Strange Laws That Can Get You Locked Up Abroad

feeding birds venice
F Delventhal, Flickr

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?

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

know before you go travel planningSo 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.

Parents’ worse nightmare: Their child is in trouble overseas

For the past couple of days, two stories have been appearing in various forms in the media–one splashier than the other, but both are what parents nightmares are made of. These are the situations they hope they don’t get a phone call about. One is about Amanda Knox, the college student who is in an Italian jail waiting to see if she will spend years there if she’s found guilty for murdering her roommate in a crime that reads like an outlandish tale– perfect for a murder mystery novel. Evidence is not conclusive.

The other story is about Devon Hollahan, an English teacher who vanished from the streets in Frankfurt, Germany at two in the morning when his friend was asking for directions after they attended a Portugal and the Man concert. Hollahan was about twenty feet away from his friend whose back was turned just long enough for Hollahan to disappear unnoticed.

In both cases, the parents of Knox and Hollahan, two people in their early twenties, are part of heartbreaking scenarios and a testimony to the worst that can happen when children grow up past childhood and travel miles past their parents’ admonitions to be careful.

Such news is hard enough when it happens within ones own country. When it happens in a foreign country, parents find themselves in positions dealing with horrific situations in places that may have different procedures than their own country. The legal system in Italy works differently than the one in the U.S., for example.

Knox’s parents and Hollahan’s dad jumped on airplanes in order to offer help. Being on the same side of the Atlantic is a start. It’s a way to be involved, to take action–to have a role in an outcome even if the action does not turn up a positive result.

Hollahan’s dad is not hopeful that his son will be found alive but the dad’s presence in Frankfurt is surely helping the investigation. Hopefully, he will not have to wait long to find out some answers. I can’t imagine what it would be like to take a trip back across the Atlantic without knowing.

In Knox’s case, the verdict will be coming soon. Her family is hopeful they’ll be bringing her home with them. Again, the alternative seems too dreadful.

Both parents’ stories are a reminder that when we travel, it’s important to keep in mind the loved ones we have left at home. Although there are no guarantees when we get up in the morning that our day will go swimmingly well without a mishap, when taking on a particular adventure or experience keep in mind that it’s better to keep ones wits about you and not let your guard down without being aware of your circumstances.

Consider the thought, if this situation goes wrong, what would my parents do? On the other hand, life in one’s own country is risky as well. Life is risky business. In Knox’s case, though, who would have ever dreamed up such a story?

Venice: brought to you by Coca-Cola

Venice has always been a huge tourist draw. This city of majestic canals, picturesque medieval architecture and serenading gondoliers has long attracted visitors from near and far for its historic beauty and aesthetic charms. In fact Venice hosted nearly 20 million visitors in 2008, an increase of more than 30%.

Yet all is not well in this visitor-friendly Italian tourism magnet – in addition to severe flooding problems this past December, the city is threatened by crumbling architecture and severe budget deficits which make restoration difficult. In order to provide funding for much-needed restoration, the city recently signed a $2.7 million dollar deal that made Coca-Cola an official city sponsor. The deal reportedly includes over 60 Coke vending machines spread across historic city, including the venerable St. Mark’s Square.

What’s the big deal, you might say? It’s just a couple vending machines. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems than having to sponsor a monument or a city – it will ensure Venice is around for future generations. But still, for a a unique one-of-a-kind city like Venice, renowned the world over for its beauty and charm, the dire circumstances that forced this situation are troubling. It cheapens the city’s cultural heritage and suggests that such landmarks are nothing more than objects, waiting to be bought and sold. Not to mention the vending machines add a new eyesore to a city known for beautiful preservation of its historic buildings.

Still for the cash-poor Italian government, this may be one of the only options for Venice’s continued sustainability. Expect to see more of this sort of sponsorship deal in the future…