In the US, there are a few “cultural norms” that we inevitably become accustomed to. But as it turns out, most other countries have quite different norms that can be a bit shocking when you first arrive.
Since 2013 I’ve been lucky enough to travel to over 50 countries on 6 continents and I’ve actually found that the US is actually the outlier. For instance, most countries measure distances in kilometers, not miles. Most countries use kilograms, not pounds. It’s uncommon to tip in most countries. And many countries around the world have universal healthcare and free education.
If you are from the US and are planning your first big trip abroad, check out our list of 16 things to know before traveling abroad so you’re prepared for everything.
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16 Things to Know Before Traveling Abroad
1. Cars and Motorbikes Honk as a Warning, not out of Anger
This was one that initially confused me but in hindsight makes complete sense. When cars are passing other cars, or backing up, or rounding blind corners, they honk to say “be careful! I’m here!” If there is a significant amount of traffic on a particular street, there will inevitably be a lot of honking as cars and motorbikes are navigating around each other.
And we’ve visited a lot of countries, especially in Europe, where no one honks at all, ever.
In the US, we are generally accustomed to people honking as a kind of middle finger gesture to show you just how pissed off they are about your driving. That’s really not the case in most of the rest of the world.
2. Tipping is Rare, if at All
A tip is defined as “a small present of money given directly to someone for performing a service or menial task; gratuity.” The only place I’ve encountered to date where a tip is expected is the US. And especially where a set percentage of 20% of your total bill is expected.
In most other countries around the world, a small tip is certainly appreciated but is rarely expected. And restaurant owners most certainly don’t pay employees a lower wage and assume that the bulk of their staff’s wages will be earned in gratuity.
10% is the most you’ll ever tip outside of the US, and usually, you should just round up. So if your bill is $19.20, just leave a $20. Some fancy restaurants may add a service tip to your bill, so be sure to check before leaving anything extra.
3. Used Toilet Paper Often Goes in the Trash, not the Toilet
In many countries, especially developing countries, the sewage pipes aren’t equipped to handle human waste AND toilet paper. It can be difficult to get used to and I can’t imagine being the person in charge of taking out the garbage at the end of the day.
Speaking of toilet paper, it’s a rarity in public bathrooms in some countries around the world. I try to carry tissues in my purse, just in case.
And speaking of public bathrooms, you’ll occasionally run into toilets that are either missing the toilet seat or are just a hole in the ground. “Squatty potties” are quite common in SE Asia and South America. You’ll have a footrest on each side of a drain in the floor, and you’ll need to squat low and hope for the best.
Don’t forget to keep some small change on you, public toilets usually cost money to use outside of the US.
4. Pedestrians do NOT Have the Right of Way
Even when you see those white-striped lines painted on the street, that does not necessarily mean cars will stop for you. In fact, cars will generally not stop for you in countries like Vietnam and Thailand. In these countries, it’s best to wait for a break in traffic and then begin walking confidently across the street. They will weave around you (but they still won’t stop).
If you happen to rent a car and you stop frequently to give pedestrians the right of way, you’ll just confuse them and anger the cars behind you.
This is also true of bicycle traffic in some European cities. Be sure to stay out of the bike lanes or you are in danger of getting yelled at, or worse.
5. Bigger is not Necessarily Better
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a triple venti latte in a to-go cup in most other countries. Coffee is savored in cafes that line cobblestone pedestrian streets and cups are usually modest in size. And in general, the food portion sizes are not “super-sized” like we are used to in the US.
Your waistline will appreciate the portion control while traveling abroad. And when you get back to the US, you’ll probably realize that the gigantic portions are totally unnecessary!
6. Everything is Closed on Sundays
Well, not everything. But you certainly wouldn’t want to save your souvenir shopping for a Sunday. Or a holiday. Restaurants and groceries are usually open but many shops are closed. Also, many shops and restaurants close for “siesta” in the middle of the day, especially in countries in South America.
And in Muslim-majority countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, many of the shops and restaurants are actually closed on Fridays for their prayer day.
7. There are no Clothes Dryers
Clothes dryers are virtually unheard of outside of the US and line drying is the standard. If you are hoping for that super soft, just out of the dryer fluffiness, you’ll be disappointed.
Laundry services are also quite different around the world. We had an incredibly difficult time figuring out how to do our laundry in India and Morocco as they seemed to have plenty of expensive dry cleaners, but no laundry mats. In SE Asia there are shops all over where you can drop off your laundry and then pick it up the next day, freshly laundered and folded, all for just a nominal charge.
