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10 Signs You Might Be a Terrible Tourist

The fact that you have the time, money and passport needed to travel doesn't mean that the world is at your disposal.
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With summer in the Northern Hemisphere and peak travel season just around the corner, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and anticipation of journeying abroad. But before you pack your bags and kiss your 'hood goodbye, there are a few things to remember so you don't become an ugly, faux pas-committing tourist who risks becoming fodder for Buzzfeed. Friends don't let friends travel badly, and as your friend, I simply cannot allow you to let loose in the world without a primer on how to avoid being a bad tourist!

So, ladies and gents, in the interest of improving international relations, here's my take on the 10 reasons you might be a terrible traveler:

1. You don't respect the country's cultural norms and dress inappropriately.

Yes yes, I know; I get that we should have the freedom to wear whatever we want (jersey onesie or velour tracksuit notwithstanding-- those look a mess on anybody). But we have to draw the line when it comes to dressing inappropriately on someone else's turf. For example, many religious sites and places of worship abroad require a modicum of modesty-- a small sacrifice when you are trying to see the world. So be respectful, ditch the singlets and booty shorts, and cover those shoulders and knees (ladies, check out my post on how I dressed in Egypt for tips ). After all, it's the respectful thing to do.

2. You take pictures when and where you're not supposed to.

Just a few weeks ago I was in a temple in Xian, China and encountered a couple of tourists doing their darnedest to covertly snap a pic of a relic... even though a large sign adjacent to said relic prohibited photo-taking. "But," you cry, "My Facebook album won't be complete without that photo!" My response: it is what it is. Get over yourself and commit that statue/painting/monument to memory. These beautiful things you travel far and wide to see are probably still sacred (and intact!) expressly because no photos are allowed.

3. You expect everyone to speak English and make zero attempts to use the language of the country/city/region you're in.

Nothing says ugly, obnoxious tourist like exclusively using English in places where it's not a national language (worse still if the English you employ is loud and slow). Yes, the language of Shakespeare is pretty much spoken worldwide, but would it kill you to say "Bonjour", "Excusez-moi", or "Merci" on your next jaunt to gai Paris? My Mandarin Chinese is a disaster but I make sure to begin conversations with "Ni hao" (hello) and end them with "Xie xie" (thank you) out of common courtesy. I've also perfected how to say "I don't speak Chinese" (as if there was any doubt!). Learn a few choice phrases in the relevant foreign language and use them without fail-- you may be surprised at the positive response you receive from locals.

4. You make disparaging remarks about the country's practices and customs (particularly if they inconvenience you) without attempting to understand why things are the way they are.

Here's a tip: leave your moral superiority at home and don't judge a country and its people without express knowledge of... the country and its people. Unless you've lived in a place for a certain amount of time and/or have had more than a cursory brush with the people and their culture, you're not really in a position to berate them or look down your nose at what they do. Open-mindedness, tolerance, self-reflection, and curiosity are tenets any world citizen should hold dear. So, by all means, ask questions, but in the spirit of gaining understanding-- not collecting ammunition.

5. You "other" the locals and treat them as props in your "perfect" Facebook and Instagram posts.

We've seen it all before: (comparatively) rich Western tourist goes to an orphanage or a school in Africa or Southeast Asia and takes pictures amongst poverty-stricken, decrepit-looking children. I'll keep it short and sweet: you're dead wrong for that. Engage with people because they are human beings, not because they set the stage for a funny or poignant Facebook cover photo. Treat people with the dignity they deserve and not just as background furniture for your "enlightening, epic, life-changing" trip to x destination.

6. You're cheap: you don't tip

There are certain facts of life you just can't change: the sky is blue, toast *will* land on the buttered side when you drop it accidentally, and in America you must add a 15%-20% gratuity on top of your restaurant bill. As miserly as I sometimes am, that's just the way it is, so I cough up the extra cash and go about my day. Newsflash people (Europeans, I'm looking specifically at you): it doesn't matter if you don't have to tip in your home country-- when you go to a place where tipping is expected, you do it. If service is bad, tip less. But leave a tip. As much as I feel that the onus to beef up servers' meager salaries should not be passed on to customers, it is and thus we have a responsibility to do so. Write a letter to Obama and co. to change legislation if you feel that strongly about it, but be sure to leave your waiter what they're due so that they don't end up with a paycheck for zero dollars (since they have to pay taxes on projected tips that they may or may not receive). Yup, that totally happens in the U.S.

7. You're cheap: you bargain excessively and everywhere.

Haggling in the market over the cost of something can be fun, but your persistent attempts to pay as little as possible are tacky and insulting, especially when what may be chump change to you could be considered a day's wage for the vendor. Also, know when and where bargaining is appropriate. A fancy storefront where articles sport price tags is more likely to have fixed prices than, say, a chaotic bazaar. Another tip: employ what I call the "walk away" technique-- state the final price you're willing to pay and spin on your heel as though you're about to leave. If the vendor doesn't run after you or immediately drop the price, you've probably lowballed them.

8. You specialize in cultural misappropriation.

There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Because I love you and I want you to be able to distinguish between the two, I'm going to ask you to read this excellent article on the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, then I'm going to ask you to read this, this, and this. Takeaways: although you travelled to India and really dug it, wearing a bindi is *never* okay. Also, if I ever catch you wearing one of those wretched Rastafarian hats with the dreadlocks attached, I'm going to call your momma and ask her to slap some sense into you. (I only condone violence in extreme cases-- this is one of them.)

9. You forget your manners and act as though you are singlehandedly supporting the entire country's tourism industry.

Entitlement is a terrible. Bad tourists leave their manners at home, skip the most basic of niceties, and subsequently give all tourists a bad name. Be gracious. Be humble. Be kind. Say "Please" and "Thank you" and realize that while a country's economy may be grateful for your tourist dollars, they'd rather go without if you're going to act like a jerk once you get there. It's not all about you. Leave the diva attitude at home.

10. You don't research your destination before jumping in that plane/train/automobile.

This is perhaps the most cardinal of all travel sins and the root cause of most of the nonsense outlined in numbers 1 through 9 of this list. Not a guidebook person? Then Google is your friend. Know where you're going and what you're getting into, and *please* make sure to check whether or not you need to procure a tourist visa before leaving the country (sadly, I sometimes don't take my own advice-- I didn't realize I needed a visa to go to the UAE and the plane left me. Sigh.)


To Conclude

Lest you forget, travel is a privilege. The fact that you have the time, money and passport needed to travel doesn't mean that the world is at your disposal. So don't be a terrible traveller-- respect, tolerance, cultural sensitivity, and a bit of research can go a long way.

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