Ah, the delight of traveling abroad. Whether it’s a wedding in Mexico, European trip with college pals, dream trip to Asia, or a beach vacation to the Caribbean with your family, your coolness factor may be at stake.
Being "cool" (elusive and subjective as that may be) in your home town, state, country or state of mind shifts dramatically when you’re lugging a backpack, relying on a map or guidebook, and surrounded by unfamiliar territory.
With globalization on the rise and an increased need for cultural sensitivity, traveling abroad can be a make or break adventure, assuming you plan carefully and take some simple precautions. Here are tips for blending in and getting the most out of your trip abroad:
1. Step out of your glaring, white shoes and into stylish, yet comfy shoes (unless your podiatrist requires special shoes for your knees or back). For foreign city trips (Rome, etc.) walking around in a nice pair of leather sandals or closed toed shoes makes all the difference. Nothing targets a tourist like bright, white sneakers.
2. Be culturally sensitive. You're on foreign turf. Respecting local customs, culture, services offered by this particular country is a must. Find out if wearing shorts in a church is acceptable or forbidden. When in doubt, cover your skin. I found this out the hard way in Israel when I was nearly tackled by an Arabic man in an Arabic village for wearing shorts in a Christian church.
3. Learn 10 basic phrases (hello, goodbye, thank you, passport, please…) in a language before traveling there. What better way to make the trip more exciting than practicing speaking a new language. Even go beyond the basics and take a class in a foreign language for a few weeks or months prior to traveling. I've done this and it makes the trip all the more enjoyable (not to mention my travel pals appreciated my knowing how to quickly and politely ask where to find the nearest restroom). Berlitz classes are perfect.
4. Respect their language.
- If a foreign word sounds funny or like a "bad" English word – don't laugh. When someone is communicating in their native tongue in their native country, remember who the foreigner is.
- Even in countries where English is prevalent, some people may not speak it. Best not to assume they do and politely ask if they speak English.
- If you're going to a country where English is spoken secondarily or a little, accents or local phrases can still throw you off. Be prepared to speak clearly and think of simpler or different ways to say the same thing, so they can respond to you in a different way. It's amazing how many things are lost in translation. Don't assume anyone speaks American slang, ya dig? For that matter, Americans have widely different pronunciations depending on their home region and you may have an accent to someone and not realize it.
5. Keep the volume down. Nothing makes me cringe more when I'm traveling abroad than hearing an obnoxious group foreign to the country. Because I'm American, I'm especially sensitive to other Americans being insensitively loud. I distinguish from Canadian and British English speakers because they don't seem to be as loud, or perceived as crass as Americans. Keep it cool and use your "inside voices" 24/7. Unless, of course, you're at a sporting event and the local team wins.
6. Absorb the culture using all five senses. Breathe in the air. Taste spices and culinary combinations. Step outside of your safe hotel and eat where the locals do. Don't ask the hotel staff where to go – they likely have a deal with a restaurant. Ask someone in a shop or just stroll the streets until you find an eatery filled with local patrons. Discover a tradition new to you but common to locals. Flamenco in Spain? Wine-tasting in Italy? Siesta in Mexico?
7. Study up on the city/region/country.
Read books, look online and talk to anyone who's traveled there – get insights on best and worst experiences so you know what to do and what to avoid before you go. Even 30 minutes of prep can help you avoid pitfalls, save you money or time, and make the trip more enjoyable.
8. Be sensitive with camera in hand. While the country may look like a fairytale to you, this is other people's home. If you take photos of people not in your group, be as inconspicuous and non-chalant as possible. If you sense someone is uncomfortable with your attention on them, take heed and respect their privacy.
9. Handle money matters smoothly. Don't fumble around with money or forget where you placed it and do the pocket pat. Organize your money and documents in private (hotel room, etc.) before you walk out in public. Buy a money pouch that can go around your waist and under clothing for your essentials like passport, bulk of cash, cards, etc. Diversify with an ATM card, credit card, foreign currency, and a couple of travelers' checks. You can keep each of these in different locations (suitcase, socks, money pouch) for security.
10. Group travel abroad has its special consideration. By nature, you are likely a group of like-minded individuals excited for the journey and happy to be traveling together at last. It can be extra easy to be a little careless in group mentality. In addition to all of the above tips, if you're the trip planner, here are basics to prepare and share with the group:
- Provide a link to a trusted travel guide online for the region/country months in advance of your trip. Think Lonely Planet's world guide.
- Languages – find out which languages are spoken and how frequently you can expect English to be used. Embassies can help.
- Create a list of ten most useful phrases or words in the country’s language such as: 1) Thank you. 2) Please. 3) My name is _____. 4) Where is a bathroom? 5) How much does it cost? 6) Tickets. And whatever else you think might be helpful for your group.
- Know your group – if they would get more excited about cultural icons than shopping, find out the operating hours and days of major sites. Nothing is worse than going to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel and being in town when it's closed. If you match your group to the activities, it’s more likely for people to be in awe of what they're doing/seeing – and be on their best behavior.
- Splurge on at least one exceptional meal that typifies the region. Prepare your group so they know what they can expect for the meal and why it is a local tradition.
Blending in doesn't mean being unauthentic or unoriginal. It simply means respecting other cultures, religions, beliefs, and living conditions. Through careful observation, you just might find an understanding not only of how people in other countries move, work, eat, talk, but how you cope and operate in unfamiliar territory. That alone is an invaluable life experience. And putting yourself at the mercy of foreign driving rules, customs, food specialties inevitably will also expand your horizons, giving you a greater appreciation for those who travel on your turf.