Stupid Mistakes Americans Make When Visiting Other Countries

Americans don’t have the greatest reputation as international travelers. We’re boorish, think local customs are “weird,” assume our country is superior to others, and are baffled by non-U.S. currencies, among other unflattering stereotypes. Of course, not all Americans are idiots abroad. But even if you don’t think you fit the portrait of the “ugly American” tourist, you may very well be making embarrassing, and sometimes dangerous, mistakes when you’re visiting other countries. Before you hop on your next international flight, check out this list of stupid mistakes Americans make when traveling abroad.

1. Not speaking the language

tourist with suitcase

Hopefully that phone is to look up key phrases | iStock.com

No one expects you to become fluent in German, Thai, or Japanese overnight, and not knowing how to speak the local language shouldn’t stop you from visiting another country. But even if you aren’t able to converse with ease, it’s still helpful to learn at least a few key phrases in the local tongue. Not only will it be easier for you to communicate and get around, but being able to say a few words in the local tongue has other benefits as well.

“Even if you aren’t fluent in a language, it says a lot about you as a traveler if you take the time to learn new phrases in a foreign language,” Matt Long said on his travel blog Landlopers. “It says that you want to explore and learn, that you aren’t just there for the photos and to tick items off of a list.”

2. Not checking visa and passport requirements

Airplane boarding passes, passport, travel, map

Passport and plane tickets | iStock.com

In many ways, an American passport is like a golden ticket — it will get you into many countries without an additional visa or paperwork if you’re traveling as a tourist. But some countries like Russia and Egypt do require Americans have a visa to visit. And if your passport is nearing its expiration date, watch out. You can be turned away when trying to board your flight or at the border of many countries, including popular destinations in the European Union, if your passport is expiring in less than six months, warns the State Department.

3. Not familiarizing yourself with local customs

Tourists take pictures with their iphone on the glass-floor

Try not to be an obnoxious tourist | Wang He/Getty Images

You don’t have to be an expert on the local culture, but you should familiarize yourself with basic do’s and don’ts before visiting a foreign country. Failing to do so is impolite. Depending on where you are, that might mean wearing more modest clothing in certain situations (like when you’re visiting The Vatican), refraining from public displays of affection, or not blowing your nose in public.

4. Packing something you shouldn’t

poppy seeds in a wooden spoon on a wood table

Poppy seeds | iStock.com

Every country has different rules about what they will and won’t allow through customs. Before you pack your bag, make sure you’re not inadvertently carrying contraband. Some of the banned items may surprise you. Poppy seeds are forbidden in the United Arab Emirates while pepper spray is illegal in many countries.

5. Complaining when things are different

signs for airlines at jfk international terminal

Signs at JFK Airport | TREVOR COLLENS/AFP/Getty Images

Presumably, you’re traveling to see new things and have new experiences, so it’s pretty silly (not to mention rude) to get upset when things aren’t exactly like they are at home. Yet whining when certain things don’t measure up to American standards is sadly common, says travel expert Rick Steves. He urges travelers not to play the role of the “ugly American,” who “throws a fit if the air-conditioning breaks down in a hotel … insists on orange juice and eggs (sunny-side up) for breakfast, long beds, English menus, punctuality in Italy, and cold beer in England … [and] measures Europe with an American yardstick.”

6. Assuming laws don’t apply to you

Judge gavel, scales of justice

Judge gavel, scales of justice | iStock.com/BrianAJackson

This should be obvious, but being an American doesn’t give you immunity from the laws of the country you’re visiting. Every year, as many as 6,000 Americans are arrested when traveling abroad, according to the American Bar Association, sometimes for doing things that are perfectly legal back home. Even though you may disagree with them, it’s important to follow local laws if you don’t want your vacation to take an unpleasant turn. While the State Department will provide assistance to U.S. citizens who are arrested abroad, they can’t automatically get you out of jail. Legal systems in other countries don’t work the same way as they do in the U.S., either, so you may not have access to the same rights Americans take for granted, such as an attorney if you can’t afford one.

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS