How the world's travel guides describe America

The Atlantic's Max Fisher does a survey of foreign tour guides to the USA and finds in them a frank view into how America is viewed outside the USA. Travellers are advised that the real price for restaurant food is 20% higher than advertised ("You have to calculate 20%, write it under the subtotal, and sum to arrive at the real price. Taxis work the same way."), to avoid small towns if they are gay, to be punctual, and to let Americans lead when it comes to hugging and cheek-kissing.

You might say that global food cultures tend to fall into one of two categories: utensil cultures and finger cultures. The U.S., somewhat unusually, has both: the appropriate delivery method can vary between cuisines, and even between dishes, and it's far from obvious which is which. Baked chicken is a fork food, but fried chicken a finger food, depending on how it's fried. If you get fried pieces of potato, it's a finger food, unless the potato retains some circular shape, in which case use your fork. And so on. Confused yet?

The books emphasize that the U.S. is safe, with one big exception they all note: "inner cities," which are described with a terror that can feel a little outdated. "When driving, under no circumstances you should stop in any unlit or seemingly deserted urban area," Rough Guide warns, going on to describe dangerous scams - a strange man waving you down for "auto trouble," another car hitting yours out of nowhere so that you'll get out - in a way that makes them sound commonplace.

Welcome to America, Please Be On Time: What Guide Books Tell Foreign Visitors to the U.S. (via Kottke)


  1. Half the Americans I know need to take that “on time” bit to heart.  Bunch of chronically late mofos.  And I am one.  Not a mofo, an American I mean.

        1. I was raised to believe “on time” means “ten minutes before the announced start.” Among family friends growing up, sometimes people would say, “dinner is at six” meaning you should show up around 5:30 and expect to eat at six. I don’t live this way, but it is because I’m sloppy with my time keeping, not because of cultural shift. Though, I do have to remind myself when meeting friends from non-time-sensitive cultures, that if we are meeting at a restaurant at ‘seven’ I don’t even need to leave my apartment until after seven in order to arrive on time. It bugs the heck out of me because it is unpredictable, but they’re friends, so I’m patient. 

  2. No, the restaurant you’re in did NOT have some sort of horrendous mix-up and accidentally fry everything. That’s the actual menu.

    And the 50 ounce Double Gulp at 7-11 is not a communal beverage meant for your entire traveling party. 

    1. The key there is to get an extra cup so you don’t have to stop for restroom breaks…bet they don’t tell you that.

      1. If ordering for two, just order one meal. American’s are obsessed with huge portion sizes so any sane human being can just eat 1/2 of anything served to them & still feel full.

        1. Blimey mate. They’ve been on that continent for over 400 years. You’d think they’d’ve got over their insecurity as to where their next meal’s coming from by now.

          1. What? The insecurity of needing help from Native Americans just to make it through to their first Thanksgiving.

          2. Hey now! Not all of us go for the huge sizes, you know. Plenty of U.S. citizens do understand the concept of moderation. I know the U.S has the highest caloric intake, but plenty of countries are right up there with us. The U.K, France, Ireland, Portugal and Canada all consume only 300 calories less than the U.S., us being at 3700 per day (Which is gross, yeah. I only eat about 1500 a day, myself.)

          3. The U.K, France, Ireland, Portugal and Canada all consume only 300 calories less than the U.S., us being at 3700 per day

            I know. We have BBC America on the television. We have access to BBC online. We can see that people in the UK aren’t any thinner than people in the US.

        2. If ordering for two, just order one meal. American’s are obsessed with huge portion sizes so any sane human being can just eat 1/2 of anything served to them & still feel full.

          This is true in crappy, corporate big-box restaurants, but not true of nicer places.

          In general it’s good to avoid the establishments that confuse quantity for quality.

          1. Errr. Nope. I have been to small “mom & pop” places that up the portion sizes as well. It’s a general American trend. 

          2. (This is in response to BarBarSeven):
            Actually, Ambiguity said it’s “not true of NICER places.”  I normally wouldn’t consider “mom & pop places” to be in this category.

        3. “American’s are obsessed with huge portion sizes so any sane human being can just eat 1/2 of anything served to them & still feel full.”

          If you can eat it. It can be hard to find edible food if you have a couple allergies and an intolerance to excessive fat and protein.

        4.  That’s how I eat out; I either leave 1/2 behind or take it with me for another meal later on. I can never even come close to finishing the meal.

  3. Maybe the books he read describe the U.S. as safe but I don’t know any Japanese guides that say the U.S. is safe. 

    Also there are other countries where tipping is more common than the U.S. 

      1. Totally depends on the country. In some European countries you just don’t tip except in special circumstances, in others it would be incredibly rude not to tip.

        1.  Which ones?
          In Spain you only tip good service, and even then the tip it is usually just spare change.

          1. Just talking about restaurants and the like here: in Germany and Austria a tip of ~5-10% is expected, i.e. the waiter comes to your table, hands you the bill, you reply by saying a number that includes your tip, the waiter says “thank you” and gives appropriate change. Yeah, it’s a stupid ritual but if you don’t tip it means that something was seriously wrong.

        2. When I went to Ireland about ten years ago, I asked the server at the first restaurant I went to about tipping. She said only if you feel the service was really good. I guess that’s the difference between a country that pays its servers a living wage?

          1. Nah, it just means that Europe isn’t a single country/culture. I’d book the American habit of paying waiters almost nothing as a special case. This isn’t a general rule for places where tips are expected.

      2. Tax? No. It’s the natural consequence of perverse labor laws that allow for an entire category of people (waiters/waitresses) to be paid as little as one third the minimum wage everyone else gets – with the assumption that the difference will be made up with his/her tips. And, while no other position I know of expects the employee to give service above and beyond what is expected just to receive the bare minimum wage the law allows, somehow people expect wait staff to bend over backwards and perform miracles of obsequious solicitude in order to “deserve” to be paid anything even near the wage that is given to someone for standing behind the counter frowning at you while getting your order wrong and insisting that you “supersize that” even when you don’t want to do so. The injustice here is not that customers are expected to tip their waiters/waitresses. The injustice is the law that allows employers to pay them so little for their labor.

        1. True, but it’s also not up to the customer to top-up unfair wages. There’s injustice on both sides. Tipping a barman for grabbing a bottle out of the fridge just feels silly; whether or not you like it the principle of tipping IS to reward good service – everywhere other than the US anyway. That said I did enjoy getting American customers when I worked at a bar, as no one tips a barman in the UK, it’s a practice pretty much reserved for wait staff and taxi drivers (for whatever reason), but we have what I’d consider reasonable minimum wage laws, so things are very different and no one really NEEDS tips here.

          But no denying that shitty wages are the cause. My choice of the word tax was a bad one as it does imply something I didn’t mean.

          1. It is in the concept of tipping itself that tipping should reward good service and nobody should feel obliged to tip.

            That said I have to that it feels like Germany is being Americanized on that sector just as much as any other and the wages of waiters/waitresses have a constant downward tendency, so there is an increasing obligation to tip waiters/waitresses in Germany, too.
            And I agree that it must not be the customer’s job to bring the wages of that sector up to minimum level, but that is a general conclusion which does not relieve any halfways empathizing customer of the bad feeling when not tipping because of that. There always is the feeling that it is being taken personally.

          2.  Go ahead. Ask every U.S. waiter or waitress if they would rather have their minimum wage raised, and tipping become less commonplace. Hear what the vast majority say.

            It’s one of very few jobs for a technically unskilled female laborer to make a wage that can support a couple kids.

          3. True, but it’s also not up to the customer to top-up unfair wages.

            If you don’t tip, you’ve basically walked out without paying. It’s legal, but you just took the service without paying for it. And in most cases, you took it from someone who lives on the edge and certainly doesn’t have luxuries like health insurance.

        2. I believe that even in the below minimum wage “tip jobs,” you’re still required to earn at least minimum wage so if the tips aren’t forthcoming, by law, your employer should make up the difference.

          Of course, I realize what’s on the books isn’t always what’s actually practiced.

      3. Yea, it is more like a tax in America although I will tip incredibly small (under $1) if the service is bad.  It signals that I didn’t just forget to tip but that the service was crap.

      4.  Odd, every European restaurant I have eaten in adds a “service charge” to my bill regardless of service or how happy I am with it.

        In the U.S., I tip what I feel is appropriate.

        1. Some countries differ, but in the UK you can ask to have this removed and quite often it results in them losing a tip altogether for being sleepy bastards.

