Strange Laws That Can Get You Locked Up Abroad

Getting arrested is probably far down the list of most people’s travel concerns. After all, we’re usually focused on checking museums and monuments off our bucket list — not engaging in illicit activity. But seemingly innocuous behavior can get you into trouble in many parts of the world, including things like wearing bikinis and chewing gum.

The British Foreign Office has released a warning about strange foreign laws after a report revealed that nearly a third of Britons seeking consular assistance were arrested or detained abroad. They say many travelers don’t realize that activities that are perfectly legal at home could get you locked up or fined in another country.

A few of the unusual foreign laws they highlighted include:Venice: It’s illegal to feed pigeons here.

Nigeria: Taking mineral water into the country could land you in hot water.

Singapore: Chewing gum on public transit is a big no-no.

Japan: Watch out if you have allergies. A lot of nasal sprays are on this country’s black list.

Wondering what other laws could get you locked up abroad? Here are a few more we rounded up:

Dubai: Kissing in public could land you in jail in this conservative country.

Thailand: Stepping on the local currency — which bears the image of the king — is seen as disrespecting the monarch and could get you arrested.

Greece: Wearing stilettos at archaeological sites in Greece will get you into trouble. The pointy shoes are banned because of the damage they cause to the historic monuments.

Germany: It’s against the law to run out of gas on the autobahn. Stopping unnecessarily on this fast-paced high way is illegal, and that includes those who forget to fill up their tank.

What other unusual foreign laws have you come across?

Mediocre Accommodations Even Make Snakes Feel Uncomfortable

There’s nothing worse than a night in a bad motel. A creaky bed, the stale scent of cigarettes and scratchy sheets will make anyone cringe. The only thing worse? Being stuck in a motel room in a plastic storage container, like the 40 pythons that were found by Canadian authorities last week in a motel in Brantford, a city about 60 miles outsides of Toronto.

The snakes, ranging from 1 foot to 4 1/2 feet in length, after having been improperly stored in plastic bins were in distress when found. Who wouldn’t be?

Of course it’s not the first time that animals and travel have intersected in weird ways. Customs agents are known for coming across situations like snakes and geckos strapped to a passenger, and it’s not unheard of that people smuggle animals on planes, sometimes even odd animal combinations like parrots and squirrels.

According to the motel, the snakes belonged to a couple that had checked into a room for the night but had left when the police arrived. You aren’t allowed to own pythons in the city of Brantford, much less take them to a motel for the evening. They probably would have preferred five stars.

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

So you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.

Photo of the day (9.16.10)

Some countries are more open to public displays of affection than others. In India, “obscene acts” like kissing in public are discouraged, if not downright illegal. In France, amorous couples are practically de rigeur. This photo by Flavio@Flickr taken in Amsterdam, catches a randy couple playing some peekaboo on the street, though he notes that moments later, the police asked them to take their game somewhere more private.

Catch any naughty behavior on your travels? Upload your (hopefully SFW) pictures to Gadling’s Flickr Pool and we might use one for another Photo of the Day.

Don’t Park in Austin: a long-winded travel tale with a moral at the end

I try so hard to love Austin, really, but Austin doesn’t make it easy.

Yeah, I had so much fun there, what a cool city, it’s not like the rest of Texas, blah, blah, blah. Doesn’t matter. In life, bad memories so quickly suffocate the good ones, like a python squeezing the life out of some innocent Bambi lookalike. Bambi’s not what we remember–we remember the python . . .

When Gadling decided to hold our annual get-together deep in the heart of Texas, I was elated. For one, I’m Texan, born and bred. I planned on flying to Houston, spending some time with family, then heading up to Austin for a weekend of blogger decadence. I drove my parents’ car up and made it all the way to tiny Bastrop, Texas when my vehicle overheated (it’s darn hot in Texas). A mechanic in town said he would fix the car but that it would take the whole weekend. Luckily, this tiny Texas town had an Enterprise Rental with one last remaining rental car which allowed me to be back on the road to Austin within the hour.

