Tips For Interacting With Locals When Traveling Abroad

africa In your home country, you probably have no problem starting up a conversation with other locals. However, when traveling abroad it becomes a bit trickier. You may find yourself losing your temper in stressful situations, or feeling anxious asking simple questions, like for directions or where the nearest bathroom is. To help you successfully interact with locals on your next trip abroad, here are some tips I’ve learned through my travels.

Remember, You Are The Foreigner

Too often, I find tourists getting snippy with locals because they can’t understand what they’re saying. While in Vienna, I was actually with a girl who shouted at our waitress – who spoke German – for bringing the wrong salad. She actually had the nerve to turn to me and ask, “Why can’t she speak English?”

Because we’re in Vienna!

It was mortifying for me, mortifying for the waitress and should have been mortifying for this nasty tourist as well. The correct reaction would have been to either to politely try to explain to the waitress – with hand gestures and pointing to the menu, if necessary – that she brought the wrong entree. Or, just eat the salad. Sometimes, receiving the wrong order in an eatery adds some adventure to the trip, Be Patient

Of course, if you don’t speak the local language it will take longer to ask questions and get your point across. Instead of acting impatient, take a deep breath and remind yourself how lucky you are to be having an interaction with a local in a foreign country.

Remain Calm

If you have an important question that seems impossible to get answered – like where your bus will be arriving or how to get back to your hotel – don’t panic. This will only cause you to seem like you’re upset or angry, making it less likely for someone to answer you. Instead, think of an alternative way to ask your question. For example, instead of using words to ask for hotel directions, show the person the property’s business card or a map and ask them to draw the route.

Carry A Pen And Paper

Going along with the above tip, one of the smartest things you can do when abroad is to carry around a pen and paper. Drawing pictures and writing out the names of sites and cities can be much more effective than speaking, especially as accents can get in the way. I find it especially helpful when buying train or bus tickets, as I can simply write down the name of my starting city and draw arrows pointing to the names of the other places I need to get to.

Keep In Mind That Cultural Barriers Are Part Of The Experience

This goes along with being patient. It may seem frustrating while you’re speaking and not being understood, but keep in mind that it’s all part of the travel experience. Once you return home, these incidents will probably have turned into comical stories of the trip.

brain Every Time You Interact Your Cultural Knowledge Grows

Each time you interact with a local in a foreign country you learn something about the culture or place. Because of this you should try not to be nervous about asking questions or starting a conversation regardless of your knowledge of the local language. Even doing something as simple as saying “hello” can help you learn about greetings in the community. On a recent trip through South America, I had a lot of trouble making steady conversation with locals, not because I didn’t know Spanish, but because of my New York accent. However, having locals correct me was a great way for me to perfect my Spanish, and also add some new phrases to my vocabulary.

Don’t Get Offended

Traveling in Ghana I was constantly trying to be polite, using the phrase ma daa si, or “thank you,” as much as possible. However, every time I said it, my courtesy was met with hysterical laughter. At first I felt stupid for not being able to say the phrase correctly, until my homestay mother explained to me that I shouldn’t be offended and that the locals appreciated foreigners trying to speak the local language of Twi. It was also common for Ghanians to shout oburoni, or “foreigner,” at you as a way to start a friendly conversation, call you skinny or fat to describe a fact or propose marriage to you within just getting to know you. You have to get out of your Western mindset and remember that in other countries different responses and behaviors mean different things. Plus if the person you’re interacting with really is being rude to you, it’s no different than if someone at home were doing the same thing. Ignore them and move on.

computer Research Cultural Taboos

While you shouldn’t get offended, you also don’t want to be offensive. Before leaving for your trip, do some research on the etiquette and customs of the culture you’re visiting. Asking someone personal questions may be acceptable in one culture, but not another. Moreover, take space and touching into consideration. We may shake hands in America to greet someone, but if a woman tried to shake the hand of a monk in Thailand that wouldn’t be good.

