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Monthly Archives: October 2018

An American’s Advice for Foreign Visitors

As an American traveller, I can tell you that almost everyone has an opinion of the Free Land, and there are lots of rumours – true or not – about this very uniform but also very huge country. People ask me what to expect when they come to the USA for the first time. So, as an American, what advice do I have for foreign visitors?

Below is a list I made based off my experience and what foreign visitors have told me.

Yes, you need to tip. One big thing foreigners may not understand is the American tipping system, and I know from my waiter friends that this still needs to be drilled into peoples’ minds: you need to tip!! Waiters make about $3/hour (depending on local laws) and then tips. Essentially, if you don’t tip, they won’t get paid. A lot of times, they may actually have money taken away from them if you don’t tip. Don’t like it? Neither do a lot of Americans! But that’s the way it is. To avoid tipping, you can get carry-out, but never go to a sit-down restaurant and skip the tip.

If you’re dining out, tipping is 15-20% of the total bill. There is always a place for you to write your tip amount on a credit card receipt, or you can leave cash. For drinking at a bar, tipping is usually $1 per drink or roughly 15-20% of the bill.

The public transit is generally not great. Travelling within the US is generally a nightmare if you don’t have a car. We have a lot of buses that go between cities, like Megabus and Greyhound, but that’s pretty much it. The train system is slow and expensive. A lot of larger cities do have a public transportation system but it’s usually very slow and limited in where it goes. Definitely plan accordingly and consider driving if you can.

Driving is an adventure. If you do decide to drive through the Land of the Free, it can be very exciting but also very different. We drive fast and far in America so be sure to look up how driving laws differ from those of your home country. Also, if you get pulled over, do not get out of the car! That part of our culture is so ingrained in us that the idea of leaving a car that’s been pulled over by a cop gives me shivers.

Smoking is frowned upon. There are a lot of places where you can’t smoke, and smoking is usually done in specific or even designated areas. It may not be illegal to smoke in front of a store but the people there may find it rude. Rule of thumb is to wait to see someone else smoking in an area before doing it yourself. Also be sure that your rental car and hotel room doesn’t smell like smoke after you use it as this could land you hefty fines. (You should never smoke in a rental car or hotel room, but sometimes the smell carries over.)

Prices don’t include tax. Again, something a lot of Americans don’t like, but something that still exists. Tax percentages depend on what state you’re in and what type of thing you’re purchasing (food, toy, etc). In Maryland, sales taxes are 6%, so a purchase of $10 would amount to a total of $10.60. Taxes generally don’t exceed 10%.

Also note that this includes dining, as well. So, if you get $30 worth in food, the bill is going to come to about $31.80 (6%). You would then tip $4.50 (15%) to $6 (20%). I generally tip after tax but I believe you’re only expected to tip on the pre-tax bill. So your total would be about $36.80 (food + tax + tip).

Don’t criticise us. You are more than welcome to bash America all you want online or with other non-Americans, but Americans take that type of criticism to heart. If you are visiting our country, please be respectful of us and avoid any negative talk. You would not want someone going to your country only to talk about its negative sides, would you?

Avoid political topics. In certain cultures, it’s completely acceptable to talk about politics (the president, abortion, gun control, religion, etc) but in America, for whatever reason, talking to someone about politics when you barely know them is a sign you want to fight. And if you’re with the wrong person, they could want a physical fight. People also take political topics personally, so it’s best to just avoid these subjects together. Of course, you’re more than welcome to discuss these things once you break a relationship in.

Underage drinking is extremely illegal. Underage drinking in certain countries? Not that big a deal. In America? Big deal! Definitely don’t do so in public, and don’t try to buy alcohol if you can’t present a valid ID saying you’re 21+.

Don’t cut in line. This one drives me crazy! It is incredibly rude in American culture to cut in line – incredibly! This includes “reserving spots,” i.e. standing in line alone until you get to the front, when others will join you. Wait your turn.

