveler, not a tourist, so you can be respectful of new places, new experiences, and others, while better enjoying your travels. Of course, I’m sure you’re already a traveler, aren’t you?
My Worst Encounter with Tourists
I’ll never forget running into a group of French tourists on the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, because it was such an uncomfortable experience. Bullet trains in Japan are not places to socialize, they’re a spot for people to get from point A to point B while minding their own business, working, eating, or sleeping. These tourists were very drunk in the middle of the day, laughing boisterously, talking so loudly I could hear them very clearly at the back of the train car, two people were standing up making out which is not something you’d see much of at all in Japan, and blasting music out of a cell phone. Generally, they were being obnoxious and drawing a ton of attention to themselves.
One of the train attendants tried talking to them in English but they either didn’t speak English or didn’t want to talk to the attendant and acted like they didn’t understand, so being the only other European looking people on that train car, the attendant came up to us to ask us to have our “friends” calm down. It was so embarrassing, because clearly we didn’t know them and weren’t sitting anywhere near them, but they also were acting like total crazies and disrupting everyone’s experience, so I don’t blame her for trying to find a way to communicate with them. I eventually went up to the most sober looking person and in the best French I could muster, told them they needed to be quiet because the attendants were calling the police. It wasn’t entirely true, but they did turn off their music and quieted down before getting off at the next stop.
I could go on and on about similar experiences, but I think you get the idea. Tourists are generally disrespectful to those around them and ignorant of local customs and culture. Picture a stereotypical American tourist, dressed inappropriately, demanding people in another country speak English, demanding a discount for some inane reason, or complaining loudly about local cuisine. It’s not a good look, and people like this have earned Americans a reputation for being uncouth and disrespectful. In fact, people often assume we are British or Canadian when we travel, because we “don’t act American”, and the thought that our entire country has such a bad reputation makes me really sad, because there are so many wonderful, respectful, and kind people who live here. Together, I think we can work to repair our relationship with other places around the world by proving that we can be excellent guests in other places, that we are capable and willing to learn the basics of another language, and that even if food or other customs are different from what we’re used to, that doesn’t make these experiences any less worthy of our respect and appreciation. Here are ways we are always working to be travelers, adept, respectful, and flexible explorers of new (to us) places, rather than obnoxious tourists.
Doing research ahead of time can minimize our impact on locals, especially when traveling somewhere we don’t speak the language. I research train and bus routes, airport layouts, trains station layouts, and download Google Maps with pins saved with routes to and from places I’ll be visiting and staying to my phone so I can access them without WiFi, or I figure out where to get a SIM card in order to use my phone locally. This means I won’t have to ask as many people for directions, I won’t get lost, I’m less likely to get injured, and I won’t be late to appointments, scheduled tickets, miss trains, or keep anyone waiting.
I also learn at least the basics of the languages of the places I’ll be visiting, even if it’s just for a layover. Learn how to say “Please”, “Thank you”, “Please, excuse me”, “My apologies” or “I’m sorry”, “I’m sorry, but I don’t really speak (language name)”, “Where is the restroom?”, “Do you speak English/French/Spanish/German/etc.?” along with any other specific phrases you may need. Knowing at the very least these phrases can help you smooth over any mistakes you may make. If you’ll be spending more than a layover in another country where you don’t speak the language, you will want to do your best to learn as much of their language as possible. Keep an eye out for my list of basic travel phrases you should learn when traveling somewhere that doesn’t speak your mother tongue.
Read my tips & tricks for learning another language, here.
Make reservations ahead of time when possible, so you don’t have to risk missing out, but accept that sometimes things happen, which can make for excellent travel stories in its own right, like the time we went to the wrong bamboo forest in Kyoto. If possible, have a back up plan or two, when it comes to places like hotels or attractions. While it’s not common, I’ve heard stories of people arriving to their hotel only to discover the hotel was double booked and they don’t actually have a room available. Having done your research ahead of time, you can confidently head to another hotel nearby, for example.
Always remember that sometimes things happen that are out of anyone’s control. For instance, we were disappointed to find that when we arrived in London, the Great Bell (aka Big Ben), was under construction for the next few years, but we had a long list of other things to do nearby, so it wasn’t a problem. We overheard someone furiously raging at a café owner near the clock, demanding that they find someone to fix the clock immediately, so they could take a photo of it. Obviously, that café worker had absolutely nothing to do with the clock’s construction schedule, and the idea that anyone would even consider rearranging a massive, multi-year maintenance plan for a tourist is absolutely ridiculous.
Look into cultural norms before visiting a new place, even if you’re simply hopping across the border to Canada or Mexico. Look up how to show appreciation and gratitude, look up norms about tipping (some places it’s expected, some places include it automatically, and in some places tipping is insulting), and research ways to apologize or say excuse me when navigating a crowded space. Generally, having an understanding of how to be polite will go a very long way when traveling.
Research what to pack, what to wear to blend in and understand how locals dress and why they do so, especially if you’re headed somewhere more conservative, and research hand gestures that may be rude or offensive, like how pointing in many cultures is extremely rude.
Look into the laws of the nation you’re visiting. Some places have laws that are very different from the ones in the United States, and they aren’t optional when visiting. All travelers are held to the same standard of law when they enter a new place, because by entering into that nation or region, you’re agreeing to follow their rules. If the show Locked Up Abroad has taught me anything, it’s that it’s much better to know and follow the laws than it is to do time far away from home.
If a local corrects you, or gives you advice on how to blend into their region, thank them and do what they say, even if you don’t really like it (as long as it’s safe to do, of course). If you’re turned away for not being dressed appropriately, as many people were when we visited Vatican City, don’t lash out, as the person enforcing the rules isn’t the one making them. Had those people done some research, they would’ve known that everyone has to have their shoulders covered and men can’t wear shorts that don’t cover their knees, among other things.
Accept that unless you’ve grown up in another culture, you likely won’t completely understand all the nuances of that culture, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Do as much research as you can before your visit, prepare to the best of your abilities, and be flexible while you’re there, even if it means picking up clothing the locals are wearing, rescheduling an excursion, or having to apologize for committing a social faux pas. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to apologize and how to be polite in another language!
Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist
With these things in mind, anyone can be a competent traveler, rather than a clueless tourist. Being prepared, flexible, respectful, and humble will give you the confidence to travel anywhere in the world, without being too self-conscious or sticking out like a sore thumb. If we were all kinder, more patient, and more respectful of one another, the world would be a much better place. I think we can make that happen, if we all work on being good ambassadors for ourselves, our homelands, and our own cultures, by being considerate of others when we travel and when we’re at home.
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