8 ways to communicate when traveling in a foreign country

by May 9, 2016Language

While English is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, if you really want to be comfortable traveling in a country where English is not the native tongue, it pays to know how to best communicate when traveling. Understanding and being comfortable with the many nuances of communication, no matter where you are in the world, is one of the key differences between being a traveler and a tourist, especially if you don’t speak the local language.

Remember too, when traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language, you may need help – in an emergency, if you miss a train, or for health or medical reasons, among others. You need to be prepared to communicate in some way.

Here are 8 tips to help you communicate when traveling in a foreign country

1. Know a few basic words. An excellent start is learning how to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you. “I need help” and “where is…” are also practical phrases. This may become more difficult for Westerners in Eastern countries with languages that are quite foreign to our ears so there are other ways to communicate, so read on….

HITT Tip: Sometimes small courteous gestures or words can take you far. In France, you don’t just launch at somebody. Instead, you politely say, “hello” first, usually followed by a greeting or title, e.g. “Bonjour, madame!” And in Asia, you never ever write on a business card or just grab it and stuff it in a pocket. Instead, you stop to admire it first and then place it somewhere in sight until you depart. 

2. Carry a phrase book, paper or on an electronic device. With this, you can always quickly look up something and point to the translation to get what you need.

Alternatively, carry an off-line dictionary of basic terms on your smartphone or tablet. Do not count on having a Wi-Fi connection or connecting with data roaming, however. Offline, we have used dict.cc (free), but you have to think about this in advance, download the app and choose your language pair for download. There are of course many you can choose from, but many only allow free use when online. Trying to communicate when traveling is easier with an offline translation app.

HITT Tip: If you’re going to be staying in a country for longer than a few weeks and really want to learn to communicate when traveling in the country’s native tongue, you could consider paying for one of many offline language apps that allow translation while speaking or typing. 

3. Get in touch with your inner artist. Ever played Pictionary? Trying to get to your cruise ship? Draw a boat, some water, a dock … and then point. But realize, too, just because you think what you drew made sense doesn’t mean the one who is trying to interpret your work of art understands. That boat you drew may find you directed to a port miles away from where your cruise ship actually is.

Learn to speak Spanish fluently with Rocket Languages

4. Try a game of charades, but be careful. You absolutely must understand that certain gestures some countries deem normal are taboo or mean something vulgar in other countries. In some countries, for example, nodding your head up and down means “no,” while a side-to-side shake means “yes.” In many countries pointing or showing your palm is a no-no. As with the caveat about drawing pictures, don’t assume your charades are clear – as our friends Diane and Jerry found out when she pointed to her water bottle to mean water, as in the sea and the port where their ship was, and they instead ended up at a coffee shop because the taxi driver thought she wanted water (See their story, “Cruise ship boarding near miss: twice in two days!“).

5. Get to know off-line mapping apps and download your favorite to your device prior to your departure. We like Ulmon’s CityMaps2Go app. You do not need a connection, and you can put stars on the map to mark locations. Thus, you can always put a star on a destination to show a taxi driver. Certainly, there are other offline map applications available. Google Maps has also made it possible to use its mapping service offline, but when offline, they are more limited.

Ulmon maps can be used offline and are available for almost anywhere in the world.

Ulmon maps can be used offline and are available for almost anywhere in the world.

6. If you are in a hotel or on a cruise ship, take a business card or brochure so you can show that to get help. In addition, many hotels and ships in different countries will offer small cards that literally have written on them, in the native tongue, something like “Please take me to X.” If there is not an appropriate business card or brochure, ask a desk staff member to write down for you the address and location (e.g. the area of town or neighborhood), as well as a phrase in the native language that is something like, “Please take me to X.”


7. Be firm and insistent, without being tourist-rude, if you feel you are being taken advantage of or the seriousness of your request is not being taken seriously.

8. Allow extra time and be patient. And, remember, a smile will always get your further than loud demands – particularly if the person you’re talking to can’t understand. Those are words of wisdom every traveler follows, albeit not every tourist.

As our friend Diane (from her “Cruise ship near miss” story) summed up after an adventure in Vietnam: “Being polite and respectful of people and their local customs. That is the first step in opening the door to communication even if neither of you speak the language.” We couldn’t agree more.

HITT Tip (somewhat tongue in cheek): If the person you are addressing does not speak your mother tongue, the solution to being understood is NOT to speak louder. Being loud doesn’t improve your communication skills. Refer to our 8 tips to communicate when traveling, above. 

Get your copy of the "German Language Tips" guide for free

German Language Cheat Sheet

Want a copy of “German Language Tips” for FREE?

Start by becoming a member of our Subscriber Club. With only an email, you can activate a FREE subscription to our HI Travels Tales Newsletter to begin receiving premium stories, photography and tips that do not appear on our website. And you’ll become part of a fun travel community. To receive your FREE ebook, you only need to click on any premium content page and you will be invited to take advantage of 7 days of FREE unlimited access to our premium content, granting you full access to our full premium travel and recipe library. Just cancel before 7 days and you will owe us nothing. And as a thank you, once you've activated your subscription, send us an email with "send me the German Language Tips guide" and we’ll send you a link to download your ebook. No strings attached. 

You might also be interested in reading:


  1. Leon

    Any suggestions for hiring local bilingual guides? Can you make arrangements before you depart? If you are doing this at your destination: any helpful tips?

    • HI Travel Tales

      It is so dependent upon your destination as to what to specifically suggest. In Morocco for example, hotels or riads you book in can often arrange official guides for you in each city or destination … for a fee of course. Certainly check out our posts on Morocco for more on this. We do recommend a service called Get Your Guide — http://bit.ly/hittguide

As an affiliate for Get Your Guide, Amazon.com, iVisa, Global Rescue, Think Tank, 5.11, Kuhl, Adorama, and others, we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you should you choose to purchase through the links in our posts. It is essential to mention that we only endorse products we believe in and personally use. Your support for HI Travel Tales through these purchases allows us to maintain a sustainable platform for creating valuable and relevant content for you. 

Global Rescue Ad - travel insurance for when it matters most