Check if your insurance is accepted. If you’ve gotten health insurance for your trip, great! Be sure to ask the office you’re going to if they can take your insurance. A lot of hospitals and offices don’t even take certain American insurances, and fines can be very hefty.

Cash and card both work. Neither one is king in this country. Generally, you don’t want to use large bills for small transactions (i.e. $100 for a $3 drink); also, some places may have a card minimum of $5-10. Festivals and fairs are usually cash-only. It’s generally a good idea to have a card with about $20-40 in cash, but you can generally go with your preferred payment method on this one.

Respect everyone. Not every country treats all people equal, and even though America still has a ways to go, make sure you treat everyone the same. This means no language specifically for men or women, no language specifically for people of a certain race or look, etc.

Make sure you enjoy this vast country. There are so many different places to see in the US; I mean, it’s twice the size of the European continent! Make sure you take the time to see what interests you most; meet some new people; try some delicious (or maybe even atrocious) food; and get out of your comfort zone a little bit. Make some cultural mistakes and learn from it. That’s what travel is all about!

Whether you love it or hate it, America is usually a destination on peoples’ lists and if anything, it’s an experience of a lifetime. If you make it to my home country, I hope you have a great time and enjoy your stay.

Have you ever been to America? What were some cultural differences you noticed?

On Overtourism, for Locals and Travellers

Overtourism is becoming a huge problem and a major topic in the travel industry. It came to my attention that recently, Venice created restrictions for tourists, and of course there’s the influx of protests against tourists in popular destinations like Barcelona (which really goes all out – they hate tourists). Why? Because the rising popularity of cities means rising costs of living, which may not always be viable for locals. Additionally, a global culture means that local culture may be perceived as under attack, and a lot of tourists are unfortunately not eco-friendly or aware of certain cultural aspects of local life.

There’s no easy answer as to a solution, but there are a tonne of things to think about when it comes to the clash between locals and vacationers. We’ve existed as a species for tens of thousands of years but have changed drastically in recent decades to be a global culture more than a local one, so this situation is so unique. I’ve thought long and hard about it and have decided to publish my two cents on the topic. I’d love if you got the chance to read, and I’d also love your opinions as well – as a tourist or even a local.

For Locals

I completely get where you’re coming from. I’m from Washington, DC – one of the most gentrified cities in the U.S. Let me tell you about it. When I was growing up, DC was a less popular city due to its crime. It was a quaint-ish city with a lot to do and a lot of local restaurants, and there were old buildings everywhere and the people were really friendly. I lived in the ‘burbs due to the crime and we’d go into the city all the time and I considered it my home, as a lot of people in the ‘burbs did.

Then the economy crashed, and a lot of jobs left were in the District of Columbia. A lot of people started moving into the city from other places, which meant a lot of buildings being torn down and being built up. The landscape of the city is completely changed. Prices rose to the point that we couldn’t afford a house in the city any longer, if we wanted that option. Moreover, prices rose to the point that people already living there had to leave the city and find new houses. It’s so bad that an average studio rents for $1500/month and jobs with bachelor’s degrees can often make $10-12/hour or somewhere in the $30-50k salary range. That doesn’t add up, but a lot of people coming to the city have a money supply at home, so they make ends meet OK. It truly has been catering to the rich.

The people aren’t really friendly anymore. The natives who live here are always mad about the gentrification, which often runs parallel with race and economic status. The expats are excited about the changes in the city, but I feel like if they wanted it to be like home in New York or Boston, why don’t they just stay in New York or Boston? It wasn’t tourists but expats, and for years it made me furious that my beloved home was undergoing such drastic changes. Does this sound like what you’re going through? I totally understand where you’re coming from.

But here’s the thing: it’s not worth being so angry about it. I’ve spent hours and a good bit of sass about the DC gentrification crisis and in the end, it has done nothing to stop gentrification and has only wasted hours of my time, energy and emotions. It is so similar to how people feel about increased tourism in their hometowns. In the end, it really is a sad reality of capitalism and the money-power game. However, by projecting such negative emotions, I am only making myself a victim. In combat against thousands of wealthy people, I will always lose. It may not be the easiest pill to swallow, but if you succumb to such negativity, you’re making yourself a victim, too.