      5. It isn’t a tax in that it doesn’t go to the state, but it is a tax in that it should be considered compulsory. Even Americans have diverse and passionate views on the subject of tipping. Some diners like the ability to express their displeasure by withholding tips. And some servers like receiving tips, especially at nicer restaurants, because it is easy to avoid paying full income tax on the cash income. Some of the objections to tips are already covered here.

         But I would certainly advise any foreign visitor to automatically pay 20% gratuity for service at any sit-down restaurant. US wage laws assume that you do. And this behavior will be  non-controversial, and you’ll offend no one. Travelers should always avoid controversy.

    1. In the UK, we generally only tip for really good service.
      That said, we luuuuuurve American tourists that come over and tip us, just for serving them a drink, thanks for that!

  4. Is there any large city that doesn’t have a “bad section”? And how many cities are there outside the US that have a small “good section” and the rest is not a safe place for foreign visitors?

      1. Japan is pretty safe as well. I never got that creepy feeling once in Tokyo after living there for more than 2 years and often being up at strange times in strange places. The only ever ‘incidents’ that happened were fist fights with non-Japanese (once a Brit and once an Aussie). The only other crime I heard about was a Japanese guy I knew who had his motorbike stolen.

        White collar crime is the big one there but by its nature you don’t really ever see that crime taking place.

        1. Red-light Shinjuku is a little aggro. Also the only place I’ve ever seen a car with a tinted windshield outside a magazine ad.

        2. The US State Department warns Americans to avoid Roppongi because of the prevalence of fraud and sexual assault combined with unresponsive police. The number of murders and robberies in Osaka’s Nishinari Ward alone make the city the most dangerous in Japan. There are also other localized pockets of crime throughout the country. I feel like Japan has traditionally been better than most other countries at separating the “undesirable” elements from the general populace, though the growing gap between rich and poor and increasingly isolated lives that many people live there are eroding those barriers.

          1. I’ve spent the last few months living in Nishinari. Trust me when I say that “most dangerous in Japan” is still a damn sight safer than South London.

      2. I like to include “safe from the government” in my definition of “safe”.

        1. And you’re in the US? Good luck with that.

          But, yes, it’s a fair point. Although the Singaporean government doesn’t generally care much about what tourists get up to (as long they don’t bring drugs in – if they do that, they’re pretty much boned).

        2. US incarceration rate: 730 per 100,000 #1, yay!
          Singapore incarceration rate: 249 per 100,000 (still very high for a developed country)

          My definition of “safe from the government” takes the likelihood of being imprisoned into account.

          That said, this thread leads nowhere. There’s enough suckage to go around in each and every country, it’s just slightly different.

          1.  Imagine. A world full of different flavors of suck.

            Mind you, (and as much as I complain about it) I’m pretty thankful the suckage doesn’t taste too bad over here. We have problems, but at least with time and persistence, we can solve them. There’s always hope!

      3. I remember i 2006 I was in Singapore for two days and on the second day there had been a car crash. It was big news. Headlines in all the papers with pictures of the damaged cars and everything.

        1. The best is when there are train breakdowns here. A 20 minute delay to three trains is instantly front page news, and there’s angry comments about how Singapore is a laughing stock.

          When I explain the history of the myki debacle (Melbourne’s unworkable, overbudget ticket ‘system’), or that Melbourne’s train system simply can’t deal with hot days, they’re incredulous.

          1.  Seriously? That’s my normal commute home from work, in England. We have the shittest (most unreliable, at least twice the price of the next nearest, shitty service) public transport in Europe that I’m aware of, here.

      4. Switzerland is incredibly safe too. I’ve never had a sniff of trouble in almost five years. Though I’m not sure we qualify as having large cities.

        1.  You aren’t hanging out at the right time of night around the clubs in Winterthur and Zurich then. Lots of drunk young men looking to make trouble.

          1. And easy to underestimate, as their accent makes you just want to pinch their cheek, even when they´re seriously pissed.

        2. Switzerland is incredibly safe too.

          Yet another fascist state. A lovely vacation spot for rich, white people. The fact that third-generation immigrants are routinely refused citizenship by secret ballot of their inevitably white neighbors? The tourists don’t see that. Fascism’s all fun and games if you’re on top.

    1.  Eh, homicide rate in the US as a whole is 5 per 100,000, down from a high of 10 in the 80’s. In Canada it’s 2, most of Europe is closer to 1 and Japan and many other Asian countries it’s less than 1.

      So the US has a homicide rate multiple times higher than most countries who have citizens who are likely to play tourist in the US. Would most large cities have a bad section? Sure. But it isn’t unreasonable to say that such things might be more prevalent in the US.

        1.  And if you have a gun, you don’t need a job!  Unless you count lurking around ATMs as actually working.

      1. Five times one per hundred thousand is still only five per hundred thousand; hardly a likely proposition. Also, most murder victims know the perpetrator, and so probably aren’t tourists.

        Surely assault, robbery, and burglary are the important statistics; better yet, statistics that specifically reflect the fates of tourists (hotel thefts, for example, or assaults on visibly identifiably ethnic minorities or on foreign nationals). I’d not be surprised if the US was comparable to some European countries on those scales.

        1. Regarding your first paragraph: that’s not how statistics work. The US is 5 times more dangerous if not getting murdered is important for you, period. Which is scary as hell, no two ways about it. (For a country that’s consistently among the top 5-10 in GDP per capita.)

          1. Yes: according to these statistics, if you are a human being in the US your chances of being murdered are five times your chances if you are a human being in Europe. But (per Ryan’s numbers) they’re still under one in ten thousand per year. Not a very pressing concern for a few weeks or months of tourism.

            And perhaps you noted the stilted use of “human being” in the previous paragraph? Because I rather suspect that if you’re middle-class, if you’re educated, if you don’t associate with the impoverished and with criminals, your chances of getting murdered rather plummet. 

            Leaving aside the question of what social groups suffer our society’s ills (hint: it’s not often the readers of Boing Boing), these numbers are too low to be a major source of concern. Or do you really alter your plans because the chance you will be murdered goes up by 0.0004% (assuming a five week trip, and pro-rating from Ryan’s number being per year), even if that is a five-fold greater chance than baseline?

          2. Part of the difference may be in their large and diverse population, and the large amount of land they occupy. There are lots of opportunities for things to go wrong.

          3. Which is of course why India and China have lower homicide rates than the US.

            (My native country has one-tenth the homicide rate of the US, JFTR. Also, try this on for size: if you have two countries and one of them has ten times the infant mortality rate of the other, would you just shrug it off? These indicators _do_ matter.)

            I’m not bashing the US though; I experienced it as a great place to live if you have enough money. Sucks if you’re poor though.

          4. Which is of course why India and China have lower homicide rates than the US.

            If you don’t count female infants.

      2. Yes, but the homicides in the US are ALMOST exclusively between people who already know each other.  It is actually pretty rare for some random/unknown person (ie – a tourist) to be killed in the US.  So, those figures don’t really relate in a real way to tourists.  I would assume it is similar in most countries.

        Where I would be leery to travel are countries where the tourists are targets.

        1. But what other countries have vast areas where you can own a gun AND legally kill someone if you’re scared of them (no other justification required)?

          1. Our gun laws are indeed absolutely nuts, especially the “Stand Your Ground” laws to which you refer, which are common  in Republican-controlled states.

            Still, crazy as our laws and our society are, I rather doubt a lot of tourists get shot.

          2. @Warren_Terra,

            Stand Your Ground

            My reading of that if that you can use lethal force too defend yourself against a potentially lethal attack, and not run away if you might have that option. The same law applies in many places though expressed differently. Here in Australia you are entitled to use appropriate force to defend yourself and there is no mention of running or standing your ground.

          3. Michael Smith,
            The classic example that was cited when the first of these laws was passed is a scenario in which someone had a minor fender bender, and both cars were driveable, and the dispute got a little heated and abusive, and they had some concern that things might get threatening, rather than retreating into their  car or perhaps driving their car to safety they could “stand their ground” and perforate the general vicinity. Prior to these laws, you had an obligation to find a solution short of lethal force if one was available to you – except when in your own home (a separate issue called the “Castle Doctrine”).

            Especially because these confrontations tend to leave the other party unable to testify, and because the standard of reasonable fear that  the other party constitutes an imminent threat to you or to others is so loose, in practice these laws mean that anyone with a half-decent lawyer (or the money to hire one) is entitled to shoot anyone they want so long as the other person isn’t physically disabled and there are no witnesses.