Take A Chance

So what if you say a word wrong or the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand you? Most likely, the worst thing that will happen is you end up walking away without your question being answered. On the other hand, what if you get your question answered, learn some new foreign vocabulary and make a new friend? Think of the possibilities of your interaction and take a chance. When in Ghana I traveled with a girl who was terrified of talking to locals even if just to hail a taxi or purchase fruit at the market. One day we were buying fabric to have dresses made and she asked me to order hers for her. Because I wanted her to have the experience of interacting with locals, I refused. In the end, she was really proud of herself for talking to the local woman and wasn’t so terrified to interact from there on out.

friends Teach Locals About Yourself, Too

While you’re curious about the life of the local you’re talking to, they’re probably curious about you, too. Make sure to share some insight, and if you can, bring photos of family and friends, and items that give them some insight into your culture.

[photos via Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey, IsaacMao, houdinics, Jessie on a Journey]

Is Long-Term Traveling Selfish?

landscape“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living,” – Miriam Beard

Is long-term travel selfish? It’s a dilemma many backpackers and full-time nomads struggle with. You miss birthdays and weddings, you get to skip sitting behind an office desk eight hours a day, you make your family and friends worry and spend each day fulfilling your own desires to explore the world.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of selfish is “seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.” While I would say that partially correlates to the long-term traveler, I’m not sure it’s a completely accurate depiction.How Travel Is Selfish

There are many selfish aspects to long-term travel. Travel is about oneself, and what we want to get out of an experience. Our days are dictated by sites of interest, as we commit to exploring unique landscapes and having rare experiences. It’s purely for the benefit of oneself. However, isn’t it necessary to be selfish in life, to get what we want, even if the method is unconventional?

ghana How Travel Is Not Selfish

The part of the definition of “selfish” that doesn’t sit well with me is where it states that the person is acting “without regard for others.” Traveling is inspiring, and many long-term travelers try to make a positive impact where they go. Whether it’s helping a community, imparting knowledge, buying a handmade scarf at a market or playing a game with a child, travelers can make a positive impact. Even something as small as teaching a local about life in your home city or doing a language exchange can help educate someone in another place.

Of course, different people have different travel philosophies, meaning there may be some genuinely selfish travelers out there. However, if they’re enjoying what they’re doing and not causing harm, are they really acting “without regard for others?”

What we learn we can then pass on to others. By traveling we automatically help the local economy in the place we are visiting. One argument many people have for long-term travel being selfish is that the traveler doesn’t help their home economy; however, I don’t think many non-travelers are staying home solely to make purchases to help their economy. The cheeseburger you bought for lunch, those new shoes and that gold watch were more likely purchased to fulfill a self-centered desire than anything else.

horseMany Things In Life Are Selfish

Everybody has the ability to make their own decisions. If someone chooses to travel long term, they shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re doing something wrong. It may be unconventional, but is that really a bad thing? Moreover, aren’t most of things people do out of passion “selfish”? If you go to the gym, do yoga, get a dog, buy a shirt, or go to work, aren’t these all motivated by a selfish desire? In my opinion, you need to be a bit selfish in order to feel fulfilled.

Is Being Selfish Always A Bad Thing?

But, why does this need to be a bad thing? Our passions are what help us grow. Why do you think travel is such a great resume booster? It gives you life skills and knowledge, and makes you more of a citizen of the world. As a well-rounded individual, you can then make a positive impact on society.

On a recent bus ride in Bolivia, I sat next to a man who had uprooted his two boys, one 14 and one 9, to volunteer around the world. At first I couldn’t believe he would take them out of school and away from their friends at such a young age; however, when the nine-year-old boy began to speak, I was amazed at how smart he was. He knew how to read braille from working with the blind, spoke of the habits of monkeys living in the wild, knew a lot about health and nutrition and spoke of working with the mentally challenged in a mature and sensitive manner. His dream was to travel the world and experiment with natural remedies to come up with cures for diseases. What a selfless goal to come out of someone’s “selfish” act.

Do you think long-term travel is selfish?

10 hidden travel expenses backpackers often overlook

laundry When planning for a backpacking trip, most people try to create a budget of how much they think they are going to spend. While the flight, accommodations, and daily meals are often factored in, there are still many others expenses that still need to be covered. Here is a list of some of the expenses I’ve encountered in my travels that can add extra dollars to your budget.


