How To Be A Respectful Traveler


Don’t steal important monuments

We’ve already covered some points of hotel and hostel etiquette, but where you sleep is just one aspect of how you travel. If you’re one of those people who books a package tour, gets carted around in a bus and never interacts with anyone actually from the country you’re visiting, fine, keep doing what you do because you probably aren’t self-conscious about how you come off anyway. But for the rest of us, travel is an opportunity to meet new people, see new things, and understand new cultures.

The basic idea is that you need to adapt yourself to the local culture, not the other way around. Do this by researching the area. What are the tipping customs? Do you have dietary restrictions or other medical needs you need to be on top of? Can you learn some basic words in the local language? You don’t have to know everything, but you really have no excuse to not even attempt “hello” and “thank you.” Most people just appreciate the effort, and will do their best to help you out if they know you’re trying.

Also, do you need to dress differently? That last one definitely (unfortunately) applies to women. I’m going on my honeymoon to Sri Lanka and have been stocking up on light but covering clothing, since tank tops and shorts don’t really fly there. I could be all pissed about the pervasive idea that women’s bodies are inherently sexual and thus crude, and the double standard when compared to men, but I’d rather just buy some linen pants and hang out in Buddhist ruins. I’m not ready to start any revolutions yet.

Aside from knowing the rules and languages of where you’re traveling, and in general just being polite and considerate, there are also some larger political things to consider. For instance, there’s the issue of “voluntourism” and how helpful a group of well-meaning but poorly-trained westerners attempting to build houses in a remote Costa Rican village actually is. Much has been said of this, but this essay sums up the core issue well:

Our mission while at the orphanage [in Tanzania] was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

This really does have to do with etiquette, because when you travel, you are a guest in another country. You are welcome to explore and learn and do what you want, but like any good guest, you should be leaving the place as you found it, perhaps even better than you found it. And being rude or ignoring local customs or making people rebuild your well-intentioned charity project is not leaving it as you found it.


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5 thoughts on “How To Be A Respectful Traveler

  1. I am actually thinking of traveling to central/south America and trying to find volunteer work. What else would you suggest/how can I do a good job?

    • I think first make sure you’re fluent in Spanish/Portuguese (depending on where you’re going), because you want to make it as easy as possible to interact with everyone you volunteer with. Then, just start researching reputable organizations, while keeping in mind what your skills and talents are. It’s no use building houses if you’ve never picked up a hammer, so make sure you find an opportunity where you can really help. Actually, I did WWOOFing for a while and enjoyed it, though my experience was in New Zealand/Australia, so it may be different.

      • I took Italian in college, which helped for studying abroad there. But I’ve found Duolingo to be a great tool for keeping up with that, and also learning French, Spanish and German. Also look into programs in the countries you’re visiting. I had a friend who just spent 6 months traveling around South America, and spent her first 4 weeks in Buenos Aires taking Spanish lessons.

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