            In fact, in Florida the shooter has special rights to sue the authorities if the shooting is prosecuted and the shooter is acquitted on the basis of the “Stand Your Ground” law; naturally, this makes the authorities very reluctant to press on with a case where there’s any chance the shooter can convince a jury they met the very low standard posed by “Stand Your Ground”. See Zimmerman, George.

          4. The law should be called Survivor Wins. Nobody is talking about how Trayvon Martin stood his ground when threatened by an armed assailant.

          5.  It’s an aside, but Antinous hit on the thing that’s deeply troubled me about the Trayvon Martin case: why isn’t Trayvon seen as the one standing his ground against an armed assailant? Why don’t we say that Martin defended himself under the law?  After all, the evidence seems to show that George Zimmerman approached him threateningly first. 

          6. farwest1, the answer to your question is, “Because Trayvon Martin was male and black.”

          7. The law does not allow you to kill someone because “you’re scared of them.”  In many [most?] jurisdictions in the U.S. you can use deadly force to defend yourself IF a reasonable person in your position would believe that a deadly attack is either in progress or imminent.  It is NOT enough to simply be afraid.  Someone who uses deadly force to defend themselves will most likely have to convince some combination of the police, a jury, or a judge that an attack was in progress or imminent.  

            I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide how/if this applies to the Trayvon Martin shooting.

          8. In many [most?] jurisdictions in the U.S. you can use deadly force to defend yourself IF a reasonable person in your position would believe that a deadly attack is either in progress or imminent.

            Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions, a Klansman is considered a ‘reasonable person’.

    2. Beijing is very safe. I used to ride my bike on random explorations knowing
      there is no risk in doing such a thing apart from getting run over by crazy drivers maybe.
      Guangzhou on the other hand has some rowdy districts i wouldnt go alone at night.

    3.  When I was in Singapore for work, my friend and I would regularly stumble half-drunk through back alleys in various ethnic (Indian, Arabic) sections of town that would normally cause the natives to warn you not to go near them. At 2 or 3 AM.

      We felt completely safe doing so, and suffered no harm at all in the two weeks we were there.  Everyone knows you don’t touch the tourists, because they’re much more profitable spending profusely and the government will kill you if you do.

      As a tourist, I knew if I used banned drugs it was caning or the death penalty, but when they brew quite good 9% beer, and it’s cheap, who needs anything else? And oh my god, the food is fantastic.

      Singapore: 5 stars.

        1. England has some awesome tourist attractions, but that doesn’t stop David Cameron being a massive tool.

          I’m guessing this is the same kind of thing.

        2.  As a tourist, absolutely. It is a five star destination. Would I be so enthusiastic if I lived there, maybe not.

          Now as far as telling you a lot about me, it tells you I was sent to Singapore and had a great, safe time, like going to Disneyland except with much better food. It also tells you I was contributing to the thread more than just throwing in some bon mots, even if those are usually good bon mots.

        3. I can tell you that I had much fewer interactions with authorities living in Singapore than in the US. Singapore may not be a shining example of democracy but it isn’t a bad place to live.

          Edit: California is infinitely better if you’re gay though so I can totally see why you wouldn’t like Singapore.

          1.  California is a really big state, with lots and lots of rural counties. Please don’t assume that the parts you have spent time in represent the whole state..

          2. CAlifornia also has lots of ghettos and barrios where life on the DL is highly recommended. But let’s ignore those.

          3. Edit: California is infinitely better if you’re gay though so I can totally see why you wouldn’t like Singapore.

            You shouldn’t like Singapore for the same reason. It’s called empathy.

          4. [long comment eaten by disqus. Summary: come on, stop trolling. Should I hate California unconditionally because they have state-sanctioned murder, targeting mostly black people, which is about the most horrible thing my European-educated mind can even think of? Of course not! Also, as somebody whose immediate family fell victim to that ‘stached German guy: please, please, please don’t water down words like ‘fascism’ by using them liberally and making them entirely devoid of any real meaning. Singapore is technically a democracy with a skewed electoral system; it’s not fascism but rather classified as a ‘hybrid system’ by those with a clue.

            This story was a lighthearted and amusing look at cultural differences and different perceptions until some muppets declared war. For shame.]

        4. Oh come on, Antinous. I’d visit Singapore in a heartbeat, given the opportunity, based on everything I know about it. 

          I don’t approve of their authoritarian government, but then, my own government uses flying robots to kill innocent people thousands of miles away. 

          1. Oh come on, Antinous. I’d visit Singapore in a heartbeat, given the opportunity, based on everything I know about it.

            Congratulations. You’re a fascist apologist. You’d visit in a heartbeat a country that flogs people until they bleed. That imprisons and flogs people for being gay.

            Watch this video (not for the faint of heart.) Watch it as many times as you need to until you get the point.

    4.  Johannesburg has many areas where guide books say “get out of your car and you will die.” Or something to that effect, whether true or not.

  5. In large american cities, this is very good advice.

    “When driving, under no circumstances you should stop in any unlit or seemingly deserted urban area,”

    Maybe naive, but I would rather have that happen in just about any European city instead, even if I have no language skills there.

    1. No really, It’s totally safe to wander around every part of London, Paris and Rome at all hours of the night. Especially if there’s been a football match that evening.

      1. I wandered around central Rome at between 3am and 5am repeatedly last year, and had nothing but safe, quiet, and amazing fun.

        1. Thats bad science,. I would want to see a control observer otherwise I would be missing the people who did get murdered and aren’t around to tell me how safe it is.

          1. Ok, I WASN’T wandering around central Rome last year and I had nothing but safe, quiet and amazing fun. Nor was I murdered – it was amazing…..

      2. It may well be scary after some football matches in a European city, but that’s maybe for two hours, ten times in a year. Not all night, every night, like it feels to many tourists in the USA.

        1. I dunno – I don’t have anything other than an impression from distant popular media to go on, and maybe the streets there are far more peaceful at night than my impression would suggest, but I’ll note that the term “Glasgow Kiss” is well known, and I’m not readily aware of any similar association of an American city with a commonplace act of violence.

          1. I won’t thank you to bringing that to my attention. Definitely not my cup of tea, but it’s (hopefully) something done nonviolently between consenting adults.

        2. Many small towns in the UK have a particularly menacing feel to them Friday and Saturday nights because of the popular local custom of binge drinking and the promise of a good fight.
          But then in Peru they have takanakuy (a let’s beat the crap out of each other festival which they celebrate on 25 December)…

        1. So I’ll spend the rest of my life with brain damage from being kicked in the head instead of being killed by a bullet. How comforting.

          1.  @Antinous_Moderator:disqus @NathanHornby:disqus Yep, without guns the violence stays contained. Quite unlike the guy that ended up shot on his own porch because someone some houses down managed to arch the shot…

      3. It surely depends what level of risk you’re willing to take.

        In any part of London, even if you get into trouble, the worst thing to happen 99.999% of the time is you’ll lose your phone and money.  You won’t be hurt.

        A friend from Johannesburg tells me that what makes his city unsafe is the chance that the thief might want your money, but — half the time — will kill you to get it, even if you don’t resist.  That’s scary.

        What happens in NYC?

    2.  Humph – I was accosted and surrounded by a gang of boys in Rome in the very early morning (on my way to see a statue of Moses in a rather deserted area of the city). They tried to take my waist pack and didn’t back off until I raised my voice and said something about calling the Polizia. It was a very odd feeling – they were kids, and one had a newspaper draped over his arm which he was trying to “sell” me while getting close enough to reach my pack, while the other boys (maybe 8 of them) gathered around. I used to be a high school teacher and it was really odd to realize that these munchkins were actually trying to rob me, and initially persisted even when I loudly said no and tried to move away.

      Anyway, you can get into trouble anywhere, even in the daytime. The only places in the world where I’ve actually been robbed are my hometown (Berkeley, CA) and San Jose, Costa Rica. Knock on wood.

      1. You encountered a bunch of ‘zingari’ (‘gypsies’). No ethnic slur intended: I’m not sure what the origins or ethnic makeup of these folks is, whether they’re actually Roma or a homegrown sub-culture, but this is the label that Italians apply to the bands of kids – and their adult minders – who specialize in street theft.
        The tactics that you describe are typical: small kids swarming you, the use of an object like a newspaper to distract you and to hide the hand that’s trying to pick your pocket.

