How to be a good traveler: Be flexible, heed local customs

by Jun 25, 2018Planning

When I hear friends tell horror stories about travel, I find myself wondering why some good people seem to frequently have bad experiences when traveling. Perhaps it is because they have not yet learned how to be a good traveler?

When I hear friends tell horror stories about travel, I find myself wondering why some good people seem to frequently have bad experiences when traveling. Sure, we’ve had some less-than-perfect experiences ourselves, but they are usually due to some logistical snafu, like train strikes, lost luggage, or bad weather. Travel can be hard, that’s true. The difference, as I mull this over, between returning disgruntled or returning ready to tell stories about fun and perhaps challenging adventure is learning how to be a good traveler.

A friend recently was ranting about how he was “never” going to go back to country X. He was still angry about two experiences there: In one case, he wasn’t allowed to go into a casino. Turns out he wasn’t dressed appropriately – American casual with shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt didn’t cut it. In the other case, he wasn’t allowed to enter a church because he refused to take off a hat.

I listened to his stories and gently mentioned there are sometimes different kinds of mores and guidelines in other countries, and that we are guests in those countries when we travel. He just fumed about how he’d NEVER go back there and how rude the whole country was.

It seems my friend could learn a thing or two to improve his travel experiences — and he is likely not alone. So, we would like to offer a few suggestions for learning to travel well, enjoying the adventure wherever you go, and returning with great stories. As I like to say, comedy is tragedy plus time. So, embrace the OMG moments and realize you will have even better tales to tell upon return.

Therese getting immersed with locals in China

Dump precise minute-to-minute plans. Travel is not a science. It is in fact a mashup of art and curiosity topped with a sprinkle of flexibility. Then there are those people who approach a vacation like they are planning an executive retreat for an international conglomerate – spreadsheets, time plans, schedules, pre-bookings – with nary a chance to just watch people, get lost on a back street where discoveries lurk, or become immersed in a little culture. Great travelers go with the flow and don’t schedule every minute of the day.

Think about why you travel. Sure, you want to see the Roman Coliseum, the Great Wall of China, or Machu Picchu, but what you will really find is an experience – if you are open to it. I believe that those who seek only what is on a checklist or to find an Instagram are more prone to bad experiences: What if the Notre Dame is covered in scaffolding for repairs, or the Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery is closed for a special occasion? Disappointment. If you seek an experience in a different culture – perhaps wrapped around the guise of a monument or temple or even the journey to get there – you will usually not be disappointed.

Oblige by local customs. You are a guest in whatever city, state or country you are in. If the locals have a dress code, you oblige. If they close stores for a siesta in the afternoon, you find something else to do. And if men are asked to wear a Jewish kippah (yarmulke) when visiting a cemetery, you do it. That’s what Michael did when we visited the beautiful and haunting historic Jewish cemetery in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. And when Fiji custom noted that women do not expose their arms, I carried a long sarong to wrap over shorts when needed and slung a loose shawl over my shoulders to cover my arms. This is indeed how you learn to be a good international traveler – not by raising your voice at somebody and issuing demands.


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Michael showing how to be a good traveler by respecting culture in a Jewish cemetary in Berlin.

A large part of learning how to be a good traveler, is understanding you need to respect the customs and cultures of the places you travel to. Michael is not Jewish, but he absolutely respected the request to don a yarmulke when he was wandering inside the Jewish cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.

Be flexible. When you take your precious vacation days, you want everything to go as planned. I promise you, it won’t. You just have to go with the flow sometimes. A few years ago, Michael and I were off to Greece for a cycling trip and planned a few days in Athens on our own first. Except our luggage decided it wanted to stay in Munich where we transferred. For three days. After the first day, we decided we needed something else to wear, asked where to find a local clothing store, and acquired a skirt for me, a couple of t-shirts for Michael and some underwear. Now, we could have gotten angry and stomped our feet and yelled at everyone, but it wouldn’t have done a bit of good. Instead, we just laughed about three days of photos in Athens wearing the same clothes.

Flexibilty allows you to learn to be a good traveler even when your clothes are lost.

