The Fourteen Commandments of Travel
Guidelines We’ve Learned (the Hard Way) to Travel by
Like most people, we got into travel for the adventure and not to try on a pristine, military-grade straitjacket. But over the years, we’ve stumbled onto a number of habits and guidelines designed for safety, convenience, and continuing education when traveling. Most are just common sense, so we apologize if a few of the speeches here remind you of the nuns from Catholic school. We just don’t get that many opportunities to hector. And like every other thought trickling through our minds, these “rules” are entirely random.
1. Never expect your version of common sense to make sense to anyone.
Just thought we’d get this one out of the way. No one cares how they do things in America. Literally no one.
2. Understand that begging is a business with its own local rules. Follow them.
A sidewalk musician or juggler is a busker, not a beggar. His job is to entertain, and he depends on voluntary contributions to sustain him. So pay him what he’s worth. In some countries, people give alms to the poor. The going rate in Mumbai, for example, seems to be 10 rupee. If you feel like you’re being targeted because of your nationality, never cough up a sou. But watch what the locals are doing, and scrupulously follow their lead—not a cent more or less. In India, Glinda never leaves the hotel room without a pocket full of 10-rupee coins.
3. Never order off an English menu.
Odd as it sounds, the harder it is to figure out and order dinner, the better and more interesting the meal. An English menu by the door means the establishment caters to the English-speaking tourists who will never return and require nothing special from the kitchen. That’s not you. So order the wine and take your time, use your translator app if needed, and as a last resort, point at the next table’s delicious-looking plate.
4. Never let a hawker entice you into his business.
It goes without saying that you never follow a shady dude down an alley into his favorite hidden lair. You never follow a charming stranger around the corner to a much nicer, more authentic bar. Even a legitimate businessman hawker with a shop or restaurant full of customers says more about his powers of persuasion than the quality of the goods on offer. As they say in Texas, you might be a lollipop, but you’re no sucker.
5. Always leave your passport and tickets in the hotel safe.
In most countries, you’re technically required to carry identification, but unless you’re the perp in a situation, no one will care. If you’re not breaking a law, the worst that can happen is the police might escort you safely to your hotel (see Commandment #9 below). But never take a chance on missing your next flight because you lost a passport, ticket, or health card. As a last resort, your driver’s license is your most expendable piece of identification.
6. Never, ever, ever get caught anywhere near an illegal drug.
This one is as close to an intelligence test as we can find in the travel business. Do not buy, accept, or sell any object or substance that might be remotely illegal. There is no quicker or easier way to find yourself diving off the deep end of a country’s most arbitrary and vindictive judicial quagmire.
7. Always take the burden of communication upon yourself.
If an Egyptian shopkeeper speaks no English, it’s your fault for speaking no Arabic. If you order a cheeseburger in a Parisian restaurant, and the waiter brings a plate of grilled kidneys, it’s your fault for speaking such poor French. There’s nothing wrong with persisting in your confusion, if you truly don’t understand what’s going on. But park your impatience at the immigration desk. If your ignorance irritates, keep apologizing—and meaning it—and people will nearly always come around.
8. Never forget that you forego any human or civil rights when you leave home.
No one cares if you’re right or wrong, innocent or guilty. In the case of car accidents, the assumption is that the accident wouldn’t have happened in the first place, if you hadn’t come to the country and rented a car. We’re assuming that your ideal vacation doesn’t include waiting in a dirty jail for the Consul to wake up and amble to the rescue. Americans get spectacular service from their Consular Corps—and seriously, we love every one of those overworked souls—but it’s not a service you’ll want to overindulge.
9. Never forget that the police are your absolute best friends.
No matter how corrupt the country, the police are almost always tasked with keeping the tourist revenue flowing. That means you, your happiness, and your willingness to keep shelling out the Yankee dollar. So if a situation looks a little hairy and you see a cop, run for him. In a political demonstration, make sure you watch from the blue side of the shield line. Unless your bad attitude converts you into prime export material, the police will listen impatiently and do what they can to help. And as the only legally armed gun owners in the neighborhood, they can usually do quite a lot.
10. Avoid any conversations about home.
People are friendly, especially the people you meet in the service industries. But if their polite inquiry turns into a hour-long dissertation about your home town, you’ve just wasted an hour of your precious travel time. Always turn the conversation the other way. This applies even more to complaining about your home country. No one loves a good whine, not even the whiner.
11. Don’t haggle for pleasure.
Some of the lamer guide books will tell you that the merchants in a country expect haggling from you, but don’t fall for it. You are by definition rich—otherwise you wouldn’t be there—and haggling makes you look petty and misinformed. If a price is clearly higher than what the other merchants are charging—and make sure of your ground before you go there—then by all means, protest and walk away. And yes, you should ask for the discount on a Moroccan rug, but not on a stick of Indian chewing gum. Keep things in proportion and remember that a sport for you is food off their much smaller family table.
12. When packing, always picture yourself lugging your bags down a long, hot, dusty dirt road.
When it comes to that, you’ll understand.
13. Never take a taxi when a bus, train, or metro is available.
Maybe you should take a legendary London Cab before they head the way of the dinosaurs. But otherwise, the people of the country you’re visiting live on mass transportation, not in taxis or Uber. If you want to experience the real country, go where the real people are.
14. Never make yourself the center of attention.
The only place it should all be about you is in your own living room. Otherwise, life is a spectator sport, and you don’t want to miss the action. Not to mention that it’s always safer on the edges, looking in. If this sounds too modest and passive, maybe travel isn’t for you.