        I’ve encountered both tricks in broad daylight. On one occasion, a teenage girl made eye contact with me and blew me a kiss while, simultaneously, her friend pushed a piece of cardboard with something written on it towards me, as if she wanted me to read it. Unfortunately for them, my natural reaction when someone pushes something at me is to step backwards, so she just caught the edge of my pants pocket, rather than getting my wallet.

        The ‘swarming’ tactic I’ve seen used by much smaller kids – probably eight or nine, maybe younger. I had to physically push away a bunch of little kids who were trying to open my friends’ bags, and every time I pried one set of little fingers off the zippers, there’d be another to take its place.

        They target anyone, not just tourists.

        1.  I guess I should count myself lucky that the only time I’ve felt physically intimidated while traveling it was by kids that I was a foot taller than…

        2. What is the maximum level of violence considered acceptable to repel such a mob?  If I were swarmed by such a group, “physically push away” is a somewhat gentler response than would likely occur to me at that moment.  I’m not saying I’d do anything more than that but I would like to know what I could get away with…just out of curiosity, of course.

          1. The maximum acceptable level of violence permitted to deal with any situation in the UK is in fact the minimum necessary level of violence. I would imagine it is the same in many jurisdictions.

          2. This is actually a reply to Wreckrob8.  Apparently Disqus limits thread length?

            You are, of course, correct in theory.  In practice, things are never neat.  There are policemen who will throw you in jail for breaking the arm of a pickpocket; there are others who will pat you on the back.  Both types can be found where the criteria for “maximum acceptable” is exactly the same.  The post by angusm referred to “…bands of kids – and their adult minders – who specialize in street theft” and I was curious as to how much violence would be necessary to bring those “adult minders” out to protect their flock.  I should have just said exactly that in the beginning. 

      2.  My scariest urban encounters (in order of fear):

        1. Mugged in Tangiers, but nicely
        2. Attempted Mugging in Marrakesh, but inept mugger
        3. Robbed in Pamplona by group of sketchy guys outside a McDonalds
        4. Physically Threatened in Amsterdam, 3 am
        5. Mugged at Gunpoint in Seattle

        These encounters all happened between the ages of 18 and 22, when I was stupid, out late drinking, or not watching out for myself. In every case except one, I was with friends.

        1.  I actually live in Edmonds (a Seattle Suburb), and I know the feeling.  I always get really bad vibes in the city and spend as little time there as possible.  I don’t know why….It just feels like a place that isn’t safe to be.

    3. I think that common sense should tell us that when we’re in a foreign country, we don’t necessarily have the same skill at reading the urban landscape — at sensing a dodgy block or spotting a potentially dangerous situation.

      I’ve lived in New York City for thirty years and nobody’s ever put a hand on me. The only two times I’ve been messed with were in the UK. I don’t think this is because the UK is a worse or more violent place than New York City; I think it’s because in both cases, I didn’t read the signs that would have told a local to be more careful.

      I should say that in both incidents I ultimately evaded actual harm through the intercession of others. Also that these things both happened 25 years ago, on my second trip to the UK; I’ve been over many times since, and I don’t feel any less safe in London than in New York. The point is that these days, when I visit a new city in a new country, I don’t assume that my NYC radar is necessarily accurate.

      All that said, the Atlantic’s writer is right to note that fear of American “inner cities” is a little anachronistic. 

      1. But it works the other way as well. You necessarily pay more attention in unfamiliar surroundings then familiar ones regardless of your ability to read the local landscape. Like driving where most accidents happen within a mile of the driver’s home, I believe.
        The only time I have had any trouble in London where I have lived most of my life was in my own street. I got mugged for my phone. That was just embarrassing.
        But I don’t feel unsafe whether travelling or not. From the point of view of any would be assailant if you appear insecure that increases your chances of being singled out for victimization.

      2. What’s up with the expression “inner city,” anyway.  It doesn’t seem to tell you anything geographically useful.  In large cities, anyway, the “center” is usually the most sterile, where everyone works and visits and then goes home afterwards.

        1. I think the term “inner city” as a pejorative in the US is one in flux. They were univerally a blight in the 70s-90s, during the heyday of the suburb, but now the trend is reversing and the extent of the reversal of fortune just depends on the city. Some inner citys still don’t have a “stay and play” culture. At 5 oclock the downtown business section clears out and the trouble comes out. But some cities, in the last decade, the downtown has become a safe and attractive place to live and hangout as well as work. It’s probably hard in a high-level survey tourguide book to get into the details of the perfectly safe neighborhhods versus troublespots of every little city, so it’s best for them to go with a catch-all warning?

        2. It really depends on the city. I don’t think it is an inherently racist term, but it has taken on a racial sense so I would avoid it in public discourse. More useful is ‘poorly lit, noticeably run down, densely populated, etc.’. I grew up in the country (well, not super rural, but small enough we didn’t have street addresses… everyone on the road had the same address, rural delivery route number x). The prevailing attitude was the cities are quite dangerous; I heard the same advice about avoiding the ‘inner city’  from many friends when I moved to northern New Jersey, an area many people consider a ‘suburb’ of NYC. 

      3.  I lived in NYC on and off through the 70’s and 80’s and I never ever had a problem as well. Out late, riding the subway alone, living in the Bronx, never even felt scared. I hear it’s even safer now..

  6. And depending on where you are at in America the word barbeque can be a verb or and a noun.

    Also sweet tea will vary by regionality as well.

    Guns, not everyone has one…but you probably should assume they do, just to be on the safe side.

    1. Everywhere I’ve been, barbecue is both. When you barbecue, you make barbecue. A barbecue is an event where barbecuing (and the subsequent eating of the barbecued barbecue) occurs. Easy, right?

      What differs is the style of barbecue in the first two meanings (dry rub vs. sauce, pork ribs vs. beef brisket) and what exactly the limits are of the third meaning. I’ve been to a few “barbecues” where I soon found that they were in fact just grilling burgers.

        1. Well of course a barbeque is barbequed on a barbeque at a barbeque! Duh!

          Seriously, ya’ll over-complicate things.

        2. if you want to get even more confusing the stuff you cook on a barbeque is not barbeque. barbeque is cooked in a smoker. the stuff that is cooked on a barbeque is grilled.

      1. Barbeque in the US is a low temperature long-cooking method with smoke. When most people barbeque, they are actually grilling on a device mistakenly called a barbeque.

        A barbeque is often where grilling takes place in most places (waiting 6-12 hours for a real barbeque to to cook meat isn’t the most social of events).

        I’m from California where a) people know what the proper terminology is and b) misuse it anyway.

        1. On the contrary, when people (as opposed to restaurants) have barbecues, they can be large social events, with lots of friends, family, entertainment, games, etc. going on while the food is cooking. Like ‘pig roasts’.

    1. I assume you’re from America, Gabriel? Where classism is not the common term that it should be?

      1. I am, though I’ve spent years living in Japan and New Zealand – both places that have their share of both racism and classism.  I’ve fixed by rather embarrassing spelling error, however. ;)

  7. My fellow Americans: If you’ve never done it before, you owe it to yourself to spend a couple of months somewhere where there are none of your countrymen around, it doesn’t matter where. When you first run into Americans again, you will get a whole new slant on who we are!

    1. Having traveled a bit outside the US, I generally find US tourists to be quite polite and modest compared to some others.

      1. That has not been my experience. I’ve been tempted to wear a maple leaf pin and pretend I was a Canuck.

          1. Americans travel to Europe for the history and culture. We might not understand it or be educated about it, but that is why we go there. Northern Europeans travel to southern Europe because the weather’s better and it’s cheap. And that kind of tourist is far more likely to be shitfaced drunk every day and to treat the locals like servants.

            If you think that US rednecks are any worse than UK chavs, spend a few hours in the Gatwick departure lounge in July. It’s full of people whose dearest dream is to play local color in a Guy Ritchie movie.

          2. My parents recently Returned from a holiday to Cuba.

            If you’re from England going to Cuba you’re spending a lot of money.

            If you’re from the US going. Greece you’re spending a lot of money.

            But flip these around and you have budget holidays for some and luxury holidays for others.

            Let’s just say my parents came back with a less than flattering impression of Canadians.

          3. The only Americans I’ve met in Greece have either been there for the history/culture or are Greek-Americans coming back to visit their ancestral village. I’ve been to villages which are pretty much deserted except for a few old people (everyone else has moved to Athens), but Americans whose ancestors emigrated from there have bought up the derelict houses, come back for vacations, and intend to retire there.

