Here is something I have never understood: Americans who travel to other countries, claiming they want to experience the culture of a different place, but then do not actually experience it. In other words, people will travel to amazing places in Europe, Africa, Asia, or South America, but then stay in American hotels, eat at American chain restaurants, and speak English to everyone they encounter, even increasing the volume as they realize the listener does not understand.
I guess my question is: Why go? If you want everything in your travels to be American, then why not travel around the United States? There are lots of great things to see right here in the good ol' 50. But if you are going to invest in a trip to another country, then why not take the opportunity to really experience that country and all it has to offer?
International travel is daunting
Now, don't get me wrong. International travel is exciting, but it can also be downright terrifying. You don't know the language, you don't know the geography, you don't know the customs – there is a lot of uncertainty in international travel, and if there is one thing us humans are not good with, it's uncertainty.
But travel is all about exploring, and trying new things, and expanding our horizons. How can we do that if we stay at the Hilton, eat at McDonald's, and deal with language barriers by shouting?
A few international travel tips
I speak from experience because I am a pretty shy and self-conscious person so the idea of throwing myself into the wilds of an unknown country is terrifying. Exciting, but terrifying. But if I really want to go (and I do), and I really want to experience the place I am visiting (yep), then I know I will have to face that most horrifying of horrors: stepping outside of my comfort zone.
And guess what? Every time I did it, I did not regret it. I have a whole new understanding of history, art, culture, and people in general because of my international travels, and I would not trade that for anything.
Below are a few suggestions for helping others step out of their comfort zones too:
Try the cuisine
Yes, this can be dicey depending on where you are visiting and what your options are when it comes to safe dining. But unless you're hanging with penguins in Antarctica, you will have choices. One way to find the safe local option is to check with the staff at your hotel or lodging; they will have a number of suggestions for you.
If you would feel more comfortable having food sorted out before you leave, there are several reputable guide books available and almost all of them address dining options.
But regardless of how you find them, once you have the safe options identified, try them. You can eat McDonald's any time. Eating local gives you the chance to experience something new, and new enriches your travel experience. Besides, you never know, some local cuisine could be the best food you have ever tried.
Try to speak the language
Keeping in mind I am quite self-conscious, and I hate looking like an idiot, I know exactly how terrifying it can be to attempt speaking a non-native language. And yet, here is what I have experienced: appreciation, support, and overall good humor.
Every time I have stumbled through Spanish, Italian, or, so help me, Greek, I have always been met with the above. The folks on the other side appreciated my attempt, helped me with my pronunciation or grammar, and were kind or good-natured. I know there are the not-nice people who would as soon laugh at our butchery of their language as help us, but for every one of them, I am willing to bet there are 50 kind-hearted helpers.
And I am not going to lie here: Americans have a pretty bad reputation in other countries, and one consistent complaint is our complete unwillingness to even try speaking a local language (plus, we expect everyone everywhere to speak English). The locals really do appreciate it if you just try. You can sound like Pee Wee Herman on acid for all they care; they are thankful you respected them enough to make the attempt.
Then, guess what? Once you earn their respect, the locals tend to be a lot more welcoming and helpful, opening up even more possibilities for you to have a really rewarding travel experience.
Try a local hotel
Of the three suggestions listed here, this one is probably the easiest. Again, any reputable travel guide or website can help you find a local hotel or lodging that offers amazing amenities for a good price in a nice neighborhood.
And who knows what you will find? When I traveled to Buenos Aires, I stayed in a 19th century mansion the owners had converted into a bed and breakfast. Wood floors. Marble embellishments. Vaulted ceilings. And a delicious local breakfast to boot.
Why would I stay in a Hilton?
Try the travel groups
So, really, if you are going to travel to another country, why pass up the opportunities to try out these new experiences? Of course, these tips don't take away the terrifying factor, but I have one suggestion for you there too: travel with a group.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of agencies that offer tour packages to every corner of the globe. And not only do these packages take a lot of the pressure off – they handle all the lodging arrangements and most of the food – but most of them will include local experiences in the itinerary. So all you have to do is show up and be ready to enjoy local fun.