Our first day in Austin was super fun as I met all the legendary magicians behind this fabulous website that you know and love. On Saturday night, the fun-loving Gadling crew went out for dinner and settled on Ironworks BBQ, which claims to be “Real Texas Barbecue.” I parked in their parking lot which had a sign that read “For Ironworks customers ONLY”, which we all were. We spent about two hours at the restaurant and probably around $300 on food collectively. Afterwords, we hit one of the nearby clubs. When I came back to the get the car (around midnight), the parking lot was empty. Apparently, once the restaurant closes, they tow. (Really? That’s how you treat your out-of-town guests?)
Now, what in the world could possibly be worse than getting your car towed? Getting towed by J&J Towing–that’s what. Apparently even weird cool hipster Austin has its share of sheisters and they all work for J&J Towing. Thanks to the internet, I discovered that J&J Towing actually has a long and strong reputation for illegal tows for which they’ve been successfully sued in several courts of law in Texas. They’ve even earned a single brave star on Yelp with the best review being “These People Need Jesus”.

I concur. These people do need Jesus, but a simple conscious would also suffice. At 1 AM, I called them up to retrieve my car. Not only were they rather rude and unhelpful, all they told me that there was, “No way you’re getting your car back this weekend.” Since I was driving a rental car, the towing company requires a notarized affidavit from my rental car company stating that the car was in fact in my name at the time of getting towed. This is a new state-wide law in Texas, according to Justin, the man I was speaking with (Justin refused to give me his last name for fear that I would send some Texas-style justice in his direction and perhaps he was right).

Realizing I was now legally liable but legally powerless, I turned to Enterprise Rental for help. I called their Roadside Assistance number, waited through 10 minutes of hold advertising and then was told by a bored employee that there was nothing she could do. And then (I kid you not) . . she hung up on me (Gasp!). Now a little angry, I then called the Customer Service line, held for another ten minutes and was told again that there was nothing they could do for me. When I asked, “That’s the best you can offer me?”, she hung up on me, too. No she didn’t!

I fell asleep angry and powerless at 3 AM, then woke up at 6:30 AM and contacted the Enterprise Rental at the Austin airport (the closest office that was open on a Sunday). I then took a cab out to the airport, handed over my first rental keys and convinced them to give me a new car for the duration of my rental. They agreed that getting a notarized affidavit on a Sunday in Texas was impossible but that it was now their problem and that this kind of thing happens “all the time.” Yes,you heard it from Enterprise: rental cars in Austin get towed all the time and are never successfully recovered by their renters.

By 11 AM on Sunday, I was situated with my third car in two days and left the final throes of Gadling’s fun-filled weekend for another day of work just north of the city. The next day, Monday, I returned my second rental car to the office in Bastrop where I discovered that my first rental car had still not been recovered. I was charged $280.00 for the towing and impound but promised that there would be no further related expenses. Enterprise confessed that they too were having a very difficult time retrieving the car from J&J Towing and that it might take days more, if not the rest of the week.

In retrospect, seeing as I had purchased full insurance on the rental car, I should have just reported the car stolen, which is actually kind of what happened. If you park in the parking lot of the establishment at which you are eating and when you come back you find the car is gone, then your car was stolen.

Now there’s a Texas way to deal with this situation and there’s the nicer way. Since, I’m a nice guy, I’m sticking to words. Frankly though, y’all disappointed me! City of Austin–you fail. Ironworks BBQ? You fail, too. And Enterprise Rental? You get a D minus (have fun getting your car back). As for J&J towing, I leave you to your own heavy stack of karma. I imagine when you eventually do get served, it’ll look something like No Country for Old Men and the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The travel moral of the story is don’t park your rental car in downtown Austin, ever. Better yet, just skip Austin and head straight to the Hill Country. They can’t tow you out there and if they try, you’re legally allowed to shoot them. The other moral of the story is that the state of Texas has a bunch of cockamamie laws regarding rental cars, so watch out!

The final moral of the story is: Don’t Mess With Gadling! Just like you don’t mess with Texas, you don’t mess with a bunch of travel writers. We may be limp-wristed computer nerds with passports, but these days, the keyboard is mightier than the tow truck.

*The real casualty in all of this was Mike Barish’s Hello Kitty piñata, who at this very moment is still sitting locked up in the scuzzy backlot of J&J towing and enduring who knows what kind of hellish torments.