            On the other hand, America the country is not at all popular in Greece, due to CIA-backed coups- there is an annual protest outside the US embassy. Germany is almost certainly less popular at the moment though…

          4. Gatwick? Gatwick is like the Guggenheim compared to Luton Airport which is one of the circles of hell.

          5. My time at Gatwick left me with the impression that standard marriage vows in England require the husband to get a new tattoo every time the wife gains ten pounds.

      2.  My friend and I were accosted in Schloss Neuschwanstein, on the German/Austrian border, by a fat Texan who loudly exclaimed, “Hey you guys, are you from England? Wow. I just wanted to say that we love your country, and we’re really pleased with the principled stand you guys are taking in the War on Terror. I think we all know who the bad guys are, huh?”

        1. Eerie, that same “Are you guys from England?” happened to me and my nutty French companion in Akihabara, Tokyo! Needless to say my Kiwi-ese was thicker than my companions heavy French accent!
          But if you’re not Japanese, and clearly not American…
          Daym, even our screenames are similar. ARE YOU ME?!

      3. I think the bad ones stand out a lot.

        I was shouted at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising last week by a couple of Americans.  I heard them walk out of the lift, and then the man saw me and shouted, “what up with this goddamn country?” and got very angry, apparently after misunderstanding directions he’d been given and going to the wrong floor.
        Anyway, I pretended not to understand, which unfortunately meant he went and shouted at a Polish school group, and their teacher had to calm him down and lead him away from the children.

        In the same city I also met an American teenager who kept trying to talk in Spanish to the Polish waitress at a Mexican restaurant, and refused to believe that she wasn’t from Mexico.  After a couple of drinks he then offered her 10zł to kiss him.

        I think the other reply about distance/cost is mostly correct; I’m sure you can find rich Europeans in South East Asia being idiots.

  8. Sounds pretty much the same as descriptions of supposedly rampant Gypsy scams in guide books about Europe for Americans.

    1. Heh, I was grateful for the explanation of the “ring scam” in our Paris guidebooks.  We were only there for a few days and it was tried twice on us. 

  9. Impressions from my last trip. 

    Food: All portions 3x bigger than required to feed 12 manatees and contain no vegetable matter.

    Travel: Subways are mental hospitals on rails; Roads require suburban assault vehicles; Planes; hope you have a large bladder and a robust colon.

    People: Friendly when they are off work. Jerks when required to perform the duties for which they are financially compensated.

    1. Jerks when required to perform the duties for which they are financially compensated.

      Isn’t that because they’re being paid from that undocumented 20%?

    2. Food: All portions 3x bigger than required to feed 12 manatees and contain no vegetable matter.=

      Next time speak to the locals and find out where the nice restaurants are. What you describe are the Wal*Marts of food. There are a lot of them in the US, but most intelligent Americans avoid them.

  10. 20% tip, or are they including tax?

    I’ve found travel guides to recommend ‘gregarious’ tipping, even for countries that expect none.

  11. I was in the States last month, for the first time in 10 years. In Chicago. For someone from the UK, the tipping really does become very confusing. I was advised to tip 15% (work that out in your head). You’re meant to tip the barman and drivers, but not the staff on the hotel reception desk or policemen. If you ask people, should I be tipping you?, they won’t give you a straight answer. I sometimes felt it would be easier if I just gave $2 to everyone I met.

    In the States, most Americans are very welcoming and hospitable. In Europe, that can come over as too friendly, too quickly and a bit false, but at home Americans can be quick to welcome strangers into their “circle”.

    An American asked if we did the moving the knife from one hand to the other (I think that’s what she asked) when eating food. I must admit I didn’t notice they were doing that. 

    Getting into the country was much, much easier than I expected – not an issue at all. Getting out was more of a palaver – shoes off, pornoscan, sniffer dog and tens of TSA staff lolling around doing nothing.  

    The other thing that really struck me were the portion sizes for both food and drink – huge. The obesity issue is really shocking, and scary as the UK seems to be going in a similar direction.

    I noticed the sense of humour had changed a little since I last last went to the States. It may have been the people I was mixing with, but there was more irony, British style humour around and more teasing/banter.

    1. It’s funny isn’t it how the US spends a fortune on the TSA to protect the world from American terrorists. Not sure if they’ve worked out thats what they’re doing yet.

    2. Working a 15% tip out is easy: move the decimal over one place, roughly halve that and add. Or, if you’re in a place with roughly 8% tax, double the tax. Then again, you tend to work out these shortcuts when a tip is de rigeur.

    3. I’m a life-long US citizen, and tipping protocol is confusing for me! For sit down restaurants, I tip around 20%. But for things I do less frequently, I don’t know the rules. Taxis? Only ridden in once in my life, I’m not sure. Haircuts? don’t know. Service at lunch counters/coffee shops/ takeaway? I assume no tip is needed, but I’ve been told I have that wrong. Food delivery? “A few bucks, unless the order is large, then more.” Help with luggage or packages? No clue. 

      As far as overt friendliness, as a frequent traveler internally in the US, I can assure there is a HUGE variation amongst the US. Southern California is noticeably friendlier than the North East, and the Midwest is friendlier still (at least to people like me; obviously I’m not qualified to speak otherwise). The South can be friendly but is what I would call ‘high maintenance’, in that there seems to be a certain amount of required pleasantries before you’re allowed to start asking for things.

      All that said, I’ve found even people in NYC, who have a relatively well-deserved reputation for being cold and inpatient, are genuinely helpful is you ask for directions for example. I think different places, rather than being truly more or less pro-social, simply have different ‘minimum required social interaction’ standards. Some places, usually more rural, if you pass someone on the street and don’t acknowledge them in some way (with a wave, or a hello) you’re being rude. In other places, that would be taken as a prelude to a scam or other unpleasantness.

  12. There should be some mention of “eat what you kill” — for the benefit of people visiting Lower Manhattan.

  13. I went on the Chicago metro on a Sunday morning, and that felt a lot different to the London Underground. Very unsettling – few staff around, people on the train sleeping, very metallic carriages. 

    I was told some gangs had taken to shooting the buses and killing the passengers inside, as a way of getting at the police. You don’t get that taking the No. 9 bus to Piccadilly Circus.

    1. I was told …

      Sure, you were told that. But were you gullible enough / frightened enough to believe it?

      In any case, who was it who told you that? I’d like to shake them either by the hand or by the neck, depending on whether they were having you on or they honestly believed the absurd paranoid fantasies they were spreading, respectively.

      1. Told to me in earnestness by an American. He was from Pittsburgh or Philly, so he may have been talking about there. But yes, it could well have been a urban myth.

        1. A tragedy, and an act of insanity. A reflection of a sick society awash in guns and educating too many of its young people poorly. But one point doesn’t make a trend, and there’s nothing there to resemble your friend’s claim that such events routinely happen, nor that they are done to “get at the police”.

          1. I did a quick Google search and I couldn’t find a single news item on random bus shootings, so I would agree with you it was probably an urban myth.

        2. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are awful, awful places. A lot of Chicago is too. 

          Cities in the US are very different from cities in Europe and elsewhere (with some exceptions like NYC and SF, but even SF is pretty shady). 

          I’ll admit that I’m from the suburbs – a suburban town repeatedly named the safest town or city in the country – so it may not mean much that I almost always feel uncomfortable in American cities outside certain areas (other than NYC where I’m comfortable everywhere for some reason – Toronto is OK too, but not great and not a US city anyway). As I alluded to, Pennsylvanian cities are among the worst for me, especially Philadelphia.

          But I’ve also been all around the world and even in the shittiest, shadiest parts of cities in Asia, Europe, and the UK I never felt particularly uncomfortable or unsafe – except in a couple of cases where European tourists made me uncomfortable (more out of embarrassment that I’d be lumped in with them in the eyes of the locals who witnessed these things than out of fear for my own safety).

          The US is a scary place, and it’s not limited to inner city areas, either. One of the scariest places for me is the rural Appalachian Mountains (including those in southern NY). You think the film Deliverance is an exaggeration until you see what many of the locals are actually like.

          tl;dr – the US is one of the scariest places in the world and it should come as no surprise that foreign travel guides describe it as such. The sample warnings here all seem like sound advice to me, even though I know it’s almost always unnecessary. For me anyway, feeling uncomfortable is just as bad as actually being in danger.

          p.s. check out the Top Gear (UK) specials where they travel to different parts of the world. They meet friendly, interesting people all over the world, including in Middle Eastern war zones, but in America they meet a bunch of weirdos and assholes. It’s an editorial slant for sure, but it’s easy to look past that and see that the different tone of the specials is informed by their actual experience in the different countries.

