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Travel Tips on Cultural Customs

Asia

  • NEW Chinese Eating Etiquette
  • When in Asia, be especially careful not to compare the way things are done there to the way things are done in America. Don’t judge them as better or worse; they’re just different.
  • When meeting a group of people in Asia, greet the oldest person first, working down to the youngest, regardless of who your host is.

Australia

  • If you are traveling into Australia, be aware that you will be sprayed with insecticide when going through customs. Take a scarf or surgical mask along to cover your nose and mouth.
  • Want more information on Australia? Read WTA member Rich Vallaster’s article Exploring the Great Down Under – Sydney, Australia that covers what to see and do in this beautiful harbor city.
  • In Australia, the words “hotel” and “pub” can either refer to a place with sleeping accommodations or just a drinking establishment. You must ask to be sure of the exact nature of the place.
  • A male taking a taxi alone in Australia would be expected to sit in the front seat, a reflection of the country’s lack of social distinctions.
  • Driving in Australia is done on the left-hand side of the road, as in Britain. An American driver’s license is good in Australia for one year.
  • Driving in the Australian Outback is hazardous, with bad road conditions and few rules that are obeyed. You must take a four-wheel drive vehicle. Be aware that distances between towns and service stations can be quite lengthy.
  • Bone up on sports, especially rugby, cricket, golf, and fishing, if you are traveling to New Zealand or Australia. They are popular topics of conversation and people will be pleased if you show interest in their culture.
  • Tipping is not customary in Australia, but in areas around high-class hotels it has become the norm. Tip waiters 10% at restaurants and porters $1/bag.

Caribbean

  • If you’re interested in the Caribbean, check out Caribbean Travel & Life magazine. As a WTA member and you can get a subscription at 50% off through our Magazine Subscription Program.
  • We can’t stress enough the importance of sunscreen! Even if you wear sunscreen daily (as you should), increase the SPF if you are traveling to a tropical destination. Don’t forget to cover areas you don’t normally think about: scalp, ears, eyelids, hands, as well as the tops and soles of feet.
  • Most Caribbean driving is done on the left-hand side of the road. If you rent a car, be aware that the only places that follow right-hand side driving practices are Aruba, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, and the Netherlands Antilles.
  • Read up on customs rules before making purchases in the Caribbean. To avoid U.S. Customs’ possible confiscation and fine, avoid purchasing wildlife and wildlife products such as:
  • Products made from sea turtles, including tortoiseshell jewelry and sea turtle oil cosmetics.
  • Fur from spotted cats.
  • Feathers and feather products from wild birds.
  • Birds, stuffed or alive, such as parrots or parakeets.
  • Turtle, crocodile and caiman leather.
  • Coral, whether in chunks or in jewelry.

China

  • NEW Chinese Eating Etiquette
  • Learn more about Chinese lifestyle and history by reading WTA member/Travel Writer Gary W. Bloom’s insightful articles Beijing – The Center of China and The Seven Sins of Shanghai.
  • NEW The Chinese are a reserved society. Do not initiate any physical contact (including a handshake) until your Chinese counterpart does.
  • NEW Maintain decorum while in public in China. Avoid any loud or aggressive actions.
  • NEW If you are traveling as part of a couple, avoid any public displays of affection in China, as these are looked down upon in their culture.
  • NEW Limit the use of your hands when speaking. This will annoy your Chinese friends or business associates. If you must point, use your whole hand rather than just your index finger.
  • NEW It is considered vulgar in China to put your hands in your mouth. Avoid removing food from your teeth, biting your nails, etc.
  • NEW In China, it is acceptable to spit in public.
  • Personal space is less important to the Chinese than to Westerners. Expect people to stand very close while you are conversing.
  • Only about 30 percent of Chinese people have private telephones. Most street corners will have a phone booth for long distance domestic calls, but not international. For international calls, find a telecommunications office. These are usually situated in or near a post office, and are open 24-hours a day.
  • Bring along toilet paper with you if you go to a restaurant in China, as it is not provided for you. Hotel bathrooms are generally much better than those in a restaurant.
  • In China, everyone eats with chopsticks sharing from serving dishes in the center of the table. It is perfectly acceptable to reach in front of others to get to the food. Expect the hosts—who will have longer chopsticks—to pick out choice morsels for you.
  • Leaving a little vegetable or meat on your plate is fine in China, but never leave rice. It is considered “the sweat of fellow man”, and therefore it would be rude to waste it.
  • Expect a good deal of toasting at a banquet in China, so prepare a short speech. Also, practice a short song (in English), as you may be called on to sing.
  • Never offer to split the bill in a Chinese restaurant. Either the host or the most senior person will pay the bill. Since few restaurants use soap when washing utensils, if you are traveling in China it would be wise to purchase a personal set of chopsticks to take with you.
  • It’s interesting to note that although China is geographically larger than the U.S., a single time zone is used.