When backpacking, I’ve tried to get around doing laundry by doing things like:

  • Bringing a small bottle of detergent and creating my own human-powered washing machine by using a giant Ziplock bag, adding water, and shaking
  • Using shampoo and hand soap to wash my clothes in the sink and then hanging them all over the room
  • Trying to forgo washing my clothes as long as I could

Unfortunately, these options never ended up working out perfectly, as they were messy (that detergent bottle always ends up breaking open in my backpack, without fail), inefficient (the clothes are always wrinkled and damp when I put them back into my pack, no matter how long they hang up), somewhat inconsiderate (I’m sure there were people who didn’t like having my dirty socks next to their heads while they slept), and dirty (obviously, not washing your clothes when backpacking doesn’t smell great). The point is, you’re probably going to end up having to go to a laundromat and wash your clothes, or at least pay someone to wash them for you. And, a side note, the laundromat dryers usually take a long time to dry your clothes, so you’ll have to put in a little extra change. Make sure to set aside some cash on your trip for washing, drying, and detergent.Internet/Wi-Fi

Many hotels and hostels will charge extra to use their computers, and even if you bring your own device they still may charge you for Wi-Fi. You also may find yourself having to use internet cafes when computers aren’t available, and while the starting price is often cheap, it’ll still add up depending how often you use it. If you want to get around this charge, I would suggest searching ahead of time for a hotel or hostel that has internet and Wi-Fi included in the price.

passport Visas/Passports

If you don’t have a passport and are a U.S. citizen, you should expect to pay $135, plus the money it costs to have your photos taken. And if you travel frequently, you may find yourself needing to pay for extra pages, which isn’t cheap (I just paid $82 for mine). Visas are another hefty add-on, depending on where you are going and what country you’re from. If possible, I would recommend forgoing a visa agency unless you’re really confused or have a special issue, as they often tack on a hefty fee for themselves. For example, a friend and I both recently applied for Brazil tourist visas. While I filled out the application form and brought it straight to the nearest Brazilian consulate myself ($140), she used a middle man to help her ($250). While she paid $110 more than me, we both ended up with the same final product.


One thing I will recommend is to keep a detailed record of all your vaccinations so you never repeat one that you already got. It also matters what form of a vaccination you get, so jot that down too. For example, while the pill vaccination for Typhoid lasts five years, the shot only lasts two. Also, if you’re going to a certified Travel Doctor they often won’t go through your insurance and will charge an expensive fee for the visit. If you only need something small like a bottle of pills, ask them if they can waive the fee, or see if you’re primary doctor can prescribe you what you need. Usually when you call to make the visit the travel specialist office will ask you where you are going anyway, so you can find out before the visit what vaccinations you need. For example, for an upcoming trip I called a local Travel Doctor’s office and told the receptionist where I was planning to go. She looked up all of the destinations in their system and confirmed that I would only need Malaria pills. She also told me my visit would not be covered by insurance and would cost $80. Instead of making an appointment I called my primary doctor who said he could prescribe me the Malaria pills, and I wasn’t charged for the visit.

phone Cell phone

Using your cell phone out of the country is a sure way to tack on hundreds of dollars to your bill. And if you have a smart phone, you’ve got to be careful to turn your data off or be prepared to pay. During a recent weekend trip to Aruba, I only brought my Android device along to use as an alarm clock, and even turned the Wi-Fi off when I arrived. When the phone bill came, I realized my morning wake-up call had cost me $130 because of incoming data. Luckily, there are a few ways around the cell phone dillemma. For one, buy a phone when you get there and use a local SIM card, or put the local SIM card into your phone. Even if you call home, doing this usually saves a lot of money. There are also a ton of great calling and messaging plans that are very affordable and sometimes even free, like Skype and Rebtel.


I know, who wants to think about something going wrong before you even leave for your trip? However, it’s not unlikely for a mishap to occur, whether it’s someone getting sick and you need to buy medicine, missing a train and needing to re-purchase a ticket, or losing your luggage and having to buy supplies to hold yourself over. When I was backpacking Europe, two pretty big mishaps happened to me that set me back a few hundred dollars. The first was when my backpack got lost on a flight from Berlin, Germany, to Nice, France. While I kept being told it would be delivered to me when found and I could continue traveling, I actually ended up having to take the train from Florence, Italy, back to Nice to retrieve my bag and then back to Florence, all in the same day. And, while I was told I would be reimbursed for my troubles and for the toiletries and clothes I had bought to get by, I never received a penny. The next incident was about a week later when I tried to board a bus in Naples, Italy. The bus driver actually told me I could buy my ticket on board and then, moments later after I had stepped on, fined me $100 for not pre-buying a ticket. While it was absolutely ridiculous, his threats of calling the police kind of (really) scared me, so I paid. The point is, things can happen and you don’t want to let them ruin your trip, so be prepared.

aruba Activities

While almost every city has free and fun things to do, you should set aside some money to do activities that really interest you. While it’s a good idea to add budget-friendly activities to your itinerary, if there’s a tour that really interests you, a show that looks entertaining, or an extreme sport you’d love to try, you’re probably going to pay to participate, and should. Make sure you bring extra money so you don’t have to miss out on these fun and cultural opportunities.