          1. Ah come on now.  We are just a bunch of good old boys out here in the mountains.  As long as you don’t mess with our women, trucks, or moonshine we’ll get along fine.

            NC foothill resident.

          2. or me anyway, feeling uncomfortable is just as bad as actually being in danger.

            Very true, because being scared leads to bad decision-making, and also is visible to others. When I first started visiting NYC even midtown Manhattan terrified me (I grew up in small towns).  And though I was not robbed, certainly I was approached by at least a half dozen scammers/beggars/questionable-merchandisers every time went. I’m not approached by anyone anymore. I assume they’re all picking up on the fact I’m relatively more comfortable now.

            On the other hand, I’m pretty comfortable in rural areas, forests, etc., that freak out some of my ‘city slicker’ friends. One example that I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me is that growing up in a small place, with a father who hunts, is I am not bothered by hunting paraphernalia… someone walking down a country road with a rifle and cammo clothes, or hearing a shot in the distance, does not raise my stress level. And in the country, the presence of strangers is much more worrisome from a safety perspective than the absence of strangers (the exact opposite of urban environments, where emptiness of humans is a bad thing).

        3. Feel like I should interject here. First time poster. This story is not an urban legend…not entirely anyway. Someone did open fire on a crowded bus in broad daylight in Philadelphia but it wasn’t exactly “random”.

          A woman was spanking her child on a bus when another passenger seemingly criticized her. She picked up her cell phone and made a call, when the bus reached her stop she calmly got up and got off the bus when a group of men around 20 or 30 years old started yelling into the bus. One of the men pulled some sort of assault rifle out of the  leg of his pants(I think thats where it was concealed) and opened fire on the bus. A crowded bus…in broad daylight…in the middle of a busy street.

          The entire altecation was caught on the buses camera system. Amazingly no one was actually shot which really says a lot about the marksmanship of the shooter.

          I’m a firefighter in one of the worst neighborhoods in Philly and I grew up in a small town in Scotland. So when I tell you that European tourists would do well to avoid the “inner cities” of America, they should probably listen. It really is as bad as they say in some of the poorest cities. Philly, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh etc. etc. While the violence may not be directed at the tourist, it is way too easy to find yourself in the wrong neighborhood and get youself caught in  some crossfire. 

  14. Basically if someone pulls up beside you in a rural area, tells you you have a “purty mouth” and plays dueling banjos, you should not stop your canoe for any reason.  

    1. I said this in my long comment above, but while Deliverance is certainly an exaggeration, you can see exactly where the idea behind it came from if you go to those places. It’s scary even in broad daylight.

  15. Something that’s just come back to me from my trip – seeing lots of billboard adverts for hospitals. Another thing you don’t see in the UK.

    1. That has to do with our for-profit healthcare system, which sucks, but isn’t relevant to the issue of violence that has dominated the discussion in this thread. Those hospitals you saw advertising aren’t competing to treat the victims of violent assaults. Indeed, the victims of violent assaults tend to go to the emergency rooms of county-owned hospitals that you probably did not see advertised.

      1. For getting private insurance, yes. Not advertising a specific hospital for children, like I saw on the CTA.

        1. BUPA own hospitals too, but I see what you mean; maybe if there were more competition between hospitals in the UK they might raise their treatment standard above ‘shit’. Not that I’d like the US situation any more…

          1. Well waiting 4 days for a basic procedure following a life threatening accident without eating or drinking wasn’t exactly top notch service. Neither was the 4 hours I spent on a back brace waiting to be seen in the critical injuries unit; nor was the complete reliance on me informing them what was wrong with me particularly helpful. I have family members that have been on waiting lists for important procedures for months, when health insurance would have them seen and dealt with within 24 hours.

            Please don’t tell me that the NHS is good simply because healthcare is worse somewhere else.

            It’s shit.

          2.  I had appendicitis a few years ago, and the NHS was…ok.  Not good, but I’m still alive which is a plus.
            The part that made me appreciate the NHS was when I googled the cost of the same procedure in the states.  As far as I could make out, even with insurance, it would have still cost me money, if only through lost earnings.
            Sorry America, but in my book healthcare is one of those things that counts as being civilised.

          3. Can’t agree more, I’ve been lucky enough to have health insurance and used private, and it was great, but ultimately the NHS is a fantastic thing, simply because it’s available to everyone, but it’s not some kind of government favour, we pay for it and really the budget is there, I suspect that a combination of bad financial decisions (I know of a few huge gaffs that simply wouldn’t happen in the private sector) and money being siphoned off for non national insurance stuff. So I feel justified in expecting better; really we shouldn’t need private health care in this country, its existence is evidence of the failings of the NHS.

    2. Yes, every time I cross the border to Buffalo, it’s just non-stop “Best Cardiac Care in WNY” etc. It’s wierd to see hospitals compete with each other like that.

  16. This started as a reply to tw1515tw, then turned into “Tipping: a primer”. For those unfamiliar with the practice:

    The tipping isn’t too bad, really. Just ask yourself “is this person an unskilled or semi-skilled laborer, and is it possible that some people he serves are more trouble than others?” If so, there’s probably a tip involved. Imagine the difference in labor involved in helping you carry a trunk up to your hotel room rather than a small overnight bag. Or a cab driving you way out to the edge of town (from which he then has to drive back) as opposed to shuttling people a few blocks around downtown (where he’s likely to pick up another fare immediately). Imagine the difference in carrying out 12 plates of foodas opposed to two. Once you figure out if you should tip: percentage (15-20%) for wait staff, a few bucks for everyone else. Tip after receiving service, as part of final payment.Bartenders are the odd ones. In a crowded bar, they have more customers than they can readily take care of, so the person who tips immediately and well will get more attention paid to them the next time around. Any bartender is happy with a dollar a drink. They break the traditional rules of tipping because they’re in demand, and the business turns a profit even if they completely ignore a few known-bad tippers.This comes up for incidental tipping during travels, but you also theoretically tip for long-running service too: give the doorman and handyman in your building a nice card and fruit basket/cash at Christmas.

    A tip is separate from and in addition to sales tax. You tip on the pre-tax amount. It is optional. That said, many people still pay it, and it’s a good idea if you ever plan on seeing those people again. I tend to tip lower if there was some truly poor service, and have only withheld tip once or twice that I can recall. Withholding tip is either a sign of the very, very cheap person, or a slap in the face with regards to their performance. 20% used to be the high end of tipping, but it’seasier to calculate than 15% so people have gotten lazy.

    The main question after “how” is usually “why”. Tipping is a European import tradition, and sticks around mostly for wait staff. Restaurants open (and fail) more often than any other small business, and are also more likely to be family enterprises. They’re one of the few exceptions (of sorts) to the minimum wage laws, specifically to reduce the overhead (and chance of failure) for restaurants. Wait staff are expected to make up the difference between their pay and minimum wage in tips. Most do, and then some, which is why waiters as a group still prefer tips to higher wages an no tips. Legally, it is the employer’s responsibility to monitor tips received and get the total hourly income for the waiter up to minimum wage if tips don’t go far enough. It’s also up to waiters to report tips as taxable earned income. Predictably, some employers don’t meet their obligation to shore up the hourly wages of under-tipped waiters, and a lot of waiters don’t accurately track and pay taxes on tips.

    1. Restaurants open (and fail) more often than any other small business, and are … one of the few exceptions (of sorts) to the minimum wage laws, specifically to reduce the … chance of failure 

      I hereby invoke the How’s that workin’ out for ya? trope.

      1. Actually, it works pretty well. The alternative is to enshrine, “I have a family restaurant, I have two sons, therefore I have two slave laborers,” into tax law.

        1. I’m not sure ‘the’ alternative is as lonely as you suggest, or that having slave offspring is relevant. I think all I’m saying is that it’s fairly clear that permitting minimum wage doesn’t noticeably affect the failure rate of restaurants and that maybe you need no longer consider it a helpful strategy for reducing failure. There are – of course – other reasons for paying minimum wage (you’ve already suggested overheads reduction) but others can argue the merits of the case for that.

    2. I’m an American and not only do I not understand the subtleties of tipping, your long explanation doesn’t really help :) 

      I think you have to be attuned to how other people feel and what they’re thinking to understand when to tip or not (and how much), which is hard for people with an aspie slant like me, but that’s beside my larger point.

