Ugly Traveler (n.) – Any person who visits a foreign country, views it only through their homeland's lens, refuses to learn or participate in local customs and generally shares their self-inflicted displeasure with everyone around them.
- Team Hazard Rides Again
Stories of ugly travelers abound. Whether American, Chinese, German, Australian or from anywhere else on the globe, people can't seem to behave when they travel far from home.
We're not talking about the obvious – like defacing historic monuments – that's flat out criminal.
We're talking about the people who take their bad behavior on the road and make everyone's lives miserable.
We know you're not like that, but could you, or your travelmates, be making some of these mistakes?
Here's our list of the some of the worst things tourists do and how you can avoid being labeled an Ugly Traveler.
Let us know if we missed anything in the comments.
DON'T expect things to be like home, or complain when they're not.
We know traveling can be stressful, and when you land in a strange place, full of unfamiliar people, sometimes you want nothing more than for things to be easy. Easy – meaning comfortable and familiar.
But you're in a foreign place and maybe there's nothing familiar. The food is different, the language may be different, even figuring out the bathroom may be puzzling task.
An ugly traveler would get frustrated and complain. Then one complaint turns into some other petty thing being wrong, and then it seems like everything that's different is wrong and that turns into a whole lot of complaining.
Not only does this make you an ugly and angry traveler, but you come off as an arrogant ass, thinking everything about your home country is the best.
There's a better approach.
DO set in your mind that you're traveling for the sake of experiencing new things.
This includes things small and large. Expect everything to be different and revel in the newness of the experience.
By shifting your perspective and your expectations, those elements that could seem foreign and unpleasant become wonderful new discoveries, or at least interesting curiosities.
While you may not love everything that's different about the place you're visiting, approaching it with an open mind will make your trip go smoother and give you a range of responses. We recommend not complaining unless it's truly called for.
DON'T get upset when people don't speak your language.
This relates especially to our US readers, many of whom are mono-linguistic. The expectation that the rest of the world should speak English has contributed greatly to the image of the Ugly American tourist.
While English is widely spoken, once you step foot in another country, you absolutely shouldn't expect anyone there to speak your language. It doesn't matter if English is one of the official languages of the country, that doesn't mean everyone's going to speak it.
You shouldn't expect others to be bilingual just to accommodate you. I mean, you haven't done the same for them, have you?
Getting angry because you can't make yourself understood is the response of an ugly traveler.
DO have a translation app on your phone and be prepared to communicate in different ways.
We've tried a few different apps, but Google translate seems to be best overall, and it's free. Install it, download the language you need for offline use, and use it liberally. Be prepared to hand your phone back and forth to facilitate the conversation.
Also understand that the translation isn't perfect, so you may be sharing a statement that the translator has botched and the person you're trying to converse with is still confused. We were once having a conversation with staff in Thailand about hotel towels and the translator came up with something about Spiderman.
You can also call up pictures on your phone for demonstration. "Siri, show me a blue suitcase."
Remember, that even if someone does speak English as a second language, if you're having trouble understanding their accent, they're probably having trouble understanding yours.
Be prepared to come up with alternate ways to say what you want to say. A great resource for this is mime and hand gestures. Seriously, don't hesitate to act out what you're trying to get across, sort of like a game of charades. It can be a very helpful tool for communication. It can also be good for a laugh.
It's never bad to make people laugh.
DON'T tell people what's wrong with their country.
This falls under ugly traveler and arrogant ass, all rolled into one. We don't care where you're from, your country is not the best in the world. It's not better at everything. Just because you understand how your home country works doesn't mean it's the best and only way things should be done.
While people the world over have the same basic needs, the philosophies on how people should live their best lives varies widely. This can be a belief in different governmental styles, or religious and economic philosophies.
Moreover, you need to remember that the government doesn't always represent the people. There can be a vast difference between what a government does and what its people believe.
DO take time to understand the place you're visiting.
There is so much that goes into making a country what it is, it's impossible to grasp all of the underlying reasons it has evolved the way it has. History, politics, geography, philosophy…you're never going to understand all the nuances of a culture you're not from, especially when you're only there for a vacation or a short visit.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to understand, but don't think you know how they should do things. Your country may be successful in some ways, but other places have different strengths. It's not a competition.
Realize that countries evolve the way they do for complex reasons. If you ever find yourself saying, "Well, they should just…" – STOP talking. You probably don't understand the entirety of the situation.
No one wants to get ripped off. We get it. But that doesn't mean you should expect to pay the same as a local all the time, or that you need to haggle down to the last penny. This is especially true in places where your money goes a lot further than normal and everything costs less already.
There's a point where you need to recognize your privilege. Even if you're a frugal traveler on a shoestring budget, the fact that you can travel all the way to whatever country you're in, and afford to spend several weeks there, means you're significantly better off than many of the people that live there.