Also, let’s get read. The people who would heed your “tourists go home” advice would be the ones most sympathetic to what you have to say. They will leave. The ones who do not care about what you have to say will stay. When caring tourists leave and the selfish ones stay, did you really win your cause?

However, you can do something about it. Not graffiti (which ruins architecture anyway…?), not telling tourists to die, nothing violent. You can talk to your government officials about what they can do to help combat the effects of overtourism. Some ideas include:

  • Asking them to improve housing situations. This could include limits on how many apartments a single person can own (to reduce AirBNB apartment monopolists); restricting housing to long-term or permanent residents only; putting restrictions on rent increases; and more.
  • Limiting the number of flights/trains/buses/cruise ships coming into the city at a time.
  • Putting the money from tourism into creating new jobs that would help boost the economy for the locals.
  • Preventing more souvenir shops, hotels, or anything specifically geared towards tourists. This seems silly but part of what made me upset about Eze (France) is that so much of the town had succumbed to tourism that it had lost a lot of its identity. This was because the locals decided to turn every building into a souvenir shop, and the town’s castle into a hotel. Putting money towards local businesses would be a much better way for the government to spend its gain.

Let your government officials know how you feel and also what you think will help. Don’t take it out on the tourists. It’s not their fault they’re not from your city or your country, and chances are that you like to venture outside your hometown, too.

You can also tell tourists and expats how you feel when they’re being rude in your culture. They’re in your domain now. If someone does something – let’s say they litter or only get one item from a menu when they’re in a sit-down restaurant – tell them. Say, “Could you please throw your trash in the bin?” or, “This is a restaurant. You need to order more than just a side dish, or you can go to a cafe.” Tourists are often unaware of cultural differences, and now you’re letting them know. If they’re rude, they can leave. But not all tourists are made the same.

The important thing is to learn to breathe, let things go, and be happy. You’re not going to win the overtourism battle but you can find peace in it.

For Travellers

There’s a lot you can do to help overtourism that doesn’t involve staying away from the hot tourist destinations you want to see. But first, I’m going to ask a very controversial question: should you be travelling?

A lot of other travel bloggers like to spread the idea that everyone can and should travel, but I have to disagree. I’ve seen too many people on their phones for the duration of their trips; people who are rude to locals and others; people who have no appreciation of where they are. If you’re reading this, it’s probably not you. But if you or anyone you know does any of the following, maybe travel should be reconsidered.

  • Wants to travel to get good photographs, especially for social media.
  • Doesn’t care about meeting locals.
  • Doesn’t want to try new food.
  • Refuses to conform to another culture’s standards.
  • Is not interested in what makes a city’s or country’s identity, past and present.

Which is actually a lot of people. You don’t have to be fluent in the local language or know the entire history of a specific place, but it’s astonishing how many people travel who have no – and I mean, no – interest in where they are. It’s time to have the discussion that even though eco-friendly travel is possible, it’s a waste of resources so you can get an Insta pic. Even though travel is increasingly common, it might not be your thing if you don’t like stepping out of your comfort zone and making adjustments to yourself. If you’re expecting the same experience that you have at home but with ancient pagodas or medieval cathedrals, then maybe it’s time to think twice about your trips.

It sounds harsh, but it’s really not. It’s time to have that discussion about responsible travel, and part of that is saying that maybe travel isn’t for certain people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Art isn’t for certain people. Video games aren’t for certain people. Hiking isn’t for certain people. So why does travelling have to be for everybody?

So what if you don’t check any of the aforementioned boxes off? What if you know you need to travel to get the experiences you want? There are other ways you can help.

You probably already try to conform to other cultures, but if you don’t, here’s a little lesson: if you’re American, you know it’s really rude not to tip. Not only does the server not get paid but might end up having to foot the customers’ bill on top of that. Incredibly rude. So when someone at a restaurant doesn’t tip, it’s really irksome. When you go to another culture and mess up what they have in place, you give them the same feeling. It’s not really about messing up the social construct, but confusing and possibly upsetting someone else. Listen to the locals. If you read the above section, I tell locals to breathe and be happy. However, it’s the traveller’s responsibility to make it less of a struggle for them.

