I have a very bad case of Wanderlust. Maybe it's the end result of having a National Geographic subscription while growing up on a tiny island combined with an intense curiosity and fascination with the world beyond those tiny island borders, but once I hit adulthood I knew I had to do whatever I needed to get out and live in the world. I have yet to make it to as many countries as I would've hoped, but the ones I have been to have provided me with many hard learned lessons as well as some decent wisdom that your average non-travel savvy tourist might not have had the chance to learn. So for those of you who plan to travel outside of the United States (Something I highly recommend), here are a few tips from one veteran wanderer to make your journey a little easier.
1. Learn and use a little bit of the local language
The loud and proud mono-linguist is one of the most prevailing stereotypes about American travelers, and we've all seen one: They're the one's who never seem to shut up or turn the volume down about how no civilized country would speak anything but English (The worst will say American in place of English) and who act as if their proficiency in the language makes them better than anyone with a less than perfect grasp. They also tend to speak loudly and slowly to people with little English. You don't want to be this person. The words might not translate but the innate contempt does, and the results can be ugly once the person you just looked down on for speaking no English finds a friend who does. I've watched many people get purposely sent the wrong way after dressing down a local, and for the most part they deserve it. Before going on your trip pick up a phrasebook from The Lonely Planet, or from anywhere really, just have it on hand. Even if you're terrible at languages (Like I am) trying to speak the language of the land will make people more willing to be open, accepting and helpful. Sure they may laugh at you if you do a butcher job on the language, but the effort will be appreciated.
2. Learn the tipping custom of whatever country you're in
I worked as a busboy throughout college, and anytime we had guests from Europe you could almost hear the entire waitstaff groaning and drawing straws to see who would serve them. Europeans having no sense of tipping is another stereotype, though it's rooted in the European tipping customs. In the U.S. standard tipping rate for most is 15%, but in many European countries it's 10% or less as many places already include a service charge. To take it one step further, many countries in Asia don't expect any kind of tip at all. Do a google search for your destination's tipping customs, though the best thing you can do is ask someone local. Also, if tipping is expected, do it in local currency as not everyone has access to a money changer. Here's a quick guide to some of the more traveled countries.
3. Street food can be your best friend or worst enemy, but it's worth the risk
I know people who have gone to countries and refused to eat anything that wasn't fast food or something that they recognized. This is probably the biggest mistake you can make, especially if the country you're in has a vibrant street food culture. Street food is mostly regional (Though certain dishes can transcend national borders) and will vary from country to country. The vendors can be one dish carts on the sidewalk or a tent city of choices on an empty lot. South East Asia is particularly famous for it's street food and depending on where you are you can find everything from teriyaki to deep fried insects. Step out of your comfort zone and try a bite (I recommend deep fried grasshopper if you do). Buyer beware though. As you can imagine health regulations on street vendors aren't really enforced so every now and then you might get a dish that has you being closer friends with the toilet than you're comfortable with. Endure it and don't let it alienate you from the local cuisine. It will be worth it I promise you, and you'll have some stories to gross out the queasy people back home.
4. Be wary of hand gestures
Like tipping this is another point you need to be careful of. A thumbs up is a positive sign in Middle America, but in parts of West Africa, South America and the Middle East it's the equivalent of sticking your middle finger up at someone. In a lot of countries the people are very animated when they're speaking, so a gesture as simple as turning your palm towards another person with all fingers extended (The Moutza for those playing the home game) can have little meaning to you, but to the other person it could be a grievous insult. Avoid them as best as you can, that's all I can really say.
5. Don't drink the water
This one can vary depending on your destination country (And especially what part of your destination country you'll be traveling in) but as a general rule DO NOT drink straight from the tap. Cities you usually don't need to worry about but the further away from cities you go the more important this rule becomes. In the cities bottled water is your best bet, just make sure the seal on the bottle is unbroken before drinking. Carrying a filter that attaches to the tap or using water purification tabs is best if you're going away from the cities, and if all else fails, boil your water before drinking it.
6. Always keep some cash on you
It's a fact of life that while credit and debit cards are widely accepted in many places, they are not used everywhere. Roadside vendors, straw marketeers, guides, small businesses, even many bars and restaurants don't accept cards, and it's useless and helps no one for you to throw a fit over it. This is especially true when it comes to taxis, and taxis not accepting cards is a major gripe I've heard from many American tourists. It's always best to ask whether cards are accepted before receiving any kind of service, whether it's eating at a restaurant or having the cabbie drive you across the city. Asking first can save everyone a lot of grief later.
7. You're not in America anymore, don't expect everything to be the same
You would think this one common sense, but even I'm still surprised at the number of times I constantly hear visitors say “Well, in America...” Stop yourself right there and remind yourself that that is exactly where you aren't. Whatever country you're in, whatever corner of the world your trip has taken you to, you are playing by that country's rules and culture. It doesn't matter how much you thump your chest, complain and gripe, it won't change the fact that things are different. And if you can't accept that, I have one final tip for you.
Don't bloody travel.