No sophisticated traveler wants to commit a faux pas abroad. Like packing the right outfits and having some local money on-hand, a brief study of etiquette—before departing—is a wise travel investment. And some, even the simplest customs, might surprise you. For example, in Chile it's gauche not to eat all food (including fries) with a fork and knife, and in Africa it's considered rude to pass an acquaintance or friend on the street without a significant chat—even if you're late for an appointment or reservation.
So study up a bit on protocol, manners, and formalities to avoid cultural turbulence and sets you up for clarity and, frankly, a better time. (All that research into where locals really eat will dissipate as you start to eat your fries with your hands.) With an understanding of how a country zigs and zags, start by picking up these travel etiquette basics.
Put on your student cap and take a few moments to study your destination's dos and don'ts before departing. This five-minute exercise can inform everything from what to pack to how to hail a cab (and what type of cab is safe). In some places, a taxi stand is your best bet, while in others putting your hand out in just the right position is key to actually flag that driver down. If you're pressed for time, at minimum, Google "<insert country> etiquette" while waiting for your flight at the airport.
Insider Tip: When addressing a stranger in Canada, it's polite to start the conversation with "excuse me, may I" rather than asking the question without a lead-in.
When you first arrive on foreign soil, take baby steps when executing some of your just-learned protocols. Observe first, act second. A good place to start is coming to the realization that your worldview may be foreign when you're in a far-off land. Knowing basic words in the local language, like please and thank you, should help you get by the first few days of your holiday while you get their customs sorted out.
Insider Tip: In most Arab countries showing the soles of your feet is rude. Keep your feet on the ground.
Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes
Err on the side of caution when packing. Even though a garment might be at the height of fashion or even considered conservative in the US, it might be highly offensive elsewhere. For example, in Jordan, nothing too revealing should be worn in public. Do some due diligence on your duds and find out what to pack before touching down and causing a scene by exposing your knees. Fashion savvy travelers can check out Street Peeper, to get a sense of how thread-loving locals are dressing in major cities throughout the world.
Insider Tip: The Caribbean is a hotspot for Europeans and South Americans who like to sunbathe topless, but in conservative countries like Jamaica and the Bahamas, bathing topless is frowned upon.
Pasta comes before salad in Italy. Rice complements fish and vegetables at every meal in Japan. Dipping a sweet bun into hot chocolate is a regular breakfast in the Dominican Republic. Given food fuels all travel, learning the general timing and types of cuisine for every meal will avoid regular trips to McDonald's.
Insider Tips: In Spain and some Latin American countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, followed by a siesta. As a result, dinner doesn't start until late in the evening. Unlike in the US, breakfasts throughout most of Europe are small consisting of strong coffee and perhaps a small pastry or savory plate with cheeses, rolls, and sliced meats.
Talk the Talk
Memorize key phrases like "where is the bathroom" ("donde está el bano" in Spanish), or "may I please have the check" ("L'addition s'il vous plait" French). Leaning lingual basics in the spoken language of your short-term home afar demonstrates a desire to learn and live in harmony with locals. Start with Fodor's "Language for Travelers" tutorials. The next step is to memorize the names of some dishes you want to try and places you want to see.
Insider Tips: It's common in France for locals to respond in English when tourists attempt to speak French. Though it may seem condescending, it's meant as a polite gesture. Traveling should mean letting your hair down, so before you go, take a look at how locals say "cheers" in your destination and you'll be ready to imbibe with the best of them.