• 30 August 2017

Exploring a new destination and immersing yourself in the culture of its citizens is an immensely rewarding experience. But it can be even more rewarding if we, as travelers, take care to observe the customs and travel etiquette of the places we visit. In some countries it’s okay to slurp your soup, whistle for a cab or point with your index finger. In other countries it’s not. You have to be mindful when you travel. The locals are essentially hosting you in their home country.

Here are a few pointers we’ve picked up that can be useful for travels to Europe, America, South Africa and further afield:

Learn as much as you can about the place you’re travelling to

While there’s a lot to be said for ‘learning on the job’, it also pays to be prepared. Read up on the customs, history and culture of your destination. The more you know about a country and its citizens, the smaller the odds are that you’ll overstep your bounds. Besides, it’s fun! You learn all sorts of interesting trivia in the process. E.g. did you know many Russians refuse to shake hands over a threshold? They believe it leads to an argument. Now, that’s a super interesting titbit to work into conversation with fellow travellers on the coach.

Remember you’re a visitor

Always regard locals as your hosts and let them go about their normal routines. Don’t expect them to make space for you on the train/tram/bus. This is their day to day and they might be on their way to work or school. Always be courteous in your interactions, and you will reap the rewards. Most people are eager to help and engage with a friendly person, no matter where they’re from.

Also, there are rules for a reason (stick to them) 

If it states no bicycles on the promenade, there’s a reason for it. Or if the locals don’t want you swimming in the canal, there might be a health or safety risk.  Take note of signage in and around areas you’re exploring and if you’re not sure, ask.  But, rule of thumb, if the locals are not doing it, you shouldn’t either.

Learn some of the language & lingo

In Greece nodding your head is considered to be impolite. It’s better to say “yes” instead. In the Netherlands it’s considered rude to shout a greeting. Each nation has it’s own preferences when it comes to language and greetings.  It can be a good idea to read up a bit about basic language uses. Greeting a person in their native tongue is one of the most powerful introductions you can ever have. Even if you can only say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ in the language of the country you’re visiting, you already have an advantage. Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” This adage rings true throughout the world. While we’re on the subject of greeting – make sure you knows what kind of greeting is the norm in the place you’re visiting. Some nations shake hands, others kiss on the cheek, and some even don’t do physical contact at all and suffice with a respectful bow. Knowing your boundaries where this is concerned helps a lot.

Be mindful when taking selfies

Taking a selfie in a foreign destination is very tempting. After all, you want a visual keepsake of your time in this wonderful place, and possibly share it with your followers on social media as well.  Like travel etiquette, you also get selfie etiquette. First, be careful about who/what you include in the background. For instance, taking a selfie while you’re touring erstwhile concentration camps in Germany is just not respectful. Second, a selfie stick is not welcome everywhere. In some countries it can be seen as a weapon and museums don’t allow it as a rule. Be careful where you use it, and always keep the people around you in mind when you’re trying to find the perfect angle.

Mind your manners in restaurants

Trying local cuisine is a big part of exploring a new culture. The food will be both interesting and different and you might not like the taste. But always remember that it’s the traditional food of the country you’re visiting.  While we’re on the topic of restaurants – do some research regarding tipping before you make your way to your destination. In some countries gratuity is expected; in others it could be offensive. If you’re not sure, check with your tour guide. It’s always better to be prepared.

Dress appropriately

Yes, you’re on holiday and you’re allowed to wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. However, be cognisant of the fact that certain modes of dress are frowned upon in certain countries and places. For instance, you can’t go into a synagogue with bare shoulders and flip flops. Nor can you walk into a shopping centre in France in your pajamas. Make sure you keep it stylish, and when in doubt, cover up to the knees and elbows to be on the safe side.

Keep controversial opinions to yourself

When it comes to travel etiquette, we can’t not mention opinions and discussion points. Many countries throughout the world have complicated politics and difficult histories. If you have a controversial opinion about something like communism, the Holocaust or a country’s president/ruling party, rather keep it to yourself. Or at least be mindful about the fact that the locals might be sensitive about specific topics, especially about politics and religion.

Only bargain when appropriate

Bargaining is practiced every day in markets around the world. In some places, it’s expected and part of the culture. However, when bargaining is done disrespectfully it becomes embarrassing for the seller. Bear this in mind when you try to bring down the price of a keepsake. Also, never try to bargain in a traditional brick-and-mortar store. Prices don’t have to be adapted for you just because you’re a tourist. In many countries the citizens depend on the income they make from tourism, so rather pay full price if you’re unsure about whether bargaining is appropriate. Once again, knowledge is power.  There are ways to find out what a good price is to pay. Ask a local at the hotel you’re staying at or ask someone that know the country/region what they would pay.

Never, ever, litter

There is not a single country in the world that does not frown upon littering. Stash your trash. Certain countries have public bins that are sorted according to the type of waste you can deposit. Read signs and adhere to the guidelines.

Be a nice human

In short – be the nicest version of yourself. Keep your local hosts and fellow travellers in mind at all times. No man is an island; our actions have consequences. Even if you do manage to breach an obscure code of conduct in a foreign country, a sincere apology normally does the trick. Go with the flow and learn as you go – it’s as simple as that.

These are a few of the common travel etiquette , customs and habits we try to keep in mind when we travel abroad. Have you ever put your foot in your mouth on foreign soil by accident? Share your hard-won wisdom with us below!

Questions & Comments

  1. I would like to emphasise the importance of being respectful in all churches, not just synagogues. No photos, either.

  2. Is it true that Germans don’t share their food?

    • Expat Explore says:

      Hi Neneng,

      That depends on the person, it’s not a culture thing, but rather preference.

      If you’d like to see for yourself, you can look at some of our trips that go through Germany here >>https://expatexplore.com/tour_groups/germany/

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