How to Eat Like a Traveler, Not a Tourist

As the U.S. grew to be the most powerful nation in the world in the mid-20th century, a certain portion of the populace was afflicted with a "national superiority complex." As they traveled around the planet, these obnoxious, puffed-up patriots developed a less than stellar reputation.

Today, however, the situation is much improved. The majority of American travelers are respectful of the cultures and traditions of the places they visit. However, trying unfamiliar foods can still be intimidating for some.

This article will show you how to eat like a traveler, not a tourist. Sampling the local cuisine will make your travel experiences all the more memorable, rendering more impressive vacation stories to share with your friends.

If each flag were sized proportionally
to what the nation's tourists spent overseas, Old Glory would take up
a third of the globe


In a 2008 survey, Expedia ® queried 4,000+ hotel managers worldwide for ratings on all the world’s travelers. These travel pros graded vacationers from various countries in such categories as manners, behavior, willingness to learn the language, generosity, openness to local cuisine, fashion sense, cleanliness and tendency to complain. The Japanese won the overall tourist prize and are considered the best by hoteliers everywhere, followed by the Germans, British, Canadians, and Swiss.

Americans captured the 11th spot and got a “B” overall, winning in the generosity category, placing high in openness to new foods, and doing a whole lot better than the prior reputation would suggest. Of course, poll respondents were tourism professionals, not the general public, so the findings are either more or less accurate for that reason, according to your biases.

  • BEHAVIOR: Rude, crude, and so forth, but not afraid of local cuisine
  • RECOMMENDATION: Be a little adventurous - you may enjoy it

This one's in Ecuador, but they're all over
  • BEHAVIOR: Eating at KFC or Taco Bell when you’re in India
  • RECOMMENDATION: Ask your vacation rental host or other travelers for referrals


When the professional complainers start griping about the U.S. exporting its fast-food culture overseas, the facts are sometimes communicated a bit carelessly. For all the whining about McDonald’s, for instance, it’s Yum Brands – with its KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut franchises – that is taking over the world’s stomachs. Yum has 37,000 outlets in 110 countries and is now focused on major population centers, India and China, as well as other emerging markets where it has twice the number of restaurants as Mickey D's.

According to the self-appointed "Food Police of the West," persuading Chinese or Indian people to adopt an American diet, one roundly criticized for causing chronic disease and obesity, sounds the death knell for global meal planning. The truth is that Indian Taco Bells have adjusted their menus to local tastes, making spicy potato tacos for vegetarian customers. In fact, American tourists in India may have a hard time finding their favorite U.S. snack at an overseas franchise.

The bottom line is that if you must eat at a US-based chain while abroad, you may actually gain a unique perspective on what locals eat when not enjoying “traditional” foods. Chances are that you won’t be the only tourists in a corporate chain, but you may also find yourself surrounded by a surprising number of locals. That being said, by making a commitment to eating locally (and adventurously!), you may be rewarded with even more unique travel experiences.

Rent a house with a kitchen
and cook for yourself

  • BEHAVIOR: Only eating at restaurants, mostly American style
  • RECOMMENDATION: Find out where the good markets are and cook for yourself


Just because you’re buying “authentic” food in, say, Italy, doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Every country has its own variety of junk food, which you can quickly identify by its ubiquity and low cost: pizza in Italy, croquettes in Spain, fried dumplings in China. Foreign junk is no better than American junk, so if you want to “go native” you need to remember that no one eats at restaurants three times a day (unless they are on vacation).

As opposed to eating out all the time, why not get some referrals for the best local markets and prepare your own food? If you’re staying in a house or apartment the possibilities for meals prepared with the local fare are endless. Even without a full kitchen in your room, you can take advantage of fresh market produce – and everything else you can buy without having to read a foreign-language label. Stick with fruits and vegetables (wash well!), and fresh baked goods. Some information you can research before your trip, but the best advice will always come from the locals.

A few common sense precautions, please


According to the OAG Aviation Database, your chances of being killed in a plane crash are about 1 in 9.2 million, far less likely than your chances of dying in a car accident on the way to the airport. If more American travelers thought about what they were going to eat while abroad, rather than worrying about long shot accidents, there would be fewer upset stomachs (and cases of food poisoning).

If you are sensible and informed, there is no reason that you cannot sample the local cuisine. However, you must exercise caution in certain parts of the world, and ensure that both raw foods and local tap water are safe to consume.

If you can’t get bottled water to drink, boil the tap water, use chlorine and iodine sterilizing agents (per directions), or stick with imported sodas. Wash your hands often, don’t accept food or drink from strangers, and remember that ice cubes are probably made from tap water (so pass on them).

  • BEHAVIOR: Bullheaded refusal to rank risks appropriately
  • RECOMMENDATION: Forget about hijackings and think about bottled water

Why rush through something this special?


People in most other countries eat less food than Americans do, but they spend a lot more time doing it. Many Americans live the "go-go" lifestyle chasing dollars up the career ladder, and see meals as either a waste of time or, at best, a necessary nuisance. Other cultures, both European and Asian, allot enough time for each meal to be enjoyed in an elegant, intimate way. When in Europe, Americans should eat as Europeans do – slowly.

Greek national dietary guides admonish citizens to eat "slowly in a pleasant environment." The Turks, with a mere 12 percent obesity rate, devote up to three hours a day to meals. Most Europeans also consider meals a time to linger, visit, eat, drink, and be merry. Whether on vacation in Paris or home in Des Moines, Americans could stand to slow things down. Eating more slowly has a number of benefits: fewer calories are consumed, fewer cases of indigestion occur, and best of all you will have more time get to know the people you live and travel with (they're called "family").

  • BEHAVIOR: Stuffing your face and racing through a meal
  • RECOMMENDATION: Take time to savor the flavors and relax during a long repast


The less than gracious American stereotype is, thankfully, on the wane, although there are still enough Yankee yahoos traveling around the world to embarrass the U.S. for years to come. However, with just a little study, practice and patience, American travelers can make decisions about their eating habits that can make their travel experiences more interesting, authentic and fun.



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