We’re All a Bit Different – Common Sense Tips While Visiting Other Countries

March, 2020

Traveling can be fun and it can be very confusing. Not everybody has the same daily life routines as we do and they don’t all have the same customs as the United States does. As we travel, we always do a bit of research on the locations that we visit. This includes geography, language, religion, currency, transportation and even how to greet someone. It will make a huge difference as you travel.

Below are a few “common sense” items that we encounter and will hopefully help you be a better informed and considerate traveler.

Smoke Happens – You will see lots of smoking in European countries. And sadly, most of the smoking areas are located in the beautiful little outside seating areas. Inside is generally for non-smokers and outside (as you walk through the cloud smoke – cough cough) is generally smoking designated.

Pay for What You Eat – It’s very typical for a basket of bread, butter, cheese and sometimes olives to be delivered to the table when you are seated. These items are rarely complimentary. The front page of the menu will generally give you the price. If you are not interested, just ask the waiter to remove them.

Colors Matter – In a world that is rapidly changing, we always suggest that you try to blend into the crowd. Yes, in some places this is impossible. However, when traveling in European countries you can wear dark colors and try to blend in. Color accent scarves are perfectly acceptable. We strive to not be the center of attention. We also highly recommend that you never wear a USA flag or Proud to be an American shirt. We are certainly proud to be an American but not everyone wants to be an American nor is very happy with the political climate in the USA right now. So, err on the side of being conservative. Blend in, don’t stand out.

Zip it, Clip it, Watch it – Like all big cities, pickpockets have a field day with tourists. You are looking around, taking pictures and just not paying a lot of attention to your personal belongings. So zip your bags, clip your backpacks with carabiners and put your wallet in your front pocket. Don’t hang your bag over the back of the chair and forget about it. Don’t make it easy to be robbed.

Cobbles and Heels – Many European cities come complete with cobblestone sidewalks and streets. While these are beautiful to look at, they are not made for high heeled shoes. So, be sure you bring a pair of sensible walking shoes, and maybe a pair of insoles – your feet will be very glad that you did.

Sit, Stand or Take Away – Restaurants and cafes operate a bit differently in European countries. In most of the larger cities, you will be asked if you are standing, seating or taking away. What’s the difference? The price! They don’t have as much square footage in most countries like we do in the US. This means, if you are standing or taking away, you aren’t using as much of the square footage. If you sit, you are taking up more real estate and they aren’t turning over their clients as quickly. It’s strictly financial.

No Free Drink Refills – No unlimited soft drink refills in almost any country other than the US. Your glass will be filled to a specific point and that’s it – one glass, one price. Water is generally bottled and you pay for the bottle – the bottle will almost always be glass. Coffee is handled the same way, but you can pay a bit more and ask for a doble, grande or cafe americano and get a little larger cup.

Translation Apps – Never, ever, no way, just don’t do it, put your phone in someone’s face to translate their speech. Folks, that’s part of traveling in another country. There will be some “lost in translation moments”, but make the best of it. It’s offensive and unless you are in an emergency situation, just don’t. What you can do is plug your question into the app, remember it in their language, put the phone away, then walk up and ask. They will be pleasantly surprised you are trying. PS. Many of these apps depend on a WiFi or cell connections.

It’s Your Phone Call – This falls in the same category as being polite. If you are making a phone call in public, you should cover your mouth and don’t put your calls on speaker phone. Save the speaker calls and video chats for your hotel room. Europeans have a very different protocol regarding cell phones and loud conversations. Don’t force everyone to enjoy “your” conversation.

It’s OK to Point – Pointing and using your fingers when ordering is AOK in most of the world. Walk right up to that pastelería case and point to that croissant and stick up the number you want with your fingers. It works, it’s acceptable and just use that hand sanitizer before you pick up that amazingly flaky croissant.

Sarcasm and Joking – While joking and laughing with your waiter in the US isn’t a problem, it’s not always appreciated or understood in other parts of the world. In many places, you might notice that one waiter is taking care of the entire restaurant, not five or six waiters. Therefore, they just don’t have the time and sometimes things just get lost in translation.

Please and Thank You – It’s true, nothing will bring a smile to a face than saying a few words in their language. It shows you care and it is certainly appreciated. My minimum suggested list would be: please, thank you, excuse me, goodbye and hello. We all have notes on our phones, so make a note if you can’t remember. Believe me, this really brings a smile to peoples face. It’s a “good for the soul” action.

Table for Who – As I have mentioned, space in the rest of the world is different than the US. If you are seated at a table of four, and there are only two of you, don’t be surprised if they seat another couple at the table with you. It’s not uncommon and it can be fun. Embrace the different!

Let’s Talk Politics – Or rather, let’s NOT talk politics. In some cases this might be OK. However, most countries outside of the US are very savvy about American Politics. We US citizens are not. Our advise is to steer clear and be evasive unless you are a political science major and can talk intelligently about multiple countries politics. This is especially good advice if you are visiting or speaking with individuals from Israel, Jordan, Palestine or {insert country here}. Yes, we have a good story about this exact situation, but we will keep that to ourselves.

In the Can – My mother always said it was impolite to talk about going to the bathroom, but we will need to make an exception in this case. In most countries outside of North America, you will probably be asked to put your TP in the waste basket. Yeah, I know what you are thinking. But, they don’t have the septic systems to handle the paper products. The general rule of thumb is: If it didn’t pass through your body, it doesn’t get flushed.

Be Polite – I frequently hear people talk about the “loud ugly American” and this always makes me grimace. Sadly, as we travel around the world, we often see and hear this statement come to life (don’t worry, we see one other country of travelers that are always louder). Some of the issue rises from language differences and talking louder will not make a non-English person understand you. We also have much more space than other countries, larger restaurants and larger housing options and larger personal space. So, don’t call attention to yourself unnecessarily, use an inside voice.

Appropriate Dress for Ladies – When traveling to a Muslim based country, be sure to cover appropriately and respectfully for the area. Covered shoulders, chest and a knee length skirt or pants would be preferred. Take a scarf with you or buy a new one in any one of the many souks. This way you can cover your head if requested or cover your shoulders and chest. If you feel your shirt is just a bit too revealing, it is. You are the visitor in their country, being polite is appreciated.