      Mostly I just hate compulsory tipping outside the context of restaurants. Restaurants are the only exception to the minimum wage rules, so it makes sense there (even if I think it shouldn’t be that way, I can deal with the reality unlike Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs). 

      But why should everyone else expect tips every time, not just for the obvious cases of them going above and beyond for the customer?

      They hold it over you like complete assholes. If you don’t tip (or don’t tip enough) you’re treated with contempt. So what’s happening is that you’re paying them off to not treat you like they hate you, not simply paying them extra if they were extra nice (which I think is a valid incentive). It’s a very uncomfortable interaction and has the ability to spoil your day.

      It’s made worse by the fact that we don’t have large-value coins in regular circulation. You can’t just dig in your pocket for a dollar coin or two. If you’re not prepared (which you probably aren’t) you have to take out your stack of cash (assuming you even have one these days) and dig through it for some singles.

      If I could tip people by tossing them a coin like in an old movie and not have that be an insult and not have to go to the bank ahead of time to get dollar coins to do it, I might feel differently about it, but I still don’t think people other than restaurant workers should expect a tip every time

      This rant is relevant to the discussion because I think this is where the confusion comes from for tourists. The current state of tipping in the US is completely unnatural and doesn’t make any sense, and causes people in service jobs to be very rude as a matter of course.

      1. You know, I really have never been that worked up about giving two bucks to a bellboy when I’m checking into a $200/night hotel.

      2.  I keep tipping deadly simple for myself. 20% for waitstaff in restaurants (move the decimal one place to the left on the total and double it. Thus $10.00 becomes a $2 tip. )

        I tip $1 per bag for bellhops, $1 per drink for bartenders, $2 for car valets, and 10% for cabbies. Not much else to it.

      3. You tip after you pay, after you receive change. There’s no reason to stick around after tipping (or rather, no reason to leave a tip until you are ready to leave the table). And, unless your bill comes to exactly $10 or $20, you can use that change to tip, so there’s no need to worry about carrying a lot of extra singles.

        The traveler is safer than most people is refusing a tip because he can be quite certain he will never see that waiter again. If they’re rude to begin with, then they DEFINITELY shouldn’t receive a tip. It sounds like your experience has nothing to do with tipping, and everything to do with the fact that you had a terrible waiter.

        I don’t feel that the circulation of a “tipping currency” of larger value coins would really help anything, especially for tourists. The main confusion for tourists is that it’s completely in their hands, and they have no frame of reference on how to do it. It would be far easier for them than in Europe, where some wait staff expect a tip, but it’s built into the bill as a fee and thus not nearly as optional. The American model actually is better for the customer (they want 20%, that doesn’t mean you have to pay it), even though the modern European model is easier for a tourist to understand (the bill says 15%, so pay it like you would everything else on the bill).

        1. Also, you can just ask the waitstaff for change in a denomination useful for tipping. If I have a $30 expense and pay with two $20 bills, I will ask ‘please bring back some singles’ so that I have some $1 and maybe $5 bills to leave a tip with instead of just a $10 bill. It’s obvious from the context what you want to do with the currency so they’ll usually oblige. You can also specify how much change you want back; I did this the one time I took a taxi somewhere. “Please give back $5”, I said, where amount I paid – ride cost – tip amount = 5.

    3.  Your post made me think a bit and I’ve concluded that I would never figure out U.S. tipping if I didn’t live here.  One of your examples hit particularly hard.

      “Or a cab driving you way out to the edge of town (from which he then has to drive back) as opposed to shuttling people a few blocks around downtown (where he’s likely to pick up another fare immediately).”

      Try that from a downtown hotel in Houston.  Cabbies in Houston (almost universally horrible to start with) absolutely hate anyone who wants to go a few blocks downtown.  They want fares headed some distance to one of the other “downtowns” (Med Center, Galleria, etc.  Houston has no zoning so, from the air, it looks like we have 3 or 4 or 5 downtowns where the highrises cluster.) at minimum and preferably out to the airport.  Since almost no one takes cabs downtown (except from the bus station), cabbies wait on line for fares at hotels for lengthy periods then feel like you’re robbing them if your ultimate fare is less than USD$50.

      I once thought to impress a high-level executive from where I worked who was attending a conference at one of our downtown hotels by grabbing a cab to take her the 6 blocks to the office rather than making her walk.  When the cabbie got the destination from the hotel valet, he refused to take us.  They exchanged heated words, the valet threatened to ban him from that hotel, and he agreed to take us.  We traveled 6 blocks being cursed continuously in at least three languages before he stopped a block away from the destination, demanded the fare, and yelled at us to get out.  I gave him the fare, rounded up to the nearest dollar, and demanded my change.  I thought he was going to die of apoplexy.

      No, I won’t be tipping for that kind of service.

      1. The main point of that part of the post was figuring out who to tip. The main questions — is the person un- or-semi-skilled, and is it possible that some of people served are much more trouble than others — still hold. You don’t really have to worry about who is the WORST customer to have, just that there is a worst customer.

        As a Texan, you know as well as I that our cities are not set up for cab service. It’s just not part of the culture. Someone should really mention this to tourists before they come in, so they’re not surprised when absolutely no cabs stop for them. In fact…

        For tourists in Texas cities:   “This is not New York. Nobody takes cabs around town. We have cars. If you see a cab on the road, he either already has a fare, or just dropped one off. They go between the airport and hotels, because those are the only places people need them. You will not be able to flag one down. You need to call and order one if you want one.”

        Sorry about your cab experience.  You were entirely right to withhold the tip.

  17. Visitors to american cities are wise to be cautious with respect to their safety. People who have lived in the US recognise trouble and are better able to avoid it that foreigners would can blythely walk into dangerous neighborhoods and situations that Americans wouldn’t. That’s true of a lot of places of course but doubly so for the USA.

    1. Most travel guides I’ve seen to foreign cities also advise caution in cities and transit stations, to avoid crowds and protests, be careful around holidays and calibration, and so do forth. It is probably good ‘traveler’ advice and nothing specific to America.

  18. Those suggestions are simple rules most of us have internalized years ago. duh.  I wonder of these guides also mention just how dangerous driving is here.  Compared to other countries our roads are crumbling as is most of our infrastructure.  They should also mention that in many regions power is unreliable, be prepared for blackouts during storms or summer months. They should also be warned that if they do get in an accident and are injured, that unlike their home countries, the medical system here will literally cost them an arm and a leg.

    1. The medical system shouldn’t be a problem for most tourists as they will have bought travel insurance. 

      1. If by “Catseye” you mean those reflectors they glue down between the lanes, we don’t use them in snow country because the snowplows take them right off.

        We do often have a reflective white line along the right side of the road and a yellow one along the left.

        1.  Yep, those are the ones I’m on about. I didn’t even see any white lines where I was travelling.

      2.  Yes, it’s crazy not to buy travel insurance when going to the US.  Unfortunately that’s also the most expensive travel insurance available; if you’re going anywhere other than the US (or everywhere other than the US!) you can probably get cheaper insurance because the potential medical costs are not as high.

    2.  I was terrified by the fact that none of your motorways (in NH anyway) have catseyes in the middle of the road. My girlfriend was driving at night, and I have no idea how you kept to the road so well. There was just this precession of lights around. It was quite scary.

      (She almost drove us into the side of an oil tanker which had jack-knived across a road at one point, but that’s another story).

    3. “the medical system here will literally cost them an arm and a leg”

      What do the hospitals do with all those ill-gotten limbs?

  19. In the mid ’90s when I was in Italy, my LONELY PLANET guide had some startling tips — that if you were a lone woman in the ruins of Pompeii, you’d probably be molested by the tour guides.   That you should watch out for the serial killer loose in the hills above Florence (This would be the one as described in that much later book THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE).     I pictured there must have been one LONELY PLANET writer who had a really rotten time in Italy.

    Also, a funny thing I witnessed one time:  I was at the KLM desk at the Atlanta airport.  This older Dutch couple runs up in a panic, because their luggage hadn’t come off the baggage conveyer belt.

    The woman at the KLM desk matter-of-factly tells them that this is America, and your luggage gets stolen all the time.  These things hapen.

    It was hilarious, because it was pretty obvious that wasn’t what happened at all.  The much more likely scenario was there was an airline mix-up.   But she made no attempt to check into tracing the luggage.    Just a convenient, “You’re in ROAD WARRIOR territory now.  I could try to check on your luggage, but hey, I’ve got a break coming up….”

