Are you prepared to accept and immerse yourself in cultures that are different from your own? Has your travel provider informed you of the local environments or social customs of the places you're planning to visit so you may avoid accidentally offending them or harming their environment? Does your travel provider advocate respect for local cultures, traditions and holy places? For example, are tour guides well versed and respectful of local cultures and environments? Do they encourage their guests: to ask permission before photographing local people, to dress appropriately for cultural activities, to be respectful of local norms and or to adopt local cultural practices without seeming patronizing?
Here are some ideas to help you successfully absorb local culture:
Observe local standards of dress. Be respectful and aware of how you present yourself. In many cultures, women are required to cover up most or all of their bodies. Be sure to know the cultural norms so as not to offend anyone. The locals will appreciate your efforts. As a general guideline, dress modestly, especially at any religious sites. Loose, long clothing is appropriate anywhere and cool in hot weather.
Speak the language. Remember all those words and phrases you practiced before departure? Now it’s time to use them! Trying out just a few words of the local language will win you favor with most people you encounter. Even knowing how to say, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” can turn a frustrated train ticket agent into a new friend.
Be aware of body language. Many gestures have different meanings in other cultures – sometimes offensive, sometimes not. Try to learn about these gestures before you depart. If you slip up, you can generally explain yourself and have a good laugh. Likewise, don’t assume someone is making an offensive gesture at you, it might be an innocent move in their culture – think before responding.
Learn and abide by local laws. Local laws apply, wherever you are. Don’t expect your embassy to be able to bail you out if you get into trouble.
Understand the local concept of time. The locals may value time differently: some cultures are more hurried, while others are more relaxed. Be patient and courteous.
Use your guidebook, but also know when to put it away. Remember that your guidebook is just that — a guide. Read it before you leave home and at the hotel while you plan your schedule. But don’t be afraid to leave it in your room. If you want to truly experience a place, head off the beaten path: talk with the locals, eat at a restaurant that’s not listed in your guidebook, wander into a museum you’ve never heard of, sip coffee at any café, hike with a new friend that knows a trail you don’t, put your map in your backpack and explore.
Celebrate like a local. Every region of the world has its own festivals and holidays that locals enjoy. With a little research, you might find your way to a sunflower festival in Austria, feria in Spain, or carnival in Brazil.
Stay local. Instead of staying in a chain hotel or hostel, try a locally owned bed and breakfast, hostel, hotel, or inn. Your hosts will most likely be friendly, knowledgeable locals willing to give you insider’s tips on their favorite places to go and things to do. Some meals (likely breakfast) are often included in your stay and they are usually better quality than included meals at a chain hotel. Another option is a homestay with a local family. You’ll be living with a local family, usually with some or all meals included. Your hosts should be excited for you to arrive and to show you around their hometown. This is a wonderful opportunity for eco travelers that want to make local friends.
Shop at local markets and make friends with the sellers. Maybe Carlos at the Mercato Centrale in Florence will offer a sample of cheese or prosciutto…if you’re willing to practice your Italian. Buying locally leads to meaningful cultural experiences. If you buy your Turkish house shoes at the airport in Istanbul, will you be able tell the story of how you met the man who made them? No, you won’t, and you won’t be supporting a local artisan either. So, go local, support the economy, and have more fun.
Support Local Guides. When booking a tour, choose a local guide rather than a foreign one. You’ll be supporting a member of the local community and making a new local friend. For more information, read our detailed section on hiring local guides below.
Make friends. Be bold. Engage in conversation with the person next to you on the bus or at the bar. Try to introduce yourself in the local language and then ask if they speak yours. Even if they don’t, you can try to communicate with common phrases you may each know and lots of gestures.
Be a respectful photographer. Ask before taking pictures of people. Some people do not want to be photographed. Good travel photographers are sensitive to the desires of their subjects and accommodate refusals gracefully. Sometimes choosing not to take photographs can bring you a more genuine experience because you don’t have a camera separating you from the local culture.
To help in your travels, here are other resources to look at while traveling to make your time away more sustainable and enjoyable.
Hire Local Guides
Support for the Local Economy
Visiting Protected Areas
Reuse and Recycling Tips