This is probably the biggest expense people forget to calculate. If you’re in a country where the water isn’t drinkable, you’re going to need to purchase water bottles. There’s really no way around it, although some countries may have cheaper options. For example, in Ghana they sell waterbags which cost about two cents each and are the same size as a water bottle. Also, if you’re in a country where the water is consumable bring a reusable water bottle and drink from the tap. Many companies, like bobble and hydros, even make filtering water bottles so that you can transform your dull tap water into a fresh and pure liquid.


While you probably calculated your meals into your budget you may have forgotten those in between hours when your stomach starts growling. I’ve never gone on a trip where I didn’t purchase snacks in between meals, especially when the markets in other countries are one of the best places to witness culture up-close. Luckily, shopping at these open-air markets as well as grocery stores can help you buy snacks for cheap. And, if you have access to a kitchen, can also give you inspiration to cook for yourself and save money on meals.

Hostel extras

If you’re backpacking, there’s a good chance you’ll be staying in hostels. While hostels make fun, affordable, and social accommodations, you sometimes also end up paying for extras that are often included elsewhere, like linens, towels, airport pickup, breakfast, lockers, luggage storage, internet, and sometimes even hot water. Before booking a hostel, check to see what’s included and then compare it with other hostels in the area to see who gives you the most for your money.

[flickr images via iambigred, Damian613, Incase., JessieonaJourney, matt hutchinson]

South by Southeast: How to budget for long-term travel

Welcome back to Gadling’s new series about Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Starting in October, I’ll be spending the next four months traveling through this much-discussed destination. But as exciting as it is to travel for several months, you can’t just get up and leave overnight. Medical arrangements must be made, backpacks selected and most importantly, you’ll need to do some budgeting.

Perhaps the most daunting obstacle for anyone considering this type of long-term trip is deciding how much money to bring. It’s not an easy question to answer – search around online and you’re likely to find all kinds of responses, ranging from the extravagant to the frugal. So how does one create a budget for long-term travel? And how in the world do you save up the money to make it work? Let’s take a closer look at how to do it, in five steps.

1: Decide Where You’re Going
The most important factor in your budget is the decision of where to go. Although you don’t have to pick a destination when you’re planning a trip, it helps to choose regions you want to visit and consider general costs. As a rule of thumb, travel in North America and Western Europe is most expensive, whereas South America, Southeast Asia or Africa are far cheaper. For my trip to Southeast Asia, I took the region’s cheaper cost of living into account, deciding I could afford to stay longer and stretch my dollars farther.

It’s also worth considering how much you plan to move around. Will you be visiting multiple regions of the world? Or will your trip cover just a few neighboring countries? If you only have a week to see all of Southeast Asia, the flights are going to get expensive quick. But if you’re able to take your time, you might be able to save lots of money on cheaper bus, boat and train rides.

2: Get Some Inspiration
Lots of numbers get thrown out when it comes to travel budgets. According to general wisdom, $20-30 per day is enough for Southeast Asia. This includes a basic, clean guesthouse, three meals and a few activities. If you want high-end hotels, it can cost much more. Regardless of how you travel, wouldn’t it be great to have real-world examples? Thankfully, there’s plenty of resources online to help answer this question.

For general budget queries, head to the message boards at Bootsnall or Lonely Planet, where questions such as “How long will my money last in XXX?” and “Is $XXXX enough for XX months?” are frequent topics for debate. Even more helpful are the budgets of long-term traveler Megan and backpacker David, who posted detailed spreadsheets of their expenses online. With these figures it’s much easier to know what’s realistic and what’s not.

3. Don’t Forget the Extras
The general assumption of long-term travel is you’re on a tight budget. But keep in mind there’s a difference between “tight” and “idiotic.” For every expense you planned in your head, consider there are 10 others you haven’t. There are visa fees to enter some countries, immunizations, and of course, the occasional splurge on a nice hotel. Consider these “other” costs as part of initial budget. You’ll thank yourself later when you have the money to cover them.

