How To Not Act Like An American While Traveling Abroad

So you’re American and you want to travel abroad but are a little worried. Have no fear, the world is nowhere near as dangerous as the American media portrays it. However it is also worth noting that the United States hasn’t had the best global image recently. As such it is all the more important to not offend the foreigners you encounter while traveling. My purpose today is instead teaching you how to not act like an “American idiot” while on foreign soil. (There are already enough politicians doing the exact opposite, no need to hop on the bandwagon.)

After five years of no work all travel I’ve witnessed enough people making fools of themselves while abroad to last me a lifetime. While I don’t expect this trend to stop this anytime soon, I at least feel the need to try and do my part to help reduce their prevalence.

Additionally, there are also times and places when you might not want to stick out like an American thumb. For example, I have long grown tired of the “why is your military here?” and “what is Obama doing over there?” I’ve been getting that latter question since the Bush days and I still don’t have an answer for it.

  It should also be noted that this post, like so many of my others, is merely the continuation of a topic that I was ranting about on Twitter just a few hours ago. So if you don’t follow @the_HoliDaze, well maybe you should… 😉

Get used to no ice in your drinks — unless it’s beer.

No other country overloads on ice the way people from America do. Whether this is a result of growing up with fast food and 64oz Super Big Gulps is anybody’s guess, however regardless the trend remains. In some parts of the world like Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia the lack of ice has as much to do with the availability and cost of refrigeration as the quality of the water. Many if not most countries outside of the western world do no have the infrastructure to support every household having a freezer…or even a fridge for that matter. Drinking room temperature water and soda is commonplace. Do not ask for ice unless you would walk around with “American” tattooed on your forehead because that is essentially what you are doing.

San Miguel beer with a class of ice, in proper Filipino formSan Miguel beer with a class of ice, in proper Filipino form

The sole exception is with beer. Even in tropical countries when the beer is served cold, often a small bowl of ice cubes will accompany it. When I first saw this in 2008 in the Philippines my reaction was one of disgust — “this beer already tastes like water, why would I want to add ice to it?” — however five minutes later when that 35°C heat (sorry, 95°F) had warmed my beer to the same lukewarm temperature as urine, well you can bet I quickly adopted the ice method.

Do NOT eat at McDonald’s. In fact do not eat ANY American food while traveling abroad.

I cannot stress this enough. I don’t care if McDonald’s is America’s #1 comfort food, you have no place eating it on foreign soil. (Technically I’m one of those who believes there is never a right time to eat McDonald’s, but to each their own.)/p>

Travel the world...eating nothing but McDonald's? Shame on you.Image via

Just look at how much money you spent on airplane tickets, lodging, and all the other expenses associated with international travel to get where you are. Are you really go to spend all that money and time to visit somewhere new and NOT try some new foods? Shame on you.

And this leads me to my next point…

The food may be better at home, but NEVER say that until you are back home.

Mystery food in Vietnam. Mixed seafood chunks served in a congealed substance that resembles blood and tastes like nothing I ever want to eat again.This mystery dish was served to me in Minh Binh, Vietnam and has the dubious honor of being the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten — far worse than dog, horse, insects, raw King Cobra organs and even blood, both liquid and congealed. As far as I can tell it was diced seafood of an assorted variety served in a cold, congealed red pudding-like substance that resembled blood and tasted exactly like how I’ve always imagined E.T. the extraterrestrial would taste. Needless to say I was a bad guest here and unable to finish this fetid food, which I’m sure offended my hosts even if they did not express it.

Americans are often perceived as uncultured, entitled and/or ignorant. Blatantly criticizing the local food in the public will only perpetuate this stereotype. As a long-term traveler originally from the USA, I have grown very tired of people believing all Americans are rich idiots. Many of us are neither.

Keep an open mind and always think about the image you present. As a guest in a foreign country you represent all Americans so please do it well.

Scared to eat with your hands? Don’t be.

Eating with your hands in commonplace in many countries around the world but it’s not quite as simple as one might initially expect. In fact it really is more of an art form.

