How to be a good tourist

The past two months have been more or less continuously filled with visitors. While it’s been wonderful to share our life abroad with so many friends and family members, it is a relief to have our tiny apartment back to ourselves. (For reference: 18 square meters is comfortable with two people, cozy with three, and just the slightest bit crowded with four.) I’m continuing to work through the backlog of photos and stories from our adventures, but in the meantime I thought I’d share some tips for adjusting to life – or travel – in another country.

These are the things we tried to tell our guests ahead of time to help them be “good tourists.” Some of these we had to learn the hard way (like #4—I definitely got scolded for grabbing tomatoes off a shelf at the produce market), and others are still a work in progress (I routinely forget that the typical French goodbye involves not one but three salutations—merci, au revoir, and bonne journée). But, hey, practice makes parfait. 

Without further ado, Five Tips for Being a Good Tourist:

  1. Always err on the side of being extra polite. This means greeting everyone – salespeople, taxi drivers, receptionists, etc. – before asking for help and thanking them afterwards. Saying bonjour is a sign of respect, and people will be happier to help you if you take a moment to acknowledge them before jumping in with requests. This probably sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people forget.
  2. Related: Although nearly everyone in Paris speaks English, learn a few French phrases and use them whenever you can. As a tourist in Paris, you can get by with only five key phrases: bonjour (hello, or literally “good day”; if you’re feeling fancy, use bonsoir in the evening); s’il vous plait (please); merci (thank you); au revoir (goodbye); and pardon (excuse me, used when you want someone’s attention or as an apology).
  3. Use your “indoor voice” at all times, even outdoors. Americans are super loud. Colin and I didn’t realize how true this was until we were eating out at his conference in Montpellier in August, and the Americans could be heard echoing down the street. (On the other hand, the French have a superpower for quietness.) Try not to be the loudest person in the restaurant/metro car/museum.
  4. If you’re not sure if it’s okay to do something, ask first. This also sounds obvious, but cultural differences aren’t always immediately apparent. For example, in France people don’t help themselves to things in stores as often as we do in the States. This is particularly true at food markets—don’t touch! You can either learn these things the embarrassing way – by shocking the locals and getting scolded – or you can take a moment to ask: “Bonjour madame/monsieur, is it okay if I [fill in the blank]?”
  5. And finally—international travel always comes with some level of discomfort, so try to embrace the inconvenience and set your expectations low. Things will be different from what you’re used to, and you may not understand why they happen the way they do, but what can you do? You’re not going to change a culture by complaining, so try to go with the flow. There’s probably a good reason for why things work the way they do (e.g., restaurant service in France is slow because meals are meant to be unhurried social outings), and isn’t the point of travel to experience these things?

Anyway, I hope this helps! These are things Colin and I now do almost without thinking about them, and they’ve served us well both in France and the other countries we’ve visited. Being a good tourist really just comes down to being polite—the trick, of course, is that different cultures define “polite” differently. Luckily no one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect you to try.

(And I should note that all of our visitors were indeed very “good” tourists. This post was not inspired by their transgressions.)

What do you think, fellow travelers? Did I miss anything obvious?

Bon voyage!


So many tourists at Sacré Coeur! But are they “good tourists”?

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