Surprising Facts Americans Discover as They Travel Overseas (Part 1)

This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on July  10, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.

One of my earlier childhood memories was visiting the Japanese House, a life-size Japanese merchant’s house that was donated in 1979 by the city of Kyoto and reassembled in the Boston Children’s Museum. To this day, the house is still on display and is used for showcasing Japanese culture to children and their parents.

To get into this exhibit, we had to walk along an indoor, faux sidewalk. Prior to entering the front door of the house, we were asked to take off our shoes and put them in the cubbies. I remember being confused, as there was nowhere else in the museum that required us to take off our shoes. After discreetly watching my parents to see if they were going to remove their footwear, I followed suit and also took off my shoes, replacing them with the provided slippers. Our guide continued on to explain that in Japan it was customary to take off shoes before entering the house to prevent dirt from getting in.

Surprising Facts Americans Discover as They Travel Overseas (Part 1)Japanese House exhibition in the Boston Children’s Museum.

As we continued on, the next big distinction was the kitchen. We were encouraged to sit around the table, which was no more than a foot off the ground and surrounded by what I grew up knowing as stadium seat cushions, but in actuality were the traditional floor cushions. Our guide explained that there was a formal way to sit on the ground, called seiza (正座).

Unmissablejapan.com explains this position as, “Kneeling with your legs together and the tops of your feet flat on the ground.”

I was only about 4 or 5 years old when we visited the exhibit, but this memory has stayed in the back of my mind for over two decades. Having this quick experience was all it took to realize there is a lot more out there to explore.

Traveling to a new country for the first time is exciting but also a little scary. Most of the time, we are not entirely sure what to expect despite all the travel guides and blogs we have read. After my first few adventures overseas, and after traveling with many different first-time travelers, I realized there is a handful of “ah-ha” and “What!?” moments that pop up time and time again. In Part 1 of this series, I have compiled 5 reactions that have continued to appear.

1. Surprise, Surprise – Not Everyone Speaks English

Many Americans perceive English to be the universal language and expect that individuals in the hospitality sector can understand and speak it. While this is true for many highly-populated tourist areas, this is not a standard across the board. And no, speaking English louder or slower does not mean your waiter or receptionist will understand you. To make sure you’re able to communicate while traveling, learn some local jargon on apps like DuoLingo and Babbel before your trip.

Fun fact, have you heard of Esperanto? Created in the late 1800s, this language was coined as the international language geared towards bridging the language barriers between different cultures.

Surprising Facts Americans Discover as They Travel Overseas (Part 1)An example of vehicle words in Esperanto.

2. Hospitality Varies by Country

“Ahead of the World Cup, several organisations such as Russian Railways, Fifa, and the Moscow Metro are conducting special training to teach their staff to be more polite and helpful to foreign visitors and, in particular, to smile more. It is often said that Russians do not smile at strangers as much as their Western counterparts,” according to BBC.  Take a look at the corresponding video here.

Think about it. When you check-in to a hotel, do you prefer to have a smiling receptionist or one who appears apathetic? I’m going to go on a limb here and say smile. It will set a positive tone for the rest of your stay.  

The southern part of the United States is known for its “southern hospitality.” According to Michelle Darrisaw of Southern Living magazine, southern hospitality encompasses politeness, good home cooking, kindness, helpfulness, charm, and charity. These six words alone elate a happy feeling. Now, a serious question for you: Where else in the world is there a region known for its hospitality?

Surprising Facts Americans Discover as They Travel Overseas (Part 1)

Southern Living Magazine.

Many destinations new to tourism don’t excel at hospitality right away. It is not always instinctive for people who are new to the service industry to know how to cater to a client properly, especially if the employees have never stayed at a hotel before. Lots of time must be poured into extensive training programs so that the service is in sync and up to high standards. Typically, the larger hotel brands have these trainings streamlined, and high-performance is standard in these brands across the globe. But as a favor to yourself, as you’re traveling, don’t always expect 5-star service, even if you are staying at a 5-star hotel. Standards do vary across regions.

3. Real Estate Agents Don’t Need to be Licensed to Sell Real Estate (depends on the country)

Here’s a fun one – one that I often hear surprised reactions to. It is true, not all countries require that a real estate agent be licensed. In the United States, there are intensive classes that people must take to sell real estate. To become a certified realtor and specialty designee, there are additional requirements needed. The sale of real estate is well regulated, and systems like the MLS (multiple listing services) exist.  

It is not as organized in many other parts of the world. Anyone can get a business card made that says “real estate agent” and hand it out to tourists at the beach. This is why doing your due diligence and not falling for Margarita Madness is so important as you do your property search.  

Mike Cobb offers a great resource, the Consumer Resource Guide for Real Estate Ownership Overseas, that I recommend reading. He covers the 15 Must-Ask Questions so that you know what to ask to avoid the pitfalls.

Surprising Facts Americans Discover as They Travel Overseas (Part 1)Click the photo above for access to the Consumer Resource Guide.

4. You May Need a Visa to Get into Your Country and There are Certain Restrictions as to How Long You Can Stay as a Tourist.

Depending on your nationality, which countries you can visit without a visa and for how long will vary. If a visa is required, you may be able to get it at the destination’s airport, but other times you will need to apply for it beforehand at a consulate or embassy.  

Because there are so many variations of citizenships and travel destinations, here is a great link that helps you to further understand where you can visit visa-free on the passport you have.  If a visa is required, you can go directly to the embassy’s website (for the country you are visiting) to see their specific requirements.

5. When Returning to the States, You Will Need to Pick Up Your Suitcase and Recheck it (if catching another flight) After Clearing Customs.

The header of point 5 says it all, but let’s recap. If you are flying into the United States from an international destination, you will need to claim your checked luggage at your first point of entry into the USA and recheck it after clearing customs, or pick it up if it’s your final destination.  

Let me give you an example. You are flying from Panama to New Orleans and there is a layover in Houston. Once you arrive to Houston from Panama, you will need to clear immigration, pick up your checked suitcase, clear customs, and then recheck your bag at the conveyor belt for it to continue onto New Orleans. Then you’ll pick it up again at your final destination (New Orleans).  

Because you are also going through security again after landing in Houston, if you have duty-free bottles in your hand, they will need to go into your checked luggage.

Surprising Facts Americans Discover as They Travel Overseas (Part 1)You will have to check your duty-free beverage purchases once you land in the U.S.

Now, if you were going from Panama to Houston with Houston as your final destination, after you clear immigration, pick up your suitcase, and clear customs, you’ll be well on your way out the door to find your ride.

If you have a carry-on, it will stay on you the whole time.

This process tends to be an inconvenience for those whose final destination is not in the States, because they have to go through the same process – but it’s the price you pay for passing through the U.S.

There are so many nuances, big and small, that surprise folks when they travel abroad. If there are any that pop into your mind, let me know and we will look at adding them into Part 2.

This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on July  10, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.