 

Europe

  • Although your U.S. license may be valid in the European country to which you’re traveling, it’s still a good idea to bring an International Driving Permit (IDP) along as well. Take your license, and a passport photo to your local automobile association to get one for a minimal fee.
  • If your day’s itinerary includes visiting churches, monasteries, synagogues, or mosques, take care to dress modestly. Avoid shorts, short skirts, and bare arms and shoulders. Showing the proper respect is always in good taste, and many popular churches in Europe have strict dress codes.
  • If you are spending just a couple of days in a European city and have one or more museums on your “must-see” list, be sure to plan your schedule carefully. Museums may be closed on Mondays and/or Tuesdays.
  • If you are driving in Europe, take the time to find out the blood alcohol legal limit. In many countries it’s lower than the U.S. (.05-.08).

France

  • Francophiles should go to WTA’s Destinations section to read articles written by WTA members. Stroll through Paris-Everyone’s Dream, and then go Canal Barging.
  • NEW The French consider good posture a sign of breeding, so be sure not to slouch.
  • NEW There are several small behaviors that are considered offensive in France that we wouldn’t think twice about. For example, one shouldn’t chew gum in public, snap their fingers, or form the “O.K.” sign with their finger and thumb.
  • In France, it is considered rude to address a waiter or bartender as “Garcon” (“boy”). Simply say “S’il vous plait” (“If you please…”).
  • France’s central bank—Banque de France—only offers currency exchange services during morning hours. Commercial banks and exchange bureaus are open longer hours. Check rates and compare ahead of time before making your decision.
  • It is especially important in France to attempt to use the national language as much as possible. French was the international language of diplomacy until World War I, and the expectation remains that visitors should be familiar with it.
  • A practice especially popular in France is to rent a room in a university’s dormitory while students are on break. These rooms may even include cooking facilities. Check with the university or local tourist office in the town to which you’re traveling to see if they offer such accommodations.
  • Phonecards (“telecartes”) are required at almost all public phones in France. These are sold at post offices, tobacco shops, and supermarkets. To use the card, pick up the receiver, insert the card, wait for the screen to prompt for “numerotez”, and then dial the number.
  • Consider the weather conditions of the area you’re visiting before buying film. A generally overcast area (northern France for example) will require high-speed film (200 or 400 ASA), while a sunnier locale will be portrayed best with slower film.

Germany

  • NEW If you are dining alone or with just a couple of friends, some small German restaurants may require you to join some other diners at their table. Just go ahead with your meal as if you were at your own table.
  • NEW A tip of 10% is considered sufficient for German restaurants and taxis. You can leave more for exceptional service.
  • NEW As in other countries, you should not form the “O.K." sign with your finger and thumb while in Germany. Instead, use the "thumbs up" sign.

Hong Kong

  • There aren’t many public phones in Hong Kong, but you can find them in hotels and convenience stores. Cellular phones are very popular; consider renting one during your stay.

