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Etiquette Essentials: Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Abroad

Don't get tripped up by everyday etiquette while traveling.

Copy: Kat McEachern, Stylist: Rebecca Buenik, Interior Design: Disregarden, Photography: The Why We Love

Traveling abroad creates confusing situations out of activities that are everyday back home. Whether for vacation or business, your trip should be about enjoyment, not worrying about offending your hosts or under-tipping the wait staff. Follow these do’s and don’ts, take a deep breath, and relax. Let’s go see the world!

Do your research. Etiquette varies so much from place to place that it is best to ask a local or consult the many Internet resources about a particular location’s tipping customs, table manners, and any other situations that you are likely to encounter. Vayama offers one option for research. Also, for our US readers, check the State Department for travel warnings and tips for traveling abroad. But do realize you may make a mistake. If you do, just apologize with grace. A good host would not hold ignorance of customs against you.

Don’t hold up the line. Your homemade jam may make the best hostess gift but may require you to check your bag. If you are carrying anything that TSA may find questionable, review their guidelines online before you leave for the airport.

Do be considerate of fellow passengers. Avoid dominating both armrests, playing your music too loudly (when permitted at all,) or taking so long to turn off your phone that the plane is late for take off. And for the sake of anyone over 5’4s knees, recline your seatback slowly.

Don’t get caught unprepared. Flight delays, bad weather and more can put a damper on a trip but bringing along a book or other entertainment can at least distract in the meantime.

Do respect houses of worship. Many popular tourist destinations include sacred places, from the Sistine Chapel to the Tian Tan Buddha. Often, these areas require more modest clothing than other local destinations so pay special attention when planning your trip. For instance, in Italy it can be very helpful to carry a pashmina that can put around bare shoulders to visit the many churches.

Don’t give in to language barriers. Some areas may require the use of a translator or guide, but technology also offers many solutions. Consider purchasing a handheld electronic translator or download an app to your phone to help with longer transactions. Learning a few key phrases will also help you get around and will show locals your interest in their culture.

Lastly, do dress smart on travel day. Dress comfortably, with layers, in shoes that you can slip on and off for security. We do miss, however, the days where one dressed up to fly (at least the dressing-up part.) So pick the comfortable maxidress or well-fitting jeans but please leave the sarongs for the beach and the sweatpants for home.

Please share etiquette you’ve learned while traveling in the comments. (Embarrassing stories about how you learned them are optional- but encouraged!) Traveling to the US? Here’s our advice for tipping. Loving the tassel pictured above? It’s from our June 2012 issue, along with two other great travel DIY projects. 


*Read more Etiquette Essentials stories over here!

  • Tiera Kekaula

    Great tips! I’m making a better effort about dressing smart on travel day. Can’t believe I used to wear track pants on the airplane. Horrifying! Lol :)

    • Kelli Ryder

      Me too, Tiera! My next flight I’m definitely dressing smarter. :)

  • Brandon Smith

    Thank you so much for mentioning dress on travel day. As a frequent flyer (17 flights in six months) it saddens me to see how people dress. As morbid as it may sound, I always ask myself – is this the last thing you’d want people to see you in? If the answer it no, might be time to rethink the travel wardrobe. Not to mention, I’ve had above par service from airlines simply because I was dressed a bit better than my companions.

    My tip for travel abroad (and domestically) – a little nice can go a long way. Remember, it’s not the attendants fault the plane is late or the gate crew’s fault that there are mechanical issues. And you’re not the only one experiencing a possible issue. Sometimes a smile and a kind word of reassurance can mean the difference between an upgrade or extra airport money and being stuck at the back of the plane.

    • Kelli Ryder

      I so agree- one simple smile can change everything. Thank you for sharing!!

    • Paula Puryear Martin

      Brandon, I so agree, and it’s so easy these days to dress nicely while still being super comfortable.

    • Don

      Ditto. I also miss the days when people dressed to travel. I’m particularly troubled by flip flops. After several hours in the air, the lavatories are not pleasant and not a place you want to be in flip flops.

  • Catherine Clifford

    Great tips! Don’t forget to hydrate (inside and out) especially on those long flights. I don’t leave home without my large water bottle + Pacific Mist, perfectly sized to get through security.

    • Kelli Ryder

      That is a great tip!!

      • Catherine Clifford

        Thanks Kelli. Happy travels!

    • Paula Puryear Martin

      That’s such a great reminder! I am terrible at this but I’m going to work on it.

  • Aline Reydon

    I find that the most important thing is to learn a few words in the language of your destination. You should know at least how to say “excuse me,” “please,” “thank you,” and it is also useful to know numbers and “how much does this cost.”

    • Kelli Ryder

      That is so important- thank you for sharing!!

      • Paula Puryear Martin

        I so agree, and be sure to go the extra mile – e.g. remember that Catalan, not Spanish, is spoken in Barcelona and your Spanish won’t necessarily be understand; or that the Argentinians seem to speak a more formal Spanish than I was used to, or if you’re going to Kenya, where both English and Swahili are the official languages, learn a few simple words in Swahili (and if you know you’re going to a specific area where a tribal language is spoken, a word of two of that won’t hurt either). I find it’s helpful to have a language app on my phone as well, in case I forget those words or need a few extras.

        • Katherine McEachern

          Excellent point! Many countries have multiple languages and, while we can’t learn them all, key phrases go a long way!

  • Victoria de la Camara

    I find that dressing well isn’t just an issue for those traveling on the plane. I’ve lived ‘abroad’ almost all of my life, and it’s painful to see some of my fellow citizens wear running shoes with jeans, speak loudly without concern for those around them, and stop in the middle of the sidewalk to discuss something or look at a map. Traveling to a foreign country can be confusing, but the best thing you can do is blend in as much as possible, speak at a normal/low volume, and if you need some time to figure out where to go next, step aside to let pedestrians walk by easily.

    But my biggest tip is to let go a little- the best thing to do if you are in a new city or town is to let yourself wander and get lost. Of course, you should be aware of the dangerous areas or always have a way to get back if you need to. But I find that the most beautiful moments I have had with cities is that first stroll along small streets, finding great little shops and cafes. Sure, traveling can be about the points of interest (museums etc) but it’s also about absorbing something new and unfamiliar.

    • Katherine McEachern

      Your advice to wander and get a little lost is so on point! The best way to soak up the vibe and culture of a place is just to slowly meander (with breaks to sit in a cafe!) and take it all in.

  • Keturah

    Great tips! I just spent 2 months in Italy and it took me a few weeks to remember to start bringing a scarf or sweater with me to put around my shoulders when I toured churches or certain museums. They often have wraps you can buy for 1.50 or 2 euro but that can add up quickly.