Foreign Travel 101: How to eat with your hands

For starters only use your right hand, NEVER the left as this is disrespectful, improper, and above all unsanitary, as in many of these countries the left hand is used to wipe.
Bring together a small ball on your plate using all five fingers, just as you would swipe an iPad to bring it back to the home screen.
Scoop it up just like that annoying old claw machine that always drops your prize (although obviously don’t mimic the machine too much by dropping your food) and bring it toward your mouth, remembering to keep your head perfectly horizontal and not tilted back like a baby bird eager for a regurgitated meal from mommy.
Now using your thumb flick this makeshift food ball ever so slightly into your mouth using one smooth, quick and hopefully graceful gesture, rather than sticking all your fingers in and slobbering all over the tips of each.

Like I said, it’s an art form and could take a few days to grow accustomed to.

Learn a few phrases of the local language.

Refusing to learn at least a couple basic words in the local language is a foreign faux pas many tourists have, not just Americans. Sure, English may be the current international language but when deep inside a foreign country do not expect locals to know English and certainly do not get upset or mad at them when they do not. Over the years I’ve seen more tourists guilty of this than anything else. There is no easier way to come off like an asshole.

How to say thank you around the world

What words and phrases should you learn? Start with “hello” and “thank you” then think of what other phrases you might need on a daily basis. “Cheers!” “Where is the bathroom?” and “yes/no” are all good ones. However my personal favorite is learning how to say something like “thank you so much, you are a f’n badass!” — although preferably without any swear words as these are not always acceptable depending on the country. (Trust me here, I speak from experience. I was recently locked up abroad for 16 days and then deported and banned from Indonesia for dropping the f-bomb on Twitter. Yes, seriously.)

Learning how to say a phrase such as “you are awesome” will become immensely valuable when showing your gratitude. For example, most people who visit Indonesia know that terima kasih means thank you. However when someone does something really awesome, I prefer to say makasih banyak, kamu gokil! That translates as “thanks so much, you are really awesome (in a cool kind of way).” Knowing how to say useful and/or funny phrases such as this that no other foreigner EVER says will win over locals left and right, and that will make your travel experiences exponentially more exciting and enjoyable.

Tips on how to quickly learn basic phrases of a foreign language

Do not be shocked by eggs that are being sold and stored at room temperature.

Room temperature eggs are perfectly normal in every country except America -- so please don't act like an American and freak out when you see this“I am the egg-man (woooo) they are the egg-men (woooo). I am the walrus…goo goo g’joob!”

This is how the entire rest of the world does it except for the United States. Why? Because eggs in the US are cleaned before packaging. Cleaning, that sounds like a good thing, right? Debatable. The cleaning process washes off the protective coating on the outside of the shell that safeguards the egg within, which then requires that the eggs be immediately refrigerated.

Do NOt expect everywhere to accept credit cards.

In fact just to be safe — especially when traveling tropical or developing countries — don’t expect anywhere to accept credit cards. Sure, anything and everything can be purchased with plastic in America, however not every country is like this. In many places cash is king. Especially developing nations. Think ahead and when you see an ATM make sure to withdraw more than enough money to cover you until you encounter another. Besides, given the foreign ATM withdrawal fees that most banks have it’s actually smarter and less expensive to take out more than you normally would. I’ve been stuck on the top of a mountain in a little village hours away from the nearest ATM and with no cash to pay for my homestay or do the little things in life, like food. Or even to purchase enough gasoline to make it all the way back to that bump in the road four hours back laughably referred to as a town. Talk about an embarrassing experience.

2am ATM run while club-hopping in Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan2am. Saturday night in 2008. Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan. ATM run. Damn I really miss that shirt…

It is also worth mentioning that ATMs in remote areas ― especially islands where there is only one or two ― have been known to run out of cash on a somewhat regular basis.

Never flash your cash.

Building off my last point, this one really should be obvious but apparently it isn’t. Now that you’ve just left an ATM with a wallet full of cash DO NOT flash it around. If the bill is ₱90 do not open your wallet and flip through dozens of ₱1000 bills just to pull out a ₱100 note. Keep the small notes loose in your pocket, a few big notes in your wallet just in case, and the bulk of your cash hidden somewhere safe — like a money belt.