Although it’s been suggested $20-30 per day is enough for my trip to Southeast Asia ($900/month), I’ve left myself a bit more to handle unexpected incidentals. That’s not to mention several hundred dollars I spent pre-trip on immunizations and anti-malarial drugs. Take these costs into account.

4. Get Creative About Earning
By now you’ve figured out where you want to go and settled on an estimated budget. Hopefully you’ve also left padding for those extra expenses. But a good question remains – how on earth do you earn this money? You do have a life after all, and putting it on hold to plan a long-term trip doesn’t mean you have to become a hermit. Instead, you need to get creative about ways to save up. Here’s a few ideas:

  • Bring lunch to work. Those meals out add up quick.
  • Coffee drinker? Brew it at home.
  • Have a mortgage to pay? Can you rent your home while you’re gone?
  • Sell stuff you don’t need. It’s amazing what people bought from me on Craigslist.
  • If you have a car, could you sell it and take mass transit instead? Or a bike?
  • Have friends over to your house instead of going out to eat or to the bar.
  • Take on a second job. There’s plenty of freelancing and web-based jobs like blogging you can do from home.

The key is to find a combination that works for you. Not everyone can give up their car, or stop paying their mortgage. Perhaps you even have children to care for. Whatever your circumstances, patience and commitment to a plan make all the difference. If you want to travel bad enough, you can find a way to make it work.

5. Remember You’re Coming Back (eventually)
It’s a great feeling to be able to spend the money you’ve been saving during your travels. But don’t forget that at some point, even if you extend your trip, you’ll probably want to come home. Remember not to spend your travel fund down to the very last dime – you might need a few bucks when you get back to rent an apartment and cover basic expenses during the transition.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: New directions in Southeast Asia

What is it about Southeast Asia that so captivates our attention? For many Westerners, Southeast Asia has attained an identity of exoticism and escape, enchanting travelers as a destination “off the map” of global tourism. It’s a myth readily fed by popular culture. From Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to Alex Garland’s The Beach we’re painted a picture of a magical world, unsullied by the realities of real life – and we’ve taken the bait, hook, line and sinker.

Southeast Asia, we’re told, is where we’ll go to forge new identities. We’ll quit our jobs back home, find a bungalow on the beach in Thailand, and live out our days drinking 25-cent beers, sunning ourselves under a palm tree. Our problems back home? Distant memory. For anyone struggling with the vagaries of career and post-collegiate life, it’s a powerful fantasy, bandied about during late-night drinking sessions or anytime life becomes “too much of a drag.”

But what’s it really like to travel through Southeast Asia, circa 2009? Does our fantasy match the reality? Though plenty is left to explore, the romanticized destination of deserted beaches and bumpy bus rides is experiencing a dramatic shift, further connecting itself to global tourism and the world economy. Luxury boutiques dot the streets of “communist” Vietnam. Thousands of travelers show up for Full Moon Parties on the beaches of Koh Pha Ngan. Even Lonely Planet’s hugely popular Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the defacto “bible” for independent travelers, is nearly 25 years old and 14 Editions in print. How does the region today look after this huge influx of new money and visitors?

It was these very questions that had me thinking. Was there still adventure to be found in Southeast Asia? And how did it match with the visions of escape and personal reinvention I had in my mind? Encouraged by books like Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding, I left behind my full-time job in New York and created a plan. I would spend the next few months traveling through the region. After a stopover in Seoul, I head to Bangkok and then on to wherever luck will have me. Not only is it a chance to reinvent the direction of my own life, it’s also an opportunity to observe the rapidly changing direction of this fascinating destination.

Over the next few months, I encourage you to join me as I investigate Southeast Asia with a fresh eye. We’ll return to familiar stops on the “Southeast Asia tourist trail” to survey the terrain, and introduce you to places you never knew existed. We’ll also be taking a closer look at the art of long term travel, and some of the rewards and challenges encountered along the way. We hope through our mistakes and successes you’ll have a chance to truly understand what traveling through Southeast Asia is all about. Ready to go? Let’s chart a course, South by Southeast…

You can read future posts from Gadling’s travels “South by Southeast” through Asia: HERE.