India

  • NEW When in New Delhi, avoid talking to street people, as it is difficult to get away. Never touch any of the products they are selling because they will refuse to take it back and will press you for money.
  • NEW Don’t accept elephant rides because you may be taken a distance away and bribed for money for your return.
  • Driving in India can be a harrowing experience for a tourist. Accidents are common since there are no stop signs or traffic lights. Instead of driving yourself, arrange for a shuttle from the airport. Be aware that taxi drivers may press you into paying more than is reasonable.
  • Bring business cards if you travel to India, even if you are on vacation. Cards are often exchanged at social functions, since they help the Indians pronounce Western names and vice versa.
  • Be aware that it’s not a good idea to walk even short distances in India. Beggars will likely besiege you. Take a taxi instead. If you wish to give some money, do it from a taxi. Better yet, contribute to an organization, such as a health clinic in a rural area, rather than an individual.
  • There are many rules about photography in India. Do not photograph transportation facilities (airports, train stations), major bridges, or military areas. Ask permission before taking pictures inside a sacred temple. Authorities frown upon pictures that emphasize poverty (slums, beggars, etc.).
  • Don’t refuse an offer of food in an Indian home. Food and religion are interwoven, and the giving of food is considered a spiritual act. If you cannot handle the spicy food, let the host know ahead of time that your stomach is ailing you and subtler food will be provided.
  • If you are following the Indian tradition of eating without utensils, use only your right hand. As in many cultures, your left hand is considered ‘unclean’. Use it only to pass dishes around the table, since your right hand will probably be sticky.
  • If your mouth burns from a hot curry, eat some yogurt, tomatoes, or fruit. These will cool your mouth better than water.
  • In India, there may be a couple of hours between the time you arrive at someone’s home and the serving of dinner, so have a snack ahead of time. Customarily, guests leave immediately after the meal.

Indian Reservations

  • American Indian reservations often have restrictions on photography, especially of people and dwellings. When in doubt, ask.

Indonesia

  • In Indonesia, eating is considered a private act. Even at a dinner party, there is little conversation. Take your cue from your hosts.

Italy

  • NEW When leaving a group of people in Italy, be sure to say good-bye to each one individually. It is disrespectful to leave with a single “arrivederci” to the group as a whole.
  • NEW Waiting in line in a foreign country is a time when you must put aside your American notions of personal space and fairness. In Italy, for example, you may encounter gentle pushing and shoving while in line. Also, friends or family members of the shop clerk may walk directly to the front of the line and get served.
  • NEW Gallantry and respect are very important in Italy. On public transportation, young folks should offer their seats to their elders, and men should offer their seats to women.
  • Customarily, the greeting “Ciao” should only be used with acquaintances. When addressing strangers in Italy, use “buongiorno” and “arrivederci” instead.
  • Planning a trip to Italy? Skip the high season summer months (July-August) and go either April-June or September-October. The weather will be milder, the cost lower, and the crowds lighter.

Spain

  • Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish “siesta” is usually devoted to a leisurely lunch and good conversation, not a nap as is commonly believed.
  • In Spain, businesses generally close between 2 pm and 4:30 or 5pm for the afternoon siesta. Consider this if you plan to run errands during this time.
  • Women traveling in Spain should be prepared to ignore the catcalls, comments and hard stares from local males. You should know, however, that although this type of verbal harassment is common, the incidence of reported rape in Spain is one of the lowest in the developed world.
  • In Spain, some restaurants will drop your bill by 10-20% if you eat at the bar rather than at a table.
  • Spaniards are very social, and spend a lot of time in cafes and bars. To match their eating schedule, eat a light breakfast, a small snack around 11 a.m., a late lunch (1:30-4), a snack around 7 or 8 p.m., then a light dinner around 10 p.m.
  • Most Italians vacation in August.  Since many businesses and shops are closed then, consider a different month if you are planning a visit to Italy.