You can also talk to other travellers and natives about the effects something may have on a culture. Does volunteering for a day help or harm? Are you upsetting locals with watching ceremonies such as a Luau or riding an elephant? Nowadays, it’s as simple as a Google search or asking on a Facebook group such as “Nomadic Network” or “Travel Addicts.” A big part of it is learning from your mistakes, and it’s a huge life lesson as well. It takes strength to admit your faults and change them, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re willing to own up to your actions.

From a political standpoint, you can also check that your AirBNB host is actually a person who is on vacation rather than someone who’s bought a bunch of apartments and rents them out. When people do that, they are taking away apartments from locals who may want to live there. Not cool. The safest bet is staying in a hotel/hostel or even Couchsurfing. You can also go to local shops or restaurants if you want to help the local economy, rather than international chains.

And please, wherever you are, don’t litter and be as green as possible. That shouldn’t be a problem anywhere.

So what can everyone do?

Everyone can be more open-minded and aware of others, whether at home or on vacation. Locals shouldn’t feel like their city is under attack, and tourists shouldn’t feel like they’re being invasive of their own world. However it is the responsibility of both parties to address the actual changes that need to be made in order for both groups to come together in peace. It’s about learning to respect others and to work together to devise compromises and understandings that will decrease the amount of stress that surrounds tourism in so many areas nowadays.

I hope you enjoyed and learned from this article, and I’d love to hear your feedback – even oppositions – in the comments section below. Happy travels, everyone!

Highlight: Avignon

Continuously inhabited since it was a Roman city, Avignon is a place that has experienced centuries of exciting history. A stone’s throw away from Marseilles, Avignon also played Seat of the Papacy from 1309 til 1377, the only other time the Seat was in a city other than Rome. If the extended history of this city in Provence isn’t enough to entice you, the charming town it is today most certainly will.

Papal Palace

Avignon

Avignon is such a great city because it beautifully incorporates different parts of its history into one. It still retains its medieval structures such as the city walls and the famous Pont d’Avignon, the Avignon bridge that is said to have been built be Saint Bénézet at the request of Christ. It also has a few baroque buildings that tie into the architecture of other French cities across the country. But what really makes this town stand out is that it is still a town of Provence, the southern region of France, which celebrates its heritage with stone buildings, clay rooftops, and of course lots of flowers. It’s a blend that makes one of France’s most charming areas.

Papal Palace

Avignon

There are two must-sees in Avignon: the Palais des Papes, which also gives offers tours of the interiors, and the Pont d’Avignon. These are the iconic landmarks of this historic city and visiting the two is an absolute must; some “Places to see before you Die” lists even list one or both! If you’re into art museums, Avignon has a lot to offer, as well. The city offers the Musée du Petit Palais, Collection Lambert, Musée Lapidaire, Musée Angladon, Musée Calvet, and for all my fellow decorative arts lovers, the Musée Vouland. It’s a sizable number of art museums for a small town. If you’re a history buff, then the Palais du Roure might be another great option for you.

Avginon

Since Avignon is such a charming and relatively diverse city, simply exploring is one of the best things to do here. The city has two large squares: the Place du Palais, which is in front of the Papal Palace, and the Place de l’horloge, which is a more common type of French square with the Opéra and Hôtel de Ville. Though the city has a lot to offer, Avignon is still a relatively small city, making it easy to explore its quaint streets in a reasonable amount of time. Make sure to also climb up Rocher des Doms to get a great view of Avignon, its surroundings, and some beautiful foliage in the warmer months.

Avignon

Avignon

Though Avignon seems to get passed over for the nearby Pont du Gard, it’s a southern French gem that is definitely not to be missed. With the amount of allure this city has in all its history and the monuments still standing to tell you all about it, Avignon is not to miss in the beautiful Provence region of France.

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