  20. I went to New Delhi about 10 years ago and read in my Lonely Planet guidebook about an outlandish scheme where scammers carrying buckets over their shoulders would roam the central market area and use sticks to fling poo onto your shoes from incredible distances with remarkable accuracy while you were looking away. Then they would coming running up to you, point out the poo on your shoe, and offer to clean it off (for a small fee, of course). It sounded so ridiculous that I joked about it with my friends before the trip, some of whom were from New Delhi, and none of us believed that it could possibly be true.

    Then, my first hour in the central market area, I saw a guy with a bucket about 40 yards away and started to walk in the opposite direction, but it was too late — he had already got me. I refused to let him clean it and walked a couple of blocks to another shoe cleaner, who I paid very well.

    The moral of the story is that I will never expect to be subjected to an outlandish-sounding scam that I read about in a guidebook, but I will never again discount the possibility.

    1. I have a friend from Lithuania who once told me she “doesn’t like homeless people because they fling poo at you and try to rob you.”

      I thought that was a rather bizarre statement to make as well, but on questioning further, she described the exact same scenario, only involving coats.

  21. As a Brit, living in Budapest, I often find a lot of the guide books about Hungary to be a  little exaggerated. I have lived here for five years and, while I can hardly set my experience up as a model for others, I have quite literally had no trouble. The only advice that I ever hand out to visitors (that is well documented in guides to Budapest) is not to visit strip clubs as they are a trap that often leave you with a horrendous bill. I lived two floors above one for two years and every other night there were huge arguments and naive tourists being frog marched to ATM’s. Not a pretty sight.

    In respect to the US (read California) I had a wonderful month there. I have met and worked with many Americans while living in Hungary and I even had to reappraise my own Bush-era pigeonholing of Americans (which I am now very embarrassed about). I have regularly found them delightful and friendly. While over there Sales-tax was a bit of an annoyance until I adjusted and walking through the Tenderloin area of San Francisco at 1am was a little eye opening. Wherever you go it is possible to find trouble – the key is to remain vigilant and adjust your behaviour accordingly. 

    1. When I (occasionally) go to a strip club, I carry as much cash as I feel I can afford to lose and leave *everything* else (including such basics as my ID and my health insurance card, any jewelry, etc.) at home or at the hotel.  I also clearly, loudly make sure that all workers I come into contact with know that I am NOT running a tab and will pay for every drink and amenity at the time of delivery.

      You say customers got “frog marched to ATMs”.  I say anyone who has a credit card on them when they go into a strip club is just stupid.

      1. I totally agree with the notion that anyone that takes a credit card in with them is stupid but then again I visited several strip clubs in the UK and California and have found them to be safe, intimidation free and friendly places. Why should one have to leave all of these things at home when visiting a place of business (although perhaps a shadier one). 

        1. Why?  I hear where you’re coming from.  It shouldn’t be necessary.

          In fact, it’s not strictly necessary if you know where you’re going.  There are plenty of clubs where there’s no reason to leave all your stuff behind because they really aren’t out to rip you off.  They make enough money legitimately.

          OTOH, I’ve deliberately gone to places I know to be dangerous.  Dangerous can be fun.  In those places, I travel very light.

          So if one chooses to try to figure out just how light to travel and adjust for every trip, I wish them luck.  I’ve simply found it easiest to skip over making those case-by-case judgement calls and play it safe any time I go to any place that a Southern Baptist minister would term “shady”.

          As specifically regards strip clubs, if I haven’t been there before I assume the worst and act accordingly.  You’re in Budapest and, as you say, all the guide books warn about them.  I assume there must be some legit clubs in every city in eastern Europe but I wouldn’t know which is which.  Since I have a trip planned to Prague and Decin next year, I did some reading about clubs in the Czech Republic and I keep seeing notes that it’s a good idea to have a working knowledge of Russian in those establishments.  That tidbit, alone, tells me that I need to bring a minimum of valuables to any club I visit in those cities.  Reasonable?

    1.  Which? Gays or small towns?

      FWIW, I live in a small town (<2000 people) and it is quite accepting of gays. For example, the Catholic church has an openly gay Choir director, and no one thinks twice about it (or, if they do, they know how inappropriate those thoughts are and keep them to themselves) We also have had openly gay people on the town council, as well as in the local business association..

      "Small town" is kind of a bizarre category, because the place matters. I live in a College town. Three miles down the road there is another small town that, on the face of it, looks a lot like the one I live in. But culturally it is another planet, and I wouldn't be surprised if it held a few Klansmen (and I mean that literally).

      1. I grew up in a small town (8K people) in Massachusetts in the 1950s through 1970s. The high school guidance counselors were openly gay/lesbian and brought same sex dates to school functions in the early 70s. Nobody seemed too fussed about it. Not sure that it would have worked the same in Mississippi.

  22. I can’t believe it. Not a single mention of potatoes in this thread. I found the comment about eating potatoes hilarious. Even as a Canadian, I feel deliciously wicked when I eat a round home fried potato with my fingers.

  23. Former waiter here – On Tipping.
    Lots of comments so sorry if I repeat.
    Tip is an acronym – to insure promptness.
    The amount is not set, it is a reaction to the service you have received. 20% is usually the high end, unless, you received exceptionally service, or a free drink or dessert.
    When I waited tables in the early 90’s the wage was $2.01/hr. , so , yes we lived on tips. Waiters are taxed on their gross receipts, so, you could actually lose money if you got a real bad tip.
    All that being said, a tip  is not mandatory. If you receive poor service or if the server has a bad attitude, it should be reflected in the tip or lack thereof.

    1.  How can you insure something afterwards? I think it’s ridiculous that we have to know about your wage in order to decide how much to pay. That isn’t our business.
      Price should be price; there being some sort of pressure on us to decide how much your wage is, how good the service is and therefore what compensation we should provide for a service that already has a price on it.

        1. Since this is from a tour guide, the competition is not so much with McDonald’s, but with other countries.

          For the cost of visiting the USA, I can visit anywhere in Europe several times, or the Middle East, or North Africa, … lots of places.

          The sum of all the bad things about the US means I’m doing exactly that :-) (though I did go to the US for work recently).

    2. The problem with the tip system is that the waitstaff has no control over most of your dining experience. A server can take your order correctly, deliver it as soon as it’s up and keep your water glass filled. They can’t control how your food tastes, how quickly the kitchen spits it out or how comfortable your booth is. But some people will tip on the “whole dining experience”. Which means that your server gets stiffed because the owner is too cheap to run the restaurant well.

  24. Tipping hasn’t always been viewed as American, it’s a relatively recent cultural development here.

    Re: price and abundance of food: fuel and farming have been inexpensive here compared to most of the rest of the world. Abundance will always be important to people, and seeing it in Americans, others play the contrarian of superior blood. I’ve seen poor immigrants move here and quickly adapt to our many readily available sins. My complaint is with factory food from global food companies taking over American food sources.

    The American health industry here is also leads the world. Sorry we’re not so easily pigeonholed, we’re the most diverse population in the world.

    The superficial condescension toward America in these comments and tourguides reveals ignorance and insecurity equal to what others accuse Americans of having.

    You’re welcome to visit, just don’t block the sidewalks like you’re in your backyard.

  25. I think the perspicacious little Xenophobe’s Guides described Americans as lonely and highly competitive. That’s the water we swim in.

  26. I kept a sketchbook journal the first time I traveled to California in 2005, and jotted down what I called Observations on the USA- cultural differences between the US and Europe (the countries I’ve been to, at least) which I found striking.

    Here are a few of the more interesting ones, in order of appearance.

    1. American toilets have high standing water inside the bowl so if you wipe without standing up you end up dipping your hand. Ewwww…

    2.Instead of a white arrow on a blue background, America has signs that say ‘Right Lane Must Turn Right’, which is not very clear or practical, imho.

    3. Pools > gardens.

    5. Sparrows aren’t as fat as in Europe.

    6. Everything is bigger (except the sparrows of course)

    8. People talk to each other about each other and their money.

    9. Everything from actual flags to toilet bowl covers can be star-spangled.

    10. There are no proper sidewalks and if you try to take a walk people look at you weird :(

    11. Movies on tv are edited to make room for ads and even the tits on a tattoo of a naked girl get blurred out. Wtf?

    12. People are nice and it’s very clean. No, really!

Comments are closed.