This article about customs in foreign countries first ran on Yahoo! Travel in August and was one of the most popular stories of the year. "Please, please always be polite and charming no matter the situation. Don't give us Americans a bad name!" implored commenter Menanny. A commenter named Joseph offered this advice: "No matter how much you may butcher their language, they will respect you for trying."
In foreign countries it’s natural to notice—and be enchanted by—customs that are different from those practiced in America. But it’s quite another thing to stand around slack-jawed in a perpetual state of confusion and perspiration, insulting the locals with your words and actions (and short pants). Here are 10 tips on how to blend into a foreign country a little bit better, and avoid being an "ugly American."
1. Keyed Up
To conserve electricity, many European hotels require the insertion of a key card into a slot beside the door. Use it. Desk clerks are tired of fielding calls about why the lights or TV don't work. The upside: You won’t lose your key (at least when it’s in the room).
On the other hand, a traditional hotel may provide you with a heavy, old-fashioned tassel key (check out the quaint rows of key boxes behind the front desk). When heading out, it’s customary to leave the key with the desk clerk so the cleaning staff knows when the room is vacant.
So do it. Not only will the hotel staff treat you better, but the custom also relieves you of the burden of key-carrying, so you can stuff your pockets with the requisite crumpled maps, Chapstick, and the local currency.
2. Tipping Tips
The U.S. dollar is still considered the world’s default currency. But that doesn’t mean that you’re excused from using the local euros, pounds, bahts, schekels, or quetzales. One exception in which it is permissible to use dollars: when you absolutely have no foreign currency and you need to tip the driver or bellman. Better to give them a greenback or two and mumble an apology than to give them nothing at all.
But beware that over-tipping makes you seem like a rube. Research the local tipping customs before you leave for your trip, because gratuities are almost always lower outside of America. And if you think you’re getting taken, you probably are. The five-minute taxi ride where the meter is “broken” and you’re charged by the bag? Pay the fare and nothing more; you’re done.
3. Currency Concerns
Avoid getting into a cashless situation. Sweaty, panicked Americans waving useless dollar bills are just too cliché. The key is to diversify, with plastic and paper. Bring your credit cards. Be sure you’ve called your credit card companies to make them aware of your travel dates and destinations. (American Express says there’s no need to notify them; call them anyway.) Credit cards are widely accepted and give you the best exchange rate, though it is true that some train station kiosks won’t accept U.S. credit cards because they lack a security “chip.”
Back up plan: use your ATM card (you should also alert your bank beforehand). Most of the kinks of yesteryear have been worked out, and debit cards give you immediate access to local currency. Just be sure your PIN has only four digits.
Back up plan to the back-up plan: Have a few hundred dollars on you, in local currency, and a few hundred U.S. dollars before you leave the States. (In a pinch, hotels and storefront exchanges will get you what you need—albeit at a premium.) When you arrive home without having had to touch your stash of dollars, consider yourself a prudent and savvy traveler.
4. Bedding Down
In the U.S., hotels typically contain two full-sized or one larger bed (a king or a queen). In Europe, many guest rooms persist in the preference for two single mattresses, either separated or pushed together. Your “king” will have a seam. You may call the front desk and politely ask if there’s a room with a “true” king in it. If they don’t have one, you’ll have to deal with it.
In most of the world, a luxurious bed isn’t soft and plush; it’s usually firm, and heavily starched sheets are a mark of refinement. Your back, if not your delicate skin, will thank you. (Note that you’ll find the luxury standards you’re used to at North American-branded hotel chains like the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton).
5. Hello, Gorgeous!
Unlike in the U.S. “Hi,” as a conversation starter, just won’t do, especially in Europe and Latin America. Locals may even be insulted. At a minimum, learn how to say “Good day,” “Good evening,” “Thank you,” and “Check, please” in the local language.
