There are some things that every savvy traveler knows not to do when away from home; things like being aware of pickpockets, taking the time to learn a few phrases in the local language, turning off data roaming, and dressing appropriately to visit religious sites.
Then, there are a few things that should be obvious, but that seem to keep happening anyway, usually when a few adult beverages are involved (like spray painting graffiti on a centuries-old wall, or showing a little too much skin at a tourist attraction for those sweet sweet social media likes).
However, there are a surprising number of things that might seem completely normal here in North America, but that can range from offensive to outright illegal when you are away from home. This is the kind of stuff that seems so natural and day to day that even the most experienced travelers can get tripped up… and a few of these even seem like they would be the polite thing to do!
If you want to be sure that your trip abroad ends in only good memories and great photos, you’d do well to remember some of these twenty normal habits that should definitely stay Stateside.
This may be one of the most famous ‘normal’ habits that is actually illegal elsewhere - in Singapore, where importing and selling chewing gum has been illegal since 1992. Due to maintenance issues in high rise buildings and on public transit, gum was deemed inappropriate for public consumption, although there are exceptions for nicotine gum, dental gum, and therapeutic gum.
If you travel with gum to help with sinus pressure on a plane, though, don’t worry: up to two packs of gum are allowed for tourists, although given the ban, it’s still not a great idea to go around blowing bubbles in public.
There’s something sweet and almost romantic about the idea of sitting in a public space and feeding the birds… after all, it’s a small kindness that you can do for a living thing, right? However, in picturesque St Mark’s Square in Venice, it’s been illegal to sell grain or feed the birds for the past ten years.
The reason for the ban is that the birds were flocking to the square and damaging the monuments by pecking at them for morsels of food (the number of droppings didn’t help their cause, either!).
When traveling, cabs can be a godsend - often cheap, reliable, and easier than renting a car or trying to figure out public transit. However, in New Zealand, don’t be so quick to automatically jump in the back seat before giving the cabbie your directions; here, it’s considered normal to ride shotgun instead.
Hopping in the back can even give offense, making it seem as though you don’t consider your cab driver to be of equal status to you, and worth sitting beside. To keep things egalitarian, ride in the front, unless they obviously don’t want you to.
Greece has some of the best known (and oldest) historic sites in the world, including the Acropolis and the Parthenon. However, if you want to take a tour around these popular spots, make sure to pack your flats.
Many of the oldest sites in Greece have now banned visitors wearing high heels in order to preserve the monuments themselves, which were being chipped and worn by high heels. All shoes wear down the stones slightly, but heels are the worst offenders - and really, wearing stilettos while hiking the ancient Greek sites isn’t going to be comfortable, either!
Visitors to Germany who love to drive are always excited about the prospect of taking a spin on the autobahn, the famous roadway known for having ‘no’ speed limit (although there are recommended limits to consider). However, both stopping on the autobahn and walking on it are illegal for safety reasons, which means that in effect, so is running out of gas while here.
If you end up with that gas needle hitting empty, you could be hit with a fine (assuming you are caught, of course), so make sure to fill the tank all the way before chasing that super-speed rush.
As well as expecting tourists to fill up their gas tanks, Germans will be more than a little unimpressed if you show up to a meeting or dinner even a few minutes late. Punctuality is serious business here, and you are expected to take whatever steps you need to in order to arrive on time.
Some even consider it a personal affront, or a kind of power play, to keep someone else waiting. So if you are a perennially late type of person, you may want to aim to be everywhere a bare minimum of fifteen minutes early (or offend your local hosts).
Just to keep things confusing, although the Germans consider it terrible behavior to be late, there are plenty of other places where being a little too punctual just isn’t the done thing.
While traveling to places like Argentina (which is famous for its… relaxed… attitude toward clocks), it’s seen as perfectly normal to be half an hour late - even for business meetings, where everyone will be happy to hang out until everyone arrives. Showing up bang on time is one thing, but expecting the locals to get too caught up on punctuality will definitely not win you any friends.
Happen to find yourself out of town on a holiday, and it’s perfectly reasonable to celebrate away from home, right? Not always.
In Pakistan, Valentine’s Day has been banned on the grounds that it is a sign of Western influence, and doesn’t follow the teachings of Islam (Saudi Arabia has a similar ban).
Get caught with red and pink balloons or a dozen red roses, and you’ll get them confiscated… although unsurprisingly, many locals are less than thrilled, and simply find other, less obvious ways to celebrate love on February 14th.
Maybe you caught a cold on the flight, maybe you are just dealing with some allergies… but whatever you do in China, don’t whip out a tissue and blow your nose in front of other people. It may be seen as hygienic to blow your nose whenever you need in North America, but in many other countries it is considered disgusting and both Japan and China also find the idea of reusable handkerchiefs extremely unclean.
This is definitely something to be considered a private bodily function, so save the nose-blowing for the privacy of your hotel room, rather than on the street or (worst of all) at the dinner table.
