Stephanie Spitler
August 13, 2013 7:00 am

One of the best things about traveling is that adrenalin rush you get when you’re discovering something new. Whether it’s a new town or a new country, everything is different and fascinating and I love to taste/smell/touch everything I can. I want to travel with all five senses and really feel like I’m experiencing a new place.

But that enthusiasm can sometimes be a bad thing, if it’s not tempered by common sense and a healthy dose of restraint. Case in point: the recent incident in Florence, Italy, where an American tourist broke the finger off of a 600-year-old statue. It appears to have been an accident, but that doesn’t change the fact that a priceless piece of art was permanently damaged because someone couldn’t follow the rules we all should’ve learned in kindergarten: keep your hands to yourself.

But irresponsible travelers are not just an American epidemic. Back in May, a tourist posted a photo online of graffiti in the ancient Luxor temple in Egypt. A Chinese teenager had defaced the temple with the ever-original statement: “Ding Jinhao was here.” In both cases, apologies were offered but the damage had been done; damage to ancient artifacts, as well as to the reputations of tourists in general.

The definition of a “responsible traveler” can vary from person to person. For some people it may mean trying to help the country they’re visiting (like voluntourism), for others it can just mean being a good guest. But I think there are some things we should all remember and practice whenever we’re in someone else’s neck of the woods.

Respect the culture: To me, this means taking the time to learn a bit about the culture you’ll be experiencing. With the Internet and apps and guidebooks, there’s no excuse not to do some quick studying-up before you leave. I’m not saying you should expect to know every little cultural nuance, but you can easily inform yourself about the societal norms. It will help you feel more prepared and comfortable, and if you’re spending precious vacation time visiting a country, I’d hope that you’re interested in it and would want to learn about it anyway.

Learn the language: Even if you only know a few words, saying “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you” in someone’s native tongue will be appreciated. Also, don’t assume everyone speaks English; ask first, before you launch into a huge speech they may not understand. At the very least, know what language is spoken in the country you’re visiting. I know it sounds crazy, but I overheard a couple at a tourist office in Austria, and I cringed when they asked what language was spoken there. Seriously, see the point above and get a guidebook. Do some research, so that your fellow tourists don’t have to apologize for your ignorance.

Stop comparing everything to “home”: You’re traveling to get away from home, to see the world and all the beautiful and strange differences in the cultures and landscapes. So embrace those differences. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad or worse. If everything were the same, there’d be no point, no adventure, and no exhilaration to travel. Home will always be there, with its comforting familiarity, so while you’re away, try to enjoy the away-ness.

Use common sense. Be polite: If all else fails…if the library was out of guidebooks or you booked a super-last-minute trip to a place you’ve never heard of and had no time to pack, let alone to research, then just remember this last point: use your common sense and be polite. When in doubt about something, ask someone. And, whatever you do, don’t touch anything in museums!

What does being a responsible traveler mean to you?

Follow me on Twitter @StephSpitler

Featured image via Shutterstock

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