Experienced international travelers know the basics, such as checking the expiration date of their passport before they travel, letting their bank know their travel destinations and dates, and using a destination’s ATM to get the best exchange rate on local currency. Here are ten surprising things the experienced traveler may not know about.
If you become a victim of crime while in a foreign country, what’s the first thing you do? Call the police? Consider this: the police may not always be on your side. In many countries, you might have to pay them for their services, and you may not be able to trust them. As a U.S. citizen, you have a backup. If you feel the police won’t help you or you can’t trust them, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. The U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler App and their Country Specific Information pages provide phone numbers and addresses of U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. U.S. State Department staff will give you information about the country’s criminal justice system, legal resources, how to file a police report and acquire medical assistance. They’ll also help you with language barriers. For more information, visit the State Department’s U.S. Citizens Victims of Crime webpage.
Hand gestures, body language and other cultural practices have different meanings in different countries. What might symbolize a positive thing in the United States, such as a thumb’s up gesture or the “okay” sign, are viewed as disrespectful or vulgar in other countries. Before you travel to another country, it’s wise to do a little research on cultural practices there. Make yourself a “cheat sheet” to take along with you, so you don’t forget.
It’s offensive to show the soles of your feet to an Arab. Likewise, pointing your toes at someone in Thailand is considered rude, because your toes are the lowest part of your body. If you’re doing business in Thailand, be patient. It’s improper to discuss business before sharing a meal with your Thai business partners. Leave negotiations for after lunch or dinner. While visiting Indonesia, don’t do anything with your left hand. Sorry, southpaws; you’ll have to adapt. In Malaysia, don’t touch the top of anyone’s head and if you have to point, use your thumb, not your forefinger. In India, don’t touch anything with your feet. In Japan, don’t tip anyone and don’t forget to remove your toilet slippers after you finish your business. Mangia, mangia in Italy. Don’t ever turn down the offer of food; it’s an insult. If you’re full, just fake it. When in Peru, learn to pronounce Machu Picchu correctly. If you don’t articulate the first “c” in Picchu like a hard “k” sound, you risk calling this iconic monument of Inca civilization “ancient penis” in the Quechua language. The correct pronunciation of Picchu (Peek-choo) translates as “ancient pyramid.”
It seems like the world is photo-crazy. People take pictures and videos with their mobile devices everywhere they go, including selfies. You might think that everyone wants to have their picture taken, but that’s not necessarily true. When you’re traveling, you should ask permission before taking someone’s photo, unless you can be discrete about it. Many cultures are not comfortable with strangers taking their photo or may have a superstition about it. People in some countries require payment if you take their picture.
I was in Peru recently, where people expect you to pay them a dollar or more for each photo you take of them. They dress in Colonial costume, particularly the children, and carry adorable little lambs for that perfect photo op. But be sure to ask permission, and give your subjects something for their time. When I was in Madrid a couple of years ago, I sneeked a quick photo of a man dressed as Charlie Chaplain, presumably for tourists. He demanded money and chased me, wielding his cane back and forth at me. I would not try that again. Last month, I was in Pedraza, Spain and entered an old farmacia where some antique porcelain apothecary jars were displayed on shelves. I started to take a picture of them, but the shopkeeper told me not to. I apologized. I had forgotten to ask permission. After I returned to Madrid, I spent some time around Puerta del Sol. I saw two men outside their restaurant and thought it would make a nice photo, so I asked them if it was okay. They greeted me with smiles and welcomed the photo session. And of course, the people at Botin Restaurant gladly let me take photos, but I asked first.
Hang onto your receipts until you’ve left the country you’re visiting, particularly when you exchange money. Sometimes an official at the airport will ask for proof of all your foreign transactions.
Are you traveling with your minor children? Some countries have instituted child abduction protection laws, and they’ll require documentation to prove your relationship to your children. Check the Department of State child abduction country information pages for your destination’s laws.
Don’t get turned away at the border. Some countries require foreign visitors to carry an International Certificate of Vaccination (Yellow Card) or other proof of inoculations (such as for Yellow Fever) or medical tests in order to enter their country. Check Country Specific Information on the U.S. State department’s website and call the embassy of the country you wish to visit for up-to-date information.
Know your credit card balance and limit. If you go over your limit in some countries, you could be arrested. I thought this might be an urban myth, so I checked Snopes (the website that sheds light on urban myths) and found that this is indeed true. The U.S. State department website also mentions it but does not say which countries. It’s good practice to stay within your limits, anyway.
Healthcare in the United States is the most expensive in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. According to a recent Forbes Magazine survey, the U.S. was ranked last in a list of eleven best countries for healthcare. The U.K. was number one, followed by Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, France and Canada. So if you need medical attention when you’re traveling abroad, chances are you’ll get very good care. Thailand and Costa Rica are known for having excellent, low cost medical care. In fact, medical tourism in those countries has become quite popular among Americans, who travel there for low-cost, high-quality surgeries and other medical procedures. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for guidance and warnings about medical tourism. Many U.S. medical insurance policies do not cover you while you’re traveling, so it’s wise to buy travel insurance for your trip, particularly in case of medical evacuation, which can be extremely expensive.
Although it’s always best to use the local currency, many countries still accept U.S. dollars in small denominations, particularly in Africa and Latin America. The bills must be in new condition with no creases, marks or writing on them. Take a lot of cash with you. It’s a good back-up for an emergency, and many places, particularly in rural areas, do not accept credit cards.
In addition to carrying U.S. dollars with you, it’s a good idea to bring along some Euros. The U.S. dollar is no longer the global currency of choice. The Euro is now used in many more countries. I like to bring Euros home with me after a trip to Europe, so when I go on my next trip to Europe, I already have some Euros with me to use. Some smaller airports don’t have ATMs, or you might not have enough time to withdraw Euros from an ATM after you land.