If our laundry situation is getting dire we will rent an Airbnb apartment that comes equipped with a washing machine and drying rack.
8. You can Drink the Water
In a lot of countries, tap water is totally fine to drink. Many islands use reverse osmosis so it might not taste great but it shouldn’t get you sick. However, that doesn’t mean that restaurants will serve you free tap water. We had a terrible time getting tap water at the restaurants in Germany and were always charged for bottled water or a carafe, no matter how we asked. So pack a reusable water bottle and fill it up at your hotel before leaving for the day.
You can check this website prior to visiting any country to see how clean the tap water is; http://isthewatersafetodrink.com/.
9. You’ll Probably Find a Hair in Your Food
If you’ve ever found a hair in your food in the US you’ve probably started gagging and had a server run to your assistance, whisk the repugnant food away, bring you a new dish, and not charge you a dime for your meal. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. If you do make a scene they’ll likely just take your plate to the back, remove the offensive hair, and bring it back out to you. Pick it out yourself and just hope they’ve recently washed their hair.
10. Everything is Negotiable
Most markets in most countries around the world have a “tourist price” and a “local price” and you’ll notice that there are no price tags on anything. The first price that is quoted to you is generally just a jumping-off price for negotiations. Start really low (50% of the asked price is standard) and plan on meeting somewhere in the middle.
But don’t play hardball if you have no intention of buying, that’s just offensive. And some countries (like Croatia) have just one price for all and don’t appreciate bartering.
The price of some excursions and hotels may be flexible as well, especially if you are booking a tour last-minute. I even had to negotiate the price of my stitches at a hospital when I got hit in the face with a surfboard in Indonesia!
11. Safety Regulations Aren’t the Same
There are so many laws in the US meant to protect its citizens – seat belt laws, car seat laws, laws related to food safety, and architectural structural safety. Many other countries don’t have such stringent rules.
You’ll see babies being held in the front seat of cars or piled on the back of mopeds. Sidewalks and roads with giant potholes are an accident waiting to happen. In India, raw sewage flows down half-pipes on the side of the street. Or bridges that look like you could fall through at any moment. Use caution to avoid taking a tour of the local emergency room.
The US is also one of the only places in the world where people sue corporations so frequently. If something does happen to you while traveling, it’s unlikely you’ll have a lot of options for recourse.
12. You Might Need a Visa
And it might not be a visa-on-arrival. Countries like India, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Brazil all require a pre-arranged visa prior to entering the country. And some are more difficult to obtain than others. Make sure to do your research prior to leaving for the airport.
Also, if you are traveling to an island you may need to show proof of onward travel. When we visited New Zealand in 2013, we planned to stay for around 3 months but didn’t make any solid plans. The airline wouldn’t let us board the plane until we had a flight booked home.
13. Your Debit Card Might Stop Working
Even if you are super vigilant in clearing all of your cards for international use, there’s always the chance that something will happen that will keep you from getting cash. And in many countries, most taxis, restaurants, and shops are cash-only. Be sure you contact your bank to give to release your card for use in the countries you’ll be visiting and bring a backup card, just in case.
14. You Don’t Need Cash in Advance of Your Arrival
Just stop at the ATM on your way out of the airport. Every airport has at least one. The fees are much lower than the currency exchange kiosks. Just be sure to check the exchange rate before using the ATM so you don’t end up taking out too much money, or too little.
We’d highly recommend that you download a currency converter app to help you figure out the exchange rate when currencies are quite confusing. For instance, in Vietnam, their currency is 22,862 Vietnamese Dong to $1 USD. Try doing that math in your head!
15. Everyone Smokes. Everywhere.
In hotel rooms, on buses, in restaurants. There are rarely any “designated smoking areas” (except in airports) and no one cares whether or not they are tainting your precious lungs. If someone near you is smoking and it’s bothering you, you’ll be the one that is expected to relocate.
16. You’ll Need to Adapt to Their Cultural Norms
And lastly, be sure to do some research on the cultural norms of the country that you’ll be visiting to ensure that you aren’t an offensive tourist. For instance, in most Muslim-majority countries it is expected that women keep their shoulders and knees covered. There may be greetings or gestures or phrases that are polite or impolite depending on where you are. And you should certainly make an effort to learn at least a few words in the local language.
Remember, you’re not there to change the culture, you’re there to experience a new one.