Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Travel in 1920

With peak summer vacation time coming to a close (if you’ve been wondering why we haven’t been posting much lately, it’s because we’ve been on vacation!), I thought it would be a good time to check in with Emily Post and see what she had to say about traveling in the 1920s.

Some pretty solid advice:

  • On trains (the main type of public transport at the time, most advice applicable to airplanes today), don’t eat smelly food (or smoke cigars) that are going to disturb other passengers. She mentions bananas specifically.
  • Keep your children occupied so they don’t disturb other passengers.
  • When traveling by boat to Europe (ie a cruise today), unless you are very wealthy and have many friends also traveling on board with whom to arrange a dining table, you should sit where the steward puts you and make conversation with your dining companions throughout the trip (a good story for another day is the time when Jaya and I were on a cruise with two other girls and the other four people at our dinner table basically did not talk to us the entire time!)
  • Don’t bother people with incessant talking when it’s clear they are not in the mood to talk. Try out a few remarks, but if they go back to their book, you need to go back to yours.
  • Don’t be an ugly American when traveling abroad (it’s impressive this was a problem as far back as the 1920s!)
  • Don’t steal from other countries/monuments for souvenirs. And don’t deface historical monuments to leave your mark.
  • Avoid traveling with others and potentially ruining their holiday if when traveling you are frequently in a bad mood, often don’t want to go along with what the group wants to do, get very frustrated with delays or bad weather, or get sick very easily. Don’t go on a boating trip if you get seasick, don’t go on hikes if you can’t walk very far, etc. The good traveling companion is cheerful, gets along with others, knows their limits, and avoids complaining about inevitable discomfort.

Surprising Advice:

  • Ladies do not have to travel with escorts. In fact, if you run into a gentleman of your acquaintance in your travels, you should take care not to spend too many meals with him or talk to him too much lest people start to talk.
  • When registering in hotels, men always write their names as John Smith, unless they are traveling with their wives in which case they write Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. Women always write their names with the honorific, such as Miss Jane Doe or Mrs. John Smith.
  • Wearing ball dresses on board a ship is in the worst taste because it implies that you have nowhere else to wear your best things. The most formal you should be is semi formal.
  • Don’t worry about what to called titled people if you happen to reach those circles while abroad, just call them “you” when you are speaking to them.

Bad Advice for Today:

  • Always tip 10% and don’t occupy a table by yourself if you are only having a simple (ie less expensive meal).
  • Bringing letters of introduction. (Although, I guess, Facebook introductions are kind of the same thing?)

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.


Please send us your etiquette questions!

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