Act like a Canadian.

If all else fails just resort to the age-old tactic of slapping a maple leaf or Canadian flag on your backpack and dropping a few ‘eh’s. After all…

Everyone loves a Canadian

I did this in one country not to make Canada look bad for my actions but not to make me look bad because of America’s actions. And it worked. As soon I I switched to telling people I was from Canada all of the negative encounters ceased. Problem solved.

Which tactics have you used? What else would you recommend?

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

42 thoughts on “How To Not Act Like An American While Traveling Abroad”

  1. Other tips: remember that for most of the rest of the world “America” refers to any country in North, Central, or South America. One way to come off as an arrogant traveler from the United States is to dismiss over forty other nations and assume the US is the only country in “America”.

    And as far as pretending to be Canadian goes- wouldn’t it be better to try to change the perception of US travelers, rather than mask it? Just an idea.

    • While I agree with your point on changing perceptions, I imagine the article was likely somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

      More to the point, however, which languages out there have ‘America’ as the common appellation for all of N/S/C America? Spanish? Perhaps Portuguese? I get this from Latin Americans and even Brazilians occasionally, and it usually just comes off as petty and annoying. Yes, I’m aware the name is ‘United States of America’ but come on, nobody says that every time.

  2. I’ve encountered more racism this year because I’m American than ever before during my travels. The problem I have is with blanket statements about Americans and American culture – just like I would for any other country or culture. So, rather than not “acting like an American,” I’d rather focus on the things that we do well here. For example, as a Californian I come from a really diverse place with tons of friendly people and awesome natural sights. That’s what I’d like to promote – coming from a tolerant place where not everyone is a gun-slingin’, “best country in the world” chanting, “where’s the ice?” asking a**hole. That’s the minority and pretending to be Canadian is a silly thing to do when Americans have a culture that’s worth being proud of if we can display the best parts.

    • Being from a less well-known part of the States (Louisiana), I actually really enjoy this sometimes. People still seem to think often of the US as one big homogeneous culture, so it can be fun to talk about how different my area is in terms of food/culture/language even compared with cowboy land to the west.

      I will admit, though, I pulled the “I’m Canadian” card out once… much to my shame.

      • Yeah, that is a good example Stephen. I’ve gotten in many conversations with people about the differences between and quirks of Californians, Texans, East-Coasters, Rednecks, Republicans, etc etc. Discussed varying food, accents, music, landscape and climate, primary industries, politics and on and on. I also like the fact that no matter what country I visit, I can say “I’m from Texas” and everyone automatically knows what I mean. “Oh, land of the cowboys, yaaaaah?” Like you said, that wouldn’t work if I said Louisiana or Wyoming.

        The Canadian one I only did in north Vietnam and only to select people. Actually I take that back, I remember saying it somewhere in Central America after hearing the locals already complaining about something the American military had recently done nearby (it was these same locals who I got into a conversation with about ten minutes later). I didn’t do it to make Canada look bad because of my actions but rather so that America’s actions don’t make me look bad, and that I don’t have to answer any annoying military or political questions about “why is Obama doing this” or “why did your military do that?” I don’t know, most of America doesn’t even know. If the gov’t listened to the people then none of this would have happened. Military is in control now. “But I thought America was the land of the free?” Maybe once but not anymore. “Why?” and then by that point the conversation just continues to spiral downhill. (Yes, the only aspect of life that I am not an optimist about is politics. Once fucked, always fucked.)

        And that’s why this post is in the ‘Rant’ category. Where and why did you drop your Canada white lie?

        • Inevitably I end up saying “Well, you know Texas right? Just east of there.”

          The one time I’ve dropped that Canadian line was at an Iraq versus Japan football match in Tashkent in like 2010. I walked in not planning to do so but once I got into a crowd of screaming Iraqis waving big flags my resolve withered and I became a Canadian for a moment. Even that felt dirty, though, and if I could do it again I’d be honest about it the next time!

