Backpackers Admit Their Biggest Travel Blunders

When you arrive in a brand-spanking new destination, it’s easy to accidentally stumble over a few cultural hurdles. While it’s fair to say these can be avoided by doing a bit of research, sometimes, a travel blunder is just plain unavoidable.

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Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We reached out to our fellow nomads to find out the worst mistakes they’ve made on the road – that way, you can learn from their mishaps. 

Local Etiquette

"While traveling long-distance on a train in Germany, years ago, I was sniffling – as a habit and I was without tissues. The passenger across the aisle shoved me a pack of tissues. It was weeks later I was told sniffling was a no-no – cue awkwardness, because I told the story as a funny anecdote." – Yvonne Tang-Hauk, via Facebook

"In Myanmar, I was offered a pillow while sitting on a concrete floor. I sat on it, when apparently I was only supposed to lean my back against. Turns out, putting my rear-end where someone would put their head to sleep was a massive no-no." – Catherine Pitt, via Facebook

“I sat next to a monk on a bus in northern Thailand. A no-no it turns out. Leaving tips in Japan – very insulting, apparently. Sitting on a train in Tokyo with legs crossed, such that the bottom of the shoe faces up – boy, did I get the stink eye." – Christina Tunnah, World Nomads

Make Sure the Laws You Googled are Up-to-date

"We had a challenge when we tried to get a sticker to allow us to drive in Munich – we were in a borrowed car, and had to order the sticker, and then have it mailed to Croatia. Not sure if this is still the case, but it’s a good idea to check the latest rules and regulations in case what you heard by word-of-mouth is out of date." – Elen Turner, World Nomads

Photography Etiquette

"As a photographer, my philosophy has always been shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later. But that’s actually really rude in places like temples, or where some cultures believe that taking their picture means you’re stealing their spirit, so be careful.

I’ll never forget a Chinese local yelling “HEY! DELETE THAT PICTURE!” in my face while I thought I was being an arty, street-photographer in Qing Dao, China. As I traveled more, I learned that sensitivity is the key. " – Martin Hong, World Nomads

"I remember taking a photograph of local women in a remote and very traditional village in Turkey without asking first. They were horrified and covered their faces.  Always ask first. It’s a great way to connect with locals while you’re at it." – Emily Willis, World Nomads

Dressing Appropriately

"When visiting any temples in Asia, make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. If you're sitting in front of a Buddha, your feet must not face the Buddha!" – Jess Grey, World Nomads

"I’ve no doubt committed many faux pas, but the most recent one happened in India. I was at a Jain temple in Rajasthan and was wearing what I thought was a modest outfit – skirt below the knee, shirt with cap sleeves. But our guide felt it wasn’t enough, so he borrowed a long, sack-like dress from the ticket office – they have them on hand for this very purpose.

In hindsight, a full-length skirt or long pants, and long or ¾ sleeves would have been a wiser choice or, better still, the traditional Indian sari." – Elen Hall, World Nomads

Changing Habits

"I’ve accidentally flushed toilet paper in a few places where the toilets aren’t built to handle it. I didn’t cause any actual plumbing problems – that I know of – but, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out!" – Mark Seldon, World Nomads Group

There is No Such Thing as Ethical Animal Tourism

"Not so much a faux pas, more of a learning curve. When I went to Bali a while back we visited the Bali Zoo. We walked through all the enclosures – including the tiger cave. As I walked toward the sedated tiger (after paying a few Indonesian rupees to get through), it dawned on me that I‘d literally just funded another few hours of sedatives for that poor animal.

"A few years later, I went to Chiang Mai. We'd heard so many good things about the Elephant sanctuary – until we went there to see it for ourselves. We witnessed the mahout (elephant trainer) beating the elephant's head with a sharp stick, while we sat – mortified – in the wooden box on its back.

"I'm a huge believer that none of us seek these un-ethical experiences on purpose – but unfortunately, for as long as we continue to fund these attractions, they'll stick around. Safe to say, any animal tourism is totally off my radar." – Milly McGrath, World Nomads

Do you have a travel faux-pas of your own? Share your stories with us below!

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5 Comments

  • Kelly said

    Whilst in Thailand years ago I put my foot on a paper money that was blowing away by the wind. A local starting yelling at me. Apparently putting my foot on the face of the King is a huge no no!? You can be jailed for this in Thailand.

  • Crose said

    Interesting to reading these because always good to respect the local etiquette and surprising how many don't do research. 99% there is no ethical animal tourism but I had different experience in Chiang Mai, the group I was with we went to is Elephant Nature Park and is the one place that everyone praises because of its work to recuse and provide sanctuary to abused elephants through riding them of or hard labor. It a place that should be supported and of course people do the later do not like this place. I can't say for certain but having you went to place trying to pretend to be this place.

  • Marg Breuer said

    The Vietnamese are very forgiving of cultural faux-pas'. If you just understand a few cultural differences it makes for a much better experience.
    They may ask your age, this is for them to know how to treat you, older is better in Vietnam.
    Never give flowers to a local, most flowers are for the dead if you want to give a gift, honey in an earthware or glass is a good choice.
    Never finish all the food on your plate, the locals will think they have not given you enough.
    Vietnam is not only Buddhist, the temples in the old city in Hanoi are mostly for ancestor worship, do not barge in to pray!
    Ask the locals how you should behave, they will be happy to share their culture, and remember there are over 50 ethnic groups in Vietnam, so you will not get it right with everyone!

  • samiamco said

    Anywhere that you RIDE elephants is inherently unethical, so Milly did not do her research. Crose is absolutely correct: Elephant Nature Park (http://elephantnaturepark.org) in Chiang Mai is the famous, legit rescue & preserve – Milly wound up at one of the posers piggybacking on their reputation, who hope that tourists will get confused by similar-sounding names, like Milly did. This is easily avoided by a few minutes of online research. And just remember to never, EVER, support a place that offers elephant rides. Just, NO.

  • AmeliaMcGrath said

    Samiamco, you're right. This was a few years back (try, 5 to be exact). I was young & unaware of the complications surrounding elephant riding. But, now I know better, and I hope others take the time to do their research before choosing to book.

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