Since our luggage was enjoying Oktoberfest in Munich, our photos from our first three days in Athens look like we were wearing the same clothes — because we were.  If you are going to learn how to be a good traveler, adapting and being flexible, no matter what the travel gods throw your way, is essential!

Talk to people. What’s that man in that small storefront doing anyway? I stopped in my tracks, took a few steps back on my wander through the streets of Metz, France, and watched an elderly man honing some wood. I mustered up my courage and marched in, camera at the ready. I bumbled through some French, but it turned out he was so hard-of-hearing, it didn’t really matter. But he loved to talk about his shop, his furniture-making craft, current politics and growing up in Metz. I remember this with joy (although that camera card was the first and only time I ended up with a corrupt card – and thus no photos of this gent and his tiny shop lined with dusty vintage tools of a true craftsman.)

Be ready for an unplanned adventure. Recently, we were in Budapest. We were on our way to find a particular off-the-beaten path sight when we turned a corner and saw a WHOLE LOT of fencers, no really, like hundreds, fall acing off two-by-two inside a fence all around a large building. Instead of continuing on our planned route, we detoured – what was going on?!? We had to circle the entire block to finally make our way in. We found out it was a European Master’s Fencing Competition and a former Hungarian Olympic champion was pointed out to us — what a treat to watch his agile grace (he’s pictured below). And we stayed for the alleged first-ever fencing flash mob. That wasn’t on the tourist event calendar or on ours – until we got there and took the time!

Hungarian fencing match in Budapest with Pap

Express enthusiasm. It should not be surprising what expressing a little interest can get you. There is the time we were in Bergen, Norway, and we heard about the itty-bitty Theta Museum that was the secret headquarters for the Nazi Resistance in Bergen during WWII. Already into off-season, its hours were extremely limited. We found a local bookstore and inquired about it. The manager there contacted the community historical office, mentioned how fascinated we were by it, and somebody offered to open it for us to get a look.

Theta Museum in Norway

Explore. In South Korea, we headed off the main drag to look for a small restaurant. No, we didn’t Google “best restaurant near me” or follow guidebook directions to the one with the most stars. Instead, we opened our eyes and saw an eatery filled with locals. Understand the menu? Not really. But we wandered in, were stared at like Martians, and bravely took seats. We picked something from the menu based on photos and were ready for whatever came. When the big bowls came, the Korean men at the table next to ours peered at our table, then yelled at the waiter, seemingly issuing a few orders. A moment later a tray full of little dishes of “stuff” appeared on our table. The men grinned broadly and motioned at us to put it in the bowls. They had taken it upon themselves to make sure the foreigners had the real deal!

Be kind. Travel can indeed be at times frustrating and will push your patience. Remember that those you are dealing with – a reception clerk, train conductor, tour operator, or restaurant waiter – is often not responsible for the source of your frustration. Step back mentally, empathize, and take personal control of your emotions. I was standing at a ticket counter once, ready to check my luggage when the agent looked at my ticket, looked up and said, “You know this ticket is for tomorrow.” I about fell through the floor. It had been booked for me and I hadn’t double-checked, silly me. Instead of screaming, stomping and demanding, I looked sad and said rather plaintively, “Really?? Oh no, I’m supposed to be at some meetings…. I know it’s not your fault….” I trailed off, knowing not much could be done at this last minute. “Just a minute,” he said, as his fingers flew on the keyboard, then he handed me a ticket. I looked aghast and stuttered, “Wha-a-at???” He said, “Just go, go now.”

I believe that travel is about cultural exploration that often leads to personal revelations. Perhaps you are not comfortable with unplanned time, marching down a side street or into a strange shop in a country where you do not speak the language, or letting go of your own habits and customs. Maybe strange food is not your thing. Allowing yourself to be put in a slightly uncomfortable position can be what pushes you to learn more about the world and yourself. If you come home from trips and, like my friend, can only talk about how the weather was different, the food was odd, and people were in your opinion rude, when others rave about what a great time they had, then maybe it’s not the destination that’s the problem, but your state of mind.

Learning how to be a good traveler takes time, so don’t give up after what seems to be one bad experience. Try it again. And again. And again. And don’t forget to leave spaces in your schedule, explore, be curious and, above all, be flexible. Pretty soon, you too will embrace the artistry of travel. And you’ll have great stories too.

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