Another thing that needs to be kept off the streets in Japan is eating - something that may surprise many foodies who travel here for the incredible local cuisine. There are a few exceptions to this cultural rule, of course; where there are yatai stalls (similar to food carts or trucks), it’s acceptable to sit nearby and eat what you buy, for example. However, eating on public transit (especially something smelly), eating food you bring from home (like granola bars) or eating while still walking are all culturally verboten. Thankfully though, there are so many great eateries designed for a quick snack that this shouldn’t pose any real problems at all!
You don’t have to go far from home to find this normal habit is no longer acceptable - in Canada, it’s not ok to use pennies! This is because the country has now entirely phased out the coins, and prices are rounded to the nearest five cents instead (because the cost of making a single penny was actually more than the penny itself was worth!).
Many businesses will still accept other US coins, though, so just be happy that you can ditch all the coppers and lighten up your wallet while travelling to the Great White North.
Bad news for lefties - you may have to try and make a switch when traveling to India, Morocco, and many other countries in Africa, especially at mealtimes. This is because traditionally, food is not eaten with a knife and fork, but with the hands themselves; or more accurately, with the right hand.
The left hand is used for *ahem* other necessary functions, and many meals are eaten out of one bowl, so it’s easy to see why this would be considered pretty rude and disgusting. Make sure to keep your hands clean, and make an effort to keep your left hand away from the food.
Plenty of USA folk have been known to dump a ton of ketchup (or mayo, or hot sauce) onto their food, no matter what it is. However, in more foodie cultures (like France and Italy) this is considered an offence to the host and the chef.
It suggests that you think their food isn’t delicious enough all on its own, and that you need to change the flavor yourself. Steer clear of asking your server for extra condiments unless you are eating the simplest fast food, and just enjoy the flavors as the kitchen intended.
Ok, this may not be a particularly common habit of yours, but most people wouldn’t think twice about holding a salmon (whether at a fish market or after a fishing trip). However, a law still exists on the books that bans holding a salmon ‘in suspicious circumstances’… the Salmon Act of 1986.
Of course, this law is aimed at fisheries and decreasing salmon poaching, so tourists aren’t likely to be handcuffed for going to the local fishmonger! However, planning to take your rod and reel to the water may be another… kettle of fish.
You’re a tourist, you don’t know the local language, and so you decide to show approval with a simple hand gesture that you assume is universal… the thumbs up! Great idea in some places, but in others, this is an extraordinarily rude hand gesture to make - essentially the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger.
Responses may range from the offended to the understanding - and even to the confused, as a seemingly happy person smiles and gives someone the ‘finger’! Instead, bring your finger and thumb together to make a circle to show approval.
Another fairly common hand gesture in the US that is fairly obscene elsewhere is crossed fingers. In the US, this is used to show that you are making a promise, or that you are wishing for luck for someone - both positive associations.
However, in Vietnam, it is considered a very crude gesture, done to mimic a woman’s crossed legs. Like the thumbs up in Italy, crossing your fingers in Vietnam translates to giving someone the finger, so it’s definitely something to avoid while traveling here.
Iran is known for being ban-happy, especially when something is considered too ‘Western’… and what hairstyle screams ‘United States Of America’? Well, according to dress laws, the mullet.
That ‘classic’ business in the front and party in the back cut just won’t fly here, and ponytails are also banned, so it’s worth perfecting your braiding skills before landing here. As for the mullet… well, perhaps this can be taken as a sign that it’s time to come out of the ‘80s and get a different haircut altogether.
More Japanese traditions that prove life is very different here is this one that centers on showing amusement - laughing with your mouth open. This dates back to a time when showing bone was against religious teachings, which included teeth.
It’s also simply considered polite not to show your gaping maw to the room when in company, but to cover your mouth with a hand. This is becoming increasingly more relaxed, especially if out drinking, but if you aren’t sure - cover your mouth to be polite.
The habit of keeping your shoes on in someone’s home is actually considered rude in most of the world, with dozens of countries expecting guests to remove their shoes at the door.
This can be for a variety of reasons, including showing respect, but in most places it is simply a consideration of cleanliness. Especially in countries where people sit and eat on the floor, it’s easy to understand why they wouldn’t want guests tracking their outside dirt in all over the place.
A good rule of thumb (or of toe) is to just ask when you arrive if you should take your shoes off; some homes will even provide guests with slippers!
In the US, tipping is seen as a no-brainer. Wherever you go, leave a tip - and usually a pretty big one. It’s accepted that many people in the service industry are paid almost nothing, and live on tips, but elsewhere in the world leaving a tip is actually considered rude. In countries where service employees are paid a good wage, leaving extra suggests that the person looks poor, or that you think the business is questionable and not paying them well. Yikes! In some situations, a ‘tip’ can be left in a sealed decorative envelope as a gift, but never just pull your wallet out and hand over cash.