Japan

  • If you accept an invitation to a Japanese karaoke bar, expect to sing! Being uncooperative will not be appreciated.
  • If you are invited to a traditional restaurant, expect your Japanese host to order for you. You can indicate what you like beforehand if you have a preference, but otherwise just trust their judgment.
  • Don’t be wasteful, but you should leave a small amount of food on your plate when dining with Japanese hosts. This lets them know you are full, and that the meal was sufficient.
  • Tipping is unnecessary in a Japanese restaurant, as your bill will most likely include a service charge.
  • In Japan, there is usually no physical contact during a greeting. Don’t assume a handshake will occur; take your cue from the person you are meeting. One of the biggest faux pas is touching someone in public; a slap on the back, or a tug on the sleeve to catch someone’s attention is considered very inappropriate.
  • In Japan, avoid eating or drinking in the street. If you purchase a canned beverage from a machine, stand by the machine to drink it rather than walking along sipping as you go.
  • In Japan, when having a meal with a group, make sure others have a full glass or cup and they will reciprocate.  Do not fill your own glass.  Raise your glass as someone else fills it, and acknowledge the other person with a quick bow of the head.  As a gesture of formality, use two hands when pouring for someone else, or when holding your own glass.  When you do not want any more to drink, simply leave your glass full.
  • To the Japanese, it is considered rude to express your emotions in public. A poker face is used to cover up negative emotions and to protect privacy.  Direct eye contact, used in the West to signal confidence or sincerity, is perceived as defiance or a challenge in Japan.  Show respect by looking down or shifting your eyes.
  • In Japan, bowing represents humility. You honor the other person by humbling yourself—the lower you bow, the more respect you show.  Westerners, although not expected to initiate a bow, should always return a bow when given.
  • In Japan, eating outside a restaurant, and especially as you walk down the street, is considered bad manners.

 

Mexico

  • NEW In Mexico, the people tend to stand closer during a conversation than Americans do. Backing away may be considered unfriendly.
  • NEW Do not use the common gesture for "O.K." (thumb and index finger in a circle) in Mexico, as this is considered vulgar.
  • NEW When purchasing an item from a store in Mexico, place the money directly in the clerk’s hand. It would be an indication of contempt for the clerk if you placed it on the counter.
  • NEW As you form friendships in Mexico, the greeting will change quickly from a handshake to a hug. Men have more friendly physical contact than generally seen in the U.S.; these gestures should be accepted willingly.
  • NEW Close male acquaintances will often perform the "abrazo," a Mexican gesture of good will. The abrazo is a combination hug/backslap/handshake and is used in business situations as well.
  • If you bring home glazed ceramics from Mexico, only use them for decoration. Many pieces have a dangerously high lead content, and should not be used for storing or serving food and beverages.
     

Middle East

  • When traveling in the Middle East, never cross your legs in a manner that shows the sole of your shoe to others in the room - it’s a sign of disrespect.

Nicaragua

  • NEW If you go to the market, don’t take a purse and keep your hand in your pocket where your money is at all times.
  • NEW Locals will aggressively approach you to purchase their homemade pastries and plastic bags of colored water. But, don’t succumb to the temptation no matter how good they look if you want to stay healthy. You don’t know under what conditions these were prepared and the water is most likely tainted. Just respond with “No Chico.”

Philippines

  • Filipinos tend to be shy. In order not to offend, they may answer “yes” to a question when they mean “no”, or they may not answer at all. If you are unsure a response is genuine, gently reword the question, giving the person a chance to change the answer, or drop the issue altogether. For this same reason, in a business situation, don’t rely on a verbal agreement. Try to get a written commitment at each stage of negotiation.
  • In the Philippines, it’s customary to gain a waitress’s attention by making a “psstt” hissing sound.
  • Filipinos have great respect for elders. Never disagree with them or offer criticism.
  • Filipinos are sensitive and easily offended.
  • Because of the heat, people may bathe several times a day in the Philippines. Few homes have constant hot water; if you need hot water, ask your hostess.
  • Because Filipinos want to cultivate a personal relationship before negotiating a business arrangement, business is conducted very slowly. Don’t try to rush things. Be aware that deals generally are not concluded in a single trip.

Scotland

  • Don’t use the term “Scotch” to describe things that originate from Scotland. The correct term is “Scottish”.
  • Americans sometimes tend to lump Scotland and England together in conversation. This is offensive to Scots, since they are a separate country, and are proud of their distinct heritage.