    • I halfway agree there — I’ve stopped in plenty just to look at the menu. Spaghetti in the Philippines, McArabia is the UAE, McD delivery in much of Southeast Asia, etc etc. But I don’t eat there. I hardly ever ate McD’s as a kid and by the time I was a teen stopped eating fast “food” entirely. Personal beliefs aside I just think that if you’re going to spend a lot of money and time traveling, try new things while you are at it, most importantly new foods. Not a familiar bland with a “local” twist. Anyway glad to meet someone else who is curious as to McD variations around the world lol, thanks for sharing your two cents 🙂

  3. I’ve had that conversation with people in many nations Maggie and everyone everywhere (in my experience) that says “American” means citizen of the USA. What else would we be called, a United Statesian? However if they talk about “America” or “the Americas” then yes they are referring to the entire continents.Kristin and I already chatted about my crackpot Canada “tip” (and I use that word lightly)

  4. i added that in last minute because I did that in north Vietnam after having negative encounters with a couple old gentleman who instantly shifted personalities as soon as I said I was American and made it quite clear they did not like Americans. So I started saying I was from Canada and everyone loved me. But again that was just two encounters with two old men, not the country as a whole or even the majority of people. Just two bad apples. So I tried something different and it worked. You win some, you lose some, what can I say.

  5. Oh yeah, most people know that when someone refers to himself as “American” he means from the United States. But I know people from Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador who consider themselves “Americans” as well. Actually, in the Spanish language “americano” literally means from one of the Americas. They do indeed call us United Statesians. I never say “I’m American”, I say “I’m from the US”.

    And I also know Canadians who are offended that people from the US pretend to hail from their great country of maple syrup. French Canadians, but still…

  6. I also hate how Americans also assume every country accepts USD. When we were in Costa Rica I always cringed when I’d hear tourists getting mad because stores only accepted colones and they’d huff and puff and complain, “How can they NOT accept American dollars? It’s the ultimate currency!” *shakes head* Or it’s common to see the typical behavior of, if they can’t understand you, speak English louder and slower! Yea… that works too.

    • YES Samantha that is a great point I completely overlooked! You are completely right, plenty of Americans get angry when someone in a foreign country won’t take USD. Or when the clerk explains that it is too large of a bill, they don’t have change and therefore cannot accept it. I’ve always been annoyed by the speak louder and slower tactic as well. Unless the individual speaks a bit of English and has specifically said, “whoa, can you slow down and/or speak up” that tactic never works and serves only to belittle the person on the receiving end.

  7. I agree that you should try the local food when you’re traveling. BUT, if you’ve been on the road for months and are feeling homesick, sometimes you just NEED an order of McDonald’s fries. I’ve done it, and I’m not the least bit ashamed.

    Also, the Americans who travel with Canadian maple leafs on their backpacks really bug me. I’m an American and, while I don’t agree with everything my country does or what certain people here believe in, I still think it’s a great country and that we have a lot to be proud of. Do I BRAG about being American? No. But I don’t shy away from it, either.

    • Would add: Stop being the loudest voice in the place….Americans have a tendency to talk loudly; as do Spanish, Chinese and Italians, among others. However, if one is in Spain and most of the people in the restaurant or bar are Spanish, it’s that loud American voice that stands out…and the most idiotic American statements start ringing across the room. THIS is when we say “No, we’re Canadian”.

  8. As a US-American who’s live abroad for decades, I can say that ALL of this is very true. Eggs at room temp. Yikes! But that’s how we do it here in Germany. US-Americans are not the only people who don’t learn other languages, but I think we really do win the prize (shared off course with the French).

  9. Derek, You know I love you, but this article doesn’t really talk about being an ugly American. It’s more a combination of things that people should be aware of when traveling. There are plenty of things that Americans do when traveling, but I’m not sure that I saw any of them on this list.

    As for the the Canadian thing, that’s just silly. I don’t really like America, and I still never pretended to be from somewhere else. Maybe I got lucky, but even in countries we’ve had conflicts with over the years (basically everywhere), I never had anyone treat me differently, unless it was with more excitement.

