Time for the latest installment of the rules we didn’t know we needed. Today’s topic: the do’s and don’ts of being a good tourist.
In my 5 years working for Guinness World Records, our office was equidistant from Times Square and Rockefeller Center, which meant every season was tourist season and every day was a Spartan Race of avoiding European and Asian human obstacles on the way to work or lunch.
These days, I’ve been doing some work out of a studio near Wall Street (watch me if you haven’t already!), which is yet another of New York’s crazy tourist traps. Plus, I’ve been a tourist myself for as long as I can remember, lucky enough to have visited a country or two in my day.
So I think I’m a decent enough judge to say what makes a good or bad tourist, both for people coming to visit my city/country and for anyone from here trying to explore abroad. With that, here are some of “Rules for Being a Tourist.”
Note: I’ve omitted some of the more obvious ones, like “don’t be an idiot,” “make sure to eat some authentic local food” and “try to pick up a phrase or two in the native language.”
1.) Don’t walk more than two across
Doesn’t seem to matter where the tourists in New York come from — whether it’s Beijing for a week or Bayonne for the day — one of their defining moves is to walk the world’s busiest sidewalks 3 or more across. And I’ve been guilty of doing this in other big cities around the world too. Let’s stop it. You’re probably sightseeing, which means you’re walking slowly. And while you’re ambling 5-wide, people behind you are trying to rush around you to a subway or doctor’s appointment.
If you travel in even numbers, file in a 2-wide formation for as many rows as you need. Odd numbers? Same thing, just stick the extra wheel behind and between one of the rows of two. Forming a “V” worked for the Mighty Ducks. It’s good enough for you.
2.) Remember, you’re a guest
Rule 1 is a specific symptom of this root cause. You already know to not act like an idiot when you’re visiting a different country. But even behaving like the nice and caring and curious person that you are can still be a hassle for the locals when you’re doing stuff like the sidewalk takeover, or taking forever to decide what you want in line at the deli. Never forget, you’re a guest in this foreign land; it’s not your personal playhouse that allows you to be the center of the universe.
3.) Buy souvenirs, but pack them up until you’re home
I always get a kick out of the family of 5 all wearing matching I Heart NY t-shirts while they wait in line at the TKTS booth. Or the one time I saw a college kid wearing a Yankees hat, jersey, and jacket while studying his NYC guidebook standing at a street corner. Like how my high school made freshmen wear bright yellow shirts with the word “Freshman” across the chest for pep rallies — it’s a dead giveaway you’re an outsider.
Buy your mini Eiffel Tower, your purse with a city’s name written on it a hundred times, your sombrero in Guadalajara. It keeps the local economies humming! But wait until you’re home to display any of this stuff. Because nobody actually hearts NY enough to wear a t-shirt saying so all day long.
4.) Metro platforms are gigantic – use them!
You can always spot the visitors to a city with a metro system by where they stand when they’re waiting for a train. They swipe their card/insert their coin/tap their Oyster, go up or down the stairs to the platform and then…just stand right there. Some MTA subway platforms are 700 feet long! You have all this space to disperse. So do all the commuters and locals a favor in whatever city you visit and stop congregating at the entrance as you wait for a train. It’s only blocking the flow of foot traffic and aggravating everyone around you trying to figure out their exact-spot Exit Strategy.
5.) Don’t be a hero if you can’t figure something out
I learned this after my first couple trips to London. Why they need so many damn coins, I’ll never know. So after trying many times, in vain, to pay with exact change or close to it — and angering entire lines queues of people behind me — I decided on a new strategy. I would just tell a cashier I’m American and I’m not used to all your coins, smile, stick out my hand with all the change in my pocket and they’d sift through it for the most efficient amount possible. This cut down my time at registers by, like, 65%. Plus, it makes the cashier chuckle at your idiocy, admire your vulnerable self-awareness, and basically just find you to be a much more pleasant human.
So whether you don’t know how to make change, can’t understand a complicated menu layout, or just don’t get the difference between a 7-day unlimited and pay-as-you-go MetroCard, ask for help! It sure beats you standing there while we get mad behind you.
6.) Know who to talk to
That being said, know who you should be going to for help. People you shouldn’t bother if you need assistance: teenagers, anyone in a suit and tie near a major financial center, anybody in a Sesame Street costume, cab drivers you don’t plan on getting a ride with, parents tending to their children, anyone on a phone call.
People who can help you best: bartenders, young professionals in groups (they’ll try to one up each other with who can be most helpful, which only benefits you), cab drivers already taking you somewhere, waiters and waitresses at sit-down restaurants, hotel employees, college students (gives them a sense of accomplishment plus, in other countries, they’re most likely to speak English).
7.) Go to McDonald’s
I try and eat at a McDonald’s in every country I visit, which leads to most snobby tourists reacting like I just told them the dress is blue and black when they saw white and gold. But hear me out. Obviously getting lost in the local cuisine is paramount to any touristy getaway, but McDonald’s is a huge part of that! You’ve read enough BuzzFeed listicles about the craziest foods and drinks served at McDonald’s restaurants around the world. You probably also know a lot of them serve alcohol in other countries.
To me, that’s a cultural experience! To see how someone in Kiev or Tokyo or Rio experiences this thing you’ve known a very certain way since childhood is so eye-opening and fun. Plus, it’s cheap, dependable, and comes with bathrooms and usually Wi-Fi. And if it’s good enough for Jules and Vincent, it’s good enough for me.
Now I could go on forever with rules both general and specific about how to be the best tourist you can be, but hopefully this gives you some idea for your next trip anywhere. The last rule I’ll leave you with? Make sure to call your credit card company ahead of time and let them know to unlock your card. Then pay with credit as much as you can while you’re abroad. Not only are the foreign transaction fees cheaper than exchanging currency, you’ll save the cashier at Sainsbury’s the time of rummaging through your pence.