Are you unknowingly violating the golden rules of travel etiquette? While travel is in itself immensely rewarding, it would be even more so if everyone followed a few basic rules of politeness, both en route and after arriving at their destination. Apart from seasoned travelers and frequent flyers, not everyone knows these guidelines because they are, for the most part, unwritten. But once you're aware of them, you can start leading by example — and help make seeing the world a better experience for everyone.
"The right to recline" is one of the most hotly debated issues in travel etiquette. Some people view it as their right — after all, they paid big bucks for their seat, so they might as well be comfortable. Other people, especially the ones who now have a seat two inches from their nose, see it as unforgivably rude. In this age of ever-shrinking legroom, the best etiquette is to keep your seat in an upright position. The only exception is if you're on a very long flight and need to recline your seat for some shuteye. Even then, it's best to check with the person behind you before doing so.
Many a traveler has been locked in a silent battle with their seatmate over who gets the shared armrest. The best etiquette is to assume that every passenger gets to claim one armrest for themselves. The one that has your headphone jack and USB outlets is the one you should use. Better yet, have a quick conversation with the person sitting beside you and make a compromise. If you can both agree to rest your elbows rather than your arms, then you'll both get two armrests.
It's a common conundrum: someone asks you if you would mind switching seats with them so they can sit next to their travel companion. What should you do? As an etiquette rule of thumb, the person asking for the swap should always be giving up a better seat for a worse gseat. That way, you both win. If that's not possible, a flight attendant will hopefully be able to adjust a few seating arrangements, so everyone's happy.
If you were looking forward to a quiet flight, but your loquacious seatmate has other plans for your journey, what do you do? You can't choose your environment, so create your own. Make sure you have an eye mask, earplugs, earbuds, or reading material on hand. Then, smile at the chatterbox beside you and politely tell them that while it was nice talking, you're now going to try to catch up on your reading. Or sleeping. Or watching the in-flight movie.
Having to check a carry-on because the overhead bins are full is one of the biggest headaches for frequent travelers. Most of the time, the bins are stuffed with small handbags and backpacks that could just as easily fit under the seat in front. Not only will you have easier access to your items if you do this, but your fellow travelers will also appreciate having the room overhead for their larger items — and you'll help avoid a flight delay.
If you're running late for your flight and there's a huge line at customs or through security, what do you do? Do you join the line and miss your flight out of sheer politeness, or do you plead with the people in front of you to let you jump ahead? The answer is the latter. Rarely will your fellow passengers say no to a desperate but politely worded request. That said, it's never good etiquette to cut in line without a compellingly good reason, or without an explanation.
When you finally arrive at your destination, and you're starting to feel at home in your hotel room, it's easy to forget how easily sound travels. Nothing ruins a hotel stay quite like other people's noise — and you don't want to be that person. Keep your voice, TV, music, everything down. And make sure you're not slamming any doors as you come and go.
The more you know about a country and its citizens, the more you'll appreciate your time there — and the less likely you'll step on any toes. Read up on the history, culture, customs, and etiquette at your destination. Learn how to say basic phrases like "hello," "goodbye," and "thank you" in the local tongue. Locals will appreciate the effort, and it might even open a few doors for you. Nelson Mandela said it best: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
Yes, you're on vacation, and you're allowed to be comfortable. However, not making any effort at all to blend in with the locals can make you stand out — and not in a good way. People don't wear pajamas on the promenades in Paris, for example. Even pretending to be Canadian, with a Canadian flag sewn onto your backpack, just screams, "I'm not from here." Put a little effort in to dressing like the locals, especially when it comes to covering up in more modest countries. You'll get better treatment at best, and you won't be breaking any laws at worst. Furthermore, if you're easily recognizable as a tourist, you leave yourself wide open to being taken advantage of by scammers and pickpockets, so bear that in mind.
Nothing is quite as cringeworthy as being in another country and overhearing; a fellow American tourist loudly proclaiming how much better we do things "back home." While it's fine to point out cultural differences, constantly comparing them to "how America does it" defeats the whole purpose of travel. That doesn't mean you have to be ashamed of being American. Instead, choose to be an ambassador. Instead of hiding your nationality, let your attitude and behavior leave behind a positive impression about it.
While you might in tourist mode, don't forget that the people around you aren't. They're on their home turf, just trying to get through their daily routines. Make sure you stay aware of your surroundings — that means not stopping in the middle of a busy sidewalk and to gawk at a building, for example. Always be courteous and friendly in your interactions, but don't expect any special treatment. You're the guest and locals are ultimately your hosts, so regard them as such.
Taking local laws and customs seriously is one of the fundamentals of travel etiquette, even if they make no sense to you. Pay attention to the signage around the areas you are exploring. If it says no swimming, for example, most likely that's not just a suggestion — there might be a real health and safety risk to going in the water. As a rule, if the locals aren't doing it, you shouldn't be doing it either.