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Customs and Courtesies for Traveling Abroad & Avoiding a Faux Pas!

International travel is an exciting part of Army life! There are many wonderful travel books and resources available, but nothing can replace first-hand experiences. Whether you go abroad for a new assignment or vacation, it’s important to research the etiquette and courtesies before you go.


The Basics


As always traveling abroad, “please” and “thank-you” open the door for hospitality and kindness in any country. In addition to greetings, it’s advisable to know general mealtimes, religious observances, attire, holidays, food restrictions, tipping, currencies and gift giving.

Our team has combined some of our travel experiences to provide you with a few extra international travel tips we’ve learned over the years! 


Abu Dubai anyone?


abroad Known for crown princes and camels, a trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is exotic and exciting.

To prepare for her trip to the UAE, Ginger researched the customs, courtesies and national dress code that included the female’s traditional black abayas, often adorned with beads or lace, and the male’s traditional white robe, kandooras, with headdress.

Though, as a westerner, Ginger was not obliged to wear an abaya during her visit, she dressed conservatively out of respect for their faith and traditions. Holy sites, such as the Grand Mosque, all women were asked to cover their heads with a scarf and most wore abayas; and everyone removed shoes upon entering. 


Traveling in Europe


In Europe, utensils are held and used differently, the fork on the left using left hand to eat and knife to the right; unlike America, they do not switch hands to eat. It is OK to begin eating when you are served at a German restaurant since they typically serve a meal as soon as it is prepared.

Unlike in America, it is OK to rest your forearms on the table edge when not eating, but not OK to put your hands in your lap during the meal.

Proper greetings abroad are important in any country.


In Japan, bow slightly and nod when greeting. In France and Italy close friends are greeted with an “air kiss” on each cheek, start right cheek to right cheek then to left. Take a moment before you shake the outstretched hand of a gentleman you just met, as he might want to kiss or air kiss the hand of a newly introduced woman rather than shake it.

Canada, Morocco, and Turkey usually bestow two kisses — starting with the right to left.  Netherlands and Russia traditionally do three “air kisses”– right cheek to right cheek, left, then right again.

In addition to greetings, the proper way to “toast” is different from country to country. Whether pronounced toast, prost, salud, santé, cin cin, nostrovia, or Skål, know the “toasting” rules before you go.

In Sweden, Michelle learned the hard way not to clink glasses, nor drink the aperitif or wine before the customary acknowledgement! 

Gifting while abroad


We found that in any country the gesture of gifting is more important than the gift itself; and wine, chocolate and flowers are traditional hostess gifts in most countries.

While in Japan, Ann remembers to use both hands when giving and receiving a gift, but don’t open it right away.

In Korea, don’t write your Korean friend’s name or sign your name in red ink as it’s considered to bring bad luck.

In France, an artfully arranged and wrapped bouquet is welcomed but should not contain chrysanthemums (for death) or red roses (for wives or sweethearts). 

Language can be a barrier while traveling


Lynda always knows “please” “thank you” and “where is the bathroom” in the local language. Remember, English isn’t the same everywhere!

In Great Britain a “biscuit” is a cookie, “lorry” a truck, “loo” a bathroom, and “napkin” a diaper. When crossing a street, look right, left, and right again before crossing a street; bear in mind Great Britain, Australia, and previous British territories drive on the opposite side of the road as America!

Be very aware of religious and orthodox observances when visiting foreign countries.


Most Muslims observe the restrictions of alcoholic beverages and pork products. Orthodox Jews observe Shabbat Friday night to Saturday and cannot use electric items on that day. 

if you take an Orthodox elevator, be prepared to stop at every floor!

Ginger, Ann, Michelle and Lynda toast to your next adventure—and remind you, never to forget your smile, it’s the one thing that everyone around the world understands!


*For more on overseas living and customs, check out Chapter 34 in The Army Spouse Handbook.




  • Protocol and Etiquette Team

    Ann Crossley and Ginger Perkins are the authors of "The Army Spouse Handbook," the go-to guide for the 21st century Army spouse. The 440-page book describes situations that you may encounter as an Army spouse, irrespective of your spouse’s rank or assignment. The book is not meant to be read from cover-to-cover, but kept handy and used as a reference book when you need to know what to expect in social situations. Michelle Hodge, a seasoned spouse, has taught protocol and customs classes and continues to be an advocate for soldiers and family members. Lynda Smith, the newest member of the Traditions and Protocol team, enjoys finding new ways to bring old Army traditions to life with fun and humorous experiences, a little old-school vibe, and a modern twist.


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