If you're haggling down to the very last cedi and feel like you have to get the absolute best price to win, you're being an ugly traveler.
DO learn what things should cost.
From tuk-tuk rides to t-shirts to a pair of shades, ask someone at your hotel what a fair price is.
Be sure to enter the bargaining session with a good attitude, not a combative one. Every country is different when it comes to haggling. Take a moment to learn the way they do things.
For example, in China I had an epic haggling session over a necklace where they offered a hugely inflated price. I countered with an equally dramatic lowball offer. However, in Thailand, there's not usually more than a 10-20% discount to be had. If your offer is too low, they'll just end the transaction immediately. Learn the system for where you are.
Don't haggle down to one or two cedis. If you're paying just a smidge more than locals, put your pride on the back burner and let them have it. Those two cedis mean a whole lot more to that driver than they do to you.
Of course, these rules apply to people who are haggling in good faith. If someone is trying to rip you off, play as much hardball as you want, or walk away and give your money to someone else.
DON'T get stupid drunk.
We know some of you love to party when you travel, but this is just common sense. Getting drunk puts you at risk for so many problems, from theft to assault.
Not to mention that a lot of people get rude when they're drunk.
Have you ever had to tend someone when they're drunk? It ain't fun and it ain't pretty. Don't make drivers, hotel and wait staff clean up after you.
DO go out and have a good time. Drink in moderation.
Keep your wits about you to save yourself a whole lot of headache and prevent the worst from happening.
If you're in a group and you really want to drink to excess, assign one person the job of keeping tabs on everyone.
DON'T be the loud, boisterous tourist who crushes hands in greeting and hugs everyone whether it's appropriate or not.
US citizens, especially, are known for being loud and obnoxious. It's one of the prime identifiers of an Ugly American, though it can apply to other nationalities.
A standard greeting at home might be very inappropriate in a country with more conservative manners. If you see people flinching, grimacing or avoiding you as soon as you approach, you might be an ugly traveler.
DO match the level and intensity of how local people interact with each other.
To be honest, the criticism above usually comes from Europeans who find American enthusiasm…distasteful. So, if you're an American abroad in Europe, definitely tone it down.
The key here is to pay attention.
In our travels from Asia to Africa, we've encountered a variety of cultures and attitudes. I can guarantee that the complaint about loud US tourists wouldn't be made in Benin or Ghana, where the people are outgoing and dynamic, and yes, sometimes loud.
Try to set your internal gauge to match what others are doing. Also be aware that the firm handshake you learned was essential for doing business in the US is too harsh for many other places.
If you're the big, boisterous type, back off and temper your reactions until you can determine the best approach.
DON'T get angry when systems don't work like they do in your home country.
So you've ridden the bus a million times, you know how buses work.
But do you?
In some places, despite the schedule, the bus doesn't leave until it's full. Or maybe you're in a place where it's customary to board the bus, find a seat and pay after you're moving.
If you get on one of these buses and then get upset when it doesn't leave on time! you might be an ugly traveler.
Of course, we're not only referring to buses. This applies to hotels, restaurants, local laws and any system that you think you understand, but don't.
DO adjust your expectations with the understanding that you're in another country and they might do things differently.
For example, in some Asian countries, wait staff don't check on you at your table throughout the meal. You might think this is poor service, but they're actually waiting for you to signal that you want something. They don't want to disturb you in the middle of your meal unnecessarily.
Feel free to ask people what to expect, your hotel staff can be very helpful here.
Different countries take life at a different pace and you might actually find it quite pleasant to slow down a bit and practice taking life in stride. So the tro-tro broke down <shrug>, they're fixing it. I'm sure we'll get there just fine.
Expert traveler tip: Don't over-schedule your day. Leave room for life to happen (especially if you're taking a tro-tro).
DON'T dress inappropriately for the culture you're visiting.
Wearing a tank top and short-shorts in a conservative country or region because you're not willing to compromise your comfort or freedom, is rude.
If you can't respect local sensibilities about proper attire, then don't travel to places where your preferred wardrobe is not acceptable.
If you inflict your values on someone else's culture in their country, you are an ugly traveler.
DO find out what is acceptable attire for your destination and pack accordingly.
Depending on where you're going, a certain amount may be forgiven because you're a tourist, but try to stay within a reasonable range of local sensibilities.
For example, West Africa, in general, is pretty religious. So when we landed in Benin, I asked whether wearing shorts would be okay. I was told that it's no problem. Though my shorts are about knee-length; I still wouldn't recommend pulling out your Daisy Dukes.
However, two countries over, in Ghana, I could sense that shorts were less common and I only wore them in certain areas.
Many places that are conservative are more relaxed in high-traffic tourist areas, especially when they have a beach. Be mindful to cover up once you leave the tourist-zone.