In Asia and the South Pacific, present your business card or credit card with two hands, and receive them in the same way. Remember, it's as if you're offering or receiving a gift, so when someone hands you something, it's good form to look at it and smile appreciatively for a few painful seconds.
6. Bathing Beauties
When he visited Los Angeles, the British painter David Hockney was struck by how much Americans bathed compared to Europeans. In America, frequent bathing is a luxury experience (or a wasteful one, depending on your perspective); in much of the rest of the world, it’s utilitarian necessity. The size of our respective bathrooms reflects this difference in philosophy.
Outside the U.S., tubs are usually smaller, and shower stalls are sometimes narrow capsules with plastic doors that even svelte people have trouble squeezing into.
So here’s a dose of reality in travel: If you favor a king-sized mattress topped with a feather mattress and a down-filled duvet, plus a deep-soaking Jacuzzi tub big enough for two, a separate, glassed-in shower with a marble bench seat and a second shower in the garden, there’s a great country you can visit: California.
In some cities, cabbies can be fined for picking up a fare in the middle of the street. You have to find your way to a marked taxi stand (ask a local), or in a pinch, head to a hotel lobby and have them hail or call a cab for you.
Unlike in the U.S., in many places it’s just not acceptable to eat in a taxi. If you have an open sandwich, an ice cream cone, or even an open bottle of juice or water on you, don’t expect the cabbie to let you inside. The car is their domain and they have to spend all day in it, and clean it. It’s a question of propriety. It would be like entering someone's home with a half-eaten hoagie in your hand.
8. The Impossible Dream
In America, hotel lobbies take the form of public meeting spaces. “Meet me under the clock [at New York’s Biltmore Hotel]” became a famous phrase that catches the spirit of hotels as glamorous yet democratic. Few Americans feel compelled to ask the doorman if it’s OK to wander through and look around.
Not so in most parts of the world, where you can expect to be asked if you’re a hotel guest and then sternly warned away with the phrase, “It’s not possible.” This was especially true in Paris, until the Four Seasons George V opened and welcomed everybody, daring the other luxury hotels in the city to follow suit. The best advice if you want to check things out is to do what you would do in any VIP area when you lack the proper credentials: Make sure you’re dressed appropriately, and stride in with purpose, as if you belong. It just might work. And if it doesn’t, don’t turn it into a conversation, and don’t make an ugly scene.
9. Modesty matters
According to Tom Ford, a gentleman doesn’t wear shorts in the city. If you’ve ever experienced summer in Latin America, Asia, or Europe, you know he has a point. But that’s not reflective of the way urban American men live, with scorching summers and people going from the gym to lunch to the park without always having time to stop home to consult the valet. And the influence of American casualness can be observed the world over.
Even the admonition to cover up before entering a sacred site has been relaxed. Typically, your knees and shoulders shouldn’t be exposed, but churches and other holy sites have gotten good at providing paper cover-ups and wraps.
So in general, your sartorial choices will make you less of an outcast than they used to. It’s best to pick up cues from your surroundings. Locals in Rome and Milan dress to kill, and even the poorest of the poor in Latin America are formally clothed in public, while those in Barcelona, Sydney, and even London are much more laid-back and diverse, clothing-wise.
10. They Say the Strangest Things
Some words are just going to land oddly on the ears of the American vacationer. Even “English” words can be jarring when spoken by a non-American speaker.
Don’t be surprised if, in the morning, a concierge or other hotel staffer cheerfully asks you what your “program” (or “programme”) is for the day. The term sounds very businesslike and Iron Curtain-like, as if you’re supposed to check in with the Ministry of Fun before you begin your holiday. But they just want to know what you want to do that day, and if you need any assistance in planning it.
And when a local offers you “typical” food or points out “typical” architecture, don’t scrunch up your nose. Americans think of “typical” as ordinary and mediocre. In the rest of the world, “typical” is high praise, the kind of cuisine or buildings intended to please discerning visitors. It means authentic rather than touristy.