  10. Can you give me some examples Jim? Of things Americans do while traveling, that is. As far as this article is concerned it’s just another one of my Twitter rants turned into a post. However the fact remains: I noticed a MAJOR difference in people’s reactions and perceptions of me in north Vietnam between when I said I was American and when I said I was Canadian.

  11. Examples of things American’s stereotypically do when traveling? Wanting everything to be exactly like home (which you cover indirectly, but not directly), being loud and obnoxious, losing their temper easily when they don’t get their way, treating locals like amusement park characters, being insanely over cautious. Those are just a few. Not all apply to every American traveler, and most could likely apply to other travelers to an extent, but there’s a reason there is even the stereotype of an “ugly American”? I know I’ve been guilty of many of them, much to my chagrin, from time to time.

    I didn’t visit Vietnam, but I found people in places like Laos, China, Russian, etc very excited that I was an American.

  12. Wow, Cacinda, that’s harsh. I’m not sure what I said that could qualify me as “stupid”, or even ignorant, if that’s the word you were looking for. I was just stating my personal experiences.

    And Kay, I agree that United Statesian is a dumb word… in English… But it’s a very real word in Spanish. I don’t know how many times I’ve had my head bitten off by Latinos who become super offended when I say in English that I’m American. I explain over and over that in English, it’s the proper word for my nationality. I mean, hell, Mexicans are from The United States of Mexico, and they get to be called Mexican. I could go on for days defending the use of the word “American” to mean US citizen. However, I was merely pointing out to Derek what other cultures think when they hear us refer to ourselves as “American.”

  13. No worries Maggie, it’s all good…after all I wrote it, I can handle all the feedback. I just wish out of all my other articles that a decent one would have popped back up and gotten so much fresh attention, instead of this random filler post. Anyway, thanks for the comments, cheers!

  14. I must say, the fact that I can appeal to being Texan notwithstanding, I have never once experienced pushback for being American — except by some dumbass bleeding-heart Canadian woman at a war museum in Vietnam.

  15. Few things or more I pathetic than some spoiled, snotty American punk dissociating himself from his own country and pretending he’s from another. Not acting like an entitled idiot is commendable but hardly a problem unique to Americans. Disavowing your own country is reprehensible. If you’re so ashamed of the United States and so disgusted to be from this country, one thing you cannot deny: you have the freedom to leave it. Go away! Shed your shame! And save us having to read your drivel on how to be American and reap its benefits, while pretending your not one of of us.

    • What do you think I did 8 years ago? I fucking left never to return. And oh man if you could see how far America has fallen since then in the eyes of the rest of the world. It has nothing to do with a black president and everything to do with politics and military. The fact that the best presidential candidates that the country can come up with now are a misogynistic 70-year-old man who still hasn’t learned to think before he speaks (or to not fucking lie in this modern digital age where everything is recorded and can be fact-checked) and a woman who couldn’t even control her own husband, much less an entire country, has turned a once great nation into the laughing stock of the world. Things like the TSA, weekly school shootings and the propensity of American police to kill innocent black men have only further tarnished the USA’s image. Hell if mass media didn’t have everyone there so brainwashed into thinking “the whole world watches our movies, listens to our music, speaks our language, uses our social media platforms and our currency….oh yeah, and its full of terrorists too, so just stay here and keep watching your football” (which is not even REAL football, but that’s a-whole-nother conversation) then Americans would be fleeing that sinking ship in record numbers.

      Edward, let me leave you with this thought: in life you cannot control where you were born but you CAN control where you are going. Until 200 years ago there were no such thing as “Americans” they were just European refugees who slaughtered the local tribes and took over the land. What’s to be proud about that? At least if you are born Chinese you have thousands of years of ancestry. Hell YOU could have been born in Somalia or North Korea or Africa but by chance you happened to be lucky enough to be born in the USA and didn’t have to fight just to survive your childhood. So instead of getting offended when someone doesn’t like your country, why don’t you try and make it better?

  16. Good for you Derek! Now have you renounced your US citizenship? If you have, I’ll give you credit for walking your talk. If not, you’re just another whiny liberal brat keeping his options open. Go ahead and renounce Derek! Stick it to us filthy American pigs! Show us the true extent of your contempt!


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