VERY IMPORTANT: When visiting temples, churches and mosques, be sure to ask what acceptable attire is before you go. Usually you want to cover from your upper arms to your knees, at least. Some places will require more coverage and they might even provide a garment to assist you in this requirement. (Sometimes there's a small fee for this rental, sometimes not.)
If you don't dress appropriately for religious spaces, you may be refused entry.
DON'T turn your nose up at local foods.
If you assume that local food is dirty or icky without ever trying it, you're going to miss out.
Just because the food is prepared in a roadside stand, with plastic tables and chairs, does not mean it is of low quality. Often it's far better than anything you'll get in a fancy restaurant and you're doing the good thing of supporting local business people.
If you go to a country and don't even sample the local cuisine, you might be an ugly traveler.
DO try as many different foods as you can.
Even if they come in a plastic bag with unidentifiable ingredients, are completely unknown to you or are something you don't usually like – try them!
I was walking around the Central Market in Tamale, Ghana when I stopped to watch a woman putting some ingredients into a bag. A handful of dark lumps, a sauce, some stew – and I couldn't identify any of it. But I'd stood there long enough that it was sort of assumed I wanted some.
I asked what it was called, but couldn't understand the answer. I thought the dark bits were some form of beef – I was wrong. For a few cedis though, I had to find out.
I took it back to the hotel where they told me it was tubani. Those dark bits turned out to be a gritty, bean-based paste. The sauces made it a little spicy – which is perfect for me. Not only did I like it, but Tim did, too. If we had dismissed the strange looking stuff, we would have missed out on a really tasty treat.
Also, you'll often find that flavors and ingredients you don't like at home are much different when you travel. Bell peppers may be milder, honey is tastier, and okra isn't as icky (it's still slimy, though). Don't assume you know what something tastes like. Give the new version you're presented with a chance.
Of course, it's okay to say no to some foods, and you'll have to choose where to draw that line, but err on the side of trying new things. The worst that happens is you don't like it, and locals will understand. You'll get points for having tried it.
Or, you could find a new favorite food and really impress people with your willingness to eat their local cuisine.
There's nothing better than the looks of surprise you get when you confidently order fufu in a local restaurant and then dig in with your hands – the most proper way to eat fufu.
Learn to Travel Brave!
When it comes to local food, try it – you may like it.
DON'T ignore local customs.
Barreling through your interactions with people in your own culture's manner while not taking local customs into account might mark you as an ugly traveler.
DO learn as best you can how not to offend the local population.
If it's proper to remove your shoes, do so. If there's a code of respect for bowing as part of your greeting, do it, and learn the nuances.
If a society resists using their left hand, not only for eating, but for passing things, especially money, back and forth, try to mind your manners and comply.
Often you'll be given some slack because people know it's not your custom, but make the effort to get it right. By showing respect for their customs, you'll receive respect and appreciation back and you'll find it easier to make friends.
DON'T be so serious and get upset every time something goes wrong, or things take longer than you expected.
When you travel, nothing ever goes as planned. Just assume that.
Yes, sometimes it can get overwhelming, like it did for me one day on our first trip to China.
But if you're busy getting upset all the time and spreading your negativity to everyone around you, you might be an ugly traveler.
DO be patient and try to accept that you're in a different place and things are done differently.
Not everything is as precision and sanitized as so much of the western world.
We once saw a group of travelers in China, up on a mountain (11k feet, 3350m) who ordered the legendary chocolate cake in a local restaurant. If you know anything about baking, you know that it's nearly impossible to get anything to rise at that altitude, and any baking is going to take a long time.
When it arrived, the group of ugly travelers did nothing but rag on the chef for the cake not being up to their expectations. After too much complaining, they left. Tim and I sat there thinking what a bunch of jerks they were. By the way, we also ordered the chocolate cake. It was much like a giant, gourmet pop tart and we enjoyed the heck out of it.
We've also seen someone who was getting agitated because he thought a bus in Ghana would be direct and actually arrive at a very specific time. Of course, it took off a little late and made a number of stops on the way in. Africa is just not the place to expect precision timing when it comes to transportation.
Even after having been in Ghana for a month, this gentleman planned his airport arrival based on the printed bus schedule. He still had enough time, but it definitely bothered him.
He doesn't get counted as an ugly traveler though, because he didn't spread his displeasure to others. He only shared it with us after we struck up a conversation and he asked for advice.
Final Advice on How Not to be an Ugly Traveler
You might notice that most of this advice has some common threads. Be respectful, be patient, be open-minded and be aware of how your actions are affecting others. These are good tips for everyday life, but can be more challenging to implement when under the tiring and stressful effects of travel.
Here are some things you can do to keep up your energy and positive attitude so you don't slip into Ugly Traveler Syndrome:
Now that you know how to NOT be an ugly traveler...
Did we miss anything? What's the worst traveler behavior you've witnessed? Let us know in the comments.
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