Be a Traveler Instead of a Tourist
Evolve from a tourist to a traveler...
I love to travel. Love is actually an understatement, I am passionate about travel. There are others like me who spend most of their time traveling, planning travel, or thinking about travel. Most people, however, plan one or two vacations per year- which is when they do the majority of their traveling. Just because you are not obsessed with travel like I am does not mean that you can't travel like I do. Use my travel expertise to your advantage, and take that tourist target off of your forehead when traveling.
Tip #1: Learn the Language
You don't need to be fluent in the language of the place that you are going. However, learning a few important words will make a difference in how you are treated (which will improve your overall experience). In many larger cities in countries across the world, there are a plethora of English speakers. The further away from urban centers you get, the more of the language you will need to learn. If you have a bad memory, or you're traveling to multiple places and don't think you can remember "hello" in three different languages, create a little foreign language cheat sheet on a note card, or type the info in your iPhone notes. It is also possible to purchase a phrase book (I prefer Rick Steves, as shown below), but carrying it around all of the time will make it obvious that you are a tourist. I suggest only using this in public if you are in an area where very little English is spoken.
Hello and thank you are the two most important things to learn. Hello can actually be tricky sometimes, but go for the most basic and all-encompassing way to say it. For example: in Italian, they say ciao (hello or goodbye), salve (hi), buongiorno (good day), and buonasera (good evening). Ciao is the one to stick with if you don't want to learn all of them. Thank you is generally an easy term in most languages.
Once you have hello and thank you down, you can move on to please and goodbye. If you get down all four of these terms and you're up for something more challenging, you can try a couple of important phrases: do you speak English? and I don't speak ___.
Here are a few terms that might help:
Hello...............Hola.................Ciao.............Bonjour (day) Bonsoir (evening)
Please............Por favor.........Per favore....S'il vous plaît
A Good Multiple Language Phrase Book
If you are planning to travel to multiple countries (even if the travel will not be all at once), this is a good phrase book to own. It has French, Italian, and Spanish words and phrases for travelers of all ages (some of the phrases are clearly for younger travelers). I own this guide, and while I don't take it out in public with me, I use it to learn a few words or phrases before going out to explore. This is such an inexpensive, yet valuable tool for travelers.
A Good Spanish Phrase Book
If Italian, German, and French aren't what you're looking for; Rick Steves also has this great Spanish phrase book. There's even a tear-out cheat sheet to take along with you so that you don't need to carry the book everywhere you go (which will display that you are a tourist). This may be good even if you don't plan on traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, but you live in an area where a lot of Spanish is spoken.
Tip #2: Watch What You Eat
Many touristy places offer plenty of restaurants that look exactly what you think a restaurant in that city should look like. One great example of this is Rome. In Rome, there are many restaurants that look like "Italian restaurants" and they even have tourist menus! A lot of these are tourist traps with overpriced, mediocre food. Before you head out to dinner, ask someone who works at your hotel where a good local place to eat is. You can also check Tripadvisor.com for other people's reviews and experiences. There is no need to be disappointed by pizza in Rome or patatas bravas in Spain. Do a little research before choosing a restaurant and it will pay off.
If you don't have an unlimited source of funds, here is a budget savvy tip: Eat less expensive street food during the day, and only dine in restaurants for dinner. Eating at a restaurant 2-3 times a day adds up quickly. On a four day trip, I usually splurge on a nice dinner one night, and then opt for less expensive (but still delicious) options the rest of the time.
Tip #3: Check Your Etiquette
Before traveling to a far off land, or even one not so far off, it is a good idea to check out the local etiquette. Tripadvisor.com usually has a section on this for popular destinations, or you may find tips in a guide book. If all else fails, Google it! What is acceptable and what is offensive will vary greatly from country to country, and sometimes even among regions within a country. For example, in Italy most people do not observe lines- many people just crowd to the front whether walking or driving, and it is completely accepted. In the UK, lines are important, and it is extremely rude to crowd. Also, some countries do not practice tipping (or at least only in a small amount). If you go to Sicily and tip a waiter €10, he will likely come chasing you down the street because you have overpaid. Sicily charges a fee to simply sit down at a restaurant and eat, so the tip is included.
Different gestures can also be offensive in different countries. To some, a thumbs-up is equivalent to flipping someone the middle finger. Avoid embarrassment and possible issues by figuring this stuff out before your trip.
Tip #4: Remember Where You Are
There is a common misconception among Americans that the French are rude. I have visited Paris four times, and I have only encountered one man who was rude in all of the people that I have had contact with. In fact, I find the French to be rather friendly and helpful. On my last visit to my beloved Paris, I traveled with my cousin and also with another American girl. The other American, let's call her Jane, met us after we had already been there for one night. There was a striking difference in our experience after Jane joined us. Rather than being treated as travelers, we were treated as "rude Americans."
Let me explain the difference in our treatment. Jane is a naturally loud person. This is not a big deal in Sicily, where everyone sounds like they are constantly yelling, but it does not blend well in France, where people speak in a much softer tone. When she thought someone didn't understand what she was saying, she repeated herself over and over, raising her voice each time until she was practically yelling at one poor woman who was making her a sandwich.
It is important to be a bit of a chameleon while traveling. Think of the saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Try to blend in with the locals a little. More importantly, be respectful of the people and the places that you are visiting. After all, YOU are the outsider. It is not everyone else's job to learn English because you speak English, and places should not change their ways to be more convenient for you. Be humble and appreciative of your surroundings and people will be much more open to accepting you.